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The Potential Soldiers of A Second Trump Reign

“Bad Faith: Christian Nationalism’s War on Democracy” is the scariest film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary that explores the rise of Christian Nationalism, and much of what it shows you, about the mutation of the Christian Right into a movement that has openly abandoned any loyalty to democracy, has been covered in the mass media in recent years. But the film’s directors, Stephen Ujlajki and Christopher Jacob Jones, go deep into the roots of this movement, and what’s new and disquieting is how the current presidential race changes everything. Viewed against the looming possibility of Donald Trump’s re-election (a scenario that most liberals I know believe is unlikely; I think they may be seriously deluded), the rise of Christian Nationalism takes on a whole new meaning.

In 2017, Trump, once he took the reins of power, was constrained — by the other branches of government, and by the rule of law. He didn’t become the explicitly, committedly anti-democratic figure he is now until the 2020 election, when his declaration that he was actually the winner, and that Joe Biden had stolen the election, became the new cornerstone of his ideology. In the intervening period, Trump has been setting himself up to rule the United States as an authoritarian leader, and that meshes perfectly with the goals of Christian Nationalism, a movement that’s built around the dream of transforming America into a theocracy: a Christian nation ruled by a higher power than the Constitution — that is, by the will of God, as interpreted by his white Christian followers.

The Christian Nationalist movement was the driving force behind the January 6 insurrection, and what we saw there was a preview of their ideals and methods: a frothing hostility toward the U.S. government, coupled with the willingness to use violence. Russell Moore, the editor of Christianity Today, talks about how the new wave of Christianity is “a church growth movement, but for angry people. A sense of theatrical anger feels, to some, like depth of conviction.” Yet even on Jan. 6, these “rebels,” participating in their own form of action-movie cosplay, were, like Trump himself, at least somewhat constrained. What “Bad Faith” captures is that Christian Nationalists now have the potential to be the shock troops in a second and far more threatening Trump presidency.

The alliance between Trump and Christian Nationalism is a profound one. Progressives tend to be focused, to the point of obsession, on the hypocrisy of the alliance — the idea that men and women who are supposedly devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ could rally behind a sinner and law-breaker like Trump, who seems the incarnation of everything they should be against. The documentary fills in their longstanding justification: that Trump is seen as a modern-day version of King Cyrus, a pagan who God used as a tool to help the people. According to this mode of opportunistic logic, Trump doesn’t need to be a pious Christian; his very recklessness makes him part of a grander design. The Christian Nationalists view Trump much as his disgruntled base of working-class nihilist supporters have always viewed him — as a kind of holy wrecking ball.    

But, of course, that’s just the rationalization. “Bad Faith” captures the intricacy with which Trump, like certain Republicans before him, has struck a deal with the Christian Right that benefits both parties. In exchange for their support in 2016, he agreed to back a slate of judicial appointees to their liking, and to come over to their side on abortion. Trump’s victory in 2016, like Reagan’s in 1980, was sealed by the support of the Christian Right. But what he’s promising them this time is the very destruction of the American system that they have long sought.   

The most chilling aspect of “Bad Faith” is that, in tracing the roots of the Christian Right, the movie colors in how the dream of theocracy has been the movement’s underlying motivation from almost the start. In 1980, when the so-called Moral Majority came into existence, its leader, Jerry Falwell, got all the attention. (A corrupt quirk of the movement is that as televangelists like Falwell, Pat Robertson, and, later on, Joel Osteen became rich and famous, their wealth was presented as evidence that God had chosen them to lead.) But Falwell, despite the headlines he grabbed, wasn’t the visionary organizer of the Moral Majority.

That was Paul Weyrich, the owlish conservative religious activist who founded the hugely influential Council for National Policy, which spearheaded the structural fusion of Christianity and right-wing politics. He’s the one who went to Falwell and Robertson and collated their lists of supporters into a Christian political machine that could become larger than the sum of its parts. The machine encompassed a network of 72,000 preachers, it employed sophisticated methods of micro-targeting, and its impetus was to transform Evangelical Christianity into a movement that was fundamentally political. The G.O.P. became “God’s own party,” and the election of Reagan was the Evangelicals’ first victory. We see a clip of Reagan saying how he plans to “make America great again,” which is the tip of the iceberg of how much the Trump playbook got from him.

Weyrich was a kind of Steve Bannon figure, the ideological bomb-thrower behind the scenes. He wrote a manifesto that calls for the destruction of the government, with tactics that include guerrilla warfare. From the start, he stoked the idea of a culture war, and maybe a civil war, for what the future of America would be, with the battle cry echoing through his manifesto (“Our strategy will be to bleed this culture dry,” “Make no mistake about it: We are talking about Christianizing America,” “We will weaken and destroy the existing institutions”). But 15 years ago, all of that sounded like crackpot raving. It’s now the cutting edge of the mainstream Republican Party.

Randall Ballmer, the Ivy League historian of American religion who wrote the book “Bad Faith,” is interviewed in the documentary, and he makes a fascinating point: that there’s a mythology that the Christian Right was first galvanized, in 1973, by Roe v. Wade — but that, in fact, that’s not true. Jerry Falwell didn’t deliver his first anti-abortion sermon until 1978. According to Ballmer, the moment that galvanized the Christian Right was the 1971 lower-court ruling on school desegregation that held that any institution that engages in racial discrimination or segregation is not, by definition, a charitable institution, and therefore has no claim to tax-exempt status.

This had an incendiary effect. Churches like Jerry Falwell’s were not integrated and didn’t want to be; yet they also wanted their tax-exempt status. It was this law that touched off the anti-government underpinnings of the Christian Right, much as the sieges of Ruby Ridge and Waco became the seeds of the alt-right. And it sealed the notion that Christian Nationalism and White Nationalism were joined at the hip, a union that went back to the historical fusion of the two in the Ku Klux Klan’s brand of Christian terrorism.

“Bad Faith” makes a powerful case that Christian Nationalism is built on a lie: the shibboleth that America was originally established as a “Christian nation.” It’s true to say that the Founders drew on the moral traditions of Judeo-Christian culture. Yet the freedom of religion in the First Amendment was put there precisely as a guard against religious tyranny. It was, at the time, a radical idea: that the people would determine how — and what God — they wanted to worship. In truth, Christian Nationalism undermines not only the freedoms enshrined by the Constitution but the very concept of free will that’s at the heart of Christian theology. You can’t choose to be a follower of Christ if that belief is imposed on you.

Yet that’s the society that Christian Nationalists want. According to the film, those who are either members of this movement or in sympathy with it constitute nearly a third of all Americans. If that’s true, it’s a daunting number. Yet even as the Christian Nationalists speak as true believers, they represent a politics of money and corruption. It was in the Reagan era that Paul Weyrich first struck a deal with oil and gas billionaires like the Koch brothers. In exchange for their support, his movement would make the case for eliminating corporate taxes and regulations. That fits right into the Trump agenda, which has always been a mix of corporate tax breaks, demagogic rabble-rousing, and de-regulation. If the Christian Nationalists prove to be instrumental in sweeping Trump back into office, he will owe them big time. How convenient that their goals are now perfectly in sync: to treat democracy itself as the threat that must be controlled and destroyed. What we’re seeing is a deal with the devil, though in this case it’s hard to say whether the most dangerous entity is Trump himself or the fire-breathing Christian totalitarianism he’s in bed with.


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