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Disaster of religion: Christian nationalism and the menace to U.S. democracy


Members of the hard-right Proud Boys group, a few of them armed and dressed for fight, raised a picket cross exterior of the state capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 6, 2021. They objected to the certification of election outcomes that introduced Democrat Joe Biden to the White Home. (AP photograph by Adam J. Dewey/NurPhoto)

When the Conservative Political Motion Convention convened in Texas final month, state Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took the stage and surveyed the tradition warfare points that outline at this time’s Republican agenda: hostility to immigration and transgender rights, and deep dedication to gun rights as a protection in opposition to authorities tyranny.

However in folksy, pastoral tones, he solid these intense points as subordinate to the next mission. America’s heritage as a Christian nation is in jeopardy, he warned, and as proof, he cited a current Gallup Ballot that discovered 67% of liberals imagine in God, in comparison with 95% of conservatives.

logo with a black map of the U.S., a blue background, and words in white font: Democracy in Distress

Berkeley Information is inspecting threats to American democracy in a brand new collection drawing on the experience of UC Berkeley students.

On this crucible, “we’ve to be prepared for battle,” Patrick admonished the viewers. “We have now to be prepared for the battle as a result of we’re not in a battle any longer of Republicans and Democrats of the outdated days. We’re in a battle of lightness and darkness. We’re in a battle of powers and principalities.

For these fluent within the language of conservative evangelical Christians, Patrick’s message was unmistakable: The midterm elections this fall and the presidential election in 2024 comprise a battle pitting God in opposition to Devil — with liberals doing the work of Devil.

Till just lately, such apocalyptic appeals would have been seen as excessive and confined to the political fringe. However in a collection of interviews, UC Berkeley students described the rising energy of hard-right American Christians, virtually all of them white, who’ve been radicalized by 50 years of social change and demographic change — and by the dramatic decline of their very own church buildings.

informal headshot of Sarah Song, professor of law and political science

Sarah Music (Berkeley Legislation photograph)

At this time, immersed in existential disaster and an ethical panic, these Christian nationalists are casting apart the core values of democracy, the students stated. They’re backing autocratic political leaders who espouse their non secular values. And so they’re utilizing minority rule to marginalize opponents and to impose their values on the broader society.

“In a various society like the US, a democratic authorities needs to be for all the folks,” stated Sarah Music, a Berkeley professor of legislation and political science. “If democracy is meant to symbolize the pursuits of all the ruled, together with folks of various non secular faiths and other people with no non secular affiliation, the political rise of Christian nationalism and the success in implementing sure legal guidelines … is corrosive of democracy.”

Prior to now few months alone, the Christian nationalist motion has achieved gorgeous success in its efforts to tear down the wall separating church and state and to weaponize Christianity in opposition to perceived foes.

After a decades-long marketing campaign by the non secular proper, the U.S. Supreme Courtroom in June expanded public funding of non secular training, licensed prayer in public faculties after which struck down abortion rights. The Christian proper has focused same-sex marriage and trans rights. Adherents have supported vote suppression efforts that concentrate on voters of shade. They’ve campaigned to ban books deemed offensive from faculty and group libraries. They’ve denied the fact of local weather change and rejected the life-saving energy of COVID-19 vaccines.

headshot of co-author Paul Pierson, a political scientist at UC Berkeley

Paul Pierson (Picture by Tracey Goldberg)

“For many who really feel like they’re locked in an existential battle with demonic forces, democracy would possibly really feel like a second-level type of downside,” stated Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson. “They could really feel fully justified in utilizing no matter levers of political energy can be found.”

To make sure, Berkeley students stated, hundreds of thousands of U.S. Christians reject such politics as opposite to their non secular values. However reasonable and progressive Christians in current a long time haven’t joined the tradition wars to outline America with the identical as extra conservative Christians. They’re typically practically invisible within the information media.

In such a local weather, stated Pierson, “American democracy clearly is in danger.”

A spiritual folks? Sure. A Christian nation? No.

It’s a matter of religion amongst Christian nationalists that America was based as a Christian nation and that it must be guided by the non secular values of the previous. However whereas America traditionally been predominantly Christian, Berkeley students stated, state and federal authorities usually haven’t adopted Christian doctrine.

Martin Luther King, center, with fellow civil rights leaders including Mathew Ahmann (in eyeglasses), founder of National Catholic Council for Interracial Justice.

En path to his famed 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Martin Luther King was joined by Mathew Ahmann (in eyeglasses), founding father of the Nationwide Catholic Council for Interracial Justice.(Wikimedia Commons photograph by Rowland Scherman)

“Most of the Founders — although I wouldn’t say all — have been very involved about faith because the guiding pressure for presidency,” stated Berkeley historian Ronit Stahl. “That wasn’t a critique of faith in folks’s private lives, however there was a wariness about what it meant … for presidency and faith to be totally interlaced.”

headshot of Ronit Y. Stahl

Ronit Y. Stahl (UC Berkeley photograph)

That blend of tolerance and warning is constructed into the First Modification: Congress can’t intervene with folks’s non secular freedom, however it might probably’t set up a state faith, both.

Faith was deeply rooted within the American character, and so was non secular battle. Protestant denominations quarreled within the early a long time of the Republic. Quickly, newly arrived Catholic immigrants suffered violent discrimination, as did later waves of Jews and Muslims.

However non secular battle within the U.S. has persistently centered on race, stated David Hollinger, an eminent Berkeley historian of American faith. “Race doesn’t clarify every little thing,” he writes in a forthcoming guide, “however it’s entwined with faith at just about each level within the historical past of the US.”

As early because the mid-1700s, Quakers have been leaders within the motion to abolish slavery — however they met resistance from Quaker slave-traders and others in their very own communities. Within the 1840s, slavery provoked the Southern Baptist Conference to separate from the primary Baptist church. Leaders of the breakaway faction argued that slavery was justified by the Bible.

Writing in Christianity’s American Destiny (Princeton College Press, October 2022), Hollinger recounts how the outdated divide flared beginning within the Nineteen Forties.

Whereas Protestants from established mainline church buildings have been working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and different Black church leaders to advance civil rights, white evangelical Protestants —together with such influential leaders as Billy Graham — have been broadly opposed to high school integration and interracial marriage.

informal headshot of David Hollinger, UC Berkeley historian

David Hollinger (Picture by Joan Hollinger)

“Evangelicalism,” Hollinger stated, “created a protected harbor for white individuals who needed to be counted as Christians with out having to just accept what ecumenical leaders stated have been the social obligations demanded by the Gospel, particularly the crucial to increase civil equality to individuals who aren’t white.”

With the nation bitterly divided over civil rights and racial equality, the Republican Celebration within the Sixties started to construct an alliance with white Southern conservatives. The bond was cemented by racial resentment and, in time, by opposition to abortion, ladies’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights.

However society was altering dramatically, and for a lot of old-school non secular folks, this was disorienting — and alarming.

In a 2019 speech, then-U.S. Lawyer Common William P. Barr warned that the rise of “militant secularism” is inflicting a “ethical upheaval” mirrored in violence, drug use and being pregnant exterior of marriage.

“We’re informed we live in a post-Christian period,” stated Barr, a Catholic. “However what has changed the Judeo-Christian ethical system? What’s it that may fill the religious void within the hearts of the person particular person? And what’s a system of values that may maintain human social life?

“The very fact is that no secular creed has emerged able to performing the position of faith.”

However the critique is an expression of nostalgia for an imagined golden age — an age, stated Stahl, that by no means existed.

“The fiction that some individuals are making an attempt to construct is that there’s a singular conservative Christianity that had a heyday previously and that may be reclaimed now and used to vogue a brand new American society,” she defined. “Some folks suppose we should always return to the Nineteen Fifties, or the 1790s. However these are very clearly moments during which racial inequality and racial hierarchies are enshrined in legislation.”

Because the values of the Nineteen Fifties fade, a ‘ethical panic’ units in

For most of the devoted and the previously devoted, it’s not society that has misplaced its compass, however the conservative wings of the Protestant and Catholic church buildings. Racial integration, ladies’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights — most People, and most Christians, have come to acknowledge that prejudice dehumanizes victims and violates core democratic values.

Outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a woman carries a placard featuring Jesus Christ in a MAGA hat with a small QAnon emblem

Spiritual symbolism throughout the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol protest and revolt reveals a merger of Christianity, the QAnon conspiracy motion and devotion to former President Donald Trump. (Flickr photograph by Tyler Merbler)

However conservative church buildings typically have resisted these modifications, typically fiercely. On the similar time, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Conference have been deeply discredited by baby abuse, intercourse scandals and excessive stage cover-ups.

In response, hundreds of thousands of their members have grown disillusioned and walked away.

informal headshot of Claude S. Fischer, UC Berkeley sociologist

Claude S. Fischer (Picture by Raymond Holbert)

Claude Fischer, a Berkeley sociologist, factors to a watershed Gallup ballot exhibiting that in 2020, for the primary time for the reason that ballot started within the Thirties, fewer than 50% of People have been affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque. That ballot confirmed 21% of People had no non secular affiliation; the Pew Analysis Heart put the variety of “nones” at 30% in a current report.

And although white evangelical Christians loom massive within the political panorama, the Public Faith Analysis Institute final yr reported that their numbers have fallen precipitously,  from 23% of People in 2006 to 14% in 2020. Simply 7% of the group was younger adults.

All of those modifications have stoked an existential disaster amongst conservative Christians, Fischer wrote just lately. “Conservative authorized figures’ agitated response to traits in faith illustrates what is occurring additionally at school boards, state legislatures, and even the streets: The appropriate is aggressively making an attempt to repel the leftward cultural tide.”

Then-President Donald Trump holds a Bible and glowers outside of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

After legislation enforcement officers aggressively dispersed peaceable protesters, then-President Donald Trump held a Bible exterior of St. John’s Episcopal Church close to the White Home. The picture turned iconic, representing a fusion of hard-right political and non secular resentment of these protesting police violence in opposition to folks of shade. (White Home photograph by Shealah Craighead)

Those that stay within the pews usually skew tougher to the appropriate, students stated. Regardless of their outsized political affect, they see themselves as victims underneath assault. Their defenses develop extra fiery: They oppose educating important views of U.S. racial historical past in faculties. They’re extra susceptible to QAnon and different conspiracy theories. They’re extra prone to mobilize for right-wing demagogues who declare that liberals are mounting an assault on Christmas or that election fraud price former President Donald J. Trump the 2020 election.

Within the ranks of the non secular proper, Fischer wrote, “this ethical panic justifies forceful efforts to defend faith within the courts and presumably thus save the nation.”

An all-or-nothing battle the place the ends justify the means

Of all the pictures to emerge from the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, none, arguably, are so disorienting as these of hard-right insurrectionists claiming the mantle of Christianity. Some carried a picket cross. One poster featured Jesus Christ in a pink MAGA hat. A handful of the rebels who penetrated the Capitol prayed within the Senate.

On this video from the New Yorker, a few of those that breached the U.S. Capitol after a violent assault on Jan. 6, 2021, prayed within the Senate. (Praying begins at 7:57 within the video.)

Attacking a world image of democracy primarily based on devotion to Trump and his fabrications about election fraud — in spirit, the rioters appeared removed from the humility, compassion and forgiveness which might be central to the teachings within the Gospels.

The irony is that such radical motion might solely drive extra folks away from conservative church buildings as a result of, as Fischer defined, it “reinforces the rising view that organized faith is simply reactionary ideology in vestments.”

In fact, not all conservative Christians are militant. Over a span of a long time, Berkeley students stated, many have labored inside standard political buildings, organizing and elevating funds with outstanding success. Whereas simply 14% of the general public, evangelical Christians account for a few quarter of voters.

headshot of Carolyn Chen

Carolyn Chen (Picture courtesy of Carolyn Chen)

However cultural, demographic and financial change have left a lot of rural and small-town America behind, and to many, it appears that evidently the Nineteen Fifties mannequin of a superb American not issues. As their world has modified, and their numbers have declined, the battle for a lot of conservative Christians turns into not nearly faith, however about financial and identification insecurity.

Berkeley sociologist Carolyn Chen has written extensively about faith in trendy America, and he or she stated some students argue that morality turns into an emblem that some folks embrace — a badge of identification and a supply of social safety.

Chen defined: “They may say, ‘Effectively, I might not be making as a lot cash as you, however I’m extra godly than you. I’m residing a extra virtuous life than you.’”

In excessive instances, the impulse to defend a private Christian and American identification transforms into an all-or-nothing battle for existence, the place the tip justifies the means.

Pierson explored the emergence of the fashionable, militant Christian proper in his 2020 guide, Let Them Eat Tweets,  and in an interview he described how some political and non secular leaders, supported by right-wing media, have labored collectively towards a radical Christian subculture.

The identical technique of stoking identification warfare has occurred amongst gun house owners, Pierson stated. In each instances, the result’s “a broader political and cultural dynamic that produces an intense sense of menace, worry and anger.”

“Take into consideration the position of right-wing media,” Pierson stated. “There’s a lot on the appropriate that’s designed to feed into the concept that you really can’t coexist with these folks as a result of they’re coming for you, they usually’re coming for your loved ones.”

“Evangelical Protestant leaders have performed far more than overzealous progressives to create and form at this time’s disaster of democracy,” Hollinger writes. “(They) have seen match to assist the Republican trigger by collaborating within the dissemination of misinformation of all types, from unfounded accusations of election fraud to lies about COVID vaccines, thereby diminishing the capability of hundreds of thousands of the devoted to tell apart reality from falsehood.”

To defend the outdated methods, some flip to minority rule — and coercion

Feeling besieged, right-wing Christians are extra doubtless to make use of the levers of minority rule to take care of and develop their energy, stated Pierson and different Berkeley students.

Structural bias in Senate illustration and the Electoral School already provides conservative rural states with the very best proportion of evangelical residents outsized  energy within the White Home, Congress and the courts.

In a video earlier than the Jan. 6 revolt, Pennsylvania Sen. Doug Mastriano prayed that “…we’ll seize the ability… given to us by the Structure, as properly by you, providentially.” Mastriano is now Pennsylvania’s Republican candidate for governor.

These benefits may be prolonged via gerrymandered congressional districts and vote suppression legal guidelines that conservative lawmakers use to decrease the political energy of perceived opponents. Latest analysis reveals the legal guidelines have robust assist amongst those that embrace Christian nationalism.

White evangelicals “have by no means been uncomfortable with minority rule, as long as it has enforced their very own priorities,” Hollinger stated.

This yr’s U.S. Supreme Courtroom time period was the fruits of a long time of labor by the non secular proper — and minority rule was indispensable to the end result.

Trump didn’t win the favored vote in 2016, however he received the presidency within the Electoral School with overwhelming assist from rural pink states. In his single time period, he appointed three Supreme Courtroom justices, all conservative Christians. They have been within the majority this yr on necessary rulings to assist public funding of non secular training and prayer in public faculties. However their prime prize was the choice to overturn abortion rights, regardless of overwhelming public assist for these rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court building, with intensely stormy skies above and protests swirling below

The U.S. Supreme Courtroom’s determination to withdraw abortion rights displays a right-wing non secular motion that appears hostile to ladies’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. (Wikimedia Commons photograph by Ted Eytan)

In impact, the rulings impose the non secular values of a comparatively slender Christian faction on individuals who may not share these values, stated Music, the First Modification scholar. If a soccer coach at a public highschool is now allowed to wish on the 50-yard line after a sport, will his gamers really feel strain to wish? Or will Jewish, Hindu or atheist ladies be denied abortions even when their ethical beliefs differ from the conservative Christian values superior by the courtroom?

Coercion is an effective lens, an necessary phrase, that connects these instances,” Music stated.

When a courtroom points such choices imposing Christian values, that represents an unlimited advance for Christian nationalism.

“When a strong minority of conservative Christians is ready to use the ability of the state to implement its values over everybody else,” Music stated, “the democratic legitimacy of that energy is known as into query.”

In a time of disaster, reasonable and liberal Christians battle to discover a voice

Lauren Boebert, smiling and wearing a pistol holstered on her hip.

Arduous-right U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) just lately known as for non secular rule in the US. The separation of church and state, she stated, is “junk.” (Wikimedia Commons photograph by Jeffrey Beall)

Because the momentum shifts of their favor, some distinguished right-wing political leaders have gotten extra express, urgent views that verge on non secular authoritarianism.

Arduous-right U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) just lately described the separation of church and state as “junk.”

“The church is meant to direct the federal government,” she insisted at a current non secular service. “The federal government shouldn’t be purported to direct the church. That isn’t how our Founding Fathers supposed it.”

Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, has ties to a church that advocates theocracy and fetishizes the AR-15, a semiautomatic rifle utilized in current mass shootings.

Chen, co-chair of the Berkeley Heart for the Examine of Faith, shares concern concerning the advance of Christian nationalism however, she stated, there’s a threat in focusing solely on that pattern. It distorts our understanding of the battle and alter underway in American Christianity — modifications that might have far-reaching penalties for all People.

The Christian church broadly “has been having to ask questions of itself for the final 50 years” — questions concerning the legacies of racism, sexism and baby abuse, Chen stated. “Now could be when all of these items are coming to a head. … And on this disaster, there’s embedded a possibility for change and transformation.

Chen and different Berkeley students say Christian nationalists — whether or not the rebels on the Capitol or justices on the Supreme Courtroom — don’t symbolize mainstream U.S. Christianity. The students see a unique narrative taking form, one not normally discovered on the information media radar.

Christian church buildings have been deeply necessary for immigrants from Latin America and Asia, Chen stated. Amongst evangelicals underneath 30, half are folks of shade. A small however rising group of evangelicals is working for workplace as Democrats.

a priest wearing a surplice and a colorful stole around his neck meetings with young immigrant children

Catholic priest Roy Snipes welcomes a younger lady earlier than holding mass for immigrants at Our Girl of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas. Whereas many Christians stay dedicated to conventional social justice work, their voices are not often heard in political discourse, Berkeley students say. (AP photograph by Joel Martinez/The Monitor)

In the meantime, Chen stated, Christian teams proceed to do necessary social work — feeding the poor, caring for the sick, ministering to LGBTQIA+ folks and supporting immigrants and political refugees throughout the nation.

However there’s, at greatest, restricted opposition to the extremist narrative, she stated, as a result of Democrats and progressives — whether or not non secular or not — battle to speak about non secular points. In consequence, they lose reference to hundreds of communities the place faith is a crucial day-to-day curiosity.

That will permit the anti-democratic narrative of white Christian nationalism to advance in these communities with out efficient problem. There, too, although, the Berkeley students see alerts of a shifting dynamic.

Earlier this yr, the Baptist Joint Committee for Spiritual Liberty, a nationwide faith-based group centered on upholding People’ proper to observe their religious beliefs, co-sponsored a important report on the position of white Christian nationalism within the Jan. 6 assault. Final month, a coalition of non secular teams — together with Jews, Buddhists and Christians — cited non secular freedom in submitting go well with to overturn Florida’s new abortion restrictions.

Stahl sees proof of latest alliances and initiatives to advance non secular pluralism and problem Christian nationalism. Nonetheless, she stated, at this time’s deep battle over the position of faith in U.S. democracy received’t be simply resolved.

“We’re at a crossroads,” she stated. “Within the subsequent few years, we’re going to see so much that might push issues in a single route or one other.”

(Carolyn Chen, Ronit Stahl and David Hollinger will focus on Hollinger’s new guide on Oct. 10 throughout a discussion board sponsored by the Berkeley Heart for the Examine of Faith.)



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