The Far-Right Christian Quest for Power

Three weeks before he won the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor, Doug Mastriano stood beside a three-foot-tall painted eagle statue and declared the power of God.

“Any free people in the house here? Did Jesus set you free?” he asked, revving up the dozens before him on a Saturday afternoon at a Gettysburg roadside hotel.

Mr. Mastriano, a state senator, retired Army colonel and prominent figure in former President Donald J. Trump’s futile efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results, was addressing a far-right conference that mixed Christian beliefs with conspiracy theories, called Patriots Arise. Instead of focusing on issues like taxes, gas prices or abortion policy, he wove a story about what he saw as the true Christian identity of the nation, and how it was time, together, for Christians to reclaim political power.

The separation of church and state was a “myth,” he said. “In November we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.”

Mr. Mastriano’s ascension in Pennsylvania is perhaps the most prominent example of right-wing candidates for public office who explicitly aim to promote Christian power in America. The religious right has long supported conservative causes, but this current wave seeks more: a nation that actively prioritizes their particular set of Christian beliefs and far-right views and that more openly embraces Christianity as a bedrock identity.

Many dismiss the historic American principle of the separation of church and state. They say they do not advocate a theocracy, but argue for a foundational role for their faith in government. Their rise coincides with significant backing among like-minded grass-roots supporters, especially as some voters and politicians blend their Christian faith with election fraud conspiracy theories, QAnon ideology, gun rights and lingering anger over Covid-related restrictions.

Their presence reveals a fringe pushing into the mainstream.

“The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church,” Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican representing the western part of Colorado, said recently at Cornerstone Christian Center, a church near Aspen. “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” Congregants rose to their feet in applause.

A small handful of people who espouse this vision, like Ms. Boebert, have recently come to power with the blend of Christian messaging and conspiracy theories that Mr. Trump elevated. Others, like Mr. Mastriano, are running competitive races, while most have long-shot campaigns and are unlikely to survive primary races.

The ascension of these candidates comes amid a wave of action across the country that advances cultural priorities for many conservative Christians. The most significant is the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and end the constitutional right to an abortion — on top of its recent series of decisions allowing for a larger role of religion in public life, such as school prayer and funding for religious education. States have also been taking action; many have instituted abortion bans. A Florida law prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early elementary school, and Texas has issued an order to investigate parents with transgender children for possible child abuse.

Some of the candidates see the Supreme Court’s recent string of decisions as a sign their mission is succeeding. In Georgia, Kandiss Taylor got only 3.4 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for governor. “I’m glad the SCOTUS decided to join me on the FRINGE! Jesus, Guns, & Babies,” she said in a tweet, referring to her own campaign platform.

Declaring the United States a Christian nation and ending federal enforcement of the separation of church and state are minority views among American adults, according to the Pew Research Center. Although support for church-state integration is above average among Republicans and white evangelicals, many Christians see that integration as a perversion of faith that elevates nation over God. The fringe vying for power is still a minority among Christians and Republicans.

Like Mr. Mastriano, some of the candidates pushing that marginal view already hold lower-level elected positions but are now running for higher office where they would have more power, said Andrew Seidel, a vice president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“We are seeing them emboldened,” Mr. Seidel said. “They are claiming to be the true heirs of the American experiment.”

At the Patriots Arise event, Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Mr. Mastriano and the former co-counsel for the Trump campaign’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, told the audience that “what it really means to truly be America first, what it truly means to pursue happiness, what it truly means to be a Christian nation are all actually the same thing.”

At Mr. Mastriano’s victory party on primary night, which included Sean Feucht, an evangelical worship leader who led outdoor events in defiance of pandemic restrictions, he announced that his faith was going on offense. “If I read articles where you’re attacking Christians and painting us in a particular picture that is hateful and intolerant, we won’t have the time of day for you,” Mr. Mastriano said, to cheers.

Mr. Mastriano also said, “My campaign has no place for hate, bigotry and intolerance.” Asked in an email to explain his views and thoughts on representing non-Christians in Pennsylvania, Mr. Mastriano did not respond.

The fight over Christian power in America has a centuries-long history, dating to the country’s origins, and it is again in sharp relief as the makeup of the nation shifts. For generations, the United States has been made up mostly of Christians, largely white and Protestant. In recent years, Christianity has declined at a rapid pace, as pluralist and secular values have risen.

Since the Jan. 6 attack, which blended extremism and religious fervor, the term “Christian nationalism” is often used broadly to refer to the general mixing of American and white Christian identities. Historically, however, Christian nationalism in America has also encompassed extremist ideologies.

In the 1948 presidential election, for example, a fringe political party called the Christian Nationalist Party nominated Gerald L. K. Smith, a pastor with pro-Nazi sympathies, and adopted an antisemitic, anti-Black platform that called for the deportation of people with whom it disagreed.

Mr. Trump gained power in large part by offering to preserve the influence of white evangelicals and their values just as many feared that the world as they knew it was rapidly disappearing.

The fact that Mr. Trump, whom they saw as their protector, is no longer president intensifies feelings for many conservative Christians that everything is on the line. About 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted late last year. White evangelicals are also the most likely religious group to be believers in QAnon, according to the survey. QAnon refers to a complex conspiracy theory involving a Satan-worshiping, child-sex-trafficking ring, and the F.B.I. has previously warned that some of its adherents could turn violent.

Across the country, candidates have attempted to appeal to voters by championing Christian identity in policymaking.

In Arkansas in May, State Senator Jason Rapert, who founded a group called the National Association of Christian Lawmakers in 2020, lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor with 15 percent of the vote. The group offers model legislation, like prohibiting abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy and requiring the display of “In God We Trust” at public schools.

In Oklahoma, Jackson Lahmeyer, lead pastor of Sheridan Church, made a long-shot attempt to unseat Senator James Lankford, who has embodied traditional social conservatism. Mr. Lahmeyer lost, but got 26 percent of the vote. “Our Constitution is built upon the Bible,” he said in an interview. He said that he did not advocate a theocracy and that he supported the separation of church and state, which he said “had nothing to do with the church staying out of the affairs of the state.” He also said that “trying to remove Christianity, which this nation was birthed upon,” from public schools had “absolutely” led to the rise in school shootings.

In Wisconsin, State Representative Timothy Ramthun is significantly trailing in a bid for governor that emphasizes his Christian faith and a promise to decertify the 2020 election. He created a 72-page report of what he sees as evidence of election fraud, and called his push to fight it “Let There Be Light” after words attributed to God in the Bible. In an interview, he described his efforts as a Christian act of truth-seeking. “I don’t lie,” he said. “I work for the Lord first and foremost.”

In a livestream on Rumble, a video site popular with the far right, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, urged followers to be proud of “Christian nationalism” as a way to fight “globalists,” the “border crisis” and “lies about gender.” “While the media is going to lie about you and label Christian nationalism, and they are probably going to call it domestic terrorism, I’m going to tell you right now, they are the liars,” she said.

Around the country there are active efforts to leverage the growing religious fervor in the American right into voter turnout. That includes more typical Republican voter outreach efforts, but also new groups mobilized since President Biden took office.

In California, Freedom Revival, which started late last year and has used worship to mobilize evangelicals to see Christian morality as the foundation for governance, targeted conservative Christians with voter guides of its California primary endorsements of “freedom-loving candidates” who stand for “traditional values.” Endorsements included those for Anthony Trimino, a businessman who felt divinely called in church to run for governor to bring “Christian, moral, biblical values to Sacramento,” and who did not qualify for the general election; and Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County, who has previously defended his past membership in the Oath Keepers, an extremist group, and who did win.

“We continue to support law enforcement officials who recognize and behave as a shield of the people against drunken tyrannical rule,” Brittany Mayer, one of Freedom Revival’s founders, said in an email.

A sense of religious grievance is deepening in the ultraconservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, a contingent that is increasingly allied with right-wing political causes like the extreme push to punish women for abortion. At a conference in Memphis this spring, Rod Martin, one of the founders of the Conservative Baptist Network, described objections to Christian nationalism as simply a plot by Democrats.

“Let’s demonize patriotism by calling it nationalism and associating that with Hitler. Ah, now let’s call it white nationalism,” he told the gathering, imitating how he saw people on the left. “Then we’ll call it Christian nationalist so we’ll make it sound like you are the ayatollah. It is all designed to demonize you.”

Young male pastors, he predicted, would increasingly adopt the Christian nationalist label in defiance: “They are not saying they are theocrats; they are saying they are deplorables.”

In a sign that political operatives see opportunity to capitalize on that feeling of persecution, the next day a second conference was held in the same auditorium with an explicit purpose to mobilize the constituencies these pastors represent.

Chad Connelly urged attendees to scan a QR code on the screen so he could connect their churches to precinct poll-watching efforts, and said his group, Faith Wins, worked with 312 churches in Virginia to register 77,000 new voters ahead of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s win. Mark Meadows, former chief of staff for Mr. Trump, described the importance of America as a Christian nation in personal terms, with a story of how his 11th great-grandfather escaped religious persecution on the Mayflower. “You may never see the fruit of your labor, but I can tell you this: God will use your obedience to change this great nation,” he said.

Rick Green, who leads a group called the Patriot Academy that runs “biblical citizenship” training programs in hundreds of churches to instill the belief that America was founded on Christian values, told the audience he saw “a window of opportunity right now to convert millions of Americans to the principles of liberty and to biblical values” because of “the chaos and insanity of the last two years.”

In some places there are signs that conspiracy theorists and far-right activists are embracing an explicitly Christian nationalist identity.

Andrew Torba, who founded Gab, a social media platform popular with extremists, and is from Pennsylvania, wrote on the site that he endorsed Mr. Mastriano as part of his own efforts to build “a coalition of Christian nationalists at the local and state levels to help pioneer a grass-roots movement of Christians in PA to help take it back for the glory of God.” Mr. Torba has written about building Gab as “a parallel Christian society on the internet.”

The day after a mass shooting in Buffalo, where a white man was charged with killing 10 Black people after posting a racist screed online, Mr. Torba posted on Gab, “The best way to stop White genocide and White replacement, both of which are demonstrably and undeniably happening, is to get married to a White woman and have a lot of White babies.”

So-called replacement theory is the notion that Western elites want to “replace” and disempower white Americans.

“Jesus Christ is King of Kings and we are going to lawfully, peacefully and democratically take back this country and our culture in his name,” Mr. Torba wrote in an email response to a request for comment. “There is absolutely nothing you or any of the other powers and principalities can do to stop us.”

Events at times use violent rhetoric and imagery.

The Patriots Arise event, where Mr. Mastriano spoke, opened with a video of conspiracy theories related to QAnon that prophesied that “control systems” including “media propaganda, the child trafficking and the slave economy” would “crumble down.” A robotic voice-over forecast a “great awakening,” and an image of a guillotine blade accompanied the promise of “executions, justice, victory.”

When Mr. Mastriano finished, a man in an American flag cowboy hat and shirt presented him with a long sword, inscribed with “For God and country.”

“Because you’ve been cutting a lot of heads off,” explained Francine Fosdick, a social media influencer who organized the event and whose website has promoted a QAnon slogan. “You are fighting for our religious rights in Christ Jesus, and so we wanted to bless you with that sword of David.”

He raised the gold hilt in his right hand. “Where’s Goliath?” he asked.

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