Populism and Christian Nationalism

In searching for a correlation of populism and nationalism, I found the period in American History between 1876 and 1898 in a textbook title, “The Triumph of Nationalism.” In the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction and signs of national prosperity, the Republican Party claimed and received the reputation of being “the party of progress.” In the election of 1884, religious issues were allowed to enter politics and introduced the phrase “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870 gave citizenship to former slaves. One of the first women’s suffrage laws was passed in Wyoming Territory in 1869. This period saw the introduction of the fraternal society, the Grange, to protect farmer interest. Also new, were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Rifle Association, the Knights of Labor, Yellowstone Park, the first Jim Crow law, a completed Transcontinental Railroad. It was a period of unrest—Little Big Horn, Boss Tweed, and the Molly Maguires. We had the split administrations of Grover Cleveland and a sequence of Republican Presidents from 1897 through 1893. William Jennings Bryan was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee three times during a period of populism and a People’s Party and a Progressive Party during a period in which Liberalism and Conservation were not easily delineated. 1(Mahoney, 340-347).

The Populist movement was composed of two successive organizational vehicles, the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party. The central goal of the Alliance was to relieve the suffering of farmers who were increasingly tied to a cycle of debt. The major economic demands of the Alliance were intended to bring higher prices for farm products and to reduce debt. Alliance men pursued cooperative efforts at the local level and advocacy of economic reform at the national level. Eventually, the political passions of many members and leaders, combined with the frustrations that emerged in the course of the movement’s experience, pushed the Alliance into the independent political action that had been building alongside the movement. This led to the formation of the People’s Party, the followers of which came to be known as “Populists.” As in most analyses, however, the term “Populism” is used here to cover both parts of the movement.

Populism, attuned to the needs of “the people,” as used today is a reminder of theories rather than the structure of the original Populist or People’s Party. Today’s most prominent Democratic candidates are more about “mines and mills than towns and gowns.”2 (Safire, p. 560)

The 2016 election seemed to follow a pattern of Nationalism that we have been discussing in recent classroom lectures. Our reference to the factors of –language, religion, allegiance, and our national symbols of patriotism has implications of parallels of populism and nationalism. While our country denies any formal or delineated class system, the word populist has become the symbol of white, Anglo-, working class, patriotic Bible reading Christians.

“In this broad discourse, talk about the religious heritage of the West has reemerged. Steve Bannon, former member of the Breitbart group,  wants to advance a Judeo-Christian traditionalism” for economic reasons, and to deconstruct a liberal government.  During his campaign, Donald Trump sought the endorsement of religious communities and emphasized America’s Christian heritage. Fifty-two percent of Catholics as a whole, and sixty percent of white Catholics, voted for Trump. Fifty-eight percent of Protestants supported the Republican candidate.  Eighty percent of white evangelicals supported Trump, yet fifty-one percent of these indicated in polling they were actually voting against Hillary Clinton, “rather than for Trump.” This number is probably similar in the Catholic electorate.  Many conservative Christians backed Trump not because they approved of him as a moral role model, but because they could not endorse Hillary Clinton’s perceived stance on late-term abortion, or fear of gun confiscation. This was a major issue in the third presidential debate. More generally, many conservative Christians were worried about the future Supreme Court appointments. Trump’s charming Midwestern Vice-President-elect Mike Pence certainly helped his campaign secure a majority of the Christian vote (which makes up seventy-five percent of the total electorate). Pence, who once worked as a Catholic youth minister and who “wanted to be a priest,” had charted new territory in ecumenism by describing himself as an “evangelical Catholic.”3  (Peterson).

Christian Nationalism is an important concept, because the threat to a pluralistic society does not come from those who simply believe in a very conservative interpretation of Christianity. It comes from those who adhere to a political ideology that proposes a Christian right to rule. Christian nationalists believe in a revisionist history, which holds that the founders were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic. Separation of church and state, according to this history, is a fraud perpetrated by God-hating subversives. One of the foremost Christian revisionist historians is David Barton, who, in addition to running an organization called Wallbuilders that disseminates Christian nationalist books, tracts and videos, he is also the vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The goal of Christian nationalist politics is the restoration of the imagined Christian nation. As George Grant, former executive director of the influential Coral Ridge Ministries, wrote in his book “The Changing of the Guard:”

“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ — to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just equal time, but world conquest that Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less… Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.” 4(Grant)

Dr. Grant is currently the minister of the Parish Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Franklin, Tennessee. In the past his name has frequently been linked with Dominionism or Reconstructionism.  In my personal conversations with him, he  disavows any current ties with the religious populism that we associate with those ideologies.

We usually associate those with the writings of R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001), Calvanist philosopher, historian, and theologian and is widely credited as the father of Christian Reconstructionism and an inspiration for the modern Christian home school movement. His followers and critics have argued that his thought exerts considerable influence on the Christian right.

While it is true that the United States of America was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all. Liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country’s heritage. Our founders expected that Christianity — and no other religion — would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples’ consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.

The iconography of Christian nationalism conflates the cross and the flag. It claims supernatural sanction for its campaign of national renewal and speaks rapturously about vanquishing the millions of Americans who would stand in its way. At one rally at the statehouse in Austin, Texas, a banner pictured a fierce eagle perched upon a bloody cross. For a liberal, such imagery smacks of fascism. But plenty of deeply committed Christians also object to it as a form of blasphemy. It’s important, I think, to separate their faith from the authoritarian impulses of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program, and there is nothing sacred about it.

“Christian nationalism is contingent on symbols and imagery. The flag salute and the Pledge of Allegiance with the addition of “under God” to the Pledge added a religious tone which I would think should be considered a violation of the Establishment Clause if the recitation is compulsory in a public education setting.  In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled accordingly in Engel v. Vitale. The petitioners contended among other things that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents’ prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause.” 5 (Woll, pp. 150-151).

Every society has the right to perpetuate itself by building loyalty to its institutions and its values through the education it provides its youngsters. Tyrannies are often characterized by their use of schools and youth movements to indoctrinate their youth to blind loyalty to the regime, trampling the truth where necessary, or suppressing it when it is necessary for them to do so. Free, democratic societies, however, rest upon the premise that rational persons will choose to be loyal to them if they have access to truth. The educational system of a liberal democracy, therefore, should be able to develop a commitment to its perpetuation through a course of instruction that develops in the students a spirit of free and unhampered inquiry and critical thinking.”6 (Leiser, p. 287)

“It was never intended or supposed that the [First] Amendment could be invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order, and morals of society. However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country. It was passed with reference to actions by the general consent as properly the subjects of punitive legislation.” 7 (Hamilton), Gillette v. United States.

“As the populist ideology has found harmony with religious fundamentalism, what began as economic justice and freedom has become an instrument of both nationalism and authoritarianism. Liberals hear the words of the Moral Majority and see a monster. They are caught between the mind-crippling force of fundamentalism on the one hand and the promise of freedom and life through learning and education on the other. When I first began to hear the words of Jimmy Carter and Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell, and others like them, I thought I was hearing ghosts.” 8(Young, p. 6)

From our Ronald Reagan narrative in 1980, “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy, that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market.” 9(Haidt, p. 332).

“Fundamentalist Christians are politically conservative. How are they distinct from progressive Christians? What do fundamentalist Christians mean by “freedom” and “liberty, “and how does that meaning relate to right-wing political leaders? There is a single answer to this question—strict father religion.”10(Lakoff, pp. 182-183)

“Yet it is surprising that most conservative Christian leaders, who represent some of the constituencies that have provided a major source of legitimacy and stability in the public order, are now going beyond challenging policies to questioning the very structure and basis of public life.”  11(Adams, p. 127) ( 2002)

“I  believe the coalition of fundamentalism and evangelicalism with their re-emergence in politics and their opposition to public education have drastically moved organized religion so far to the right we are losing the best and brightest of academia and politics. Case in point, the influence on the Republican Party, in Congressional and Presidential elections with opposition to reproductive rights, opposition to same-sex contractual rights, displaying religious images in public venues, and symbolic utterances of religious verbiage, has distracted politics from matters of governance, of Constitutional integrity, human rights, and attention to human suffering. We may need another Age of Enlightenment. Where is Thomas Jefferson when we need him?” 12The Eye of Reason, (2012) p.282

I just read a lengthy article on the new wave of liberal Christian involvement in politics. It is difficult to understand the meaning of the establishment clause and the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment. It seems that government sanction, endorsement, legislation, or financial support of religion is a violation. Also, government denial of religious freedom is equally a violation. Within the IRS codes “as prohibited by the Johnson Amendment” any tax-exempt organization cannot endorse or finance a candidate or party, but may support or oppose behavior or ideology deemed to be immoral or irreligious. Christians have historically opposed slavery, segregation, and wars from the left, and more recently been involved in reproductive rights, gun rights, public education, and marriage equality along liberal and conservative political lines.

The 2016 Presidential election injected a major conflict of liberal and conservative ideologies and the moral and ethical behavior of the candidates. Christians have an imperative to respect the institutional separation of church and state, and to reject any religious tests for candidates. But we also have to differentiate religious dogma from morality. There are several reasons. We do have a social contract with the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the stranger among us, the children, and the long list, explicit and implied, in the teachings of Jesus. Also, exemplary icons are needed as role models for public office. We cannot require a Christian label across the forehead, but as voters, we can send a message for our moral and ethical standards, as peacemakers, and our compassion for those identified as “least of these.” Christianity is not a political party. We have Liberal Christians, Republican Christians, and non-partisan Christians.

“Politically and culturally, Christians on the right feel threatened by public schools, abortion clinics, homosexuals, the Supreme Court, gun control, the ordination of women, liberalism, the welfare system, deficit spending, anti-capital punishment groups, and other ominous influences over which they have no control.

On the left, poised to defend their beliefs, are those who believe that education and secular or civil autonomy are being threatened by the religious right and conservative coalitions.  They advocate separation of church and state, non-sectarian public education, and the integrity of scientific and medical exploration.  Most leftist Christians support reproductive rights, tolerate diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation, and oppose all forms of violence, including capital punishment and war.  They are skeptical of televangelists, the faith healers, the snake handlers, and other charlatans of the industry.  They openly oppose legislation concerning school prayer, the Ten Commandments, the modified Pledge of Allegiance, and all efforts of civil government to impose religious principles by civil law.  To them, morality is a rational societal imperative for human interaction, contained within a body of ethical theory that came from man’s rational interpretation of God’s will.  To them it encompasses both intuitive directives from the human conscience and written ecclesiastical doctrine, without conflict, but being all sufficient for shaping human behavior without the other.

The subject of American exceptionalism has been the recent focus of controversy about the content of History textbooks in public schools. We believe this refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. This is derived from our political institutions founded on the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, and the Constitution.

There is a counter argument that there is also a negative connotation that we have been exceptionally immoral, racist, and violent. We tend to exaggerate and politicize both extremes as we reevaluate the incremental recognition of rights and the violence involved in the denial or acquisition of those rights.

We began as a group of independent colonies which found the necessity of national unity to gain our independence from England and “to form a more perfect union.” We debated the need for a standing army, or reliance on a system of well-regulated militias. Our Tenth Amendment allowed states to practice or prohibit slavery, later resolved by a bloody war. Our entrepreneurial spirit enabled us to achieve the American dream, and also gave us industrial giants and the financially elite. We ran our factories with low wages, child labor, and workplace tragedies. We created unions, suffered acts of violence in our coal mines, walked picket lines, and eventually found ways to regulate commerce and monopolies. We denied voting rights and access to social equality on bases of gender, skin color, and national origin.

We cited the wisdom of our founding fathers to determine whether we were a Christian or secular nation. We attached labels of Christian or Deist to measure the spirituality and secular wisdom of those who wrote our Constitution and formed our government. We speak of and fear moral decline, or impending theocracy.

We include a chapter on immigration. We tell the story of the English, Spanish, and French who discovered, settled, and built a new nation. We include the history of the Irish, Catholics, Jews, Asians, and Native Americans whose seats at the table of democracy and religious equality were reluctantly and belatedly acknowledged. We recite the celebratory phrase “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores” and we appeal for a higher wall and more security on our borders.

Our History books accurately define our exceptional America in democratic ideals, free enterprise, religious freedom, military superiority, family values, our historical founding documents, and human rights. Yet there should be a few paragraphs or pages to document and learn from the times and events in which those have been denied to some, or unwillingly and violently imposed on others.

I read a newspaper account of a Catholic Priest who suggested that those who voted for Barack Obama should confess their sins for voting for a pro-abortion candidate.  Statistically, approximately 54% of voting Catholics supported Senator Obama.

In small rural country churches, in inner city black churches, in suburban mega-churches, there were millions of liberal Christians who raised their voices from the pulpits and from the pews for the end of racial prejudice, for the end of an ill-conceived war, for a season of hope.  At the same time, there were other sincere people of faith who voiced their fears of a potential election of someone who might be a Muslim, whose pastor was not an American, whose friend was a 1960s radical revolutionary and a terrorist bomber.

I believe within a decade or two, this battle will end.  Peace will come to the southern fields made fertile by the bones of intellectual giants and Bible scholars.  No longer will our hallowed land be strewn left and right with the bruised and broken bodies of Christians, left and right.

Christianity, by its only document, is non-violent.  Hatred is precluded by the Christian conscience, and sustained by love and compassion.  When we will have survived the fray, we must rejoin the defense of religious freedom and intellectual freedom and insure for all of us–the right to believe, the right to know, and the right to think.

As long as there are craftsmen who fashion, shape and forge the links of chain, for mind or ankle, there will be southern writers who will fashion, shape, and forge the words that break those chains.”13  (Wisdom, pp 38-39).

Bibliography:

  1. Mahoney, Rev. Charles J., (Editor) Book Three, Christianity and America (1948)
  2. Safire, William, Safire’s Political Dictionary, (2008)
  3. Peterson, Paul Silas, Essays & Exchanges, The Election of Donald Trump, “Religion and the new populism.”
  4. Grant, George, The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action, published in 1987 by Dominion Press
  5. Woll, Peter, American Government: Readings and Cases (Sixth Edition, 1962)
  6. Leiser, Burton M., Liberty, Justice, and Morals: Contemporary Value Conflicts. (1973)
  7. Hamilton, Marci A., God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (2005)
  8. Young, Perry Deane, God’s Bullies (1982)
  9. Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012)
  10. Lakoff, George, Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea (2006)
  11. Adams, Lawrence E., Going Public: Christian Responsibility in a Divided America (2002)
  12. Peach, Bill, The Eye of Reason (2012)
  13. Wisdom, Emma, editor, Barack Obama: Vision to Victory (2009). “A Broken Shackle in the White House,” Peach, pp. 38-39)
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