June 21, 2022

The state should not infringe on the church — that’s what the First Amendment says,” thundered Pastor Ken Peters to his congregation at the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, last Sunday, as well as those watching at home on Facebook. “But it’s a one-way wall. It’s like the wall should be the wall on the southern border. It’s one way — so they cannot keep us out of the state.”

Peters is one of a growing number of “MAGA-preachers” who use the pulpit to deliver hellfire warnings about the state of the nation. A rising star in the amped-up evangelical world, the founder of the Patriot Church became infamous as one of the preachers who addressed angry protesters in Washington D.C. on January 5, 2021. Convinced that President Trump had the election stolen from him — from them — these protesters would go on the next day to storm the Capitol.

The January 6 committee has already heard that the attack was the “culmination of an attempted coup”. While the congressional hearings are covering a lot we already knew — President Trump became detached from the reality of his election loss and surrounded himself with yes men; his key adviser Rudy Giuliani was hammered on election night — they have featured harrowing new testimony from people at the riot about the level of organisation and violence on display.

One police officer attacked by the rioters told the committee that the building was a “war zone” and said that she was “slipping in people’s blood”. Footage and testimony from a filmmaker on the scene said he saw hundreds of far-Right Proud Boys walking away from President Trump’s speech towards the Capitol, with the committee inferring that they may have been scoping out security weaknesses for an organised attack. This would imply that January 6 was not the result of the spontaneous actions of lone wolves — nor a false flag operation — as Trump supporters would have us believe.

On the surface, the storming of the Capitol might show how a man nakedly obsessed with winning chose to incite his febrile supporter base and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. But on closer inspection, the events of that day tell the story of the troubling rise of Christian Nationalism that is gaining pace in the United States.

Christian Nationalism is the idea that America is defined by Christianity. This idea has been around as long as America itself, but until the mid-20th century, many evangelicals saw themselves as being above, or at least separate to, mainstream society. The desire to penetrate politics has steadily picked up pace since the Fifties, with the dial being firmly turned in the Reagan-era and again since the 2008 financial crisis and election of Barack Obama.

Proponents of this ideology — the 29% of Americans who believe that “the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” — aren’t seeking a Taliban-style theocracy. Rather, they propose using traditionally American means, from their own stockpiles of arms to a rigged Supreme Court, to impose a muscular set of values on Americans that are equally informed by culture and faith.

Needless to say, the God of Christian Nationalists is not Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but a gun-toting, gas-guzzling, straight, white, native-born kinda guy. He looks and sounds a lot like the people who stormed the Capitol. Researcher and journalist Teddy Wilson mapped more than 850 individuals who took part in the Capitol riot, along with their stated motivations and affiliations. He found that: “Christian Nationalism, more than any other ideological beliefs, has played the most significant role both in the motivations of the defendants, the performance of the attack, and the attempt by the Right to rewrite the history of January 6th.”

Advocates don’t tend to use the term themselves, preferring words such as patriot and MAGA, but spotting their beliefs in action isn’t difficult. Uniting the adherents from the rural South to New York City, they target causes perceived to be liberal or progressive — and are employing increasingly violent ends in opposition to them.

Ken Peters is currently being sued by Planned Parenthood for holding services outside abortion clinics, with the one in Knoxville being shot up weeks after the church’s inaugural service on the 48th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision (Peters denies inciting the shooting and no one has been charged). Pastor Greg Locke, who joined Peters in preaching to thousands of would-be insurrectionists the night before the Capitol riots, delights his 2.2 million Facebook followers by conducting mass burnings of “demonic” Harry Potter books.

The movement isn’t only being organised in traditional churches. True believers are being radicalised by extreme online preachers, and mobilising to take over school boards. Meanwhile, self-described “Christian Fascists” and patriot groups have tried to storm gay events across the country for Pride month. Preachers such as Peters and Locke are enjoying their newfound status as patriotic heroes, but their ideology is expanding their following beyond the pews and into partisan politics, fusing faith and the Republican Party in a way that makes the George W. Bush era look comparatively secular.

While the Christian Nationalist movement to date has been characterised by marches with tiki-torches and Viking hats to try to overturn the election, this is far from a fringe carnival for cranks and loners. For starters, many who participated in the Capitol riots weren’t cabin-dwellers or wannabe TikTok stars. They were self-styled prophets, tech CEOs and real estate agents who chartered private jets to the event.

They are very much the face of the modern Republican Party. Nearly half of today’s Republicans consider themselves born-again, a figure up from 37% in 1988. Yet between 2008 and 2019, the number of self-described evangelicals who attend church each week has decreased from 59% to 52%. In the same period, those who never or seldom attend church has grown 50% to almost one quarter of evangelicals. These changes are being mirrored by those they call “Godless Democrats”. In 1972, just 5% of Americans said that they had no religion, but in 2018, that number rose to 23.7%.

Being an evangelical has shifted from a practice of deeply-held beliefs to a political identity that is riding vibes. As political scientist Dr David Smith puts it, “the average evangelical is Homer Simpson, not Ned Flanders”. One way of looking at this phenomenon is that as America becomes more secular, its evangelicals are becoming more committed. Fuelled by conspiracy and feeling besieged by what they perceive as a liberal world closing in on them, America’s political Right and religious Right are morphing into one. Even those who we might call “cultural Christians” are embracing Christian Nationalist ideas — the kind of self-described evangelicals who don’t go to church but are happy to use biblical justification to crush their opponents.

That’s because they know that they have lost the democratic battle and the demographic battle. Republican power in the United States is largely gained through archaic, unrepresentative institutions such as the Electoral College and Senate, political appointments to the courts, and the gerrymandering of electorates. In a fair, democratic system, they aren’t winning, and would be forced to moderate their ideas to appeal to a wider slice of the electorate.

Not only is Christian Nationalism changing politics, it’s changing theology too. Three doctrines have become popular among the radical Right in recent years, shaped to appeal to people coming to Christian Nationalism from all angles.

Joel’s Army merges religion, conspiracy, and patriotism, appealing to angry young men with the idea that their mission to rule over their countrymen is preordained. The Seven Mountain Mandate encourages believers to reclaim the seven spheres of influence on earth — including government, entertainment, and education — ahead of the End Times. For those invested in QAnon and other conspiracy movements, Spiritual Warfare holds that demons and evil spirits are present and intervening in our daily lives. Here, the Democratic Party, Joe Biden or the LGBT community don’t simply have policies you oppose — they are possessed with spirits; they are evil personified.

The theological shift is reshaping the Christian narrative from offering justice and salvation to one of conquest. In turn, this incendiary language is being picked up and amplified by Fox News hosts and Republican Party candidates — its God-given “mandate” helping to suppress doubt, and to inspire violence and fanaticism.

The changing nature of how faith is consumed is contributing to the rot, too. In the past, a small-town preacher might see congregations voting with their feet and wallets to leave hate-filled political sermons. But the ability to stream church services online — and the social media incentives to be polarising — has put an end to the idea of churches as throwing open the doors to all comers. Last weekend, Ken Peters boasted that the Patriot Church was expanding its house church network for people who can’t find “churches like ours” and don’t want to be a part of “woke church”. Like-minded folks gathered around YouTube in their living rooms will help spread the Patriot Church like “brushfires”.

Of course, divine rule looks a lot like power in the here and now. Beyond the outcome of the January 6 hearings, it is clear that Christian Nationalism is morphing into the unifying ideology of the right of the Republican Party, with or without Trump. As Ken Peters himself openly put it in his weekend sermon: the state can’t interfere with them, but they can interfere with the state. This might be placing Christian Nationalists in a minority in the United States, but they don’t care. They no longer believe that the ballot box is the source of power and authority.