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New battle lines are being drawn in the US by a right-wing Christian movement set on what it sees as its divine mission – to spread its beliefs and messages using political power. So what is Christian nationalism and why is it flourishing now?
Thousands of people hungry for an experience of God and longing to be free of their demons crowded into a large tent for a mass deliverance service.
Some fell to the ground and lay still, others screamed as the pastor commanded their dark spirits to come out in Jesus’ name. Some just held each other with what seemed relief and release. Afterwards around 20 were baptised in a horse trough filled with water.
This is the Global Vision Church near Nashville in Tennessee, headed by Pastor Greg Locke. He is a charismatic and controversial figure who is tapping into a long tradition of Pentecostal revival in the United States, an apocalyptic spirit that is animating the rise of a new Christian right.
God and country is one of the oldest and most influential currents in US politics. It ebbs and flows throughout American history.
It’s at high tide now because conservative Christians feel they’re on the losing end of demographic and cultural changes. That’s been amplified by a backlash against what they saw as government overreach during the Covid pandemic.
“We desire to live in a Judeo Christian nation with Judeo Christian values,” says Ken Peters, a so-called Patriot Pastor who preaches that God belongs in government.
But this fight against changing moral values is being framed as a battle against evil which demonises political opponents, says Robert Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
With no room for compromise, he believes it poses a fundamental threat to democracy.
Christian flags at US Capitol riot
Until recently the reach and power of this muscular Christianity was invisible to most Americans.
But it broke cover during the storming of the Capitol building last year.
The sight of rioters carrying crosses and Christian flags, and even praying together, exposed just how much religious and political identities had begun to merge on the right – bonded by a belief that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump.
There were also pastors at the Capitol that day, and some continue to preach that message.
Ken Peters is one of them. He’s denounced the violence, but still defends what he sees as a patriotic mission.
He says God has “a special plan for this country” that he’d felt was threatened by the prospect of Trump’s election loss.
Peters’ Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, a building with a cross in the front yard and a US-style flag painted onto the roof, is one of a growing number of non-denominational start-up congregations that say they want to take back the country for God.
They feel threatened by immigration and are alarmed by the increased acceptance of different gender identities and sexual orientations that they believe are unbiblical.
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Peters promotes political candidates from the pulpit, blurring the lines between church and state.
“If God can overturn Roe versus Wade, he can do anything,” he told his congregation in a spirited message recently, celebrating the end of federal abortion rights as an act of God.
He wants the government to ban same-sex marriage because marriage between a man and a woman is “in the Bible”. He says “Christians are going to have to get feisty” because the left is winning. “I’m just putting up a last-ditch effort to try to keep our country as Christian as possible.”
How fear of change triggered a movement
PRRI’s Jones says this fear of a cultural takeover by the left is built on a bedrock of Christian nationalism – the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the government should keep it that way.
His polls find that about one third of Americans and half of Republicans say the US was designed by God to be a “promised land” for European Christians. “So when I talk about Christian nationalism in the US,” he says, “I usually talk about white Christian nationalism.”
Focusing on abortion as their galvanising issue, evangelicals have helped elect successive Republican presidents – even Donald Trump in 2016 who, despite widespread criticism of his moral character, championed the causes of the Christian right.
What’s different now about such Christian political activism is that the country is no longer majority white and Christian, says Jones, noting that the shift into a demographic minority happened when the country had its first African-American president, Barack Obama.
During the same period, attitudes toward same-sex marriage changed radically, from majority opposed in 2008 to majority support today.
“I think that threat – of white Christians no longer knowing they’re in control, demographically, culturally, politically – is why we’re seeing it kind of come to the fore in the current context,” says Jones.
Many reject the Christian nationalist label as a leftist smear.
But a few right-wing politicians have embraced its holy rhetoric, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, two hardline Republicans and Trump allies.
“We need to be the party of nationalism, we should be Christian Nationalists,” says Greene.
Online, extremists have taken it even further.
“We are the Christian Taliban,” crowed white nationalist Vincent James Foxx in his webcast after the Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade.
“And we will not stop until The Handmaid’s Tale is a reality.”
Ken Peters’ call for Christians to take an aggressive political stand seems to be resonating, with Patriot Churches expanding to several locations.
His friend, Greg Locke, was inspired by the resistance against Covid lockdowns, bolstered by congregants angry at the government for forcing churches to close. He now has his own studio where he films a webcast called Faith, Family and Politics, and recently launched a media company.
Driving his onscreen presence is his brand – he seems to court controversy, even thrive off it.
On Halloween night Locke lit a bonfire and burned “objects of sorcery and witchcraft,” including Catholic rosaries and Harry Potter books. In one sermon that went viral, he told members of his congregation they could not be Christian and vote Democrat, calling Democrats “God-denying demons”.
When I pressed him repeatedly on the risk of inciting violence by calling fellow Americans evil, he said that was not his responsibility. “I’m not inciting violence. I’m preaching the Bible.”
Culture and civil wars
But another pastor in the Bible Belt, Kevin Riggs, has been watching the direction of the church with alarm.
He grew up as a conservative evangelical and had dreams of becoming a megachurch pastor. Then his exposure to international and inner-city students helped him see more clearly God’s concern for social justice in the Bible. He now works with community activists in a marginalised neighbourhood of Franklin, just south of Nashville.
Riggs says he has friends who have had to leave their churches for speaking out against former President Trump or the religious right: “There’s division in the church like I haven’t seen it [before],” he says.
“You hear the term a lot in evangelical circles, that we’re fighting a cultural war,” he continues. “And I think you can very easily replace the word culture with civil. It’s been a cold civil war about ideology. But that could very quickly become violent. The right will have a tendency to take up arms to protect their rights.”
‘We’re being run by Satan’
So far the battle has been political.
Starting from the ground up, conservative Christian activists have increasingly played a key role in school board disputes over what children are taught – about sexuality, gender identity, the history of racism – and over what they should be allowed to read.
They are a minority but their agenda overlaps with that of the Republican Party, which can give them disproportionate political clout. That was tested in recent midterm elections when right-wing Christian concerns were mixed with a broader narrative about election denial, Covid conspiracy theories and Trumpism.
This is what’s fuelling an event known as the ReAwaken America Tour, which attracts tens of thousands of people as it crisscrosses the nation.
Greg Locke is one of its headline speakers – he shares the stage with a mix of Trump loyalists, self-proclaimed prophets and sales people peddling miracle wares. I caught up with some of Locke’s fans when the travelling road show stopped in Pennsylvania.
Chris and Bobbi Foley said they had a powerful experience of the supernatural at one of Locke’s deliverance services, and embraced his reframing of American conservative politics as spiritual warfare against a radical left.
“They took away the Bible, they took away Jesus and everything,” said Bobbi. “So now we’re being run by devils. We’re being run by Satan because it’s a spiritual war.”
But the political change they pray for will have to wait because many candidates backed by the Christian right lost in the midterms, with voters largely rejecting those who embraced Trump’s false claim of 2020 election fraud.
Will DeSantis be new torch bearer?
One person who might be able to repackage the Christian nationalist message with broader appeal is the right-wing governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis appears to be considering such an approach in a possible run for the presidency.
He sprinkles his political speeches with Bible verses and released a video extolling how “God created a fighter” in a style that echoes Trump’s bombast.
And in Florida he has a legislative record on the kind of culture war and race issues that animate conservative Christians.
He could pursue similar policies nationally if he decided to run for president, says Jones, and if so would likely have a greater impact than Trump because “he’s actually a politician who understands the way governments and bureaucracies work”.
Christian nationalists are out of step with the direction of the country and with a majority of Christians, determined to harness politics to fight against changing values. But this is a period of uncertainty for them, just as it is for Republicans.
In the wake of the party’s disappointing midterms, some evangelical leaders who’ve strongly backed Trump have begun to distance themselves from him. Much will depend on the outcome of his recently launched presidential bid.
Whether or not the Christian right regains a champion at the national level, it’s likely to continue to be a force that deepens the fractures of the union.
“I hope it doesn’t end up in a civil war,” says Ken Peters, whose church has attracted migrants from more liberal states. “I hope it ends up in us finding a way to have our own, maybe regions, of the nation and living peacefully together.”
Additional reporting by Roderick Macleod