S4, Ep. 06: Evaluating Christian nationalism as a political strategy

Amanda and Holly review key races and share their takeaways from the 2022 midterm elections.

Nov 23, 2022

Where did we see religion and religious liberty have an impact during the midterm elections? Amanda and Holly break down election results in this podcast, including a look at how extremism fared at the ballot box. Plus, they review the implications of former president Donald Trump’s return as a candidate when it comes to Christian nationalism.

Segment 1 (starting at 00:51): A quick overview of election results

Amanda and Holly mentioned this piece by Jack Jenkins for Religion News Service: Despite Mastriano’s loss, don’t count out Christian nationalism

Holly mentioned two pieces by Sam Perry and Andrew Whitehead:

Segment 2 (starting at 09:36): Boebert, Mastriano, Stitt, DeSantis, and more

Holly mentioned this article from Baptist News Global by Mark Wingfield: Oklahoma elects secretary of education who wants to require training in ‘Christian’ version of American history

Amanda mentioned this video of Oklahoma Gov Kevin Stitt that was available on Twitter at this link.

The link to the campaign video tweeted by Casey DeSantis, wife of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is available on Twitter at this link. You can read Amanda’s Tweet responding to it here

Amanda and Holly mentioned the Baptist News Global story on the ad by Mark Wingfield, which included comments from former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele: Former RNC head calls new DeSantis ad ‘ass-backwards blasphemy’

Segment 3 (starting at 27:35): The implications of former president Donald Trump’s re-entrance as a candidate for president

Read Amanda’ response to former president Trump’s campaign announcement on Twitter at this link.

Read the Christians Against Christian Nationalism statement and access resources at this link.

Tune in to see more with Amanda and Holly during our telethon on Giving Tuesday! Tune in starting at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, November 29, to learn more about our work and how you can support our ongoing efforts. You can watch on BJC’s Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter pages.

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC

Transcript: Season 4, Episode 6: Evaluating Christian nationalism as a political strategy (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity):

 Segment 1: A quick overview of election results (starting at 00:51)

 AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. Today’s episode is a Respecting Religion conversation about the recent elections. It’s a round-up of some of the highlights noting where we saw religion and religious liberty have an effect on the elections.

We’re now just a little more than a week past the elections, and while the stories are still being written, we do have a few takeaways, don’t we, Amanda?

AMANDA: We do. You know, historically in these midterm elections, the party of the president always loses, and often loses in a big way. But this election was not as bad for the president as it usually is, and that was surprising for a lot of people, particularly because President Biden’s approval ratings have been so low. The country, of course, is facing rising inflation, a lot of economic issues, some concerns of what’s going on overseas. So for all these reasons, people had expected a so-called “red wave” that never came, and so I think this is going to be an election that people are going to be talking about and studying for some time.

You note, Holly, that the stories are still being written. That’s because the election itself is not fully over yet. We’re still awaiting a number of close races and those results. But as it stands today, as we record, the Democrats have retained control in the Senate.

And there’s one Senate seat left to be decided. Voters in Georgia will go back to the polls for a runoff election this December between Senator Raphael Warnock and his challenger, Herschel Walker. But regardless of that election, Democrats have retained control.

In the House, we are going to have a change in power with the Republican Party holding a majority. Right now we don’t know how big that majority will be, but we know that, come January, we are back to divided government in Washington and all that comes with that.

HOLLY: Yes. I think you are right to note this complicated picture. Of course, it is also complicated by the deep divisions in our country, this being the first election, major election, after January 6. It comes after some explosive news from the Supreme Court, including the Dobbs decision that we’ve discussed.

And so I agree that the experts will be studying this for a long time, to try to figure out what’s the best campaign strategy going forward. And it will be interesting to see how this Congress works and how the Biden administration can work with this new Congress. So, as returns continue to come in, we will continue to watch them, as we continue with our work of advocating for faith freedom for all in Congress and with the administration.

But in addition to the overall political picture, I do think that there are a couple of takeaways that are directly relevant to the work that we do at BJC and that we often talk about on Respecting Religion, and that is that, you know, extremism didn’t seem to fare very well at the ballot box. And I think related to that, the most extreme versions or expressions of Christian nationalism didn’t fare very well at the ballot box either.

AMANDA: Yeah. And one article that we want to recommend was by Jack Jenkins who wrote for Religion News Service, really immediately after election night, and his title is “Despite Mastriano’s loss, don’t count out Christian nationalism.” Of course, he’s referring to the loss of Doug Mastriano who had been running for Pennsylvania governor and who lost pretty big in that race.

But in the piece, he talks to a number of experts who have studied Christian nationalism. I would say as a reporter, Jack Jenkins is also an expert on Christian nationalism.

HOLLY: Right. He’s done some great work.

AMANDA: He’s done great work for many years, so this is a great contribution to that body of work. I think one of his big takeaways is that Christian nationalism is not necessarily a winning strategy, but we also don’t expect it to go away. And, you know, it’s not surprising that it’s not a winning strategy, because those people who most ardently embrace Christian nationalism are a distinct minority of people. You need a majority to win elections.

And a majority of Americans, thankfully, do not embrace Christian nationalism to the degree that many of these candidates were in rhetoric on the campaign trail.

I think another point is that how Christian nationalism fares at the ballot box varies regionally as well. Andrew Whitehead, sociologist of religion, expert on Christian nationalism, his quote in this article was, “Winning a race like Mastriano’s in Pennsylvania leaning on Christian nationalism is harder than perhaps a congressional seat in the South.”

And so it’s hard to paint with too broad a brush, but we are seeing in some of these swing states and places where you have to win a statewide election and, of course, as we look very soon to 2024, as you have to win a national election, Christian nationalism is not necessarily going to get you the votes you need to win.

And then also, I think, pointing out the difference between winning a primary election and winning a general election, and thanks to gerrymandering, we have more and more polarization in these districts, that they’re either solidly Republican or solidly Democrat, and so therefore you have the most extreme candidates winning in the primary elections. Those are the most motivated, as the experts point out, and people who are motivated by Christian nationalism are very motivated to vote. And so we see maybe Christian nationalism winning in primary elections, but not so much in the general.

HOLLY: All of those points really underscore the reality that it is going to be a persistent problem, the experts agree, and it reminded me of the earlier article that we saw ‑‑ I think we may have spoken about it last time we were together ‑‑ that Sam Perry and Andrew Whitehead wrote before the election about Christian nationalism. And that story ended with a really important line. “Though the numbers who claim Christian nationalist beliefs may decline, Christian nationalism’s influence in public life only continues to grow.”

And that’s what they wrote as they were, you know, trying to figure out what is going to be the impact of Christian nationalism on elections. They very helpfully pointed out that it is a persistent problem with lots of different manifestation. It doesn’t affect just one party. It affects Americans across a broad swath of political leanings.

And after the election, they wrote another piece for TIME magazine, and they explain another reason that we will continue to see Christian nationalism in our political debates and political elections, and that is because they said, despite the losses ‑‑ and there were some losses that we’ll talk about ‑‑ “white Christian nationalists systematically over-estimate their strength in numbers. And they will almost certainly do so in the future.”

That’s what they said, and that certainly resonates, given our experience and what we’ve seen as we watch the way Christian nationalism is used in the culture, as well as in political elections.

AMANDA: Yeah. You know, Christian nationalism is not necessarily a winning strategy, but those who are peddling it don’t know that.

HOLLY: Right.

AMANDA: There’s almost this false confidence or bravado that comes across in the numbers that Whitehead and Perry cite in this piece for TIME and also a sense that they point out that those who are pushing Christian nationalism have a belief that God is on their side, that they will prevail because God is with them, and so they are going to continue to use Christian nationalist rhetoric, whether or not it’s successful in campaigns or not.

HOLLY: Yeah. They won’t necessarily take the advice of the pollsters or even believe what they should learn, you know, politically from their losses. And I think that’s right, that some of the operatives, some of the true believers, and, of course, the people that they affect, who hear this toxic language but somehow it speaks to them, it feeds them, they will continue to perpetuate this Christian nationalism.


Segment 2: Boebert, Mastriano, Stitt, DeSantis, and more (starting at 09:36)

AMANDA: So let’s talk about some of these specific races that we were watching.

HOLLY: Yeah. You mentioned the governor’s race in Pennsylvania where Doug Mastriano was defeated by the attorney general, Josh Shapiro, and that was certainly one that we were watching. Mastriano was a very particular and noteworthy candidate on the Christian nationalism front, both for things that he said and how he operated his campaign.

Of course, he was also a huge election denier and had some of the most extreme positions that we saw in this election season, and he was then running against an attorney general who is highly respected, who is very comfortable in his faith as a Jewish person who, you know, very much drew a contrast for the voters in Pennsylvania.

AMANDA: You know, as we think about how Christian nationalism impacted that race, I think there’s so many other variables that it’s hard to isolate it as the sole reason that Mastriano lost. But I think it’s also an important repudiation of the ideology to see that he not only lost this race but he lost it big time in that place, and to lose it to someone who, as you note, is Jewish is also an affirmation of that value of religious freedom for all, that one’s religious identity does not matter when it comes to public service and to belonging in our country.

HOLLY: There was also a race that I was not really watching, because, as we know, a lot of congressional seats are kind of safe because of the effects of gerrymandering, and I had not been watching the campaign of Representative Lauren Boebert out of Colorado.

Most people will know of Boebert because of her extreme statements, meshing her religious beliefs and religious ideas with her political positions. She is known for her disdain for the idea of separation of church and state, and for her assertion that the church should lead the government.

But then she had this surprisingly close race with a very effective opponent. He was quite confident in dismissing what he called the “anger-tainment” brand that she was pushing. That race was much closer than, I think, most people thought, and I think that that says something about the limits, not only of anger-tainment but also this use of Christian nationalism.

AMANDA: And as we record today, Holly, we don’t know the outcome of that race yet. They have not quite finished counting the votes, and she holds a narrow lead at this point, and even when they do finish counting the votes, there might be a mandatory recount because the race is so close. But, you know, if she retains her seat, I don’t see her moderating her language in any way.

She has become one of the biggest firebrands on a number of different issues but particularly on Christian nationalism. And if she loses, then I think we have less of a platform for some of those ideas, at least in Congress. And I think that’s what’s so troubling about her comments and also the comments of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene in recent months, that these are not just politicians on the trail. These are not talk show hosts. These are members of Congress, who have been elected and have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution and are pushing Christian nationalism in ways that really violate our constitutional ideals of religious freedom for all.

HOLLY: Yeah. And I think this opponent ‑‑ his name is Adam Frisch ‑‑ you know, was doing the best he could to try to reframe the issues and not to let the voters just kind of stay in this angry place and to really try to take some of the air out of the outrageous comments that Boebert is known for saying. You know, she has said things like, It is time for us to position ourselves and to rise up and take our place in Christ and influence this nation as we were called to do.

I mean, she really represents this ideology that is so harmful and completely at odds with the kind of religious liberty tradition that we have that would serve, you know, the voters that obviously come from a variety of different religious perspectives.

AMANDA: Well, regardless of how Boebert’s race ends up, we know we are going to have a firebrand for Christian nationalism in the next Congress with Marjorie Taylor Greene. She has continued her rhetoric after the election and continues to sow doubts about the integrity of the election process in ways that are really dangerous.

And, of course, remember, Marjorie Taylor Greene is the one who is known now for being the first member of Congress, the first leader, to embrace the term of “Christian nationalism,” to embrace an identity as a Christian nationalist, to call on the Republican Party to be the party of Christian nationalism. She’s even selling shirts that say, Proud Christian Nationalist. And she sailed to reelection in her congressional seat, and so we know that that ideology’s going to continue in the halls of Congress.

HOLLY: Yeah. Importantly, she did have opposition, and I think the opposition, you know, tried to show voters the danger that she represents, but as you note, she was elected quite handily, and so we can expect for that to continue to be a struggle to oppose the kinds of statements that she puts out in the public discourse.

AMANDA: Meanwhile, we know that some extreme versions of Christian nationalism did prevail in certain places. I think this points to the regionalization of Christian nationalism in some ways, and one place that we saw that in particular was the state of Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, voters elected Ryan Walters to be the secretary of education, which means he will be in charge of public schools, and on the campaign trail, he has said that every Oklahoma teacher should get training from a private Christian school called Hillsdale College. And why? He said, because our kids “need to know about the founding. They need to know this country was founded on Judeo-Christian values.”

This is just textbook Christian nationalism, no pun intended there, as far as peddling a Christian nation false narrative, and doing so in public schools in ways that detract from a real understanding of American civics, of the constitutional protections for religious freedom for all. And so here’s a place where you have not just Christian nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail, but now we’re going to have Christian nationalism in state policy as well.

HOLLY: Yeah. I think the issue of public schools and all the political fighting about public schools will continue, and we know that a strong piece of that is about how history is taught. So we’ll put an article about that in our show notes. It comes from Baptist News Global.

Maybe it’s not surprising to see that that happened in Oklahoma, in light of Governor Kevin Stitt who was just reelected.

AMANDA: Yeah. I saw a video on Twitter, which we will link in show notes, that Governor Stitt gave a speech the week before the election in which he dedicated every square inch of the state to Jesus. He said, “With the authority that I have as governor and the spiritual authority and the physical authority that you give me, I claim Oklahoma for you,” meaning Jesus. This was in a prayer that he was delivering at some kind of political rally.

So the mixing of political and religious authority, the way that that leads to idolatry, the way that that confuses our religious and political allegiances and duties, it’s all on display in this rhetoric from Governor Stitt and something certainly to watch on how this rhetoric turns into policy.

HOLLY: Yeah. “With the authority that I have as governor” ‑‑ I mean, he might want to check his job description. All right.

Well, that also brings us to another state that we should note. Florida had a big night. You know, regardless of the topic that we’re talking about here, Amanda, I think all of the commentators, political commentators, were saying that what’s happening in our nation as a whole and how divided we are as a country, Florida was a big story, because Republicans won statewide in such considerable numbers, I think.

So, of course, there’s been a lot of talk about Governor DeSantis and, you know, his kind of rising place in the Republican Party. He has certainly emerged as a national rival for former president Donald Trump. He has used this kind of Christian nationalist language pretty pervasively, but I would say not quite as extreme, in its most extreme forms, as some of the other candidates that we’ve been talking about.

We all know about some of the controversies in Florida, particularly his controversial efforts in public schools over sexuality and incentivizing teacher training about history and civics that’s based on really harmful ideology, harmful in education, and harmful in the fight against Christian nationalism.

AMANDA: Yeah. I was recently in Florida for a speaking event, talked to a number of people there, and so I was paying more attention to this race than maybe I would have had I not had this on-the-ground experience. That’s where I learned about how Governor DeSantis was offering teacher bonuses of up to $5,000 for teachers who would go to this new civics training that talked about the separation of church and state as a myth and talked about religious founding of the country and all of this Christian nation narrative that is so destructive to our unity as Americans and to our understanding of the constitutional system. And then to see him reelected by 20 points in Florida does tell a different story about the use of this rhetoric, and I think given his very strong win and the perhaps likelihood that he decides to run for president, we will likely see this kind of rhetoric on the campaign trail there as well.

HOLLY: Yeah. It’s really important that we keep an eye on that. I think a lot of the election analysis noted that he was less extreme on abortion and less extreme on the threats to democracy, two very important issues in this election season, so he’s less extreme on that and proved more popular. But that doesn’t mean that he is not threatening on this ideology of Christian nationalism, as you’ve noted.

He does use kind of religious language, “put on the armor of God” kind of language, in many of his speeches. And then we saw really notably at the end of the campaign this new commercial they put out that was really over the top in its claim of being some kind of political leader that was chosen by God.

AMANDA: Yeah. Just a few days before the election, his wife, Casey DeSantis, tweeted out, “I love you, Ron. On behalf of millions of people, never stop fighting for freedom.”

HOLLY: Great. I like a supportive wife and a supportive husband. Supportive partners are always really good.


HOLLY: Tell our listeners what follows that loving, supportive message.

AMANDA: Well, the video itself is an ad of a little less than two minutes. It’s all in black and white. It starts with kind of this ocean tide.

HOLLY: Very dramatic.

AMANDA: Yes. I guess also evoking Florida’s, you know, large coastline. And then you’ve got this photo montage of Governor DeSantis smiling with lots of different groups of people one after the other, with this voice-over of this deep, kind of echoing voice of God type voice that says, you know, On the eighth day, God ‑‑

HOLLY: Eighth day, on the eighth day.

AMANDA: Okay. Yes. On the eighth day ‑‑

HOLLY: There are seven days ‑‑ right? ‑‑ in the week, okay, and in the creation story ‑‑

AMANDA: And on the seventh day ‑‑ there’s a creation story that also takes seven days.

HOLLY: Biblical creation story, we’re talking about.

AMANDA: Yes. And it says, you know, On the eighth day, God decided he needed a fighter.

And so God created a fighter. But all of this is superimposed over all of these pictures of Governor DeSantis, of course, suggesting that God created Ron DeSantis on the eighth day. And, I mean, just ‑‑

HOLLY: (Laughing.)

AMANDA: — the ‑‑ it’s just a ludicrous ad, but it’s also really offensive as well and was offensive to a lot of people.

HOLLY: Yeah. And you describe it well. It is totally over the top, dramatic, this mix of beauty and inspiration, you know, with this biblical theme. Well, the tireless writer and editor of Baptist News Global, Mark Wingfield, reported on it, and I think he did a great job providing some analysis, letting different people react to it. And for me, he provided some much needed humorous coverage of that ridiculous ad.

AMANDA: Yeah. And I appreciated that he included the comments in that piece from Michael Steele who is, of course, former RNC chair, and also went to divinity school —

HOLLY: I did not know that.

AMANDA: Yeah. And so we learned that here in this piece, and I guess his comments ‑‑ I’m just going to read here Michael Steele’s comments. He said, “On the eighth day? Really? Church much? God needs a protector? He could ask Moses to do that, right? What the hell are you talking about? Oh, God needs someone who’s going to go out and challenge the status quo? You ever hear of a man named Jesus?” Then he said, “I don’t need Ron DeSantis to be Christ. I just need him to be governor, and that’s the problem. These idiots mesh it all together and think they are one and the same.”

HOLLY: Wow. Yeah. Well, thank you, Michael Steele, for taking such a strong stance against Christian nationalism, even in the context of his party’s, you know, kind of rising hope. Right? So that was refreshing to hear. And, again, it’s not subtle, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see what’s going on here.

You know, some people might not give this ‑‑ might not want to think about this much. They might just think it’s silly or they might wonder, what is the harm of such, you know ‑‑ this kind of mockery of Christianity, or maybe they’re just tempted to dismiss it. But we know, Amanda, that Christian nationalism is a, you know, huge political problem, in addition to being a religious problem.

You know, I think Michael Steele was pointing out how ridiculous this is and how uninformed it is from a religious perspective and, you know, dangerous or, you know, insulting. But I appreciated the commentator also cited in that article who said, “God bestowed upon us a modern day miracle and created Ron DeSantis. And how do I know? Because the Florida governor’s ad tells me so.” I think that was ‑‑

AMANDA: Not the Bible.

HOLLY: Not the Bible tells me so, but the governor tells me so. And really that points out, you have the danger, the religious danger in misusing the Bible, you know, confusing what the Bible actually says and its importance to so many people. What shouldn’t be lost is that as a political tool, it is so damaging to allow our government officials to basically use religion to justify whatever their political ends are.

AMANDA: That’s right.

HOLLY: You know, so to say, you know, how do I know? Because the governor told me so. I’m going to give the governor the kind of authority that I would give God in my life is extremely dangerous. Whatever your political interests are and whether they lean, you know, to one party or the other, I think you might want to stop, we all might want to stop and say, Do we want those policies justified by religious authority? And what are the implications when we allow our elected officials to act in that way?


Segment 3: The implications of former president Donald Trump’s re-entrance as a candidate for president (starting at 27:35)

AMANDA: As we’ve noted, Holly, the 2022 election is not yet over, and yet the 2024 election has begun.

HOLLY: Well, yes. I guess that brings us to this point, Amanda.

AMANDA: So on Tuesday, November 15, former president Donald Trump announced that he is running for president in 2024, so that is the unofficial beginning to this 2024 campaign.

HOLLY: And, you know, BJC continues to do our work defending religious freedom for all, and we have done that for more than eight decades, working with Republican and Democratic administrations, and all different mixes of Congress, and we will do that, regardless of what party is in power. But we did have to note former president Trump’s announcement because of his particular role in advancing and perpetuating and really flaming the fires of Christian nationalism.

And so, Amanda, I know that was helpful for you to react to that, particularly to react to his announcement and what it would mean for our conversations about religious freedom and the fight against Christian nationalism.

AMANDA: Yeah. We’ve noted this many times. Christian nationalism did not begin with Donald Trump.

HOLLY: Of course.

AMANDA: When Donald Trump eventually retires from public office and public space, it won’t end with Donald Trump. That said, he did more than any politician in at least my memory of using Christian nationalism as a motivating ideology to solidify a base of voters.

And we have to say Donald Trump is not a normal political candidate in many different ways, but including in his role in inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. He is continuing to be under investigation by a House committee for his activities in that event, and we at BJC have noted how Christian nationalism contributed to the insurrection, how the ideology worked to unite people.

And so his return as a candidate for public office, running for president, means that Christian nationalism’s going to stay in the political spotlight for the foreseeable future. And I don’t think it will only be him who does use Christian nationalism in this election, but it’s something that we have to watch with particular focus when he is a candidate because of what he has done with Christian nationalism since he’s been in the political spotlight himself.

HOLLY: Well, that’s right. We know, as we often talk about it, Christian nationalism takes many forms. Even the rhetoric takes many forms. But the fact that he will continue to be such a heavy influence in the presidential campaign will certainly mean that our campaign, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, ours meaning any American out there who claims a Christian identity and wants to stand up for religious freedom — it will be needed. Our voices will be needed, and we will have to fight back. And while we assume that we will continue to hear Christian nationalist rhetoric from former president Trump and throughout the campaigns, we will also be listening very carefully and very hopefully, that we hear some clear voices in opposition, and more in keeping with America’s tradition of religious freedom.

AMANDA: That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. But before we go, we want to invite you to join us live across our social media platforms on November 29, Giving Tuesday, at 6 p.m. Eastern. It’s an opportunity for you to meet BJC staff and to support our work. Your gifts make this podcast possible, and we thank you for your support.

HOLLY: For details on what we discussed today, including links to the articles we mentioned, check out our Show Notes.

AMANDA: If you enjoyed today’s conversation, give us a five-star rating, then share this program with others on social media and tag us. Plus you can email both of us by writing to [email protected], and you can see a full list of shows on our website. Just go to RespectingReligion.org.

HOLLY: And take a moment to find out more about BJC and how we’ve been working for faith freedom for all since 1936. Visit our website for a look at what we do and some of our latest projects.

AMANDA: Join us back here on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.