The Rise of the Evangelical Nationalist
“In America, we worship God, not government.” President Donald J. Trump declared these words in front of a raucous crowd at the “Celebrate Freedom” conference held in Washington, D.C., during last year’s independence weekend. This was not a simple invocation of God, as is so common in American politics, but rather a call to arms for Evangelical Christians across the country in pursuit of theocratic reformation. These efforts, long in the making, would find a new ally—not only in Trump, but also in a media obsessed with covering him.
This notion of God above government and Christianity as a core part of the American identity is certainly not new. Sam Haselby notes in his Washington Post Op-Ed, “[Christian Nationalism is] an old debate, as old as the United States itself,” and argues that it is foundational to American political discourse. Over time, Christian Nationalism has fused with a reverence for the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. In other words, there has been an active effort on the part of Christian Nationalists to provide credence to their claims of theocratic government by tying themselves to the fundamental mythology surrounding the establishment of America itself.
The history of Christian Nationalism in the United States is long, but the future prospects for this movement are changing. No longer must they be relegated to fringe groups described as the “Silent Majority” under Reagan, or the “Connecticut Wits” from the American Revolution. A new vector for this ideology was born with the rise of Trump, an unlikely ally with little ties to the more typical moral majority often associated with GOP politics. Evangelical preachers like Lance Wallnau describe Trump as a leader uniquely appointed by God—a leader chosen by God in pursuit of a holy mission. There is, of course, some modicum of dissent, but for now, those voices are drowned out by a hard and fast desire to support Trump in the pursuit of a nationalist agenda.
This leaves us with the central question: Why does Trump hold so much influence in driving the conversation, both in the Evangelical community and across the country? His attacks on the news media are well-documented and most obvious in his simple dismissal of news he doesn’t like as “Fake News,” etc. But this is where things get interesting—because the media no longer controls the narrative. A 3 a.m. tweet here, a blatant lie there, and suddenly President Trump controls the news cycle—the media becoming an unwitting vehicle for the Trump agenda (and by proxy, Evangelical nationalists everywhere). Trump drives controversy, the media reports this information, ratings climb, online impressions rise, and suddenly a symbiotic relationship forms within this framework, leaving Evangelicals to enter into the national consciousness through hypernormalization.
Thus, as the reality of the political system fails, self-delusion reigns. The media, charged with reporting this reality, must balance this with a broader need to serve ratings and maintain access to the White House press corps. The Trump Administration, recognizing this weakness, moves the political discourse further into the absurd, where truth no longer matters. Evangelical nationalists then exploit this by consolidating Trump’s political base into a single voice, which declares victory over imagined controversies like the “War on Christmas” and other faux-battlegrounds waged by Trump via social media.
This perverse trinity of actors, manifested in the forms of Trump, Evangelicals, and the media, has ushered in a new age of authoritarianism designed to return the United States to a history in which the public sphere was largely white and Christian, and the state was governed by the ruling corporate elite.
For now, Trump and the GOP control every branch of government. Indeed, their coalition of chaos has resulted in a mass exodus of leadership and staff at the State Department, the death of net neutrality under Ajit Pai at the FCC, the appointment of numerous Trump judges in lower courts across the country, and the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in American history (via the so-called Trump Tax Plan). Amidst this cavalcade of human indignity stands Evangelical Nationalists. Once the moral barometer of a bygone era, they now find themselves fashioned as the idolatrous, boot-licking servants to a worldly power that demands the defense of serial pedophiles, criminals, and ethno-nationalist murderers.
The relationship between Trump and Evangelical Christians reveals the fundamental deceit at the heart of the entire movement: moral relativism. Christian leaders like Rev. Robert Jeffress can preach about the power of faith and forgiveness on one hand, while calling for the nuclear holocaust of millions of North Korean citizens on the other by declaring that “God has given Trump the authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” This cognitive dissonance is not unintentional, but foundational. Once we discard these moral sleight-of-hand tricks employed by Evangelical leadership, we find what Carol Anderson describes as “white rage.” One could even characterize Trump as the embodiment of this ideal, the manifestation of white ethno-nationalist grievances present within Evangelical Christian leadership across the country. This unholy alliance that presents Evangelicals as somehow having the moral high ground, or that the faith itself has been inadvertently hijacked by white nationalists, is pure fantasy. The reality paints a picture in which Trump and his administration’s policies are the culmination of the efforts of numerous Evangelical Christians, over the decades, to supplant reason and equality for religious fundamentalism and crony capitalist corruption.
Nonetheless, opposition forces have mobilized in the year since Trump rose to power. Despite being marginalized in every branch of government, hope remains amongst those in the so-called #resistance. This tide change is perhaps no more clear than in the recent defeat of Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. In the heart of Trump country, surrounded by a base of Evangelical conservatism, Roy Moore ran, not only as an avowed pedophile, but also as a champion of Christian values. Moore struck a chord in the hearts of Christian Nationalists during his time as a judge, in which he violated constitutional law to display the biblical 10 Commandments at his courthouse, and yet, in the end, he lost the Senate race (albeit, by the slimmest of margins). It was the most shocking upset yet in what looks to be a profound backlash against Trump, and by proxy, the Christian Nationalist movement itself.
As the looming specter of the 2018 midterms elections hangs in the national consciousness, Evangelicals continue to hold prayer meetings at the White House while declaring victory in the “War on Christmas” and sharing influence with Trump himself. But this high watermark of self-delusion is showing signs of collapse—due to pressure from a coalition of opposition, as an increasing number of men and women everywhere become more politically involved. Thus, as the tool of “white rage” is dulled from empty promises and exploitation by Trump, the Evangelical Nationalist movement loses its ability to influence and mobilize people to vote. Without a power base from which to draw, the dreams of a capitalist theocracy will die, stillborn in the womb.