In her recent article in The New Republic, journalist Katherine Stewart says that the focus on the “rise of the Nones” as the big story in American religion misses what’s really going on. Religion in America, according to Stewart, is in one of its times of great transformation, like the Great Awakening of the 18th century or the rise of the Social Gospel in the 19th. Here’s Stewart:
“The change in the religious landscape that generally attracts the most media attention is the rise of the “nones” (individuals who do not identify with any religion). But this apparent move toward secularism has occurred alongside a countervailing trend among those who do identify with religion. A hotter and more reactionary style of religion is surging in America . . . it cuts across traditional denominational divides. It tracks some global shifts in religion, shifts in which America is a follower as well as a leader. And it represents a significant threat to the future of American democracy.”
Stewart, while acknowledging that her label is simplistic, dubs this “Spirit Warrior Christianity.” More often the label, one that has been used in a spate of new books like The Flag and the Cross by Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry and Christianity’s American Fate by David Hollinger, is “Christian Nationalism.” The common denominator to both is an increasingly militant movement that sees America politics as a battleground of a great spiritual warfare in which the godly and divinely appointed do battle with the devil and his minions on the left. More from Stewart:
“This idea that the American political realm is a place of ‘spiritual warfare’—in a literal, not metaphorical, sense—is one of the defining elements of the new forms of highly politicized religion that are surging across the country. Some—but by no means all—of the figures claiming special vision into the demonic struggles of our times are associated with neo-charismatic movements such as the New Apostolic Reformation, or NAR . . .”
Stewart traces the roots of the movement to Pentecostalism in the U.S. and an early 20th century revival. But today it is a global phenomenon, one that has morphed from largely non-political beginnings, to being increasingly allied with political authoritarianism.
“Pentecostalism, broadly speaking, now has as many as 600 million adherents worldwide, or more than a quarter of all Christians. It has a huge presence in Brazil, where it played a decisive role in the rise of the populist demagogue Jair Bolsonaro; in Hungary, where it helped elevate the explicitly illiberal Viktor Orbán; and in Guatemala, where Pentecostal evangelicalism was exported from the United States to counter the influence of the Second Vatican Council and the rise of liberation theology.”
While not Pentecostal, one might also add Putin and his embrace of the Orthodox Church in Russia.
While one can argue that forms of “Christian Nationalism” have been around for a long time in the U.S., and that the roots of today’s flowering are as much in the 1970s and the “Moral Majority” of Southern Baptist Jerry Falwell, as with Pentecostalism, what seems different today are four things.
One is the fusion of politics and religion, with religion playing the role of second-fiddle. Today, for example, many who self-identify as “Evangelical” do not attend a church nor are they biblically literate. Religion, as with Donald Trump, sanctifies a political agenda allowing authoritarian politicians to exploit religion language and people.
Second, this movement has become much more organized and broadly-based through things like the New Apostolic Reformation, the Reformation Prayer Network, the Reawaken America Tour rallies, and the Road to Majority Conferences. It overlaps with groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. It has become a significant sub-culture within American society. By and large, these organizations transcend denominational categories, such that a figure like onetime National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, who identifies as Catholic (as does Brazil’s Bolsanaro), shows up regularly on Reawaken America Tour rallies.
Third, the language of this movement is violent. “We are soldiers in God’s army engaged in spiritual warfare for our country,” Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert declared at the recent Road to Majority conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Many, like Gohmart, Majorie Taylor Greene, radio host Eric Metaxas, and Flynn, may speak of “spiritual warfare” but seem willing to cross, and lead susceptible followers across, a line from the metaphorical to something more literal.
Finally, and perhaps most important, this Spirit Warrior/Christian Nationalist movement is anti-democratic in ways that Jerry Falwell, back in the ’70s and ’80s, did not imagine. Writes Stewart, ” . . . Spirit Warrior Christianity is an easy fit for those who wish to dismantle democracy and entrench minority rule. Election denialism and other conspiracies find a comfortable home in the paranoid mindset of spiritual warfare in a demon-haunted world.” In this embrace of authoritarianism, the movement is not only American but global. Here’s Stewart’s haunting closing paragraph:
“The most fruitful line of investigation and response has to focus on the root causes of the religious transformation. Religion in America is starting to look more like religion in Brazil and Guatemala because America, in some aspects, is starting to resemble Brazil and Guatemala: increasingly unequal, bitterly divided, corrupt, rife with disinformation, and unstable. If we want people to choose different gods, we might think about tackling the conditions that lead them to prefer one kind over another.”
I would link this worrisome movement to themes of my own recent piece, “Mass Shooting: Asking Deeper Questions.” There I argue that people are dying — and killing — for lack of meaning, lack of mattering. There is, for too many, a vacuum of meaning; nihilism nips at our heels. My guess is that the Christian Nationalist, Spirit Warriors movement, answers a deep longing for meaning and for purpose. It gives transcendent significance to individuals and makes them a part of something.
The problem is that it does so with a false and dangerous narrative.