Conservative pastors, political allies aim to tear down any wall between church and state
When Pastor Ken Graves took the podium at Calvary Chapel Lake Norman in Statesville last month, he cut an imposing figure.
Dressed in jeans and heavy boots, the sleeves of his work shirt rolled up to reveal the large tattoos on his massive forearms, he wore a leather holster on his belt. With Western movie gunfighter flourish, he pulled from it a Bible. The book is a great weapon, he told the crowd, a sword which must be unsheathed.
“The people have always had a tendency, even spiritual people, to have their sort of favorite thing that God does,” Graves said. “There were those, no doubt, who were all about the miracles that Christ was performing, the wonders of God that were happening right before their eyes.”
“Others of course, they said, ‘You see how he confronted religious leaders? You see him make that whip in the temple and clean house? Very John-the-Baptist-like! John-the-Baptist-like — calling people out!”
Graves is like the latter group, he said — preferring his Jesus righteously angry, flipping tables and driving the sinful and unworthy from the temple with a whip of cords.
“There is a time to be whipping in his name,” Graves told the crowd to thunderous applause.
“We should weep,” Graves said. “He did. He wept. But whip, brothers! I say whip!”
Among those cheering Graves on that morning were Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. Because while the gathering took place in a chapel before the cross, it was in fact a GOP political rally and recruiting drive.
Working closely with the state GOP, its candidates and top elected officials, The American Renewal Project has held these events across North Carolina for years. This election season, the group brought Republican candidates ranging from county commissioner races to U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd, to local churches for campaign speeches and a push to get conservative evangelical pastors on the ballot in every race, at every level.
The stated goal: to eliminate the idea of a separation of church and state and make the group’s conservative interpretation of Christianity the guiding force in government policy and public schools.
GOP leaders call it savvy political synergy.
Political scientists and leaders of national Christian groups told Policy Watch it’s the very definition of Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism defined
Graves, president of the board of the American Renewal Project, is pastor of Calvary Chapel Bangor in Orrington, Maine.
His sermons heavily emphasize the threat to the primacy of Christianity in America, with strident warnings of a “militant homofascists” and a “secular caliphate” that seek to turn America into a new Sodom, the Biblical city destroyed by God in the Old Testament.
He also preaches that modern American society is doing “as much as possible to neuter” men, who need to look to the Bible for lessons in how to be a real man.
Dr. Scott Huffmon, a professor of Political Science at Winthrop University in South Carolina, said these are core tenets of Christian nationalist ideology that has long emphasized certain Bible passages its adherents believe provide a rationale for their political agendas.
“It’s a form of active politics that depends on certain Biblical interpretations and enforcing those interpretations,” Huffmon said. “The anti-homosexual agenda and the hyper-masculine agenda are both parts of it. It teaches from II Timothy that women should not teach men, that men are the head of the household, the sheriff of their own hearth, they are in charge.”
It’s a philosophical line echoed by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has used his frequent appearances at Renewal Project events — and a recent memoir — to promote the idea Christians are “called to be led by men” and push back on women who he believes try to dominate him.
“I have found that women in general don’t like to be outtalked,” Robinson wrote in his memoir. “When you go out in groups, it often comes down to discussions, women on one side, men on the other. And back then, I’d be just hurling it. Often women would get quite angry. They love to be able to talk a man into submission. And with me, it never happens. They can’t do it.”
Studying Christian nationalism was a natural outgrowth of a study of Southern politics, Huffmon said, which has been closely tied to religion since before the nation’s founding. But Huffmon was also raised Southern Baptist, steeped in the conservative evangelist ideology that now forms the backbone of Christian nationalism. As director of the Winthrop Poll, Huffmon has included questions on Christian nationalism in the Southern Focus Survey.
Now an ordained Elder in the Presbyterian church, Huffmon studies the intersection of Christianity and American politics with both a deep personal faith and a scholar’s understanding of the history.
Warning of America’s transformation into Sodom is a frequent Christian nationalist trope, Huffmon said — but it is almost always deployed in speeches against LGBTQ people. That ignores, he noted, the context of Ezekiel 16:49, in which God enumerates the sins of Sodom, describing its people as prideful, living rich and idle lives while not helping the poor and the needy.
In his speech at the Statesville event, Graves railed against “men in women’s clothing” disgracing America before the world while celebrating America’s great wealth as proof of its superiority to other nations.
“Looking at socialism and actually thinking, ‘We should do that..’ that is madness,” Graves said. “That we, the richest nation on earth, a nation with more wealth than all the other nations combined at our highest point, should look at the other nations and imitate them?”
Robinson echoed Graves’ admiration for the vision of an angry Jesus with a whip of cords in his own Renewal Project speech, lamenting that today’s Christians don’t have the courage to enforce their own religious beliefs on others in the public square — through the use of violence if necessary.
“No longer is a Christian willing to grab that whip and walk into the public library,” Robinson said, “And tell them, ‘In this library you will not use my tax dollars to promote sin to these children, and if I have to come in here and tear these books out myself and run that drag queen out of here myself, I will!’”
Protests and threats against libraries for carrying books and holding events to which conservative Christians object are in fact on the rise the last few years. One group to embrace the steps Robinson suggests: neo-Nazis. In July about 20 members of a neo-Nazi group in Boston mounted just such a library protest, leading to the arrest of their leader.
Here in North Carolina, the Forsyth County Republican Men’s Club protested a Drag Queen Storytime event in June — not at a public library but at Bookmarks, a privately owned independent bookstore in Winston-Salem. Messages promoting the protest called it “perversion” and the chairman of the county GOP called it the work of “militant gay leftists trying to separate children from their parents.”
The incident, an assault on the right of private businesses and their customers to peaceably hold legal events on their own property, was the sort of escalation the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented and explored through recent studies on the rise of extremism in America.
These incidents — along with Robinson’s suggestion Christians should be carrying them out — are textbook Christian nationalism, Huffmon said.
Other Christians push back
Many American Christian groups denounce such incidents and those who applaud them, saying they are more representative of the religious authoritarianism of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan than the American ideal of religious liberty.
Ashley Tyler is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a national organization representing millions of Americans across 15 Baptist denominations. The Christian nationalism represented by The American Renewal Project is a danger to both government and faith, she said — and bespeaks a deep ignorance of the history of Christianity in America.
When American founding father Thomas Jefferson wrote of “building a wall of separation between Church & State,” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he was paraphrasing Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in what would become the United States.
There is a 400 year old tradition of Baptists standing up for everyone’s religious freedom by insisting on the separation of church and state,” Tyler told Policy Watch this week. “This is a long Baptist tradition based on Baptist experience as a persecuted minority in the original colonies — but also a matter of theology. We believe in freedom, soul freedom — no government or king should come between a person and his or her authentic relationship with God.”
A government’s prioritizing one religion over another or over the sincerely held beliefs of those who are not religious was something the founding fathers guarded against, Tyler said, in order to ensure religious liberty and the government’s liberty from religious tyranny. That ideal has united Americans of differing faiths throughout the nation’s history, she said.
Tyler’s organization continues a tradition that is as Baptist as it is American, she said, through briefs to the Supreme Court and organizing against the Christian nationalism that seems to be on the rise on the nation’s political right.
The Renewal Project’s call for specific Christian imagery, prayer and instruction in schools is a prime example of the problem, she said.
“People of any faith or of no faith should be free to send their children to any public school without worrying that there will be religious instruction or that their children will be second-class citizens in an environment that prioritizes one religion,” Tyler said.
While Christian nationalists are still a minority among Christians, Tyler said, American Christians who oppose them need to make their voices heard or risk their sentiments becoming mainstream.
“It’s important for Christians to provide that witness in the public square,” Tyler said. “There’s nothing wrong with Christians or anyone of any faith running for office and talking about that in the public square. The problem is in the idea that you can get elected and enforce your religious faith through government, through policy.”
Huffmon, the Winthop University professor, said the demographics are against Christian nationalism in America long-term. Pew Research studies show religious identification on the decline in the U.S., with new generations reporting they have no religious affiliation at ever higher rates. But for the next few election cycles, at least, it will likely be a potent force in American conservative politics.
“In a way it’s like distilling spirits,” Huffmon said. “There may be fewer and fewer people with these beliefs, but as fewer Americans identify religiously the views of those who do, those who remain, just get more potent.”
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