Saturday, November 26, 2022

Two Strains of Christian Nationalism

A very interesting Twitter thread:

There are two primary strains of right-wing Christian Nationalism in America at the moment. 🧵

1) the most extensive, called Seven Mountains theology, bubbled up from independent charismatic entrepreneurs like Lance Wallnau. They rely on a novel interpretation of obscure biblical passages in Isaiah & Revelation that call for reclaiming 7 mountains of Christian social control, from government through education. If they succeed, then God will bless America. If they fail, then apocalypse now.

They have gone further and anointed Donald Trump as a messianic figure--what theologians call christological typology--and linked him to the biblical Persian King Cyrus, a pagan who protected the Israelites and fulfilled prophecy. I call these people "entrepreneurs" quite literally. Lance Wallnau sold $45 "prayer coins" superimposing Trump's face over Cyrus's.

You might call this a "grift," though that assumes that Wallnau isn't sincere and is just flogging goods in the metaphorical temple square.

7 Mountains rhetoric is widespread, with political operatives like Charlie Kirk and Michael Flynn using the language at their God & Country tours of megachurches.

2) But while 7 Mountains might be the most prominent Christian Nationalist variant, there is also version percolating out of theologically reformed Presbyterian and Baptist circles.

This book in particular has been getting attention on Twitter. [The Case for Christian Nationalism.]

It's not a good book--see @BrianGMattson on its demerits--but it's notable b/c it attempts to give an intellectual foundation to a movement that has been easy to ridicule as one step removed from snake handling. They're Claremont-ing, in other words.

The book is from Canon Press, which began as the vanity press for Douglas Wilson, a neo-Confederate Lost Cause apologist. (It's no accident that the author, Wolfe, has himself questioned interracial marriage.) This version of Christian Nationalism has deeper, hateful roots.

Although the theology is very different from 7 Mountains CN, this alt-Reformational CN is similar in this core regard:

Whether by rediscovery or invention, both are surfacing novel theological justifications for culture war politics rooted in Christian cultural status anxiety.

Invariably, both kinds of Christian Nationalist promote a similar political rhetoric steeped in fear of sinister, anti-Christian elites who are conniving to deconvert, degender, derace, and replace God-fearing Americans.

I'll end by noting that as a trained historian of religion & politics, right-wing Christian Nationalism is not a new phenomenon. American history is rife with variants of Christian Nationalism bubbling up, particularly at moments of intense religious & political anxiety.

The classic example is "Parson" Weems, the itinerant traveling book salesman and evangelical minister who concocted soothing fables about the virtuous Christian character of various founding fathers.

It's Weems who gave us Washington and the Cherry Tree, for instance:

It's also Weems who invented the story about George Washington praying at Valley Forge, a myth that I can tell you from personal experience lives on in the form of paintings in many a church lobby today.

Why would Weems spread these myths in the 1820s/30s?

Because Americans in general, and evangelical Americans in particular, were anxious.

They were the 1st post-Revolution generation. The Founders & veterans were dying off. Would the American experiment survive?

In the midst of the tumultuous market revolution, early industrialization, westward expansion, and religious upheaval, what would the future look like??

So entrepreneurs--literally--like Weems wove them comforting tales. Yes, America would survive and thrive as a nation because it was grounded in orthodox, religious faith. The Founders were evangelical Christians just like you.

See, look! Washington even prayed at Valley Forge!

Sidenote: the most famous GW at Valley Forge painting was made in 1975 anticipating the bicentennial by a Mormon painter named Arnold Friberg who studied with Norman Rockwell.

It's a reminder that Mitt Romney wasn't the first (or even the second) Mormon moment!

I mention Mormons as a reminder that there are older non-evangelical versions of Christian Nationalism. Joseph Smith codified American exceptionalism in the Book of Mormon in the same milieu that Parson Weems was operating in. Thus the Missouri Garden of Eden, Mormon ancestors as the ten lost tribes, the Constitution & Declaration of Independence are considered literal sacred scripture, & so on. Mormonism has American Christian Nationalism in its bones.

Friberg's 1975 painting is also a reminder that the seventies were another era of Christian Nationalist resurgence. In 1977 two charismatic Christian Nationalists wrote a book called "The Light and the Glory," which sacralized America's national history.

It spread like wildfire in the new Christian homeschooling movement, through evangelical & pentecostal Christian bookstores, and was just hugely influential. I'd argue it's right up there in terms of internal influence w/ the Chronicles of Narnia & the Scofield Reference Bible.

Again, you can immediately sense the anxiety that underpinned the book's core message. Coming off the sixties counter-cultural revolutions and in the midst of what historians have called the "decade of nightmares" (the seventies), the fear pervades the text. From the intro:

Historians who were themselves confessing Christians tried to tell evangelicals that these were paranoid myths, but they were largely ignored. The odds of finding this book in your church bookstore is infinitesimally lower than finding "The Light and the Glory" on the shelf!

I could talk about other right-wing Christian Nationalists--Rushdoony-ites! Barton and the Wallbuilders!--but I want to end by noting that before you cast the first stone at the more outré varieties, bear in mind that Christian nationalisms are pervasive. When politicians from both parties talk about America being a "city on a hill," borrowing the rhetoric from a Puritan colonist, that's Christian nationalism

When you have a wedding ceremony at the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, that's ritualistic participation in a form of Christian Nationalism.

If you stop at the "Stonewall Jackson Shrine," you're hearing a ghostly echo of a Christian Nationalist variant that emerged to contest other Christian Nationalisms.

In every case--whether it's one of which you approve or detest--remember that it is very American and very human, to want to sacralize one's political project. It might function as a soothing lie or as a political weapon, but it's always useful.