The rise of militant Christianity in the United States
This article was written in preparation for our round table on Voting for the Future.
The evangelical alt-right rhetoric has Puritan and Protestant religious foundations, based on the ideas of Protestant predestination and Puritan settlers’ ideology. Today, alt-right Christianity hinges on protectionist identity politics, that is, at the protection of ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ culture from outside threats. Nevertheless, religion in America must not only be a source of radicalisation but rather can also be a source of unity and dialogue.
‘God bless America’: Christian nationalism in the United States
The popular phrases ‘God bless America’ and ‘One Nation under God’ are still common expressions among both politicians and evangelical pastors in the United States. Moreover, since the electoral victory of President Donald Trump in 2016, a rise in conservative rhetoric and a nationalism that is intertwined with evangelical Christianity have become more noticeable than ever. What is also evident is a heightening of discrimination against people of colour and sexual minorities in the name of the battle for America’s culture and – according to evangelicals – the battle for America’s soul.
This increasing polarisation, authoritarianism, and discrimination bring the following questions: What does being ‘one nation under God’ truly mean and who gets to define it? Who invokes the prayer ‘God bless America,’ and towards whom is this ‘blessing’ directed?
Defining alt-right Christianity
In an academic conference hosted by Georgetown University on the topic of the alt-right Christian phenomenon in the United States, Jerome Copulsky pointed out that alt-right Christianity hinges on protectionist identity politics. The protection of ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ culture from threats such as liberals, sexual minorities, immigrants, and other religious identities has become a rallying point and a fundamental aspect of alt-right evangelicalism. However, Copulsky continues, there is not a set and clear definition of the ‘alt-right’ phenomenon. In general, the expression ‘alt-right Christianity’ describes attitudes and behaviors that develop as a response to threats to tradition. Another common characteristic of alt-right behaviour is the desire to reinforce distinctions and separation, an ‘us versus them’ mentality that responds to the growing integration of diverse identities and globalisation. Finally, the appeal to traditional ‘Western Judaeo-Christian’ ideals is also present in alt-right rhetoric and is utilised by Donald Trump to garner support especially in the so-called ‘Bible-Belt’ states.
On the other hand, Copulsky adds that even the political left – when it expresses its desire to return to ‘pre-Christian ideals’ or attempts to enforce a culture that is hostile to all kinds of religion or religious notions – is guilty of some of the same sins of alt-right Christianity. In fact, the temptation to hinge on universal utopian ideals and on identity politics – Copulsky continues – is the root of the increasingly widening polarisation in the United States and arguably the rest of the world. Authoritarianism, therefore, becomes the simplest solution to enforce these universal utopian visions.
Religious foundations of evangelical alt-right rhetoric
Martyn Whittock underlines Donald Trump’s reliance on evangelical Christianity to assert his authority and to ‘make America great again’ and argues that there is a religious foundation to the nationalistic and autocratic rhetoric of the Trump administration. In Whittock’s words:
“While Trump is no Puritan, his appeal to evangelicals has seventeenth-century roots. It draws on a deep story of American exceptionalism, providential calling, elimination of the ‘alien other’ […] apocalyptic confidence of being the fulfilment of history and gate-keeper to the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. We might call these ‘foundational phenomena’ and they reverberate with Puritan resonances.”
As we can see in this quote, Whittock argues that at the source of Christian nationalism we can find the Puritan settlers’ ideology. Puritans aimed to convert the natives and claimed the American land was God’s land. This missiological ideal became the instrument of the ‘colonisation’ of the Americas and introduced a literalist reading of the Christian Scriptures.
The origins of theocratic tendencies – according to Whittock – can also be attributed to the Puritanical ideals. They are founded upon the belief that God meant for the settlers to colonise the Americas which was seen as the ‘New Israel.’ These theocratic tendencies are therefore a fundamental aspect of the evangelical alt-right support for Donald Trump who has advocated to build a wall to keep out those who do not belong to the land and has called for divine favour through going back to moral righteousness according to scriptures.
Can religion also be a source of unity and dialogue?
President Trump has attended a number of publicly televised Sunday church services and performed gestures appealing to the religious spirit of evangelicals.  He even held a Bible outside a church near the White House right after a Black Lives Matter demonstration was dispersed in the area. These images portray how intertwined evangelical Christianity is with American political engagement, especially when a powerful political figure is performing religious gestures to appeal to the sensibilities of the Christian majority. It is also indicative of how religion can be used to draw political lines and divide people.
Authoritarian tendencies: its relationship with right-wing rhetoric
The view of an authoritarian God who favours and rewards those who obey, and punishes those who do not respect the norm and express dissent is related to – according to journalist Amanda Taub – the rise of authoritarianism in the United States. The fear of the foreigner and the morally-deviant – grounded in the desire for self-preservation which can only be achieved through divine favour – is, according to Taub, the driving force behind the current authoritarian tendencies in the United States. Moreover, political scientist Karen Stenner has argued that people who support authoritarian rule are usually triggered by fast-changing norms and increasing diversity of race or belief. In an effort to protect themselves from these cultural changes, these people support leaders and movements who promise to preserve ‘authentic values.’ This explains the likelihood of evangelicals to support Donald Trump when he promised to preserve ‘American values’ which include immigration restrictions, opposition to same-sex marriage, and abortion rights. The increasing diversity of opinions on these hot-button issues threatens ‘traditional’ values of American Christianity and triggers the protectionist and right-wing authoritarian tendencies of some believers, thereby furthering the polarisation of American society.
Performing religious gestures to appeal to religious sensibilities for political ends is not new. Yet one must ask if religion can also be an instrument to express ambiguities and find unity in diversity and not only an instrument of violence in our case of authoritarianism. There are Christians, for example, who advocate for racial minorities and LGBTQ+ persons. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest, is very vocal in his support for sexual minorities yet is also wary of ad hominem comments on his Facebook page from both sides of the debate on sexual morality. Another example is the ׳Center for Prophetic Imagination׳ which advocates for economic justice and freedom from discrimination based on Catholic liberation theology. Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons also witnesses alternative Christian voices as a religion contributor to CNN, an LGBTQ+ and environmental advocate, and a deacon to his local Baptist Church. To them, Christianity should give a voice to those who are disenfranchised and marginalised and we should no longer see the religious other as a threat.
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