Throughout this fast-paced account, Stewart brings the reader into the halls of power, past and present, that have given us the world of 2020. From a Capitol Ministries fundraiser at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., to the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy, Stewart traverses the globe, making a clear case for how deeply Christian nationalism is intertwined with U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
The book’s title is a pun, and it’s an apt one. What stands out the most from this gripping volume is how a reverence for authority — if the right person is in charge — is encoded into the various strands of this movement. Stewart argues that “Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology.” “Christian nationalism” is an accurate phrase. It is also Stewart’s way of saying #NotAllChristians, which is certainly the case. It also means she is focused on how Christian nationalists exercise political power, not their private actions or personal beliefs.
That political power, however, cannot be separated from some strands of Christian theology. Many critics of the Trump administration fear that the United States is in danger of losing its status as a democracy. “The Power Worshippers” shows us how deeply our current political trajectory is driven by another Christian theo-political notion: the divine right of kings.
As Stewart writes: “When God sends a ruler to save the nation, He doesn’t mess around; He sends a kingly king. And kings don’t have to follow the rules.” She clearly demonstrates how Trump’s policies on school “choice” and health care, and his support for conservative regimes abroad, continue political battles that were set in motion decades ago, from Paul Weyrich’s engineering of the New Right in the 1970s to the dismantling of the establishment clause — the portion of the First Amendment that prevents the government from favoring one religion over another — since the early 1980s. It’s a long playbook. The difference now is just how thoroughly this rhetoric of Christian kingship has saturated national discourse, and how technologies like data mining and social media bots have helped it spread.
What many anti-Trump commenters sometimes miss, in their criticisms of Christian nationalists’ embrace of Trump, is how the allegiance-driven nature of his presidency is precisely what appeals to this constituency. Stewart is attuned to this trope. In one scene, Jack Hibbs, pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills in California, speaks to a rapt audience at a Church United rally. “I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I’m a Christian — which makes me a monarchist if you think about it!”
There’s a wink and a nod in that statement, but also a profound truth. The Christian Bible is saturated with images of kingship, from David and Solomon to poetry comparing God to a king.
Historically speaking, there is no such thing as a “biblical worldview,” despite the fact that this phrase animates the Museum of the Bible (established in Washington by the Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby) and other examples throughout the book. What we now call the Bible incorporates dozens of texts written over more than a millennium, evincing a multiplicity of approaches to life, the universe and everything.
But as Stewart shows us, today’s Christian nationalist power brokers are dedicated to the monarchical strand within biblical texts. Trump is not just any president. He is the anointed one, “God’s candidate,” according to David Barton, a former math teacher who vigorously (and often inaccurately) promotes that idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Many Christian nationalists evoke King Cyrus, the ancient Persian king who defeated the Babylonians and is praised in the Hebrew Bible for allowing the exiled Judeans to return to their homeland. For these supporters, Trump’s pro-Christian policies and appointees make him a modern-day Cyrus, an “imperfect vessel” selected by God to provide liberty to Christians.
In other words, despite its concern for religious freedom, Christian nationalism is not libertarian, or even anti-government, so long as the right people (the best people?) are calling the shots. As Stewart writes, “The many paradoxes and contradictions of Christian nationalism make sense when they are taken out of the artificial ‘culture war’ framing and placed within the history of the antidemocratic reaction in the United States.”
Many of the trends Stewart discusses will be familiar to anyone who has read a good deal of U.S. religious history or who has been following the latest reporting by Stewart herself, or by Jeff Sharlet, Sarah Posner, and more journalists, historians and sociologists than I can name in this review (Stewart credits all of them throughout the text). What’s so impressive is how seamlessly she weaves it all together. Her synthesis of previous scholarship, combined with her deft on-the-ground reporting, makes for a strong, if sometimes overwhelming, narrative.
One of the best things about “The Power Worshippers” is Stewart’s ability to paint a vivid, even empathetic, picture of her interlocutors. Her section on California pastor Jim Domen, the founder of Church United, who identifies as a former homosexual, is particularly well-written and nuanced. She’s also prone to clever, even humorous turns of phrase: “The Bible is the Forrest Gump of history” and Barton is the “Where’s Waldo of the Christian nationalist movement” are particularly entertaining asides.
The book’s final chapters poignantly illustrate the personal and global stakes of putting Christian nationalist policies into action. One chapter details the traumatic and sometimes fatal experiences of women who were denied reproductive health care because of ethical and religious directives that govern Catholic health-care providers. Other chapters detail the role that firms owned by Christian conservatives play in data mining and make it abundantly clear that the 2020 election stakes are high: Organizations like the Faith and Freedom Coalition mobilize likely Christian nationalist voters based on enormous troves of demographic data. “The Power Worshippers” is required reading for anyone who wants to map the continuing erosion of our already fragile wall between church and state.
The Power Worshippers
Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism
By Katherine Stewart
Bloomsbury. 342 pp. $28