The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian nationalism shapes a Pa. primary — and a GOP shift

Doug Mastriano, a retired Army colonel and Jan. 6 marcher who is running for governor of Pennsylvania, represents a more explicit push for Christian dominance

A woman puts her hand on Doug Mastriano during a prayer circle at a Shield of Truth Network rally at Morning Star Fellowship in Pennsburg, Pa., on April 30. (Caroline Gutman for The Washington Post)
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STROUDSBURG, Pa. — The Thursday Night Group started in early 2021. A few church friends frustrated over vaccine and mask mandates would meet every week to gripe over what they saw as their lost freedoms. Soon, they said, meetings included “constitutional classes” and members were going to see a “constitutional life coach.” Someone made hats that said: “Make the Constitution Great Again.” Four or five people grew to 30 or 40.

They quickly became the Thursday Night Patriots and talked about rumors that the coronavirus vaccine seemed to be causing cancer, which are baseless, and their beliefs that President Biden’s election was suspect and that racism was being overblown in public schools. They began using a curriculum for studying the Constitution that emphasized self-defense, free enterprise and above all the belief that America was founded to be — and should remain — a Christian country.

On a Thursday night in late April they did a straw poll for the state’s biggest political contest, the race for governor. The tally in the Poconos borough that night was overwhelming: state Sen. Doug Mastriano, 17. The other seven GOP candidates together: 13.

Mastriano is a longtime Army colonel, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” marcher, 2020 election denier and Trump endorsee. He leads the polls going into Tuesday’s GOP gubernatorial primary, proof of the rising intensity of Christian nationalism that has rooted itself firmly in the Republican Party. Along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (who urged Americans to “put on the full armor of God” to fight coronavirus restrictions and anti-racism education in schools) and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia (who said of Catholic refugee aid work that “Satan’s controlling the church”), Mastriano represents a brand of conservative Christian politics that is different from Jerry Falwell Sr.'s Moral Majority of the 1980s or George W. Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism of the 2000s, and has gained momentum since the presidency of Donald Trump.

With his motto “Free indeed!” — an excerpt from scripture that says freedom from sin is found in Jesus — Mastriano is a hero to some in this swing state who say they are fed up with church leaders as well as political parties they perceive as weak-willed, and with debates about religious liberty and the advantages of a diverse democracy. Fueled by a generation of religious leaders arguing that Christianity is persecuted in America, the new movement wants to see a more explicit, constitutionally approved dominance of “Christianity” — which to them means conservative politically, theologically and socially. They see themselves in a spiritual battle with Satan.

“The forces of darkness are hitting us really hard right now,” Mastriano told a few hundred people last month at a church parking lot rally in Pennsburg. “We’re going to bring the state back to righteousness, this is our day, our hour to take our state back and renew the blessings of America.”

His wife, Rebbie, then told the crowd that her husband’s opponents are not just challenging another candidate but God. “When you’re against God’s plan, there is nothing that will stop it, and they are very worried right now that there is nothing that’s going to stop this.”

Other speakers emphasized to the crowd, which included a man in a Minuteman costume holding a flag, that this Christian vision is what the Founders intended. “The Constitution prevents the government from imposing on the church. It doesn’t say anything about religion imposing itself on the state,” Rick Crump, a Christian branding expert and community organizer, told the rally.

This ethos is very different from earlier iterations of the Religious Right who were looking to engage with — even win at — mainstream politics, some experts say.

“There is no evangelical Dad vibe coming off Mastriano,” said Yale sociologist Philip Gorski, co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Mastriano marks a shift from the culture wars of Falwell, who once went after one of the Teletubbies because he thought it was gay, to “trench warfare in a supernatural realm with demonic forces.”

“It’s not Ralph Reed like a general sitting somewhere behind the front with electoral maps and polling data and voter files,” Gorski said, referring to the veteran political consultant and first leader of the Christian Coalition. “Mastriano represents this heroic figure, standing alone in defense of freedom, breaking all the rules.”

Mastriano’s use of religion and politics is similar to Trump’s in that neither look to big denominations or established clergy or church sermons for influence. They instead tap into how disaffiliated Americans are becoming from organized religion. (Less than half of Americans belong to a congregation and three in 10 say they have no religious affiliation altogether.) Religious identity and practice are becoming hyper individualized, with no need for a denomination or clergy member to validate a person’s beliefs. People can be devoutly Christian whichever way they choose, including by following a political candidate’s message.

Mastriano speaks in stark terms about good and evil, said Pete Begley, a musician and early member of the Thursday Patriots Group who is running to be a county GOP chairman, because “he sees the culture boldly holding Christianity in contempt.”

“We’re not talking about getting people to commit to hours of Bible study or church. We’re talking about having enough influence to get [people] to see they shouldn’t accept policies filling children’s minds with ideas that they are victims,” Crump told Mastriano’s supporters at the Pennsburg rally. “Don’t allow porn in children’s libraries. Don’t turn a blind eye to corruption in companies or to government overreach that enslaves them. Pastors are using common excuses: ‘Oh, we’re not supposed to be involved in politics.’ If that’s the way your church is, you’re in the wrong church.”

'Spiritual warfare’

The Founders had varying views about the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular in public life. But since the 1980s, there has been a pronounced and organized effort by some conservative Christians, White evangelical Protestants in particular, to cast U.S. history as less religiously diverse and secularly minded, and then to argue for a kind of orthodoxy — or “originalism” — that would set these interpretations of the past as the mold for the future.

Many conservative Republican leaders seem in recent years to be using more exclusionary and sharper religious language, some experts on U.S. religion say. As institutional religion has slipped in stature in a more secular America, rhetoric from the independent fringe of charismatic faith — where life is about a real, daily battle between Satan and God — has risen to the fore.

“Things like: ‘You are the devil, you don’t belong in this country and I’m going to elect people who are on God’s side.’ This kind of rhetoric is incapable of discourse. There is no distinction between political argument and spiritual warfare. That is new,” said John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College near Harrisburg. Of Mastriano, Fea said: “I don’t think Pennsylvania has ever had a ‘God and country’ candidate like this.”

Chris Nicholas, a longtime Republican consultant in Pennsylvania, said the GOP is attracting more blue-collar Protestants and pro-labor Catholics by being more positive about fracking and the energy industry, and more accepting of religion and those who oppose abortion than Democrats, he said.

“[Mastriano’s] hardcore supporters have a fervor that is very much like a religious movement,” he said. “But a lot of these folks don’t understand the Constitution. You have to remind them there is no religious test in the Constitution. You have a lot of folks who are hardcore super MAGA Trumpers and they have merged that with their Christianity, and its become one and the same.”

Sixteen percent of Americans strongly embrace the idea that Christianity should be fused with American civic identity, according to Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University who analyzed the data in Baylor University’s 2021 Religion Survey. Among Republicans, that group jumps to 33 percent, Whitehead found. That group is about 71 percent White and an average age of 58.

Earlier generations of leaders who promoted “Christian values,” such as Falwell and Bush, Fea said, were making more cogent arguments about the role of faith in a diverse society and were engaged in public debates with real opponents.

Mastriano, by contrast, makes it a badge of honor to not deeply engage with anyone but his supporters. GOP operatives in Pennsylvania say Mastriano often didn’t even return calls about participating in debates earlier in the contest, and his staff declined to even tell mainstream news outlets about major events like his campaign announcement.

Mastriano’s spokespeople did not return multiple messages for comment. Security staffers with him at the Pennsburg rally refused to let the The Washington Post near the candidate, and his assistant turned down an interview request.

'Unabashed Christianity’

In Pennsburg, Mastriano supporters had been rallying in a baking parking lot for four hours when Mastriano arrived. Tall, bald and broad, wearing a tight T-shirt and jeans, he strode onstage. “Our promised land is Pennsylvania,” he said with a smile. “Only biological women can participate in sports, day one” of his administration. “CRT is done, boom, day one.” People laughed and cheered.

There were “Drill, baby drill,” signs leaning on lawn chairs and promises from Mastriano on the podium to strip regulations on energy production.

“We drive down energy costs and guess what, life gets a little bit cheaper,” he said with a chuckle.

A lot of people who came to see him that day and who attend the Patriots meetings in Stroudsburg had not been very politically engaged before. In both places, the mood was upbeat, with many talking excitedly about how they were running for the first time for public office, or at their first political-organizing event. There was the buzz of the newly affiliating, with small groups of health-care workers excitedly talking about getting religious exemptions from vaccines, and young parents who had just pulled their children out of public school and were home schooling. There were lots of references to the Constitution and liberty and freedom, but when asked for specifics, people cited things like a child’s professor teaching them about Black Lives Matter or someone they knew who ran a day care and came into contact with LGBT parents or a child who was nonbinary.

For Begley, of the Thursday Patriot Group, Mastriano interprets American religious history correctly. One day last month, he was flipping through Mastriano’s official state Senate Facebook page, where the lawmaker intersperses photos and tributes to fallen soldiers with updates about his policy efforts on things like school choice and abortion and posts about religion in American government. One post in particular caught Begley’s eye: an image of a gold-colored, crucified Jesus that hangs in the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

“This painting in the Senate is based on John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” Sen. Mastriano wrote to his constituents.

“This is what our country was founded and based on — we cannot let anyone take it from us! Faith!” wrote one commenter. “Amen!” others added.

Begley wrote: “The Pennsylvania Capital Building is remarkably beautiful and seeing unabashed Christianity displayed there is very encouraging.”

“The word ‘religion’ in the First Amendment dealt with Christianity, and that’s not an opinion. It would be strange if our institutions didn’t presuppose Christianity,” he said later. “The principles of a conservative have always been the same: that our rights are from God, truth is absolute, morality is absolute, the Bible is the founding principles on which to base your life. And Mastriano publicly asserts these things. He kind of pulls it all together.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) described aid to migrants as “Satanic.” Greene said “Satan’s controlling the church,” referring to Catholic refugee aid work. The earlier version also cited a Baylor University survey from 2021 but didn’t mention that Baylor’s data had been analyzed by sociologist Andrew Whitehead. The story has been corrected.