'The Power Worshippers' Explores Religious Nationalism In The U.S.

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"The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism" by Katherine Stewart. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)
"The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism" by Katherine Stewart. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Katherine Stewart (@kathsstewart) about her new book "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism."

Excerpt: 'The Power Worshippers'

By Katherine Stewart

In early 2018 the bills started to come in. The people who follow these types of legislation across the states—the lawyers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example—sensed that something strange was afoot. In all of 2017 there had been three bills proposing the use of “In God We Trust” in various official forums. Now there were more than that number rolling in every week.

By April 2018 state legislatures had been served with more than seventy bills based on Project Blitz models. Some of them involved the motto “In God We Trust” and other expressions of Christianity in public settings. Project Blitz had kicked into action. While many bills were defeated, bills in at least five states were signed into law. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ’em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,” David Barton explained on a conference call about Project Blitz with state legislators from around the country.

Politicians tended to frame the bills in the language of heritage and civil rights rather than religion. That was by design. In one of Project Blitz’s conference calls for sympathetic state legislators, David Barton promised to share “very extensive national surveys on where people are with religious liberties. And the kind of words we can use that people respond to much better than other words. And so those are the talking points that we are happy to share with you guys.” Later in the call, Carawan added, “Maclellan [possibly a reference to the deep-pocketed Chattanooga, Tennessee–based Maclellan Foundation] funded reports of two years of hearts and minds strategies . . . best practice messaging on religious freedom.”

Minnesota was one of the states where the messaging worked and Blitz scored. In May 2018 an “In God We Trust” bill, whose chief sponsor was state senator Dan Hall, passed the Minnesota senate. The bill, describing the words “In God We Trust” as a “national motto,” would allow “volunteer groups” to install their “In God We Trust” signs in public buildings, including public schools, throughout the state. Far-right policy groups such as the American Family Association, whose founder Donald Wildmon notoriously accused the Harry Potter franchise of promoting witchcraft, stepped up with their own “In God We Trust” posters designed with the public schools in mind.

The bill immediately provoked controversy; indeed, it seemed crafted for precisely that purpose. “I don’t want far-right hate groups like the American Family Association plastering my kids’ school with their ‘In God We Trust’ signs,” said Nancy Jackson, a St. Paul mother who organized a letter-writing campaign to state representatives. The debate over the bill lit up the floor of the legislature. Supporters noted that “In God We Trust” was adopted as the national motto in 1956; opponents pointed out that it was a McCarthy-era phenomenon that had displaced E Pluribus Unum, or “Out of Many, One,” which had been the United States’ unofficial motto since the eighteenth century. “I’m wondering if Senator Hall would feel the same if students walked in and instead of the word ‘God,’ the word ‘Allah,’ which is the word for God in the Muslim religion, welcomed students to their schools,” asked Democratic state senator Scott Dibble. Senator John Marty weighed in, too, characterizing the bill as “offensive.”

The last comment in particular was like gold for the right-wing media-sphere. The implication that God is “offensive,” or that Islam might claim equal rights before the law with Christianity, was more than worth its weight in conservative rage. Soon the clip showed up on Fox News, CNS News, Breitbart, and other right-wing platforms. The segment was tweeted out by the Family Research Council. “Our nation’s motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ igniting a debate on the Minnesota state senate floor, over a bill that simply allows schools to—get this—voluntarily display posters with the saying on it,” the Fox anchor announced. “But some lawmakers, Democrats, argue the motto doesn’t belong in schools and is offensive.”

Fox then invited Dan Hall to defend the bill. “There’s no cost to it; the cost would come from the community,” Hall told the TV host. “My whole premise was: How about bringing respect back into the schools? We’ve lost a whole lot of respect for those things in life that we should be respecting.”

“Why is God, the mention of God in our schools controversial on the left today?” asked the Fox newscaster incredulously.

“There seems to be an anti-faith movement in the country, to suppress anything that is religious in any way and wipe it out of government,” said Hall. “I’m here to tell you we need to bring respect back to our country.”

If it felt as though the event had been staged to evoke the grievances of a population steeped in its own feelings of persecution, that’s because it was.

On Fox News, Dan Hall told the host with a wide-eyed expression, “I just figured the opposition would be really short, there wouldn’t be a whole lot.” That sounded like a whopper. The documentation of Project Blitz makes clear that a principal purpose of the “In God We Trust” legislation is to force the opposition to take unpopular stands on seemingly symbolic issues. In fact, the authors specifically seemed to envision using the bills to catch opposition lawmakers on video saying things that can later be used against them.

Dan Hall should have known that, of course: he is cochair of the state legislative prayer caucus, a state wing of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, the organizational sponsor of Project Blitz.

The documentation of the Blitz is particularly valuable in that it shows that Christian nationalists have self-consciously embraced a strategy of advancing their goals through deception and indirection. For many years critics have warned that concessions to the Christian right on “symbolic” issues—erecting religious monuments and emblazoning religious mottos on state property, for example—would set the nation on a course leading to the establishment of religion. We now know that the critics were right— because pushing the states down a slippery slope to a more “biblically based” society is precisely what the authors of Project Blitz propose to accomplish. In multiple states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Dakota, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida, prominently placed “In God We Trust” signs in every public school building are now mandatory.

As Dan Hall also would likely have known, the “In God We Trust” brouhaha was only phase one of Project Blitz. The architects of the Blitz have helpfully grouped their model legislation into three categories or phases. The first consists of symbolic or ceremonial gestures that will receive “some opposition but not hard to beat,” according to David Barton. Some, like the Minnesota bill, focus on placing mottos in schools. Others aim to place “In God We Trust” placards and stickers in statehouses, federal buildings, libraries, post offices—even police cars. Still other bills include “Civic Literacy” initiatives that involve the display of other kinds of historical and religious documents favored by movement leaders.

But the point of phase I is just to clear the path for phase II, which consists of bills that propose to inject Christian nationalist ideas more directly into schools and other government entities. Some phase II bills are intended to promote the teaching and celebration of Christianity in public schools, including support for sectarian “Bible literacy” curricula, particularly those that include hefty servings of Christian nationalist history and the declaration of a “Christian Heritage Week.” They are a means of spreading the message, among children especially, that conservative Christians are the real Americans and everybody else is here by invitation only. According to Barton, these laws “will also be pretty easy to pass,” but the opposition is “going to be a lot more virulent and mean in their attacks.” The point of phase II, of course, is to make room for phase III, which legalizes discrimination against those whose actions (or very being) offends the sensibilities of conservative Christians.

This article excerpt is adapted from Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury). 

This segment aired on March 5, 2020.

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