I wish that I could rejoice in the fact that today, I write my first ever blog post reviewing a book by a woman, but the fact is, after reading it, it feels as though there is little to be joyful for. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that it would be greatly beneficial for the future of America and of our global society if everyone read The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, but at the same time, I hated it.
The Power Worshippers contains twelve chapters taking you deep within the history and ideology of Christian nationalism, also known as theocracy or dominionism. You will learn about the rise of one of the movement’s grandfathers, R. J. Rushdoony, who fought against the abolition of slavery in the United States in the 1800s and how his writings have influenced key figures in Christian nationalism to this day. You’ll later see how this racist agenda paved the way for segregation at places like Bob Jones University and how right-wing advocates fought for their “rights” to keep schools separate. Once blatant racial segregation became less socially acceptable, these nationalists turned to abortion, which they had previously supported, as the target of their hatred. (Which is statistically shown to be prevented more effectively by having comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptives than by being outlawed, but this is one of many instances that show how little these people actually care about truth.)
While you learn this history of the Christian nationalist movement, Katherine Stewart will introduce you to its biggest names along the way. Be prepared to meet Ralph Drollinger, who has led White House bible studies and advocated for corporal punishment; Paul Weyrich, who essentially combined Republican nationalism with religion following Brown v. Board of Education; Jim Domen, who convinces Latinx Americans to vote for white xenophobes; David Barton, who fabricated the entire myth that America was founded on Christian principles; Bill Dallas, who, largely singlehandedly, influenced literally millions of Christian Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2016; and more.
No matter who you are or what you believe about religion as a whole, I hysterically urge you to read this book. (It came out only in 2019, so it is still expensive, but I promise you it will be worth the money.) That’s why I’m leaving the summary there and turning instead to how this book influenced my whole worldview.
Before reading any books about the subject, I didn’t know much about Christian nationalism. The words mostly just called to mind Facebook rednecks posting pictures like this one, claiming that “Jesus is guiding Trump; Democrats and Satan are trying to stop him!” It’s concerning, to be sure, but it was too easy to sum up Christian nationalism in this way and view it only as a fringe belief held by a few weirdos that also think the earth is flat.
I first learned about Christian nationalism in more detail when reading Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth. Seidel explained why these people are actually a force to be reckoned with and not just clueless hillbillies. Many of them really do believe the narrative that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles to which we ought to return. Seidel is entirely correct in this analysis, and his book is very important in acting as a source for determining what parts of America’s history are true or not. The section of The Founding Myth dedicated to juxaposing the Bill of Rights with the Ten Commandments was clever and extremely telling in how the two go together like oil and water, but after having read The Power Worshippers, I don’t know if The Founding Myth is really going to do as much good as Seidel hopes.
Like Seidel, Stewart is articulately arguing against Christian nationalism, which is necessarily going to require debunking claims and denouncing the beliefs of many radical alt-right Christians. This will appear anti-theistic to some, but I don’t think it is; Stewart never even tells the reader her religious beliefs. On the other hand, as is his prerogative, Seidel states at the beginning of The Founding Myth that he is an atheist. He also shows open disdain for the Old Testament, and as I said in my review of his book, it sometimes felt like it was about “why Christianity is fundamentally immoral and at times repulsive,” and was “reminiscent of my time reading Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God is Not Great.”
I’m still an atheist, and I still agree with the overall arguments of The God Delusion and God is Not Great, even if I myself would never use the harsh language that they did—at least not anymore. But regardless of what I think about the existence of God, I really don’t think that antitheistic arguments will dismantle Christian nationalism. All that really does is divide us atheists against people with whom we have more similarities than differences, and who are trying to fight the same fight that we are.
It’s worth a shot to try and explain why Christian nationalism is un-American, as Seidel successfully did, but the problem is that Christian nationalists know that and don’t really care. They certainly aren’t acting in accordance with American values. They’re barely even Christian. This theocratic movement is its own animal. Nationalists imply (or outright declare) daily that they want to establish Christianity (but only their narrow brand of fundamentalist Christianity) as the national religion, which millions of less dogmatic Christians understand is detrimental to our nation’s integrity.
A pastor named Chris laments to the author, “Shouldn’t we show compassion to people regardless of how they identify? They, too, are made in God’s image. We find in Scripture the imperative to love our neighbors and care for the least of these. That is by far one of the clearest messages we receive. . . . I don’t see myself pastorally having an obligation to the U.S.A. I see my obligation as being to the kingdom of God.”
Throughout the time that Trump has spent dividing our nation, I have seen progressive Christians echoing this idea dozens of times. They emphasize that everything radical Republicans stand for is in opposition to the attitudes and teachings of Jesus, who is said to have argued with religious authorities, helped and healed the sick and poor, offended the rich, and gotten executed for not agreeing with the national religion.
This just goes to show that this fight isn’t a case of Christians versus atheists. It’s the ultra-wealthy, meticulously calculating Christian nationalist minority who believe that they are more worthy of power versus those of us fighting for some semblance of equality. We who oppose religious dominionism do so not to erode “religious liberty” but to establish equality: equality of race, religion, reproduction, marriage, gender, and more. We all just want to have a fighting chance at getting and keeping basic human rights.
I’ll be honest: finishing this book the day after the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg left me feeling really hopeless. Books like this always end with some bleak attempt at sounding optimistic, but I cannot now unsee how Christian nationalism is inherently tied with everything happening politically in the US right now. On the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg fought for the rights of the disabled as well as women in the military, in the workplace, and in reproduction. I would venture to say that the majority of Christian nationalists are staunchly against everything she stood for.
None of us by ourselves can singlehandedly prevent the impending theocracy, but we should all strive to be, as Justice Ginsburg said, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
Click here to donate to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AU “is a nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the separation of religion and government as the only way to ensure freedom of religion, including the right to believe or not believe, for all.” I personally am a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but after learning what I’ve learned about how best to fight religious nationalism, I’ve also joined AU, as it is more welcoming of religious people who also oppose nationalists—not just atheists. This blog isn’t affiliated with them in any way, but I wholly believe in what they do, so I hope you will join me in supporting them.