The Rise of Christian Nationalism: Michelle Goldberg


Michelle Goldberg
Photo by Brent Nicastro

The erosions in state/church separation and legitimization of religious supremacism would have been unthinkable even six years ago.

By Michelle Goldberg

Thank you so much for having me here. I’m going to start by telling you something that actually happened to me two days ago. I was in New York doing a kind of dialogue, at an event with a woman who’s the civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League. We were talking about what I’m going to be talking about this afternoon, about this kind of transformation in the way our government works and some of the attacks on First Amendment protections that a lot of us grew up taking for granted. But there’s also a cultural element that goes beyond legal or political remedies, that is also very troubling, such as the growth of a very coercive proselytization among classmates in public schools, and among coworkers in the workplace.

Deborah, the woman from the Anti-Defamation League, was talking about how, in many workplaces now, there are prayer groups, and they’re obviously not compulsory, but there is an element of understanding that if you want to get ahead, if you want to be part of a team, you join in.

After the presentation, a woman came up to me and said, “My daughter works in a place like that, where everybody is in a prayer group, and if you want to be on the good side of the supervisors, you take part, too.”

I said, “That’s really terrible,” and she said, “Yeah. It’s the Justice Department.” That’s a true story.

My book is called Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, so I’m going to just say a little bit about what I mean by Christian nationalism, some of the ideas that have undergirded it, and how it’s really changed the way our government works–often in a way that seems subtle, but is cumulatively quite profound.

I separate Christian nationalism from evangelical Christianity or even fundamentalist Christianity. Somewhere between 30-40% of Americans are evangelicals, and I’m actually not talking about all of them when I talk about Christian nationalism. Hardcore Christian nationalists are probably about 10-15% of the population, which then find sympathy for their views among a broader Christian right and the broader Republican party.

When I talk about Christian nationalism, I’m talking about a political ideology masquerading as a faith. Christian nationalism basically holds that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the founders never intended to separate church and state, and that church/state separation is a lie and a fraud perpetrated by secularists in the last 100 years, which has to be undone so America can reclaim its “former glory.” This is a movement that seeks to Christianize all the institutions of American life, from the schools to the judiciary to the federal government, the presidency, the Congress, etc.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone in this room when I say that one of the most marked aspects of the march of the Christian right just in the last few years has been the mainstreaming of ideas that were once really quite marginal. None of the ideas that I talk about in Kingdom Coming is new. It’s just that these ideas used to be confined to a fringe that was acknowledged to not have a major role in setting up American policy, and that’s no longer the case.

There is a movement I would almost compare to the neo-conservatives in that it’s very, very small, but has provided a lot of the kind of intellectual infrastructure for some of the broader Christian right takeovers of various institutions. It’s called Christian reconstructionism. Christian reconstructionism is a straight-up, full-on theocratic ideology. It was founded by a guy named R.J. Rushdoony in the ’70s, and was spread by his estranged son-in-law.

Christian reconstructionism holds that the civil law of the United States needs to be replaced essentially with the biblical law in the book of Leviticus. It would institute the death penalty for homosexuals, women who are unchaste before marriage, disobedient children. It’s a very radical ideology even by the standards of the radical Christian right. Although it’s not a popular movement even within the Christian right, the political philosophy that has developed has had repercussions beyond its ranks. The political philosophy of Christian reconstructionism is something called dominionism, which basically holds that God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth in the book of Genesis. That dominion was forfeited when they sinned and were expelled from the garden, but Jesus Christ, by dying for humankind’s sins, has once again given dominion to Christians. Dominionism is essentially the philosophy that Christians have the right to rule, and need to take over the institutions of society and Christianize them from the ground up, or as one prominent dominion theologian says, to smooth the transition to Christian rule.

This is an ideology that has been very much at play in the development of the modern Christian right, which goes in several stages. Probably many of you know that it was in 1979 when three veterans of the Goldwater campaign decided that they saw an opportunity to peel off conservative blue-collar voters from the Democratic party by appealing to their disillusionment with the counterculture. So they recruited a fairly obscure Baptist preacher named Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority. The Moral Majority was a centralized national organization. They did rallies, they did mailings.

The next stage in the Christian right’s evolution came ten years later, when out of the ashes of Pat Robertson’s failed presidential campaign, he built the Christian Coalition. The Christian Coalition was a very different kind of organization, because it was grassroots. It set about recapturing and taking over the Republican party, precinct by precinct, school board by school board, town council by town council. The Christian Coalition was the main game on the Christian right for another ten years. Now the Christian Coalition is just a pitiful shell of its former self. It recently lost its tax-exempt status because of its partisan politicking; it has just a fraction of its former membership and former funding.

But the movement has continued to expand. Although there’s obviously national centers of powers like Focus on the Family and James Dobson and the Family Research Council, there are also state affiliates. There’s the Ohio Restoration Project, which seeks to network together fundamentalists and evangelicals and rightwing churches in Ohio for political action. Then there’s the Texas Patriot Pastors Network, and the Patriot Pastors in Pennsylvania.

You’re seeing increasingly the next generation of leadership of the religious right based at the state level and networked together in almost concentric circles. In a certain way, this makes it more powerful because there’s no one indispensible leader of this movement. It’s much more diffused and much harder to track.

I’m going to talk a little bit about the way this movement has worked in politics and then about the way that it’s affected our national life. I was in Ohio in 2004 in the months before the election. One of the leaders in the movement in Ohio is a guy named Rod Parsley, who runs a megachurch of about 10,000 people outside of Columbus. Rod Parsley’s slogan is “lock and load.”

He was able to use Issue 1, which was the antigay marriage amendment in Ohio, to essentially turn his church and other sympathetic churches into a kind of adjunct of the Republican Party. Churches are technically not allowed to campaign for presidential candidates. They can’t campaign for the GOP, but they can campaign for an obstensibly nonpartisan issue like opposition to gay marriage.

So, World Harvest Church moved the “get out the vote” machinery, the phone banking, into its walls. It had the petition drives, the voter guides and everything right inside its doors. As you walk into church, as I did, first you see just seas of people like at a rock concert, with strobe lights and people dancing in the aisles, and Rod Parsley saying, “Don’t stop, don’t stop,” people working themselves up into this kind of ecstatic frenzy. Then Rob Parsley says, “This election isn’t about two opponents, this is lightness and darkness. You need to form a mighty army and march on the voting booth and. . . .”

There were a lot of people in Ohio who saw just the Kerry people on the streets, they saw MoveOn, they saw Americans coming together. They didn’t see any of Bush’s people on the streets. When you walked through the neighborhoods, they just weren’t there knocking on doors and hanging up those flyers you put on the doorknobs. You didn’t see them, because it was all going on in these megachurches. It’s pretty clear that George Bush could not have won Ohio without the help of people like Rod Parsley, Russell Johnson and some of the other people who led the Christian political drive in Ohio.

One of Parsley’s colleagues, Rick Scarborough of Texas, actually has a book called In Defense of Mixing Church and State, and in it he talks about separation of church and state as being a lie perpetrated by Satan and fostered by the courts. I think it’s a correct belief that the courts are the last vestige of protection for the separation of church and state in this country, so the idea is to take over the courts, and until they can do that, to weaken them.

What I’ve seen in the last few years are erosions in church/state separation, and legitimization of religious supremacism that would have been unthinkable even six years ago. This is sometimes quite shocking to the people who realize that our country has changed in ways that they hadn’t imagined possible, and that all of a sudden, they have no recourse.

Christian nationalism has created a kind of parallel reality. While, say, the mainstream has the American Bar Association, Christian nationalism has the Federalist Society. It has its version of the ACLU, and the Alliance Defense Fund and Liberty Legal. It has its own universities. It has its own medical institutions, such as the Medical Institute for Sexual Health–which exists to promote the idea that abstinence education is the best way to prevent teenage pregnancies and STDs, and which claims that condoms promote promiscuity. It has the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design and masquerades as a legitimate scientific organization.

In 2007, you’re going to see the opening of a state-of-the-art creation science museum outside of Cincinnati, where I went recently. As you walk in, it looks very much like the kind of museums that maybe you went to in field trips when you were a kid. There’s a planetarium where you can look at the heavens and learn how starlight took 6,000 years to reach the earth, because that’s how old the universe is! There is this fantastic diorama of animatronic dinosaurs and small children playing together in a rainforest!

All of this is very funny until you start seeing this parallel reality intruding on what we used to just call reality. It’s important to note that the people behind this movement are not stupid, and they know what they’re doing. They very much had an idea from the beginning of undermining the Enlightenment. What they’re opposed to is not just the teaching of evolution, not just attempts to keep the Ten Commandments out of courthouses. What they’re fundamentally opposed to is the idea that you can understand reality or make decisions about how to operate in a world without reference to divine revelation.

I want to read something from a book called The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action. This book was written by George Grant, who used to be the executive director of Coral Ridge Ministries, which is now run by a guy named D. James Kennedy. It’s the third largest televangelist operation in the country. D. James Kennedy has an office on Capitol Hill called the Center for Christian Statesmanship, where he evangelizes to members of Congress and aides on the Hill, and tries to bring these principles into all areas of lawmaking. He holds something every year called the Reclaiming America For Christ Conference, where you’ll see politicians, in addition to various leaders of the religious right, speaking. This year’s speaker was Mike Huckabee from Arkansas, who’s seriously talked about as a GOP presidential candidate in 2008.

George Grant has said: “Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ, to have dominion in civil structures just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after, not just a voice. It is dominion we are after, not just influence. It is dominion we are after, not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest, that’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel, and we must never settle for anything less.

“Thus Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land, of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the kingdom of Christ.”

Now there’s a lot of things standing in their way, such as the Enlightenment foundation of our government, the very idea that we make policies according to evidence and science and empirical reality, rather than according to the words of holy books. Dominionists are very clear that they believe that the reality contained in the bible is superior to any reality that you can ascertain on your own through any amount of investigation. Part of the goal of strategies like intelligent design has been not just to introduce creationism and Christianity into the classroom, although that’s a part of it, but it’s also been to weaken the whole foundation of our thought. It’s pretty obvious to everyone in this room that one of the hallmarks of the last few years has been the erosion of reality as a force in our national life.

I’d like to read something from the Discovery Institute, which as you probably know is the scientific headquarters of the “intelligent design” movement. One of the funders is Howard Ahmanson, who, although he’s lately distanced himself from some of the harsher precepts of reconstructionism, is someone very close to it. The Discovery Institute a few years ago had a funding proposal that got leaked online and everybody got to read it. You can look it up yourself if you want. It’s called the Wedge Strategy.

The Wedge Strategy says:

“The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces, and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality infected virtually every area of our culture from politics and economics to literature and art.”

What’s under attack again is this materialistic conception of reality, the idea of evidence and science and study as being the foundation for the way our culture and our politics should work. I’m going to give you a couple of examples of how this is changing our politics, in ways that might actually affect your own life, and has affected the lives of people who wouldn’t have thought this movement was quite so powerful.

The faith-based initiative has gotten very little attention compared to its impact on changing the rules of the game, about how things work in this country. Under the faith-based initiative, billions–that’s with a B–billions of dollars have been transferred from secular social services to religious social services. One of the most important underpinnings is the assumption that religious institutions can do a good job of healing the sick or providing job training. In fact, they have done a good job in the past. It’s not a new thing for religious groups to get public money. The Salvation Army has gotten public money for years, as has Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, and Jewish Family Services. Whether or not you think that that’s a good or a bad thing–and I have a feeling there are people in this room who probably wish it wasn’t so–it hasn’t resulted in the kind of abuses that we’ve seen in the last few years, for a couple of reasons. This is primarily because this administration has loosened the rules on how much you can proselytize and who can get money and what kind of capabilities and infrastructure you need to have. But more, or equally as, important, the administration has suspended the civil rights protections that used to force religious groups getting government money to abide by civil rights law and to not discriminate in hiring. Now you can have a fully government-funded job, say, a job-training position or as a drug-treatment counselor, and you can put an ad in the paper and say: “Help wanted, Christians only.” That’s happening.

A lot of these faith-based services, although not all, are marked by their contempt for evidence, contempt for any kind of measurement of effectiveness. So I’m going to skip forward a minute.

Probably some of you live in places where, instead of comprehensive sex education, your public schools have abstinence-only classes, using books that draw on the collective works of James Dobson, that are taught by people who work in antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers. Such people have gotten millions of dollars to do abstinence education in the public schools. I talk to people all the time who thought that they were pretty politically attuned, and then when they look into it, are shocked to find it actually happening in their own kids’ public schools.

There’s a woman named Pam Stenzel, who was a speaker a few years ago at Reclaiming America For Christ, D. James Kennedy’s church, who’s been at the forefront of the abstinence-only movement. She was somebody that Bush put on a 12-person panel at the Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing how abstinence guidelines should be instituted. She’s been to the White House at Bush’s behest, she’s spoken at the United Nations. She’s somebody who’s really shaped policy. Again, there’s this kind of alternative reality. Instead of finding somebody to shape policy at the Department of Health and Human Services from one of the major medical schools, you take somebody who’s known within the Christian nationalist movement.

Speaking at Reclaiming America For Christ, Pam Stenzel was talking about this conversation that she’d had with somebody on a plane. A guy sitting next to her found out she did abstinence education and asked something like, “Does that really work? I bet you’re never going to be able to get kids to stop having sex, which nobody has ever been able to do in the history of humankind.”

And she said, “What he’s asking is: Does it work? You know what? Doesn’t matter. Because my job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public school’s job should not be to keep teens from having sex.” (I would say about that much, we actually agree.) Then she said, “Our job should be to tell kids the truth.”

This is what Pam Stenzel, who makes policy for the way some of your kids are being taught, sees as the truth:

“People of God, can I beg you to commit yourself to truth, not what works. To truth, I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day, I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God.”

Later, she added, “Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical and I can only say it here. AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at 20 is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fists in the face of a holy God and sin without consequences is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”

Of course, Pam Stenzel is not just teaching her child. Actually, this isn’t even about just America’s children any more. As Annie Laurie said, I just came back from Ethiopia. American-style abstinence education is being spread all over the world, thanks to some changes in the way we do foreign aid to promote PEPFAR. The President’s Emergency Plan on AIDS Relief specifies that two-thirds of all of the money allocated for the prevention of sexual transmission of HIV around the world now goes to abstinence programs.

Does it work? No! Of course, it doesn’t work. And nobody thinks it works. But it’s flowing into the coffers of people like Pam Stenzel, and like Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse. Franklin Graham is the much more radical son of Billy Graham. Pat Robertson . . . you know, every time Pat Robertson says something ridiculous, people rush to talk about how he’s been marginalized. In a certain way, he has been marginalized. He’s no longer nearly as powerful as, say, James Dobson, or even some of these emerging leaders. But Pat Robertson did get 14 million of your tax dollars to provide faith-based social services here and abroad.

So this is one change. Bringing people to Christ has become, in many ways, a policy goal of the United States government. When I was researching this book, I went to a faith-based drug treatment, where you sit around, you choose a bible passage, you meditate on it, the idea being that conversion will somehow heal you of your addictions. Bush has started a faith-based chapter of the Office of Emergency Management, so there will soon be a faith-based response to the next Katrina!

This affects you, even if you’re never going to need any of these government services. That’s because you can now be denied a job for not being a Christian. You can now be hounded by your boss in a federally-funded job to reveal your religion, to give them the name and phone number of your pastors.

I’m just going to talk quickly about what happened at the Salvation Army in New York. It’s important because if it can happen in New York, it can happen almost anywhere. The Salvation Army in New York gets $50 million a year to do group homes, drug treatment, foster care placement, adoptions, a whole range of things. Until recently, the social services division was separate from the evangelical mission of the Salvation Army. But then Bush gave them permission to merge the two, and so a couple of years ago, the Salvation Army–which gives people who are in its ranks military titles–decided to send in a guy named Col. Kelly to christianize the New York social services division. The first thing he did was start going around trying to find out who was on their team. There was a woman in human resources named Margaret Geissman. He went to her boss and he said, “Margaret Geissman, is that Jewish? It sounds Jewish.” And it wasn’t. Margaret Geissman is Catholic. So then he thought that Margaret Geissman might be an ally, so he went to her and he said, “I want to know who are the nonChristians and who are the homosexuals in this organization.”

She refused to tell him. She’s a really conservative lady, but also a really decent lady and knew that this was ridiculous, and she thought it was illegal. This kind of thing used to be illegal, but it’s not now. Or it’s unclear now.

At about the same time, he went to Anne Lown, who is Jewish, who had been there for 24 years. At the time, she was heading the Department of Children’s Services. She had hundreds of people under her. He gave her a form, and said, “Fill out this form. Have everyone under you fill out the form.” It asked you to list your church, your pastor, all the churches you’ve attended in the last ten years, and your pastor’s phone number so that they could check your fitness to work with children.

She refused to do this. She refused to have anyone under her do this. Eventually, they just went around her. They got everyone under her to fill out the form. She hung on for a while, but after months and months of it becoming an increasingly hostile place, finally left. When she left, she started looking for another job. But the thing is, almost everywhere in New York, almost all the social services provision in New York is done by faith-based organizations, so she ended up getting a job with Catholic Charities. She’s hoping this doesn’t happen again, but there’s not a lot of alternatives for somebody who does what she does.

So meanwhile, Anne Lown and Margaret Geissman and about 15 other people are suing the Salvation Army. The Justice Department, of course, intervened on the Salvation Army’s behalf, not disputing any of the facts of the case, but just saying that the Salvation Army has a right to behave this way. The administration calls it “religious freedom in hiring rights,” which is one of these fantastically Orwellian phrases that now means the freedom not to hire people of the wrong religion. I talked to Anne Lown and it’s astonishing to her that this is happening. It was in the papers, but it was only on page A11 of The New York Times.

So America is not the same place it was when most of the people in this room were growing up, when I was growing up. Things that used to be impossible have suddenly become possible, and it hasn’t really made a ripple. So what I try to get across in my book is not that we’re on the verge of theocracy; I don’t believe we are. I’ve been in countries that are theocracies. We still, thankfully, have quite a ways to go. But you don’t just start worrying when you wake up one day and find yourself in a theocracy. There is a huge distance between a liberal democracy with freedom, with the First Amendment, and, say, a country like Iran. And even when we’ve come this far, I think it’s time to start worrying.

Thank you very much.

Question about a secularist running a campaign before voters who are anti-First Amendment.

Part of the problem is the courts can go so far, but when the population no longer believes in the kind of fundamental values of the First Amendment, of religious freedom, of rationality, then how do you appeal to that population? How do you turn a campaign into an effort to convert people back to the values of the founders, or at least the best of the founders? I’m not sure.

In the past 30 years, the religious right has built institutions to help people like the one who’s running against your friend, so that if you enter a race like that, you’ll have massive institutional support, you’ll have people coming in and counseling you, you’ll have people helping you, telling you to bury the crazy stuff on your website, telling you to talk about intelligent design instead of creationism. Our side just doesn’t have that kind of electoral infrastructure. It doesn’t have people providing that kind of support to the grassroots. That’s something for the future that’s not going to help your friend right now.

I think it’s a good idea to talk about some of the specific ways in which these very radical candidates are opposed to some of the fundamental values of this country, and to make clear to people that you’re not talking about a war on religion, you’re not talking about a war on Christianity, which is inevitably how these things get spun, but that you’re talking about defending religious freedom, including freedom for your fundamentalist neighbors.

You can only do so much when people are inculcated into an alternative reality, when people no longer believe that America was ever meant to be a secular nation, when people have been so immersed in what is really an alternate world. It can be really, really difficult to break through that.

I know of some people who’ve been in similar situations, like the people in Dover, Penn., who said how much they wish there was a network for people who face these kinds of challenges in their community, to swap information. So hopefully someday there will be some mechanism for them to be able to help each other.

Question about the number of fundamentalists in America versus seculars.

There’s a pollster named George Barna, a Christian pollster, but a very good one about religion. He defines born-again according to a set of very narrow criteria. He’ll say something like 5-8% is born-again, and he has a much broader umbrella for evangelical. Cumulatively, it’s between 30-40%.

The two fastest-growing segments of religion in America today are evangelicals and those who say they have no religion. So you’re seeing this increasing polarization, and the two feed on each other, because it’s the declining prestige of Christianity that feeds some of the anxiety that leads to this ascendant political right, and that makes Christians receptive to messages that they’re somehow under attack.

Part of the reason seculars are not as organized is just because where do atheists go every Sunday? Is there a place that atheists get together every week, where they can hear a message, where they can get marching orders? At one point, when I was reporting this book, I would listen in on a conference call Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council had every month, where he gave pastors their political marching orders: “You need to tell your congregants about this issue, you need to tell them to write to their senators about X, Y, and Z.” There is no kind of social infrastructure on the other side.

Question about legality of churches practicing hiring discrimination.

Civil rights law has an exemption for religious groups. That’s not a problem in and of itself. Churches can prefer to hire Christians, mosques can prefer to hire Muslims. Obviously you’re not going to hire a devout evangelical to work for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Most people don’t have a problem with that. What’s changed is that when the original 1964 Civil Rights Law was passed, there was an executive order saying that you can’t discriminate in public hiring. Bush by executive order rescinded that, so that now you can get public money but still retain special hiring privileges that have been afforded to private religious groups.

I think there’s a huge opportunity at the state level to try to pass laws counteracting this. There’s nothing to stop anyone from trying to explicitly pass a law saying no public money can go where there is hiring discrimination, because a lot of this money is channeled through the states. Such laws would have the kind of salutory effect not just of putting a stop to this discrimination, but of raising the issue in the public mind, and of forcing the other side to say why they should be able to discriminate on the public dime.

Michelle Goldberg is a contributing writer for, reporting on both sides of America’s ever-seething culture war. She earned her Masters degree in journalism at UC-Berkeley. After a year of traveling and reporting in India and East Asia, Goldberg moved to New York City and began work at She has covered all aspects of the ascendant political right. Goldberg has been an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at New York University. She has also been a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and for Shift Magazine. Her work has appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, The New York Observer, The UK Guardian, The New Republic online, The Utne Reader, Newsday and other newspapers nationwide. Her book is Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (2006).

Freedom From Religion Foundation