June 13, 2024

Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, And The Quotidian Academic Terror Of “Christian Nationalism”, Part 2 (Carl Raschke)

The following is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

When John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961 exhorted Americans that they should “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty”, he was offering a secularized version of what today is called “Christian nationalism” to the young Baby Boomer generation. Kennedy, a Catholic, was not invoking the parochial strains of American religious nativism.  He was seeking to cast a wider net for the uniquely American millenarian politics that had been captured during the 1860s in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which had also been sung routinely by the Freedom Riders and Civil Rights marchers were later manifested not in any great transformation of American society, but  in the Vietnam debacle as well as the extra-legal entrenchment of African-American  inequality that was slowly diagnosed and scrutinized by critical race theorists.

There are numerous factors that have contributed in recent years to the mounting alarmism among progressives about “Christian nationalism”, including the most obvious one, namely, that American evangelicals in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 appeared to have willfully disregarded their habitual and historical scruples concerning the moral character of politicians for whom they vote when it came to Donald Trump.  The blatant inconsistency, not to mention the perceived hypocrisy, of such large groups of “values voters” making such a glaring exception, cannot be easily dismissed. 

But given the traction from the “culture wars” that are now routinely assigned to presidential elections and the radical shift just in a decade in American party alignments the phenomenon is also readily decipherable. If conservative evangelicals have been patently guilty of doublespeak in endorsing certain candidates, their critics can be equally faulted for letting long-simmering social prejudice stand in the way of clear-headed political analysis.  Aside from the tendency of the latter to confuse American exceptionalism, which technically has nothing to do with any particular religious confession, with “Christian nationalism,” these same critics recently have betrayed appalling ignorance simply in interpreting the language of garden variety evangelicals whom they now want to tar as “threats” to democracy. 

The even more recent flap of the FBI targeting ultra-conservative Catholics as potential terrorists is simply one egregious illustration of the seemingly ludicrous inability of blinkered secularists to distinguish either meaningfully or intellectually between the sacerdotal and the temporal when it comes to certain kinds of religious rhetoric that have been commonplace for millennia.

A recent example is a survey aimed at detecting “Christian nationalism” by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which with slight variations both duplicates the Whitehead and Perry set of queries and generates by and large the same results.[1]  The survey poses five basic questions, including the familiar one whether “the U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation” and “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values”.  The first question is the only one that patently implies support for a policy option, and only 10 percent of respondents agree substantially with the statement.  Half of those polled, in fact, strongly disagree and barely a third give any credence at all to the proposition. 

Given the extreme vagueness of what it would actually entail to “declare” America a Christian nation (e.g., make a presidential proclamation, vote on a Congressional resolution, put Jesus on coins, change the wording of the Constitution, etc.), the question does not really measure anything other than the degree to which respondents feel strongly about their own faith.

If one were to substitute “Muslim” for “Christian” and ask the same question in Turkey officially a secular state, a “strongly agree” response would obviously turn out to be many multiples of the PRRI polling.  Since the majority of most Americans reportedly self-identify as “Christian” in some sense, despite a significant counter trend over the past decade, the fact that only a tenth were unequivocally affirmative about making such a declaration could just as easily be construed as evidence of a decline in “Christian nationalist” sentiment.  After all, the phrase “in God we trust” to this day remains the official motto of the United States, and given the demographics of the nation when it was approved by Congress in 1956, the expression undoubtedly had an overwhelming Christian connotation. 

As recently as 2005, a Gallup poll found that 90 percent of American were in favor of retaining it as the national motto.[2]  If Christian nationalism were on the rise, one would assume the percentage would prove even higher today, which is ridiculous on the face of it.  What we have is a transparent example, whether witting or unwitting, of a seriously flawed research model deployed by its own proponents to draw exaggerated and tendentious conclusions from a highly equivocal and exploitative Rorschach word blot.

The import the PRRI/Brookings is fulsomely deceptive and follows the logic of adversarial information warfare in so many ways.  The coding of the term “threat” into the very title of the research assumes something that the data itself does not meaningfully evince. What is the “threat” precisely, and to whom?  Is there some “Christian nationalist” militia that is covertly training in the wilds of Montana plotting to launch terrorist attacks?  Are they planning this time to organize something like what happened on January 6, although something more massive and effective, even with support of 10 percent of the population that is supposedly “committed” to their agenda?  If one asks exacting questions, the very logic of what is at stake appears increasingly bogus.

Take the fifth formulary in the survey: “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.”  The survey results actually elicit the smallest margin of approval, even though the phrasing is designed to gauge “Christian nationalist” leanings. Interestingly, the term “dominion” in this instance is supposedly the key indicator- even the smoking gun – for a respondent’s nefarious, “anti-democratic” proclivities. 

But hold on.  The English locution (Greek-kyriarchia) actually occurs 44 times in the Bible, and routinely references the authority of God in both the Hebrew and Greek version of the Bible. It is also used in certain portions of the New Testament to characterize the messianic character of Jesus and his “dominion” over all creation (e.g., Ephesians 1:21-22).  The Greek word outside the New Testament context often is translated as “sovereignty”, a key concept in the history of political theory. 

Without going into superfluous language exegesis, it is fairly well-established among generations of scholars that such verbiage is not an aberration, but integral to the Christian theologian tradition for the last two thousand years.   It could be found in virtually all Protestant religious confessions from the Reformation era. Any garden variety Bible believer, currently or in the distant past, would most likely look upon the fifth PRRI test for “Christian nationalism” favorably. So what gives?

It is not unlike claiming that any Muslim who adheres at all with any inflection of meaning to the principle of jihad, which can be found in the Qur’an, is somehow a potential terrorist.  Many anti-Muslim activists in the aftermath of 9/11 often went so far, but they were appropriately derided by religious studies scholars, many of whom ironically and shamefully participate in the same kind of nonsense when it comes to evangelicals, or to Pentecostals.  

A flagrant illustration of the latter is a risible article by Concordia University Professor André Gagné, co-authored in the fall of 2022 with Frederick Clarkson of Political Research Associates in Somerville Massachusetts.  The piece, entitled “When It Comes to Societal Dominion, the Details Matter”, was published in the online news service Religion Dispatches, which unlike much of the mainstream media purports to be infused with the views of credentialed academics.[3]  Its subject matter is the so-called New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a particular movement within charismatic Christianity at a global level that was founded over a generation ago by the late Fuller Theological Seminary theologian Peter Wagner.  Wagner is also reputed to have coined the term “post-denominationalism” invoked frequently by social commentators to describe the present worldwide trend toward independent Christian churches and missionary groups.[4]   

The authors of the Religion Dispatches article spill most of their ink in Part II detailing the personalities, nomenclature, and affiliations of the NAR leaders as well as snarking at their deployment of traditional ecclesiastical titles as “bishop” and “apostle” (which of course African-American churches have always done as well).  But it concludes with this ominous observation:

The NAR doesn’t merit our considered attention because some of the leaders may sound nutty to those outside the movement, but because it’s driven by theocratic notions of total societal dominion, including the end of democracy as we’ve known it; and it deserves our attention because it’s developed the political capacities to make these ambitions a lot less of a pipe dream than they seemed even five years ago. This ought to be reason enough to end the era of glib dismissal and casual reporting of one of the most significant religious and political movements of our time.[5]

 “Total societal dominion”?  Really?  The article offers no evidence whatsoever for this assertion other than a hyperlink to a different article by Clarkson in 2016 on U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), whom he accuses of “dominionism” and in the same breath acknowledges that he coined the term itself in the late 1990s to connote “ the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”[6]  In other words, anyone who is a “conservative Christian” is ipso facto a “theocrat” –  and by extension a “dominionist” – who implicitly wants to reimpose sodomy laws on LGBTQ+ people or ban any other expression of religious faith besides a specific version of Christianity.

Frederickson of course distinguishes his own murky notion of “dominionism” from the well-known sectarian initiative known as “Christian Reconstructionism” introduced by the Armenian hypercalvinist thinker R.J. Rushdoony (1916-2001), who gave currency to the word “dominion theology” during the height of his influence in the 1960s and 1970s.  Until recently, “dominionism” usually implied among researchers Rushdoony’s very specific and draconian interpetation of religious conservatism, which included the imposition of Old Testament law upon civil society[7]. Fortunately, Rushdoony’s actual political influence in American electoral politics has been quite minimal, although conflation of the vocables “domionism” and “dominion theology” is increasingly standard practice among scholars who definitely should know better.

Dominion theology has a manifest geneaology within late nineteenth century Calvinism.  Rushdoony, an orthodox Presbyterian, was heavily influenced by the writings of Cornelius van Til, the Dutch-American philosopher and theologian considered the progenitor of Reformed apologetics. The NAR, however, has its origins in Pentecostalism, which historically has nothing to do with Calvinism, let alone dominion theology.  The latest data indicates there were at the turn of the millennium more than half a billion Pentecostals on a global basis.[8]

The red flag, if we follow the account of NAR by historical theologian Dale Coulter, was Wagner’s incorporation before his death of the Calvinist idea of the “cultural mandate” into the traditional Pentecostal preoccupation with spiritual warfare and the gifts of the spirit.[9]  In his 2008 book Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World Wagner adopted, according to Coulter, the rhetoric of Christian reconstructionism to place a conservative version of “the social gospel” (even crediting Walter Rauschenbusch himself) within a “charismatic framework” to emphasize a civic responsibility to bring “heaven to earth”.[10]

In an interview in 2011, five years before his death, Wagner in a magazine interview took on his critics by challenging both the common canard among some conventional evangelicals that NAR was a “cult” (many Southern Baptists with their doctrine of “cessationism” still regard many Pentecostals in this light) and the incipient prejudice, now rife today among certain academics, that it was a covert form of theocratic conspiracy to abolish democracy.  Wagner opined:

The way to achieve dominion is not to become “America’s Taliban,” but rather to have kingdom-minded people in every one of the Seven Mountains: Religion, Family, Education, Government, Media, Arts & Entertainment, and Business so that they can use their influence to create an environment in which the blessings and prosperity of the Kingdom of God can permeate all areas of society.[11]

Whether Wagner’s assurance are legitimate or a form of deliberate deception or “denialism”, as Frederickson argues in an earlier essay, cannot be easily sorted out.  In the earlier essay Frederickson argues that “turning a blind eye to the theocratic implications of the NAR’s theology of political power is of a piece with earlier denials  of the existence or significance of Dominionism. These denials had partly to do with the role of Christian Reconstructionism …in providing a theological rationale to engage in politics along with biblical justifications for an evangelical public policy agenda.”[12] 

If one wades through all the dense detail and convoluted theoretical verbiage of the three-part Religion Dispatches series, one observation is itself undeniable, namely, that the Frederickson and Gagné,  are not so much concerned about threats to democracy per se, but paranoid about conservative Christianity in general.  The fact that a majority of NAR leaders and influencers supported Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020, as did of course other evangelicals, is their main argument for the movement’s “danger”.

But what is even more disturbing to the authors is that NAR does not at all fit the usual academic stereotypes about evangelicalism – or “Christian nationalism” – reflecting the views primarily of white, male, Americans.  The leadership of NAR, as the authors make plain in naming its leadership, is equally female and male (which is typical of Pentecostalism, but not at all when it comes to Calvisnism) and its “nationalism” – or its “patriotism” as they call it in the third installment – is actually transnational.[13]  In this case the article refers to NAR not as “Christian nationalism” but as “Christian globalism”, even though obviously the two terms contradict each other within the same polemical space. The familiar charge that evangelicals are subtly “antisemitic” does not even wash, since the NAR leadership is intimately intertwined with global Jewish organizations, not just “messianic Jews” or would be “Christian Zionists”.

Admittedly, I myself spent a lot of “participant observer” time with Pentecostals, including the actual NAR organization in the late 1990s and 2000s, and still have close relations with many of them to this day.  I wrote favorably about them in two largely well-received books in 2004 and 2008.[14] Both books were invited by the same publisher as Wagner’s works. I have always been drawn to charismatics and Pentecostals because they are obviously and unself-consciously multiracial, transcultural, and transnational of all Christian populations today, who do not share the presumed “hierarchical” and meritocratic politics of today’s globalist elites. It is one more hamhanded as well as underhanded attempt of what I have called “progressive neoliberalism” to demonize the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the working class on a planetary scale.[15]

The customary explanation among scholars regarding the purported appeal of “Christian nationalism” is that it represents a kind of ideological revanchism as well as an unconscious social anxiety among lower class whites incapable of accepting such demographic trends as the growing electoral importance of black and brown America.  But the opposite is more likely the case.  The current scare about “Christian nationalism” actually mirrors the progressive neoliberal anxiety about the growing appeal of populism among previously marginalized racial groups.

Movements such as NAR are not so much a threat to “democracy” per se as to the urban meritocratic conviction among the so-called “knowledge class” that they speak exclusively for these marginalized groups, especially when it comes to political and religious matters.  That hauteur is equivalent to the proverbial “civilizing mission” of historic colonialism, and it is finally being called out for what it is. Pentecostalism is the real “specter” that is haunting the West today, and it has little to do with “Christian nationalism”.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Denver and Senior Editor of The New Polis. He is the author of numerous books including his Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) and Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2022). His forthcoming work is entitled Monopolitics: Sovereignty in the Twenty-First Century.

[1] “A Christian Nation? Understanding the Threat of Christian Nationalism to American Democracy and Culture: Findings for the 2023 Brookings/Christian Nationalism Survey (Washington DC: Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings Institute, 2023),  https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/PRRI-Jan-2023-Christian-Nationalism-Final.pdf.  Retrieved February 11, 2023.

[2] USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, May 20, 2005, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/polls/tables/live/2003-09-29-religion-poll.htm.  Retrieved Feb. 4, 2023.

[3] Frederick Clarkson and André Gagné, “When It Comes to Societal Dominion, the Details Matter: A Reporter’s Guide to the New Apostolic Reformation, Part II”, Religion News Service, Oct. 11, 2022, https://religiondispatches.org/when-it-comes-to-societal-dominion-the-details-matter-a-reporters-guide-to-the-new-apostolic-reformation-part-ii/.  Accessed Oct. 28, 2022.

[4]  See inter alia Peter Wagner, The New Apostolic Churches (Raleigh NC: Regal Publishing, 1998); Churchquake: How the New Apostolic Reformation is Shaking Up the Church As We Know It (Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 1999)Apostles and Prophets: The Foundation of the Church (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Publishing, 2000).

[5] Clarkson and Gagné, op. cit.

[6] Frederick Clarkson, “Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight”, Political Research Associates, August 18, 2016, https://politicalresearch.org/2016/08/18/dominionism-rising-a-theocratic-movement-hiding-in-plain-sight

[7] Rushdoony’s most significant works include This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History (Nutley NJ: Craig Press, 1964); The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Nutley NJ: Craig Press, 1971); Law & Liberty (Vallecito CA: Ross House Books, 1986).

[8] See David Martin, Pentecostals: The World Their Parish (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002).

[9] See Dale M. Coulter, “Neocharismatic Christianity and the Rise of the New Apostolic Reformation, Firebrand, January 18, 2021, https://firebrandmag.com/articles/neocharismatic-christianity-and-the-rise-of-the-new-apostolic-reformation.  Accessed Feb. 13, 2023.

[10] Ibid.  See also Peter Wagner, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World (Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 2008).

[11] Peter Wagner, “Year in Review: The New Apostolic Reformation is not a Cult,” Charisma, Aug. 24, 2011, https://www.charismanews.com/opinion/31851-the-new-apostolic-reformation-is-not-a-cult

[12] Frederick Clarkson and André Gagné, “Christian Denialism is More Dangerous Than Ever: A Reporter’s Guide to the New Apostolic Reformation,” Religion Dispatches, Sept. 7, 2022, https://religiondispatches.org/christian-right-denialism-is-more-dangerous-than-ever-a-reporters-guide-to-the-new-apostolic-reformation/

[13] See Frederick Clarkson and André Gagné, “Call it ‘Christian Globalism’: A Reporter’s Guide to the New Apostolic Reformation, Part III, Religion Dispatches, Nov. 30, 2022, https://religiondispatches.org/call-it-christian-globalism-a-reporters-guide-to-the-new-apostolic-reformation-part-iii/.  Accessed Nov. 13, 2023.

[14] See Carl Raschke, The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 2004);  GloboChrist: Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Grand Rapids MI: Baker 2008).

[15] See Carl Raschke, Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019). See also my forthcoming book Monopolitics: Sovereignty in the 21st Century where I take up the historical symbolism of “dominion” in an even more thorough manner.

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