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‘Jan. 6 comes to church’: A look at the Christian nationalism surrounding ReAwaken America

Christians against Christian Nationalism MAIN 2.jpg
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
A "Christians Against Christian Nationalism" sign is held up during a press conference of faith leaders Aug. 12, 2022, outside First Baptist Church in Batavia. The faith leaders denounced the ReAwaken America Tour and its Christian nationalist ideology.

The ReAwaken American Tour that recently visited a Batavia church features Christian nationalist ideology in several ways: the proclamation that America is a Christian nation, the idea that Donald Trump’s presidency was God’s will, and even anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

But perhaps the most glaring example was when tour organizer and Trump’s first national security advisor Michael Flynn spoke at a San Antonio, Texas church last November.

“So if we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion,” Flynn told the ReAwaken America crowd. “One nation under God and one religion under God.”

Scholars generally define Christian nationalism as believing the U.S. was founded by and for Christians, and that the government should take steps to keep America Christian. Taken to the extreme, scholars say, it can discriminate against religious minorities, the non-religious and LGBTQ people, and be used to justify violence.

There are signs it’s becoming more prominent, whether it be comments from conservative elected officials, Christian imagery at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, or the ReAwaken America Tour itself.

What is Christian nationalism and how does it tie to Jan. 6?

As the far-right ReAwaken America Tour opened at Cornerstone Church in Batavia the morning of Aug. 12, faith leaders from Western New York and across the country gathered a couple miles away outside First Baptist Church.

Behind them were a red signs reading, “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.”

It’s a campaign by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based faith advocacy organization. The campaign’s statement reads that Christians must condemn Christian nationalism as a “distortion of the gospel of Jesus.”

One of the faith leaders gathered in Batavia, Connecticut-based Episcopal priest Nathan Empsall, said Christian nationalism is not true to Christian teachings. Instead of simply having a goal to follow Jesus, Christian nationalism’s goal, according to Empsall, is to “seize political power at any cost.”

Nathan Empsall speaks out against ReAwaken America Tour and Christian nationalism
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
The Rev. Nathan Empsall speaks outside First Baptist Church in Batavia Aug. 12, 2022, to denounce the ReAwaken America Tour and Christian nationalism.

“No matter who you have to hurt along the way. No matter how many rights you have to take away from other groups,” he said. “No matter how many elections you may have to try and overturn, despite the will of the voters.”

Christian symbols were abundant during the Jan. 6 insurrection, including Christian flags, crosses and “Jesus Saves” signs. And the Jericho March in Washington, D.C. the day before prayed for the overturning of the election.

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found white evangelical Christians were the religious group most likely to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

Many Christian nationalists believe Trump was God’s — perhaps imperfect — vessel for their goals, like overturning Roe v. Wade. Therefore, it was of the utmost importance to keep him in office following his election loss, and return him there in 2024.

Empsall said ReAwaken America — with its fusing of Christianity and election denialism — is the continuation of that effort.

“I call it Jan. 6 comes to church,” he said.

Christian nationalism now more visible

But Christian nationalism predates Trump.

University at Buffalo associate professor of political science Jacob Neiheisel points to the 1982 book, “The American Covenant: The Untold Story,” which argued America is a Christian nation.

“So something resembling Christian nationalism has been around for quite some time,” said Neiheisel, who studies the Christian right.

The book, “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” analyzed a 2017 national survey by Baylor University and found one in five Americans embrace some form of Christian nationalism. That’s actually down from one in four a decade earlier, as Americans overall are becoming less religious.

Plus, Neiheisel said it’s hard to gauge Christian nationalism when it correlates so closely with conservative values at large.

“It's really hard to disentangle Christian nationalism from what conservatives believe at this really polarized moment,” he said. “And so even identifying the scope of the problem is somewhat difficult.”

In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during the Capitol insurrection are sparking renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism.
John Minchillo
/
AP
In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Christian imagery and rhetoric on view during the Capitol insurrection are sparking renewed debate about the societal effects of melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism.

But it could be argued Christian nationalism is more visible than ever.

In addition to the Christian symbols seen on Jan. 6, there’s been a surge in Christian nationalism among GOP candidates. They’ve had mixed results in recent Republican primaries, but recently got a high-profile win when Doug Mastriano won the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania’s governor.

Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene recently called for the Republican Party to be the party of Christian nationalism, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been accused of infusing Christian nationalism into school curriculum.

Even “The American Covenant” got a reprint in recent years — this time with a foreword by actor Kirk Cameron.

“I think the difference now is that you have elected officials, on the Republican side in particular, if not outright embracing it, certainly giving a nod to it,” Neiheisel said. “And so I think it's giving it more popularity, more exposure than it's had in the past. It's been there, but it's kind of been at the fringes of a lot of these different movements, and I think now it's either more central or just more salient.”

RELATED CONTENT: ReAwaken America Tour to mix far-right politics, religion in Batavia this weekend

There are some Christian nationalists that believe the U.S. is not for Christians — it’s for white Christians. And there’s certainly some overlap between Christian nationalists and white nationalists.

The 180-page document purportedly written by alleged Buffalo Tops Market mass shooter and white supremacist Payton Gendron said the attack was intended to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people and get them to leave the country.

But Neiheisel said Christian nationalists as a whole want to build as large a coalition as they can, and therefore likely want to avoid association with white nationalists.

“There are times in which there's complete overlap, but the racial element is less at the fore in what we think of as Christian nationalism,” he said.

ReAwaken America on Christian nationalism 

Even ReAwaken America speakers addressed Christian nationalism by name during the Batavia stop earlier this month.

“They can call me a Christian nationalist and they can get as mad as they jolly well please,” said Greg Locke, a Tennessee pastor who was on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during Jan. 6 and whose controversial sermons have included saying Democrats can’t be Christians.

And Texas evangelical thinker Lance Wallnau, who predicted Trump would be a “modern-day Cryus,” said it was the Devil who was labeling their movement as “Christian nationalist weirdo crazy.”

RELATED CONTENT: ReAwaken America Tour in Batavia includes calls for overturning election, New York AG to ‘repent’

WBFO asked ReAwaken America organizer and Oklahoma-based podcaster Clay Clark if he’s a Christian nationalist. He said he’s a Christian and in favor of the American nation, but that the founding fathers wanted freedom of religion.

“I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, but I also don't believe in mandating you to share my religious beliefs,” he said.

And the leader of the Batavia church that hosted ReAwaken America, Cornerstone Church Pastor Paul Doyle, said he doesn’t know what Christian nationalism is.

“I mean, I live in this nation and I'm a Christian,” Doyle said. “And, like any faith, we promote our faith.”

But Doyle did repeat one of the main arguments of Christian nationalists.

“We believe that this country was founded on Christian-Judeo values,” he said.

And the tour’s stop at Cornerstone featured numerous anti-LGBTQ comments.

Christian singer Sean Feucht decried the “gender confusion [and] sexual perversion” among youth, while pro-Trump Pastor Mark Burns said he was “tired of grown men wearing a dress, walking in a woman's bathroom, pretending to be a woman.” Burns also called for the overturning of the 2015 Supreme Court decision that made gay marriage a constitutional right.

Pro-Trump pastor Mark Burns at ReAwaken America Tour in Batavia
Tom Dinki
/
WBFO News
Pastor Mark Burns speaks at the ReAwaken America Tour event in Batavia Aug. 12, 2022.

Clark made several crude comments from the stage regarding monkeypox, including that the disease could be avoided by not having sexual contact “with a bunch of dudes.” Gay men are at most risk of contracting monkeypox, but health experts warn it is not an exclusively sexually transmitted disease.

Asked about anti-LGBTQ comments made at the tour, Clark said he believes everything written in the Bible.

“Overall, I would just say, love the sinner, hate the sin,” he said.

As for Cornerstone, Doyle said the church reaches out to the LGBTQ community and prays for them, but that, to him, the Bible is clear that homosexuality and transgenderism doesn’t align with God’s plan.

“He wrote it and so we'll quote it, but we don't beat people over the head with that,” Doyle said. “The Lord wants to love them and love them into a lifestyle that He meant for them. And so there's no hate there.

“I don't think America is a welcoming, tolerant country in spite of Christianity. I believe it's because of it.”

But Empsall worries Christian nationalists won’t be tolerant if their candidates don’t win.

“What we are worried about is another Jan. 6 happening, but perhaps not in the nation's capital,” he said. “Perhaps in every town or local state capitals when elections don't go the Christian nationalists’ way next time, because they have been told God is on your side.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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