Religious Nationalism

Ideas and Issues
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Pearl River     This whole thing about religious opposition to the stay-at-home orders and the social distancing can sometimes seem a head scratcher.   In central Louisiana a minister already noted for refusing to call postponement of church services was arrested for attempted assault, which he admitted, after he tried to back a church bus over a lone protestor who was opposing his threat to public health by convening services.  The Falwell family’s Liberty University has become a hot spot as he disobeyed orders in Virginia and insisted on recalling classes for the students.  The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have done deep reporting on the conservative funders that have pushed money to some of these religious firebrands in order to organize them to mobilize a few of their troops to be the foot soldiers and virus fodder for the reopening demands.  It’s hard to believe this is religious fervor, since there are so many alternatives.

Recently, while I was in Little Rock, from another room I could hear my brother-in-law participating in a Wednesday night “home church” on Zoom that was both good spirited and deeply religious. The Pope is pretty religious, and he’s clear that the faithful can grow without exposing themselves to health risk or that of their community.

Talking to Katherine Stewart recently on Wade’s World, about her book, The Power Worshippers:  Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, she made a convincing case that what is really happening here is that political commitment is exceeding religious zeal.   She calls this religious nationalism, and, as the book title indicates, it’s about power, not faith.

Her book covers chapter and verse in making the case.

She zings the religious intrusion into the education system not just through privatization and charter schools, but in trying to use schools as meeting places in order to legitimize their arguments and proselytizing.  She makes the same case about healthcare risks based on claims of religious privilege.

She details the efforts of Ralph Drollinger and his Capital Ministries to establish religious practice in national capitols around the world using weekly Bible studies as the cover to push a gospel of wealth, worker submission, anti-tax, and pro-business ideology as part of religious nationalism.

She dives deep into the overtly political work of groups like Church United that specialize in building voter-outreach machinery by working through pastors.  Elsewhere she catalogues the data and list building empires built by other proponents of a political reorienting of the country in the guise of religion.  Yes, we thought as tax exempt institutions, they could not be partisan, but, according to Stewart, we might as well believe in the Easter bunny while we’re at it.

Separation of the church and state has been a foundational principle of the United States, but reading and talking to Katherine Stewart it becomes clear that this is another area of our founding principles that is under assault.  This time the subversion is in the name of religion, but as Stewart argues, it is really all about power. The culture wars are a distraction.  This is a political effort at every level that has nothing to do with faith, and everything to do with the self-interest of its hucksters, Elmer Gantry’s, and false prophets.