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Faith Militant

How today’s religious right functions as a shadow political party

The confident jargon of the corporate workplace almost always carries with it a hidden agenda, to be sprung on a beleaguered (if not exactly unsuspecting) workforce. When you hear a phrase like “Culture Impact Team” on the job, you can be sure it means something other than what it says. It may sound like an agreeably vague team-building mantra, but as it gets applied to the power relations of a back-office bureaucracy, it’s usually translated as some variation on, “You’re going to be working harder for less money.”

The Culture Impact Team in question here, though, is the handiwork of the activist arm of the Family Research Council (FRC), one of the leading policy organizations of the religious right. And it’s still true that in this context the phrase means something quite different from what it sounds like. The underlying message of the FRC’s Culture Impact Team, relayed in a series of organizational gatherings and refined in a widely distributed manual plying strategies of mass electoral persuasion, appears to be, in essence, “We will turn your church into a shadow cell of a political party, and you will help us execute our plan to subvert America’s constitutional democracy.”

If you’re reading this article, you’re not likely to be attending such briefings or reading the manuals that circulate at them, and that’s the bigger story here. The “CITs” and similar activist initiatives are commonplace among conservative-leaning Christian churches across the country. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the Family Research Council is holding a series of CIT trainings and voter-turnout revivals in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan. But CITs are largely unknown outside movement circles.

Most of us are by now familiar with the public face of the Christian nationalist movement. In the past years, we have come to recognize the belligerent preachers like Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham, the pious politicians like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, and the deep-pocketed funders such as Betsy DeVos and her extended clan. But behind the scenes, a vast machine is under construction. It is taking your taxpayer dollars, together with the good will of many believers, and employing them to mobilize and train a partisan political army bent on rewriting our history, assuming control of the American legal system, and distorting or undermining our constitutional principles.

The machine has many components: data operations that make use of personalized, psychographic targeting; pastoral initiatives that preach to elected officials what are supposedly biblically correct stances on public policy issues; legislative initiatives that flood the states with effectively identical bills intended to chip away at the separation of church and state; and right-wing policy organizations. But the backbone of the movement is America’s conservative churches. Pastors drive votes. Through them, the faithful can be persuaded to cast their ballots the “right” way and join the army of volunteer activists who will canvass other voters, run for minor political offices, and do whatever it takes to save the country from “the humanists” and “the homosexual agenda” and take it back for God.

President Donald Trump may appear to be an unlikely beneficiary of all this righteous activism. This is, after all, a man who has openly boasted of barging into the dressing rooms of teenage pageant contestants. He has sustained multiple bankruptcies and many dozens of lawsuits. He has also been accused of sexual impropriety and assault by at least 17 women, and has paid off porn actors for extramarital encounters.

But Scripture teaches God will often use flawed or unlikely vessels to carry out his plan for believers; King David was no paragon, after all. What’s more, there’s something in Trump’s bullying, patriarchal, grossly amoral entitlement that appeals to a movement that is willing to violate letter and spirit of the Constitution in its own pursuit of power. Christian nationalists did not simply hold their noses to form a pragmatic alliance with Trump. They actively worked to get him elected, tuning their political machine to that purpose.

In researching my book The Power Worshippers, I have visited houses of worship across the country to understand how the machine works. I have met many kind and well-meaning individuals. People attend church for an array of honorable personal reasons, including a love of God and Scripture, ethnic and family solidarity, an appreciation of community, and a desire to mark life’s most significant passages. Many also appear to be seeking certainty in an uncertain world. Against a backdrop of escalating economic inequality, deindustrialization, rapid technological change, and climate instability, people on all points of the economic spectrum feel the world has entered a state of disorder. Religion offers solace, identity, and the feeling that one’s position in the world is safe.

Yet all too often the price of certainty in America’s conservative congregations is the surrender of one’s political will. Congregants absorb the message that the world is divided between the pure and the impure, insiders and outsiders. They are assured that if they conform, they will be on the inside. In these gatherings of the faithful, voting and organizing for the national right-wing agenda are a prerequisite for belonging and a spiritual necessity. As Stephen Strang, CEO of the Pentecostal publishing and media outlet Charisma, put it, “Trump can’t win without our help. Each of us must do our part. God demands no less.”

North Carolina’s Unionville Baptist Church is a solid brick building on a country road surrounded by farmland. On a late morning in October 2018, I attended a Pastors’ Briefing sponsored by Watchmen on the Wall, an affiliate of the FRC. I entered the spacious fellowship hall on the ground floor, joining perhaps several dozen local pastors and their guests, and took a seat at a table with a clear view of the podium. The walls were lined with colorful booths displaying promotional materials from the various right-wing policy groups in attendance.

From the flier publicizing the briefing, a passerby might have formed the impression that this would be a nonpartisan event focusing on issues of interest to church members and their leaders. The FRC, one of the most powerful and politically connected Christian nationalist and lobbying groups in America, routinely organizes similar convocations across the country through Watchmen on the Wall, which claims to have nearly 25,000 pastor-members. According to its promotional material, the briefings are “focused on shaping public policy and informed civic activism.” The organization’s website boasts an endorsement by Vice President Mike Pence: “Keep being a ‘Watchman on the Wall.’ Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s making a difference.”

“This is also, I want to remind you, a (c)(3) event; we’re not making any endorsements,” said J.C. Church, a pastor and political activist and the FRC’s national director of ministry engagement. “(c)(3)” refers to the tax-free 501(c)(3) designation that the IRS gives out for nonprofit organizations; under its provisions, qualifying groups are legally prohibited from endorsing candidates. Here in Unionville, the disclaimer was little more than a perfunctory aside—the pretense of neutrality evaporated just a few sentences into the opening remarks by FRC president Tony Perkins.

“I believe this last election, 2016, was the result of prayer,” said Perkins. “We’ve seen our nation begin to move back to a nation that respects the sanctity of life.” Perkins speaks in the calm, mid-Atlantic voice of a Beltway operator, but his words are all brimstone and rage. The host of a daily radio show that regularly showcases prominent right-wing figures, he is a practiced and effective speaker and knows how to put his audiences into fresh transports of righteous anger.

“‘Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places,’” he said, quoting a Bible passage from the book of Ephesians. Then he called down a much more recent instructional text—the battle during the summer and autumn of 2018 to place Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court: “If we don’t know that to be true after what we’ve seen in the last three weeks, I don’t know what it will take.”

“Folks, we’re headed in a new direction as a nation. And that’s what this battle over the court is all about,” Perkins continued. He ran through a familiar litany of how “the court has been used to impose a godless set of values on America.” As is the case in many such jeremiads, Perkins starts with the great perfidious court rulings of the 1960s—the ones that supposedly saw to it that the Bible was “taken out of school.” It was just a matter of time, he went on to lament, that the counsel of Scripture was replaced with “the call for abortion on demand.” “It was the court that imposed it on America and made all of us complicit with the taking of innocent human life,” he inveighed. “Folks, is this an evil day?”

Then, like any accomplished revival preacher, he pivoted to the good news of salvation on offer—this was, after all, the real message of the gathering. “You need to tell your folks that they need to be voting,” he said to the pastors. “They need to be engaged in our political process.”

Although Perkins never directly told attendees to support Republican candidates, there wasn’t the slightest doubt about which way he expected pastors to tell their congregants to vote. One party seeks to end “abortion on demand,” he announced, and stressed that supporting it is a matter of eternal salvation. “We are a divided nation, and someone’s values will dominate,” he warned. It was amply clear which camp was behind which set of values; the message required no vulgar electioneering appeals that could draw the unwelcome attention of the IRS. “The rulers of the darkness” and “the spiritual hosts of wickedness” were plainly to be found on the Democratic Party’s side of the aisle. And that left the forces of righteousness and redemption aligned with the Republican electoral slate. “We will be held accountable for what we allow to happen,” he told the assembled pastors. “My question to you this morning is: What will you do? What will you do with this moment that God has entrusted to us?”

President Donald Trump with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Oct. 12, 2019.
Cheriss May/The New York Times/Redux

In his talk at Unionville, Perkins assured the assembled crowd that “we have the ability to shape the future of this nation,” and asked them to “pray, to vote, and to stand.” “Stand” appeared to be a synonym for activity that would lead congregants to vote in accordance with “biblical” values. After Perkins finished speaking, participants were shown a video encouraging them to form a network of Culture Impact Teams across the country.

These “CITs,” alongside Pastors’ Briefings, are central tools in the FRC’s campaign to turn out the vote. The idea is for pastors to create within their churches teams of congregants who will “advance Kingdom values in the public arena,” according to the manual. The assembled pastors are instructed to figure out which members of their congregation are politically active and well-connected with other members.

Those congregants are then drafted as team leaders “to accomplish the Culture Impact Team’s mission of defending and advancing faith, family, and freedom.” Congregants on the CIT can take lead roles in the areas of communications (including written and social media outreach), research, strategy, and mobilization. Other team members may encourage “grassroots participation” and “involvement in pregnancy support centers, school board meetings, civil government gatherings,” and the like. Team members then set up a Culture Impact Center within the church to “give people an opportunity to become informed and, in turn, become involved.”

An unstated motivation behind the elaborate architecture of Culture Impact Teams is to skirt the legal prohibitions governing the public activism of churches and other 501(c)(3) groups. IRS guidelines require that pastors refrain from campaigning for candidates through their office—that is, from the pulpit. But nothing stops congregants from undertaking their own church-based political activism if it’s all about “culture.” In the unlikely event that their GOP-friendly campaigns of mass persuasion were to draw unwelcome scrutiny from the IRS, congregants and preachers alike can essentially reply, “It wasn’t me; it was the CIT.”

In order to guide the CITs in their actual mission—to turn out the vote for Republican and hyperconservative candidates—the FRC supplies dense, information-packed manuals. At Unionville, I spotted a stack of these instructional materials, which run to about 200 pages, collected in a white three-ring binder, at the FRC booth. As I passed by, I took one for myself.

As I pored over this guidebook, it read more and more like a get-out-the-vote appeal from the Republican establishment to the evangelical faithful. The Bible is very clear, the manual explains, about the right answers to the political issues American voters face in the twenty-first century. Scripture, it maintains, opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle—unless the money passes through church coffers first. God has challenged believers “to help the poor and widows and orphans”—but he expects governments to step aside.

The Bible also votes against environmentalism—a “Litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today,” according to the CIT manual’s sole recommended resource on environmental issues, the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The Cornwall Alliance, whose list of board members, advisers, and signatories includes conservative evangelical leaders along with academics and scientists affiliated with right-wing think tanks and religious universities, has produced a declaration asserting, as a matter of theology, that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.” A position paper appearing to summarize the organization’s philosophy, posted to its website, is titled “The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship: Subduing and Ruling the Earth to the Glory of God and the Benefit of Our Neighbors.” It contains 30 numbered edicts, including this: “We affirm that cost/benefit analysis (Luke 14:28) is a proper and critically important aspect of godly dominion over the Earth (Proverbs 14:4).”

The Bible, as the CIT manual helpfully relates, also opposes gun regulations, favors privatization of schools, and tells us that same-sex relationships are an abomination. And Holy Scriptures emphatically do not want women to have access to comprehensive, twenty-first–century reproductive medical care; for good measure, the CIT manual also directs congregants to literature that insists on male “headship” at church and at home. As I read on, I recognized another resource cited in the manual on the debates over evolution and creationism: Ken Ham, an author and activist known for promoting the claim that the earth is 6,000 years old.

Many people see the Christian right in its current, hyperpoliticized form as a modern creation. Indeed, with its embrace and mastery of the tools of modern political campaigns, it may feel at times like a new kind of religion. But there is a clear historical through line leading back from the hyperconservative religious nationalism of today’s movement leadership to religious theologies of the past—specifically, the form of Protestant faith that defended American slavery and Jim Crow-era segregation.

Proslavery theologians of the antebellum period were avid defenders of the biblical “righteousness” of slavery. The root of evil, for them, was democratic government itself, which interfered with the liberty of the slaveholding South. Theirs was an authoritarian, regressive form of the faith—a vision of a civic order rooted in hierarchy and deriving its legitimacy from its claim to represent an authentically Christian nation. The institution of slavery itself benefited from, and in turn promoted, the values of biblical literalism and absolute submission to authority. Borrowing the language that the Federalist theologians had developed in their earlier politicized assaults on liberal religionists and supporters of popular democracy, the new generation of leaders promoted a theological vision that emphasized the divine origins of the existing order.

The segregationists who followed similarly claimed their stance to be biblically based. In his 1958 sermon, “Segregation or Integration: Which?”—which appears to have borrowed its title and arguments from a wildly racist sermon that was delivered two years earlier from the pulpit of fellow Baptist Gerald O. Fleming—Jerry Falwell said, “The racial problem in this country is not one of hate—but one of Bible principle. Just because a person is opposed to integration does not mean that he hates the negro.” Defending the institution of segregation on more narrowly theological grounds, he argued that “it does not mean God loves one race less than another when he separates them.”

Of course, today’s most prominent Christian nationalist leaders repudiate slavery and segregation, and many are involved in efforts to promote racial reconciliation. But perhaps the most important aspect of the proslavery theology that far outlasted the high tide of antebellum slaveholding was its fusion of religion with a form of nationalism, a vision of an American Christian nation with hierarchies rooted in the edicts of the Bible. The great adversaries then, as today, are the archetypes of the anti-Christian rebels—the liberals, the secularists, the progressive theologians, the advocates of women’s rights and LGBT equality—who continue to wreak havoc on the modern world.

In Unionville, voter guides were dispersed throughout the fellowship hall, including a table in the middle of the room that held thousands of them in neat stacks, ready to be loaded into the trunks of pastors’ cars.

“Take as many voter guides as you can, as you believe you can use effectively, giving one to every member of your church and then beyond,” said John Rustin, executive director and president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “We survey all the candidates, over 400 candidates, running for U.S. House, the North Carolina Senate, the North Carolina House, the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals.” Rustin directed the audience to the organization’s voter guide website: “Type in your name and address and it will generate a personalized voter guide specifically for you.... Those are provided free of charge!”

Well, not exactly—like all the other activities promoted by politicized houses of worship, these voter guides are taxpayer subsidized. They escape IRS limitations on campaigning for candidates on the theory that they offer voters a strictly nonpartisan assessment of where the candidates stand on key issues. However, every voter guide I came across in Unionville had a pretty unambiguous message. The candidates from one party are in favor of life; candidates from the other party apparently favor death. One party’s candidates support religious freedom, so it naturally follows that the other party’s candidates endorse religious tyranny.

Parked outside Unionville Baptist Church is a “Values Bus.” This is another FRC enterprise; the group has claimed to operate two of them. Sizable and eye-catching, it has been repurposed as a mobile get-out-the-vote unit. Values Buses crisscross the country, hauling a crew of firebrand orators and distributing hundreds of thousands of voter guides in contested states.

Perhaps the most dynamic presenter at the Unionville event was J.C. Church, the pastor who introduced Tony Perkins at the start. With great animation and relish, Church launched into a story about the time he turned Ohio red. He recounted how, 12 years ago, he packed his family into a motor home, drove 14,000 miles up and down Ohio, and visited 2,500 churches in all of the state’s 88 counties.

That initiative, called Awake 88 and sponsored by the FRC, is still in place today and includes a substantive data component. “PASTOR—There’s A Sleeping Giant in AMERICA,” the Awake 88 website proclaims, “and it’s sitting in the pews of your church!” The site also promotes timelines, suggested messaging, videos, and other tools with which diligent evangelical and conservative Catholic political organizers can activate voters. One is the Church Voter Lookup, which essentially pairs a church database with a voter database. “You’ll then receive a report that tells you what percentage of your congregation is registered to vote,” the site enthuses, “and what percentage actually voted in the last election!”

The payoff, as J.C. Church joyously recounted, came in 2016. “If you watched that night, the map was turning red, 81 of 88 counties in Ohio went red. You know why? We had to beat the money, the media, our party, the left, our governor, et cetera. And you know why? Because pastors partnered together, were preaching and praying, and they mobilized and used their influence to get people to turn out and vote.”

The Christian nationalist movement is often characterized as a white movement. And indeed, for some of the white people making up its rank and file, it is at least implicitly a white movement. For them, it surely is part of a vision that involves recovering a nation that was once supposedly both Christian and white. It is a form of what now commonly goes by the designation of identity politics: It ties the idea of America to a specific set of approved religious and cultural identities.

At the same time, however, leaders of the movement understand the electoral consequences of the demographic future, so in recent years they have made a significant outreach to conservative Latino and black pastors. It’s safe to assume that these outreach efforts don’t involve any acknowledgment that the culture war crusades driving such recruitment ultimately redound to the benefit of a political party that’s made voter suppression and race-based gerrymandering a prime strategic imperative.

At the Pastors’ Briefing in Unionville, Church went out of his way to stress that his efforts to turn Ohio red had nothing to do with keeping it white. Much of Church’s Awake 88 effort in Ohio specifically targeted Latino pastors. And Church’s disclaimer lines up with a message I’d long been hearing at Christian nationalist gatherings. At the September 2018 Values Voter Summit in Washington, super-lobbyist Ralph Reed made much the same point bluntly. Mocking the mainstream pundits, he said, “They’re always talking about racial issues, it’s all about race and ethnicity. Not true! If you back evangelicals out of the white vote, Donald Trump loses whites.” Reed is absolutely right about these top-line numbers—but in reciting them, he also appears to brush off the ways in which conservative evangelical religion and racism often reinforce each other.

Soon after I attended the pastor gathering in Unionville, I received an invitation to attend an outreach event for Latino pastors in Southern California, sponsored by a group called Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego. It’s a regional affiliate of Church United, which is, in turn, closely allied with the Family Research Council even though it is a separate organization. From the stage of the Oceanview Church in Chula Vista, as in Unionville, speaker after speaker sought to reinforce the same fundamental message: the “correct” issues that conscientious believers must consider at the voting booth.

“Several years ago, our church was made aware of the fact that churches in California would have to be funding or paying for abortions,” said Jack Hibbs, a white pastor and political activist, speaking through a translator who rendered his message in Spanish. “So I refused,” he said. “And so we lost our insurance coverage because God is for ‘life.’”

This is a blatant distortion. California churches do not pay directly for abortions any more than they issue vouchers for Viagra or for abdominal aortic aneurysm screenings. Instead, through the Affordable Care Act, they participate in health insurance exchanges that allow employers statewide to negotiate insurance coverage for their employees—some of whom happen to be women making use of reproductive care services. To characterize this policy as a measure compelling churches to pay for abortions is like saying that private motorists are forced to transport tractor-trailers from state to state because both types of vehicle share the same roads. But it does no real good in these circles to dispute this sham narrative; it has become a popular talking point among Christian nationalist leadership and is thus in all likelihood too valuable in activating the base to retire on grounds of its manifest untruth.

In any event, Hibbs only continued mining the idea of abortion on demand from on high to fashion a full-blown narrative of martyrdom in the face of his church’s alleged complicity in California’s campaign of baby genocide. “We are currently in a lawsuit with the governor’s office to fight for the voice of the unborn child,” he said, his speech ringing with sanctimony. Here, as at several other key points of dramatic tension in his recitation, the audience broke out into applause.

And like his counterparts in Unionville, Hibbs knew just when to circle back to the bottom line: Vote red. “Christian leaders, who is going to do it? Who will stand for the family? Who will stand for marriage? Who will stand for our culture? So I want to encourage you: Get involved. Have your people—you know, it’s legal, register to vote at your church.”

After Hibbs finished speaking, a man in jeans and a nicely fitting blue jacket took the stage. Pastor Netz Gómez comes from the Houses of Light, a nondenominational church in Northridge, California—but his role here was apparently to lean into the darker side of the narrative on offer, and whip up a fantasy of persecution keyed to the dominant culture-war themes of the gathering.

“Look, brothers, we’re seeing an invasion of humanism,” he announced in impassioned Spanish. “Our schools, our laws, our [state] Senate is full of humanism, brothers, and I feel an outrage.” Then he shifted his rancor from the humanists to the still more despicable members of the LGBT community. “Homosexual groups, I have nothing against them,” he claimed, before launching into a diatribe about the things he does, in fact, hold against them. “They are a minimum percentage, not even 3 percent. However, they’re influencing the entire population.” And “that is why we have to rise up in a holy indignation.”

There is a sad irony in inviting people of color who were themselves once—and indeed remain—objects of contempt for other groups of religious nationalists to turn around and marginalize their own designated objects of contempt. But for Gómez, this was clearly just a matter of redrawing the lines between insider and outsider, and he proved quite vigilant in reassuring the members of this congregation that they were, in fact, on the inside.

“Hispanic brothers, you came to the United States of North America as an instrument of God,” he said. “Some of you came here for work, others came here wet, others came here dry!” Everyone in the room laughed knowingly. “I don’t know how you guys came here,” he continued, “but what I know, brothers, is you are here as an instrument of God. And for those who are here as preachers, we have a tremendous responsibility.”

Then Gómez, too, pivoted adroitly to the bottom line. “I loved what my brother is giving us. Check it out,” he enthused, referring to materials that have been passed throughout the room. “He’s giving us a voter guide. It is important you see it. He’s giving us, on the first page, two governor candidates who were selected in the primary elections. Gavin Newsom, who is a Democratic person, is a person who has promoted the homosexual marriage, is one of the spokespersons, one of the people who go to the front of the homosexual groups.” Gómez clearly had no problem spelling out the correct conclusions for believers to draw from the putatively nonpartisan voter guides.

“Please notice here, for example,” he continued, pointing to another part of the voter guide, “where it talks about the lieutenant governor, there are two candidates, and they are Democrats. There was no choice for a person with a little more of values.” Opening the cover, he said, “These two people who are listed here, one of the lieutenant governor candidates has 99 percent of a secular vision. Nothing of God. And the other candidate is a man who has 97 percent. It means that no one is good. Are you understanding me? There is no one to vote for.”

To reassure his audience that political talk at church is all well and good, Gómez added a personal testimonial. “A lot of people are going to tell me, ‘No, brother, don’t meddle in political matters, because they’re going to shut down the church.’ It’s a devil’s lie, brothers. This thing is legal. Here it is written,” he said, gesturing toward a packet of papers, “so you don’t have the slightest doubt.”

The body of literature in question included content from the Culture Impact Team manuals—and as we’ve seen, its hortatory message is, if anything, more partisan than Gómez’s speech had been. The manuals reliably twist and spin a few Bible passages to prove that God opposes gun regulations, the Affordable Care Act, tax increases, public assistance, climate science—in other words, pretty much every position associated with the Republican Party’s opponents.

The game of power really has two sides. On the one hand, you can reach out-side to voters to tell them what they need to hear so they will cast their ballots in your favor. On the other hand, you’re able to step inside and gather with the powerful individuals who actually call the shots. In recent years, the Christian nationalist movement has had extraordinary success in playing the inside game.

Even as some activists mobilize pastors and voters across the nation, others are walking the hallways of power, cultivating leaders and brokering deals between big money and big government. In the Trump administration, activists who in an earlier time would have been identified as extremists lead prayer and Bible study sessions with officials at the highest levels of the executive and legislative branches. At the same time, these same power-minded prophets network among some of America’s wealthiest individuals and families, many of whom fund the careers of the same right-wing politicians, to advance policies favorable to plutocratic fortunes and reinforce the political vision behind this upward distribution of resources.

Outside observers tend to think that the political religion of the conservative movement emanates from the large population of right-wing Christian voters to whom it appeals. According to the conventional wisdom, the basic conservative religious agenda is simply to preserve so-called traditional values—and, perhaps more critically, to restore a sense of pride and privilege to a part of the American population that feels that its status is slipping. But a closer look at the substance of this political religion, in the context of the movement’s involvement with political elites, reveals a very different story. The core political vision of Christian nationalism is decided in the inside game. The Bible, after all, can be used to promote any number of political positions. Many would argue that it generally favors helping the poor. But the Bible of Christian nationalism answers to the requirements of the individuals who fund the movement and grant it power at the highest levels of government.

In the past two years, perhaps no religious leader has had better luck playing the inside game than Ralph Drollinger, head of a group called Capitol Ministries. A onetime NBA athlete and sports evangelist from California, Drollinger now leads weekly Bible study sessions in the White House for Cabinet secretaries and other officials—Mike Pence has reportedly attended—and his operation is rapidly expanding, spawning ministry affiliates in state capitols as well as among political leaders overseas.

“Scripture is replete with illustrations, examples, and commands that serve to underscore the importance of winning governmental authorities for Christ,” Drollinger has written. “A movement for Christ amongst governing authorities holds promise to change the direction of a whole country.” In hopes of learning more, I purchased a ticket to Capitol Ministries’ twentieth anniversary celebration, which took place at the World Ag Expo, an annual agricultural exposition in Tulare, a commercial capital in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Clergyman and retired professi​onal basketball player Ralph D​rollinger at the Capitol Hill ​Club, in Washington, DC on Oct​ober, 2017.
Stephen Voss/Redux

Under the VIP tent at the Ag Expo, Drollinger, who stands more than seven feet tall, took the stage in an exuberant mood, thanking state and regional directors and attributing his success to support from California’s Central Valley. “Capitol Ministries really grew up, I think, on carrots and milk,” he announced—a reference to Central Valley business leaders such as Rob Hilarides, a prosperous dairyman who chairs the board of Capitol Ministries, and charities like the Bolthouse Foundation, founded by the former owners of Bolthouse Farms, one of the largest carrot producers in the region. For at least five years, starting in 2001, the Bolthouse Foundation made donations to CapMin as high as $200,000 each year.

Onstage, Drollinger swiftly communicated how close to power he now is. “All of a sudden, Trump got elected, and Pence chose the best out of our House and our Senate Bible studies, to where we had 12, I think now, 12 of the Cabinet members are strong believers, and they said, come with us, we’d like to start a ministry in the White House Cabinet,” he proudly noted.

Drollinger was keen to assure the crowd that their donations would be put to good use. “Most of the money we raise here goes to the expansion of ministry overseas,” he said. “Our biggest limiting factor is really our ability to resource that.... So that’s what this partnership with you can be all about.”

What’s the difference, in this promiscuously cross-fertilized world of power and piety, between Bible study and policy advocacy? In the curriculum that Drollinger has offered to powerful officials through Capitol Ministries, the distinction is far from clear. He’s sought to lay it all out in his book Rebuilding America: The Biblical Blueprint, and he’s filled in many of the details in publicly available manuals for his weekly Bible study sessions. Copies of his book were available in Tulare, and Drollinger helpfully touched upon some of its main themes at his dinner speech.

The expansiveness of Drollinger’s positions on domestic, economic, and foreign policy underlines the unmistakable truth that today’s Christian nationalism is a political movement, not merely a stance assumed in the values-first traditionalist flank of the American culture wars. Like his fellow radicals at the movement’s forefront, Drollinger has consistently strived for an ever-widening domain of control. To take but one example, he’s preached that the Bible has a very clear message on U.S. fiscal policy. Just a few weeks prior to the Tulare event, Drollinger published a Bible study titled “Solomon’s Advice on How to Eliminate a $20.5 Trillion Debt.” The study guide stressed God’s unwavering devotion to deregulation. “Leaders must incentivize individuals and industries (which includes unencumbering them from the unnecessary burdens of governmental regulations),” Drollinger writes.

Drollinger has offered spiritually infused economic counsel for workers, as well. In a Bible study called “Toward a Better Biblical Understanding of Lawmaking,” he cites 1 Peter 2:18-21, which begins, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.” Drollinger offered this didactic bit of exegesis: “The economy of Rome at the time of Peter’s writing was one of slave and master. The principle however, of submitting to one’s boss carries over to today.”

Drollinger’s reading of the Bible as a blueprint for an economic program of unregulated markets and a compliant workforce has ample precedent—notably in the theological speculations of midcentury figures like the influential Southern California Congregational minister James W. Fifield Jr. With funding from oil and automotive tycoons, Fifield preached a militantly pro-capitalist, Christian libertarian response to what he saw as the rampant and idolatrous statism of the New Deal. America is a Christian nation, he asserted, and government must be kept from interfering with God’s will in market economics. Fifield’s ideas were later embraced by Rousas J. Rushdoony and other nationalist apostles of the Christian Reconstructionist movement. They have mobilized around the idea that the United States is a Redeemer Nation, chosen by God; that it is tasked with becoming an orthodox Christian republic in which women are subordinate to men, education is in the hands of conservative Christians, and no one pays taxes to support the poor. They further insisted that at some point in the past the nation deviated horribly from its mission and fell under the control of liberal elites—pioneering many of the central themes now fueling the activism of today’s Christian nationalist leaders.

This potent mélange of cultural decline and spiritual mobilization is all music to the ears of the agribusiness leaders at Drollinger’s anniversary event in Tulare. Many important issues confront managers of agricultural concerns these days, among them major policy shifts in matters of labor, foreign trade, water access, subsidies, and other regulatory spheres. It’s therefore not surprising that some industry leaders look to a certain kind of religion for answers—not in the sense of praying for rain (although another featured speaker in Tulare, Sonny Perdue, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, has done that, too), but in the sense of working with religious nationalists to elevate the policies and politicians that operate to their benefit.

Of course, those policies, which favor major rollbacks in regulation and worker protections, are bound to exacerbate existing wealth inequalities in the Central Valley. But that’s the way inequality works. On the one hand, it creates concentrations of wealth empowering those proficient in the inside game to hold on to and enhance their privileges. On the other hand, it generates a sense of instability and anxiety among broad sectors of the wider public, which is then ripe for conversion to a religion that promises authority and order.

As I strolled out of the dusty fairground, past the vast exhibition halls full of tractors and fertilizer displays, I realized that the evening’s theological vision was all but inseparable from a certain set of arrangements dictating the course of earthly life. It is the string that ties together a bundle of identities, assumptions, business dealings, and political favors. It is also the latest form of a certain political and social vision that entitles a select few to work the earth with other people’s hands.

By the 2000s, the late C. Peter Wagner, a writer and for-mer professor of “church growth” at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Missions, began to speak of the “seven mountains,” an idea that was emerging in Pentecostal circles. The idea was that God has commanded true Christians to gain control of the “seven molders”—or “mountains”—of culture and influence, including government, business, education, the media, the arts and entertainment, family, and religion, in order prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus. Wagner laid it out in his 2008 book Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World. People he calls “apostles” have, he argues, a “responsibility for taking dominion” over “whatever molder of culture or subdivision God has placed them in.” This, he asserted, is a simple matter of taking “dominion” back from Satan. The collateral costs here are steep: an apocalyptic end for the earth, Rapture for the faithful, and eternal torment for everyone else.

When I first started hearing the term “seven mountains” in evangelical churches and religious circles, it was cloaked in whispers. Maybe it seemed too close to the broad caricature of religious conservatives as theocratic maniacs, even to leaders of the movement.

Sympathetic commentators attacked reporters for scaremongering, and went out of their way to assure the public that dominionism was, in the words of former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, “a movement that could fit in a telephone booth.” There is no longer any hint of shame in the vision of seven mountains or the theocratic dominionism it represents among a subsection of religious nationalists today.

At Unionville Baptist Church, winding down his speech, J.C. Church said, “If we can secure the judiciary side of things, from the Supreme Court on down, we can build a firewall for our children and grandchildren that they just might scale the seven mountains of influence.”

They really mean it. The seven mountains isn’t a whispered fantasy anymore. It is their declared aim, and they think they’re closing in on the peaks.  

This essay is adapted from 
The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism