Politics / March 13, 2024

The Terrifying Christian Nationalist Crusade to Conquer America

An extremist evangelical movement has set itself up to formulate the governing priorities of a second Trump administration.

Chris Lehmann

A statue modeled after the Statue of Liberty holds up a cross instead of a torch with “America Return to Christ” outside of World Overcomers Church in Memphis, Tenn., on January 7, 2018.

(Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

For anyone still reeling from Alabama Senator Katie Britt’s unnerving, mendacious, and alarmist Rick-Santorum-in-drag response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, buckle up: The MAGA movement has a lot more where that came from. Recent reporting highlights the steady rise of Christian nationalism within the GOP. This hard-line group inside the evangelical movement promulgates the lie that America was founded as a theocratic nation-state, and it has set up shop formulating the policy agendas and governing priorities for a second Trump administration.

In Politico, Alexander Ward and Heidi Przybyla chronicle the aims of a think tank called the Center for Renewing America (CRA), headed by Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought. The CRA is among the 100-plus conservative groups collaborating on Project 2025, a detailed and far-ranging blueprint for the Trump White House’s complete takeover of the administrative state. Vought’s policy shop brings a distinctly prophetic worldview to bear on such plans. Ward and Przybyla write:

One document drafted by CRA staff and fellows includes a list of top priorities for CRA in a second Trump term. “Christian nationalism” is one of the bullet points. Others include invoking the Insurrection Act on Day One to quash protests and refusing to spend authorized congressional funds on unwanted projects, a practice banned by lawmakers in the Nixon era.

CRA’s work fits into a broader effort by conservative, MAGA-leaning organizations to influence a future Trump White House. Two people familiar with the plans, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal matters, said that Vought hopes his proximity and regular contact with the former president—he and Trump speak at least once a month, according to one of the people–will elevate Christian nationalism as a focal point in a second Trump term.

William Wolfe, one of Vaught’s CRA associates—and a former State and Defense Department official from Trump’s administration—has worked on drafting a broader mission statement for the Christian nationalist movement, according to Bucks County Beacon reporter Jennifer Cohn. That document explains the ideology of Christian nationalism as a simple expression of Christian dogmatics. “We affirm that God’s law is enduring and binding on all people at all times,” it reads in part. “We further affirm that every political thought must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ.… We deny that there is any objective standard by which to discern justice from injustice outside God’s revelation, written on the heart and most perfectly revealed in Scripture. We deny that faithful civil authorities may rule autonomously from the rule of Christ.”

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If this strikes your ear as dialogue deleted from the Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale on grounds of general implausibility, rest assured that it gets worse. The document goes on to vindicate corporal punishment in the home, argue for the abolition of public education, and call for revived punishment of public blasphemy. It also offers a litany of “short term priorities of Christian nationalism” for ready implementation: “to call our nation, in her laws, formally to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, to declare solemn days of humility and repentance, to abolish abortion, to define marriage as the covenant union of a biological male [and] a biological female, to de-weaponize the federal and state bureaucracies which target Christians for censorship and persecution, to secure our borders and defend against foreign invaders, to recapture our national sovereignty from godless, global entities who present a grave threat to civilization like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Economic Forum etc.” One can only assume broadsides against fluoridation and rampant witchery will find their way into subsequent documents from CRA-aligned scholars.

That such fulminations met with the approval of a senior Pentagon and State Department official now teaming up with an erstwhile OMB colleague to draft the governing blueprint for a second Trump term should be driving campaign coverage for weeks. Instead, our lead political scribes vacuously speculate about Trump’s pending “pivot” to policy seriousness—even as the particulars of such an agenda are hiding in plain theocratic sight.

Nor is the CRA the only tributary of MAGA-branded rancor steeped in pious rhetoric. Last week, Talking Points Memo reporter Josh Kovensky published an investigation into a secret all-male conclave of Christian nationalist adherents assembled under the CRA-like moniker the Society for American Civic Renewal (SACR). Like Vaught’s outfit, SACR appoints itself as the guardian of a true Christian civitas under siege by the unholy forces of secular liberalism. In recruiting influential and well-heeled members, the group dictates a strict “deference to and acceptance of the wisdom of our American and European Christian forebears in the political realm, a traditional understanding of patriarchal leadership in the household, and acceptance of traditional Natural Law in ethics more broadly.”

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Kovensky obtained a series of e-mail exchanges and online postings among SACR members that show this pious and racialized rhetoric veering into ugly applications. One of the group’s principal funders is an Indiana-based heir to a shampoo fortune named Charles Haywood, who styles himself in his voluminous blog posts as a “maximum leader” of a coming moral reawakening in America after the country’s harrowing descent into feudalism and the rise of a body of “armed patronage networks” modeled on the white resistance in Rhodesia. In a 2022 podcast appearance hosted by Michael Anton—the Claremont Institute MAGA apparatchik and (yes) former Trump White House official who authored the Claremont Review’s notorious “Flight 93” essay advocating a Trump presidency as the only rescue plan for a secular-revolutionary putsch at the hands of the Hillary Clinton campaign—Haywood called for “a national divorce” to unleash the power of real Christian America to reclaim its birthright. Unsurprisingly, Haywood is also a generous funder of the Claremont Institute—a longtime clearing house for militant hard-right separatist sentiment and also a key institutional collaborator on Project 2025. Claremont President Ryan P. Williams sits on the SACR board, and Claremont fellow Scott Yenor, a Boise State University political scientist, is an active SACR member and strategist.

The group’s long-term aim is of a piece with the larger Claremont project: to supply the leadership of “an allied future regime.” The group’s mission statement explains that the influential figures it cultivates “would be next generation—not founding participants, but those who joined as the project of civic renewal grows deep roots. That is, men who ‘grow up in the system.’”

Part of this leadership launch is to produce a tight financial and political brotherhood, “especially in business.” The challenge ahead, the statement explains, is to “coordinate allied fraternal networks” and “defend fraternal networks…against attacks by those opposed to civic renewal, and strongly deter such attacks.”

Another unsavory touchstone for this vision is the Afrikaner Broederbond, an armed and well-funded secret society of white supremacists in apartheid South Africa, which cropped up in Yenor’s e-mails. Other SACR adherents have written approvingly of the group, including Haywood, who has also endorsed Jean Raspail’s racist dystopian 1970s novel The Camp of the Saints. In that recommendation, SACR’s champion and funder wrote, “The goal of the Left was always total expropriation of white people and then, if at all possible, their extermination, a goal made explicit by many powerful people in 2020. How, given this history, should white Americans respond?” The Christian nationalist response to that question is clearly, “as militantly and self-righteously as possible.” As the horse-race-obsessed political press dotes on pending Trump makeovers of its own imaginings, this is the policy pivot that’s overtaken the 2024 Trump campaign.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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