Katherine Stewart is a great writer and a tireless researcher. Her new book Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism bears marks of both. Unfortunately, the book’s subtitle is not accurate. This book is not about religious nationalism. It is not even a polemic against religious nationalism. It is an attack on one specific type of religious American—conservative Republican voters.
The only reason I read this work is the latest edition of the Council on Foreign Relation’s Journal Foreign Affairs contained a brief review of the work. Considering the book was promoted there, it leaves little doubt that Stewart’s attack on conservative Christians will be influential.
The Smearing of famous Conservative Christians
Stewart’s work uses all the tricks to demonize Christians. Popular Reformed preacher John MacArthur is “a hyper-conservative pastor.”
Douglas Wilson promotes a “particularly perverse brand of antifeminism.”
D. James Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was “militantly reactionary.”
David Barton uses history as a means toward the “domination of the American political system.”
Jerry Falwell embodied “an unsettling mix of love and hate.”
Donald Wildmon is the founder of the American Family Association that “notoriously accused the Harry Potter franchise of promoting witchcraft.”
Even groups like the Institute of Religion and Democracy come in for Stewart’s condemnation. According to Stewart, “The IRD used ‘covert methods’ to wage a shadow war on mainline churches such as the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ.”
Conspicuously not included in Stewart’s attack—Southern Baptist ERLC chief Russell Moore. Let the conservative reader draw his own conclusion about that.
One of Stewart’s attacks on Conservative Christians is on the proper view of America’s history and the Founder’s view of religious liberty.
Stewart sees religious liberty as nothing more than a spurious trick used by conservative Christians to gain power and take for themselves the right to discriminate.
Of course, conservative Christians would point to the obscene inconsistencies in the recent Pandemic lockdowns as proof that Democratic politicians hate Christianity and discriminate whenever they get the chance to do so.
Stewart’s radical leftist reading of America’s founding leaves no room for nuance. Of course, Stewart rejects David Barton’s historical work, but there are other valuable recent historical works including Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? Hall provides significant documentation showing how Christianity influenced the Founders. Stewart’s work would be much improved if it were to consider the actual evidence and not simply engage in ad hominem against conservative historians.
At its core, Stewart’s work is more theological than political. And therefore the work fails. She misunderstands Christianity, its history and its claims. Stewart does little to advance a nuanced understanding of evangelical Christianity. Instead she advances the progressive talking points pushing a view that evangelical voting is mostly about tax benefits.
Stewart is at her best when tracing money and connections between conservative thinkers and “plutocrats” funding conservative think tanks. Yet, it cannot cover for Stewart’s core error. She believes Christianity is a spectrum including left and right views. However, can one actually be a Christian who eschews the historical meaning of the term?
It is doubtful most of these Red-Letter Christian types actually fall within what Christians believed for the last 2,000 years. These modern Social Justice type of Christians are cultural novelties arising out of the peculiar American (and Western) circumstances. What Stewart repeatedly calls “hard right” in her work is nothing more than historical Christianity—it is the orthodoxy held by Protestant and Catholics up until the 20th century.
Christian Nationalism Examined
Stewart defines Christian Nationalism as a political view. She writes, “Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology.” (p. 4). Fair enough. Nationalism is inherently a political ideology, so that definition seems plausible. However, there is a tone of dismissiveness in rejecting the idea that the Christian commitment to this view is rooted in a believer’s religion. That is concerning. Perhaps, it is both religious dogma and political ideology?
That would be my view—that a Christian’s commitment to nationalism has strong theological roots. It is why a Christian can promote the interests of America (modern Evangelicals), William of Orange could promote the interests of the Dutch Republic and why Cardinal Richelieu could promote the interests of France over rival European powers.
Katherine Stewart paints modern Christian political theology as somehow a new 20th and 21 century phenomena arising out an odd interpretation of the Bible. However, this isn’t accurate. Stewart affirms that much of this can be traced back all the way to John Calvin. Yet, it goes much further back to include thinkers like Augustine. In some way, all modern Christians live in the shadow of Constantine (though most Baptists chafe at the notion.)
Eschatology and Politics
“The plan is to convert the world to Christianity and prepare for the second coming of Jesus. Which could involve an apocalyptic end for the earth, rapture for the faithful, and eternal torment for everyone else. That, it would seem, is the intended final destination of the Values Bus.”
This is an assertion of someone unfamiliar with diverse Christian views of eschatology.
Not every Christian is waiting on a rapture or apocalyptic end. In fact, in the paragraph where Stewart makes this comment, the subject is C. Peter Wagner and Dominionist Theology. Wagner of the NAR would appear to hold to a postmillennial view of eschatology—a view where society gets better and better until entering some type of ideal state. This makes sense with a Dominionist view that by working in society the Church can improve it and prepare the way for Christ.
In contrast would be the premillennial dispensationalist view. Its adherents, many Southern Baptists for example, would see things getting progressively worse as we near the actual return of Christ.
This is a huge and important distinction to understand. Likely a majority of evangelicals would lean toward the Left Behind view of a Rapture followed by the Tribulation. They would affirm that society inclines toward sin and this accelerates as get closer to the rise of the Antichrist.
It is a pessimistic view of the present world. What makes it fascinating is that this view gained ground among conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists during the early part of the 20th century. The writings of independent Baptist John R. Rice during the New Deal Era show a decidedly negative view of the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
However, this pessimism about human institutions did not lead to isolation. On the contrary, the pessimism encouraged more involvement. Rice’s Sword of the Lord newspaper promoted routinely conservative political views and political involvement.
So, how can such divergent views of the End Times allow for cooperation? Because all Christians believe their view of biblical principles should influence politics and culture.
Even the leftist Christians mentioned by Stewart want their view of Christianity to be what influences America. Notice how leftist Christians promote Social Justice. “It’s just hard for me to imagine how you can read the Bible and not see themes of social justice throughout,” Stewart quotes a Baptist preacher saying. And, Stewart mentions Red Letter Christians who attempt to combine “Jesus and justice.”
This is really the point—Stewart wants Christianity to affirm Leftist views. She wants Christians to conform to her worldview. She is not only a political advocate but a theological one. Her narrative is clear—there are good Christians (those who understand social justice) and bad Christians (the ones who promote Republicans.)
Stewart seems oblivious to the fact that the Democratic Party is just as extreme on abortion as the GOP. The Democratic Party expels pro-life politicians.
Stewart asserts, “The Bible and 2,000 years of Christian apologetics, after all, has provided ample material to those who argue that abortion rights are compatible with Christian belief and practice.”
Stewart is wrong about the Bible and historic Christian views on abortion. Abortion was condemned by the Early Church Fathers. In fact, as early as 70 AD the Didache condemned the practice. “The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1–2).
Tertullian also affirms in the second century AD, “Now we allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins from conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does.” https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.xi.xxvii.html
Stewart is right that many leading evangelicals were open to abortion early in the US abortion debate. However, this was the result of a lack of sophistication on the part of evangelical ethical theologians and the general liberal leadership of denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention. When conservatives claimed power in the SBC, the abortion position changed.
One could view that as political maneuvering. Or, one could view that as the triumph of the traditional, early Christian view that abortion was wrong.
Liberal and progressive writers want to undermine the Evangelical Christian commitment to pro-life causes because the pro-life issue is a powerful motivator. It is powerful because it simplifies and clarifies policy disputes—it makes the partisan choice between life and death. And that is why progressives inside and outside Christianity are doing all they can to undermine evangelical commitment to this issue.
Stewart’s work is good when it pursues political and financial links between plutocratic elites and evangelical think tanks. However, that strong point is overshadowed by fundamental problems. How can a reader take Stewart’s arguments seriously when it is mostly ad hominem?
This book is another warning shot against Conservative Evangelicals. If a Democrat wins in the November 2020 election, expect vigorous persecution of Christian religious liberty. To prepare for the election battle, Christian readers should be aware of the arguments used to undermine our commitment to life and religious liberty.
 Stewart, p. 71.
 p. 4
 P. 123.
 P. 28.
 P. 13.
 P. 20.
 P. 69.
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