MAGA movement steeped in Christian nationalism

President Donald Trump poses with a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington on June 1, 2020. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

For openers, please consider two quotes from centuries ago. They are relevant to today’s politics, and in particular to former President Donald Trump and his supporters among those the news media call “the evangelical right.”

The first quote is from 1792, when then Secretary of the Treasury and founding father Alexander Hamilton warned of the risks inherent in a democracy:

When a man unprincipled in private life,  desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper . . . despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow offered that quote in an October 2019 article in the Washington Post. Chernow noted, “From the outset, Hamilton feared an unholy trinity of traits in a future president — ambition, avarice and vanity.” Those traits sounded a lot like then President Trump, he said. Indeed, they still sound a lot like the Trump, who is in command of today’s Republican Party and who still rides the hobby horse, as Hamilton feared.

“The greatest rabble-rouser”

The other relevant and far more recent quote is from Gerald L.K. Smith, a demagogue and virulent anti-Semite in his oratory and his magazine The Cross and the Flag. Smith haunted us from the mid 1930s to his death in 1976.

The sardonic Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken characterized Smith as “the gutsiest and goriest, loudest and lustiest, the deadliest and damndest orator ever heard on this or any other earth.”

A 1936 sample of Smith oratory: “Let me tell you, my friends, that if it is rabble-rousing to praise the flag and the Constitution and to love and revere the Holy Bible, then I pray to God that He in His wisdom will make me the greatest rabble-rouser in the land.”

In more incendiary language, when former General Dwight D. Eisenhower first ran for president in 1952 Smith said Ike was a “Swedish Jew.” Smith was similarly critical of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. For John F. Kennedy in 1960, perhaps being a Roman Catholic was enough damnation.

In 1943, Smith founded the America First Party, which after World War II became the Christian Nationalist Crusade. The Crusade campaigned for racial segregation and for presidential candidates General Douglas MacArthur in 1952 and Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968. Although Smith’s Crusade disbanded in 1977, Christian Nationalism is alive and quite well—or damn threatening—depending on one’s perspective.

Evidence abounds as to the “threatening” part, limited only by how depressed you want to be. Evidence also abounds as to the “well” part, depending on much rapture you anticipate by God’s directed outcome of the 2024 election. The “evidence” abounds because of our tendency to seek out references, including scripture, that support our beliefs, not to find out what’s really going on.

Consider: In some eyes, Jehovah carved out chapter 45 of the Christian Old Testament Book of Isaiah to make a prophecy about the 45th president of the United States. Just as Isaiah 45 says Cyrus of Persia was anointed to deliver Israel from chaos, so it is believed Trump #45 is anointed by God to rescue the U.S. Can’t ask for more solid evidence than the 45s provide!

The Rev. Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest, however, was having none of the anointed version. Empsall, a scholar on Christian resistance to Christian nationalism, likened a Trump rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in September 2022, to a “bizarre altar call”: “You would be forgiven for confusing it for a religious service. Similar to a creed, Trump shared his litany of election-denial lies that have come to constitute the Republican Party platform.”

More recently, in early December, U.S. Representative Mike Johnson said he was called by God to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. At a celebration of right-wing Christian lawmakers, Johnson thanked the event organizers for kicking out news reporters. “I’ll tell you a secret since the media’s not here.” In conversations,

The Lord impressed upon my heart a few weeks before this happened that something was going to occur. And the Lord very specifically told me in my prayers to prepare but to wait. I had this sense that we were going to come to a Red Sea moment in our Republican conference and the country at large.

The awaited moment? The GOP Representatives ratifying God’s anointment.

Another MAGA: Make America Godly Again

The link between Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Christian Nationalism is underscored by another MAGA, “Make America Godly Again.” Search that phrase online to find a “Godly” t-shirt, hat, bumper sticker or other inspiring message. 

Today’s Nationalist Christians are not completely in lockstep with Smith and his acolytes, however. Where Smith was anti-Semitic —to the point of calling for Jews to be sterilized and deported from the U.S. — today’s “evangelicals” support Israel because of its believed role in the second coming of Jesus Christ. There is to be a bloody battle at Armageddon, and Christ ruling the world from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Hence, in their worldview, war is not something to avoid, but something inevitable, desired by God, and celebratory. For people coming from that perspective, the 11,000 children and others so far killed in the Gaza Strip war are “collateral damage.”

I put “evangelical” in quotes above because like “liberal,” “conservative” and other terms, “evangelical” has come to mean whatever one wants it to mean in the U.S. political context.

The respected journal Christianity Today said its working definition of “evangelical” was “bringing together a broad readership of Christians from across the denominational spectrum who find common ground in their shared faith in Christ, commitment to orthodoxy, and passion for proclaiming the gospel.”

However, Christianity Today notes, “The term, without a doubt, is widely misunderstood and frequently misrepresented. In recent years, the term evangelical has become highly politicized, invoked to describe a voting bloc or as a blanket label for those with conservative or, perhaps, fundamentalist views. Meanwhile, some from within the movement have dropped the label or left evangelicalism entirely, coining the monicker exvangelical.” 

Having begun with two quotes, let’s end with two more.

The Economist magazine’s obituary for Benjamin Zephania, a Black British poet, attributed to him an observation on religion: “Religion…gave God a bad name.” (That’s good for a laugh, but we should not forget the clergy and others who have been martyred for testifying to their faith in struggles for human rights.)

The other quote is from scripture, Psalm 50:9, Revised Standard Version. God speaks of the futility of animal sacrifices. The admonition may also be taken as good advice in an election year: “I will accept no bull from your house…”

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz

  • sure

    this was part of why DeSantis tried to run to the right of Trump in his doubling down on Iowa as he knew this is one of the homelands of White Christian Nationalism.
    In the US we might be known for presidential politics or more likely as a substitute for Nebraska in flyover jokes but in Europe we are know for Steve King and his paling around with figures like Geert Wilders.