Christian Nationalism as the Keystone - Word&Way

Christian Nationalism as the Keystone

At first blush, an effort known as “Pennsylvania for Christ” seems like a run-of-the-mill evangelistic campaign. Its stated mission is “to reestablish the kingdom of God in PA with word and action. We create events that help us accomplish the mission of putting Christ at the center of our state.” And they’ve gone about their ministry as one would expect. They held an event with speakers and praise music, announced a special time of prayer and fasting, and put out high-production videos featuring a minister, b-roll footage, and inspirational music.

But if you pay closer attention, you’ll notice Pennsylvania for Christ is doing more than trying to save souls. This movement’s praying for votes in the Republican primary for governor. Their slogans like “reestablishing the kingdom of God in Pennsylvania” and “we will claim Pennsylvania for Christ” mean putting State Sen. Doug Mastriano in the governor’s mansion. His ascension would suggest “an awakening is coming.”

“As we move towards the end of this year, we face the greatest transition of our lifetime. We’re about to usher in a total change in Pennsylvania’s administration that will forever change our state and our nation,” lead organizer Juan Rodriguez declared in the video announcing an April 21 event for pastors. “Come and be a part of a great, historical move of God.”

Rodriguez invited people to come to the gathering “to declare war on inaction and evil policy, and we’re going to proclaim that this day belongs to God.” And he proclaimed at the event with other Pentecostal Hispanic ministers that “this state belongs to God.”

Mastriano talked via a translator about his life, prayer, and God. And he campaigned. The projection screen above Mastriano featured an American flag with his name and the text “Senator Doug Mastriano ‘walk as free people’ Jn. 8:36.” His gubernatorial campaign signs were up at the gathering (which include the text “John 8:36”).

Other speakers criticized the separation of church and state and declared in prayer that “this nation was meant for you, father, to serve you first and I pray, father, that we remember and we get back to those principles. I pray, father, for a complete change and a complete turnaround in this nation.”

Screengrab as Doug Mastriano (left) speaks during a Pennsylvania for Christ event on April 21, 2022.

In case that event with about 150 pastors wasn’t enough to help Mastriano find political salvation against other Republican competitors for the gubernatorial nomination, Pennsylvania for Christ launched a special time of prayer and fasting. For the election on May 17.

“We’re covering 21 days of fasting and prayer from here to May 17. Our primaries are at hand, our land and its blessing,” Rodriguez explained in a video. “Listen, I am convinced that only the supernatural power of the prayer of God’s people is the only thing right now that can change our situation and remove the evil that has fallen upon our land.”

Thus, the flier for the prayer focus called it “21 days of fasting for the PA primary election.” To be clear about the prayer request, the group posted on day one of the effort this reminder: “If you watched the PA gubernatorial debate last night there’s no doubt that there’s only one candidate who truly aligns with our Christian values and is willing to pay the price for our God given freedoms. ‘He who the son sets free will be free indeed’ John 8:36. Praying for Mastriano to be our next governor!!”

Those prayers may come true (though we’re not suggesting any divine intervention). Mastriano leads the crowded primary field in the polls ahead of voting on Tuesday. And should he win, a man who espouses Christian Nationalism, has spoken at QAnon events, and was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, would be the Republican nominee in a swing state for a race that pretty much all political analysts call a “tossup” in the general election. So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we travel to the Keystone State to look at the race and what it tells us about Christian Nationalism in today’s politics.

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Keystone Politics

Doug Mastriano doesn’t hide his views about the 2020 election. The state senator helped Rudy Giuliani host a “hearing” in Gettysburg that November to promote baseless charges of election fraud designed to cast doubt on President Joe Biden’s victory in the state. In December of 2020, Mastriano wrote to a top Justice Department official that “election fraud is real and prevalent in Pennsylvania. Yet, despite evidence, our Governor and Secretary of State inexplicably refuse to investigate.”

Taking matters into their own hands, State Senate Republicans ordered an election audit of the 2020 results and installed Mastriano as its head after he made a pilgrimage to a similar effort in Arizona. But he didn’t last long in the position, being replaced because, according to the Senate Republican leader, “he was only ever interested in politics and showmanship and not actually getting things done.” (In fairness to Mastriano, the effort did not go smoothly even after his departure.)

Having made headlines for attending the Capitol insurrection and his relentless efforts to overturn a free and fair election, Mastriano sought a more direct path to power. So, he jumped into the 2022 governor’s race to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Ironically, Mastriano’s participation on Jan. 6 may have helped his candidacy. Despite early calls to resign from legislators in both parties, the additional attention bolstered his standing with the Trumpian base of the GOP.

“His street cred went up,” Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader in the Pennsylvania Senate, told Politico. “There’s no question.”

The polling data bears that out, as Mastriano now holds a double-digit lead over his primary opponents. Worried about his weakness as a general election candidate, some state Republican leaders are engaged in a last-ditch effort to coalesce around a single candidate. Meanwhile, Donald Trump gave an anti-endorsement to one of Mastriano’s most prominent opponents. Unless something significantly changes, he’s in line to be the GOP nominee in one of the nation’s most hotly-contested and closely-watched gubernatorial contests.

Screenshot of polling averages from RealClearPolitics showing Doug Mastriano’s lead (black) growing.

While Mastriano has rejected the label “Christian Nationalist,” he clearly espouses Christian Nationalism and is supported by many other proponents of the ideology that dangerously conflates American and Christian identities. His election night rally on Tuesday will feature worship music from conservative Christian activist and musician Sean Feucht. After a failed run for the Republican nomination to a U.S. House of Representatives seat in California in 2020, Feucht went on a national “Let Us Worship” tour to sing praise songs and blast COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings. Over the past year, Feucht traveled around the country to perform at ReAwaken America events headlined by Michael Flynn (who has endorsed Mastriano) that were full of Christian Nationalism, QAnon ideas, and election conspiracy myths.

Feucht said he’s excited to be at the Mastriano event “as we cheer on Doug for this governor’s race and as we worship and pray and watch God move on behalf of this state and the people that we love.” That sense of divine endorsement for Mastriano is one the candidate himself echoes. (Neither the Mastriano campaign nor Pennsylvania for Christ responded to our requests for comment.)

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Mission from God

The Pennsylvania for Christ event isn’t an anomaly for Mastriano on the campaign trail. He also spoke at other Christian Nationalism events and podcasts, such as on April 23 at an event in Gettysburg called “Patriots Arise for God, Family, and County” along with speakers pushing Christian Nationalism and QAnon conspiracies. Like many Christian Nationalism events, it started with individuals draped in Jewish prayer shawls and blowing shofars to declare the event as a prophetic place with a special presence from the Holy Spirit.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on the holy mountain!” one of the shofar blowers shouted. “The day of the Lord is here!”

The idea of a special anointing at Christian Nationalism events doesn’t end with the opening shofar sounds (and we’ve watched enough of these events to realize people should practice more because those usually aren’t joyful noises). God apparently also is bringing a special word that only those who don’t believe the 2020 election results can hear.

Julie Green, identified simply as a “prophet,” spoke at the Patriots Arise event while wearing a Mastriano campaign sticker. She said she came to Pennsylvania to speak because she had a prophecy about how “God is doing something very special in this state.”

“‘Doug Mastriano, I have you here for such a time as this,’ saith the Lord,” Green saithed. “‘I know it seems like I had forsaken you. All your hard work and the time you put forth to get the truth and election integrity. You know the truth and you have seen so much evidence of what really happened. It is now time to move forward with the plans that you have been given. Yes, Doug, I am here for you and I have not forsaken you. The time has come for their great fall and the great steal to be overturned. So, keep your faith in me.”

Green went on to claim God told her Gov. Tom Wolf would face “a major scandal” and “be removed by my hand” and “treason will be written on him for all eternity.” She added that “the Lord of hosts” also promised to give back that which was “stolen.” After reading some biblical passages, Green added that Trump “is the real president” and “he is coming back and it is going to be by the hand of Almighty God” — an act that will make everyone say “the creator of heaven and earth has to still live” because no person could have achieved that. She closed her presentation by calling Mastriano and other candidates forward so she could pray over them (as she put her hands on their cheeks). Later, Mastriano said, “Julie, your prophecy is on target there exactly.”

In addition to prophetic claims, the rhetoric at the Patriots Arise and similar Christian Nationalism events often includes violent metaphors. As one speaker — introduced as one of the “stud leaders for Jesus” — who spoke before Mastriano at Patriots Arise declared, “We are the boots on the ground. We are the tip of the spear, and the tip of the spear looks a little bit ugly and it gets a little bit bloody every once and awhile. But you know what I found out? The more I stepped out, the more God showed up.”

Mastriano’s endorsed candidate for lieutenant governor, Teddy Daniels, received a gift from the event leader, “prophet” Francine Fosdick, after speaking: a gun target with photos of Democratic politicians (including the current governor and the attorney general who will be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate this year). Fosdick later gave Mastriano a sword inscribed with “for God and country” because, as she told him, “you’ve been fighting for our country, and you’re fighting for our religious rights in Christ Jesus.”

Into this mix, Mastriano took the stage after the event had already played multiple of his campaign ads.

“If Jesus set you free,” Mastriano declared at the start before the crowd responded, “You are free indeed.” He quickly added, “Oh, yeah, it’s about freedom. We’re taking our freedoms back.”

Screengrab of Doug Mastriano speaking at the “Patriots Arise for God, Family, and County” event on April 23, 2022.

In his remarks, he quoted lots of biblical passages and compared himself to Esther and other biblical heroes as he said his campaign came from “the call of God.” He denounced the efforts — “persecution” — to hold him accountable for trying to undermine the 2020 election, saying “God has his hand over us.” But he insisted the efforts aren’t working.

“God turned the tables. ‘Come here, Haman, turning the tables on you,’” he said, again comparing himself to Esther and Democrats and journalists to Haman. “We have the power of God with us. We have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps.”

“God is really working in our state,” Mastriano added. “In November, we’re going to take our state back. My God will make it so.”

Mastriano also denounced “this myth of separation of church and state” and argued the state and nation were founded on Christian beliefs by “these Christian founders of ours.” He even said that claims Ben Franklin was just a deist is bad history (and “crap written by pinheads”). Mastriano instead insisted the famous founder from Pennsylvania just “flirted” with deism, was “a radical rightwing evangelical Christian by today’s standards,” and “recommitted his life to Jesus Christ later on in life.”

This rhetoric isn’t unusual for Mastriano or just something that happened at a couple of events. Using the John 8:36 verse on his campaign material, he calls his campaign the “walk as free people movement”

And, of course, he sometimes makes campaign stops at churches — like later today (May 12) when he’ll hold a rally at Calvary Bible Church in Centre Hall along with Jenna Ellis, who along with Rudy Giuliani lead then-President Donald Trump’s failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the courts (and she also spoke at the Patriots Arise event and wrote a book arguing that the U.S. Constitution should only be interpreted according to the Bible).

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Worst Fears Come True

Warnings from scholars and church leaders about Christian Nationalism’s dangers are growing more frequent and urgent. Mastriano is an embodiment of those fears — an authoritarian in the public square fusing American and Christian identities together towards undemocratic ends.

“As we saw on January 6, 2021, Christian Nationalism poses a direct threat to American democracy and to the integrity of the gospel,” Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, told us.

“Christians should promote our values in the political realm. But Sen. Mastriano uses apocalyptic language to describe his opponents, restricts access to voting, restricts reporters from his rallies, and has worked fervently to overturn the 2020 presidential election,” Carey added. “He and other Christian Nationalists show a willingness to promote their own power over against democratic institutions and processes, all in the name of God.”

Part of the pro-Trump crowd at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Andrew Whitehead, co-author with fellow sociologist Samuel Perry of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, agrees. He told us Mastriano’s politics “does kind of portend a threat to some of the foundations of democracy,” especially since this ideology “in some ways gives them license to do almost anything that they feel God has called or that God would will or desire them to do.”

“We see Americans who really strongly embrace White Christian Nationalism kind of turning away from some of the foundational tenets of democracy, whether it’s voting rights or respecting the results of elections,” Whitehead added. “If he gets in office, what’s to say that he feels as though God desires him to stay in office, even if the will of the people is otherwise?”

Pennsylvania’s Republican leaders are alarmed about Mastriano’s electability in the general election. What should be more concerning to all of us is that a plurality of voters in the GOP primary, many of whom claim to be followers of Jesus, appear to want an authoritarian-minded, conspiracy-peddling, and anti-democratic activist as their next governor.

This is a horror movie about a threat to the integrity of our Christian witness and the vitality of American democracy where the call is coming from inside the house.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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Read earlier reports in “The Partisan Pulpit” series from A Public Witness: