Is the Old Line Falling to Christian Nationalism? - Word&Way

Is the Old Line Falling to Christian Nationalism?

As Doug Mastriano celebrated his victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania in May, his rally featured a bit of a who’s who of Christian Nationalism. Musician Sean Feucht, who protested COVID-19 health measures, opened the political event with Christian praise music. Mastriano quoted scriptures as he framed his campaign as a spiritual movement. Former Trump lawyer and now Mastriano campaign advisor Jenna Ellis (who’s not a fan of us) praised the Pennsylvania nominee for leading “a great victory in the name of Jesus.”

And another person introduced as a “special guest” spoke that night at the rally in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Dan Cox, a Republican gubernatorial candidate … in Maryland.

Cox, who like Mastriano bused people to Washington, D.C., to join the pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021, told the crowd he was honored to “support my good friend.” He also thanked the Mastrianos for being “the very first couple to endorse my candidacy for the next governor of Maryland.”

“I am so proud and privileged to be here tonight on the night when we take Pennsylvania back for freedom, when we take our country back for secure elections, for security in our own bodies, making sure that mandates are no more, and once again that we are America, the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Cox said to applause and amens. “We’re going to continue to fight and pray.”

Screengrab as Dan Cox (left) points at Doug Mastriano while walking toward the stage at Mastriano’s election night rally in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on May 17, 2022.

Tonight, Cox hopes to celebrate his own victory to lead his state party into this November’s elections. But while seeking votes in the Old Line State, he’s made multiple pilgrimages to his northern neighbor to appear alongside Mastriano. This includes an appearance at the “Patriots Arise for God, Family, and Country” event in Gettysburg in April — the event, which we previously covered, that’s most cited in media reports highlighting the Christian Nationalism of Mastriano.

With these appearances we gain a glimpse into the scale of the danger facing this nation in the midterm elections. Far from merely a fringe candidate here or there, the political strategizing of those pushing anti-democratic Christian Nationalism is organized, connected, and spreading in multiple states.

So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we take you on a road trip to Maryland to understand the dynamics of an internal fight for the soul of the Republican Party. Then we look at the efforts to strengthen Christian Nationalism’s political potency by Republicans and Democrats from other states.

Don’t miss the next issue of A Public Witness. Sign up now for this e-newsletter on faith, culture, and politics! 

Cox, Sure

At first blush, the Maryland Republican Party would seem unlikely soil for Christian Nationalism and conspiracy theories to grow. Gov. Larry Hogan, whose political identity within the GOP is built around being one of Donald Trump’s loudest critics, continues to enjoy high approval ratings as he finishes his second term. In a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, Hogan’s style of moderation may be the GOP’s only path to winning statewide elections.

Dan Cox is eager to test that theory. According to a recent poll, the state delegate is the frontrunner in the GOP primary against Kelly Schulz, who held multiple roles in Hogan’s cabinet and enjoys his endorsement. Cox received a boost last November when Trump, upset by Hogan’s criticism, endorsed Cox as a way of challenging Hogan’s hand-picked successor.

Cox’s rise is drawing renewed attention to his colorful past. His legislative record includes a failed attempt to impeach Hogan over pandemic-related public health measures. Cox equated the governor’s orders to the “deprivation of the religious liberties of the people” because faith communities had to temporarily halt in-person services. Cox also opposed mask mandates, shared conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines, and promoted QAnon ideas on social media.

There’s also the matter of Cox’s actions around the Jan. 6 insurrection. Citing baseless claims about election fraud, the attorney educated at Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law organized three buses to ferry constituents to the rally-turned-riot, which he also attended. Hours into the insurrection, he tweeted that “Pence is a traitor,” which prompted calls by his colleagues to expel him from the legislature.

Dan Cox talks to reporters on June 30, 2022, in Annapolis, Maryland. (Brian Witte/Associated Press)

The controversy around Cox extends to his choice of a running mate. Last September, he selected lawyer and education activist Gordana Schifanelli as his pick for lieutenant governor. Schifanelli made headlines for organizing parents to oppose a local school district because of efforts to encourage dialogue about race and the superintendent’s expressions of support for Black Lives Matter.

The contested race for attorney general also shows these primaries could be a critical fork for the Maryland GOP. While the Hogan-led establishment supports former federal prosecutor Jim Shalleck, the relative inattention to the race leaves many mainstream leaders fretting that Michael Peroutka, the 2004 presidential nominee of the Constitution Party, will win the party’s nomination.

Cameron Joseph recently profiled Petrouka for Vice and documented an expansive history of supporting southern secessionism, neo-Confederate causes, and various conspiracy theories. Blatantly advocating for a Christian Nationalism that will “take a biblical worldview and apply it to civil law and government,” Petrouka refers to the separation of church and state as a “great lie” and believes public education is part of a communist plot. Such attacks on the constitutional principle of church-state separation are common in our politics today (as Jack Jenkins documented yesterday for Religion News Service).

Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way explained to Vice, “Now we’re seeing that within the religious right and that wing of the Republican Party there is an increasingly overt and aggressive Christian Nationalism. Peroutka was kind of out front on that.”

Tonight’s election results will show whether the views of Cox, Petrouka, and Schifanelli now reflect the dominant position within Maryland’s Republican Party. But the vote tallies alone won’t tell us all we need to understand about why we’re seeing the rise of such politicians.

Help sustain the ministry of Word&Way by subscribing to A Public Witness!

Evangelizing for the Big Lie

Like Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Dan Cox’s path toward a gubernatorial run was accelerated by challenging public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For the first time in 400 years we couldn’t go to church but you damn well could go to Walmart, you could go to the liquor store,” Cox claimed. “That was an overreach beyond what we’ve ever experienced.”

Cox continues to sound that message mixed with conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. Add his Christian Nationalism into the mix, and we’ve got a mirror image of the dangerous rhetoric of his ally in the neighboring Keystone State.

But the alliance is more than just ideological. The “Patriots Arise” event in Gettysburg in April showed the multistate ties. In addition to remarks by Mastriano, the gathering also featured Teddy Daniels (who lost his bid for the Republican lieutenant governor nomination despite Mastriano’s endorsement) and three Maryland politicians (Cox, a state senate candidate, and attorney general hopeful Michael Peroutka). Other speakers included Trump election lawyer Jenna Ellis and current Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington.

This wasn’t about winning one election in one state but about building a movement to push Christian Nationalism in multiple state capitals. In between speeches by Maryland politicians, event host Francine Fosdick said that “it is so important that we support these men and women of God due to the fact we’ve got [George] Soros and all of these demoniacs” funding causes she found “evil.” Espousing conspiracy theories — including antisemitic ones featuring Soros — that feature a web of dark forces supposedly stealing elections, Fosdick and others who follow her “prophecies” are trying to build a countereffort.

Cox similarly framed the event and the partisan politicking as a spiritual quest. He also invoked the Bible verse Mastriano puts on his campaign signs (John 8:36) as both candidates conflate spiritual freedom with American freedoms.

“We’re here gathered as patriots, as Christians, as people of faith. And when things look overwhelming, we look to the rock that is higher than us,” Cox said. “When we consider our freedoms, we remember that who the Son has set free, they shall be free indeed.”

With a traditional Christian Nationalism interpretation of America being founded on Christian principles, Cox articulated an understanding of laws and governance that could help explain why he tried to help overturn a free and fair democratic election. For Cox, his religious beliefs trump the Constitution when it comes to governance, thus allowing him to declare democratically-elected officials as illegitimate if they don’t match his interpretation of God and the Bible.

“If we are able to stand up and step up, the light will cause the darkness to flee. We know that. And this is important to our constitutional liberties because the Constitution does not give us our liberties; it merely protects those that were given by God,” he said. “We have natural rights that supersede any governor, any government, any official — all of which is based upon the fact that we are created in his image.”

Cox argued that this belief of standing up for “light” to “supersede” elected officials “can unite our party … because our Republican platform embraces those issues.” As he listed issues from the platform, we assume he’s referring to the 2016 GOP platform since in 2020 the Republicans didn’t actually adopt official positions but instead said they support whatever Trump believes.

Screengrab as Dan Cox speaks at the “Patriots Arise for God, Family, and County” event on April 23, 2022, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

In true Trumpian form, Cox also claimed Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election (fact check: he didn’t). Cox said he “saw the fraud with my own eyes” in Philadelphia that “really rocked the soul of my conscience.” Cox even argued there was also election fraud in Maryland with the state “used as a cloak of unrighteousness” to help put Joe Biden in the White House. Not content to merely repeat lies about the election, Cox also urged the crowd to evangelize on behalf of the big lie about the 2020 election by committing to “go back to our churches and houses of faith and say, ‘This matters.’”

Bragging about receiving another phone call the previous night from Trump, Cox praised Trump for knowing “we have a country to save.” Cox added about Trump: “He loves each one of us.” And Cox encouraged Pennsylvanians to vote for Mastriano, who returned the favor as he urged those in Maryland to back Cox as a “champion” who “God has raised up.”

Not surprisingly for such a candidate, Cox has also been campaigning in churches, meeting with pastors to gain support, and featuring pastors to speak at his campaign events. Such efforts, as we’ve noted with his Pennsylvania visits, also have him hitting the road to collaborate with those pushing Christian Nationalism in other states. For instance, next month he’ll speak in Detroit, Michigan, at an event for Church Militant, a controversial rightwing Catholic group criticized for pushing White nationalism.

Get cutting-edge reporting and analysis like this in your inbox every week by subscribing today! 

Spreading Virus

The close relationship between Mastriano and Cox provides evidence of Christian Nationalism’s influence and spread. A network is emerging of aligned activists, leaders, and politicians working to advance these ideas to the detriment of both Christianity and democracy. Their response to the changing racial, religious, and political demographics of the United States is to push, with increasingly extreme means, an agenda that privileges conservative Christian voices.

“The proliferation of White Christian Nationalist candidates, like Dan Cox and Michael Peroutka, this election cycle is a grave threat to our democracy and to the Christian faith itself,” Rev. Jennifer Butler, founder in residence at Faith in Public Life, told us. “Elected officials must do everything in their power to stop the advancement of those who threaten our freedoms by attempting to establish a hierarchy of religion, race, class, sexuality and gender that takes us back to an earlier era of American history when the rights of so many of God’s children were systematically denied.”

“White Christian Nationalism masquerades as Christianity while undermining the biblical call to treat all human beings with equal dignity and respect. It tramples our Constitution by undermining election integrity, violating religious liberties and the rights of many of our citizens,” Butler added. “Americans and particularly those of us who are White and Christian have a moral responsibility to counter this heretical and seditionist movement by elevating the true teachings of our faith. We must denounce White Christian Nationalism wherever we see it and hold accountable the candidates and elected officials who embrace it.”

If Cox does emerge victorious in the gubernatorial primary, two parties other than the candidate will deserve some credit. Not surprisingly, the first will be Trump himself for using his endorsement to elevate a fringe state delegate into the role of standard bearer. Oddly, the second group will be the Democratic Governors Association.

The DGA spent over a million dollars on TV ads boosting Cox by drawing attention to conservative positions likely to help him in the primary but harm him in the general election. As we previously reported, many are wary of this strategy by the Democratic Party in several states because it assists in moving fringe, anti-democratic views off the sidelines and into regular discourse. The short-term gain is obvious, but the long-term costs are unknown.

Such efforts also inadvertently normalize the Christian Nationalism espoused by Mastriano, Cox, and others. How many more people in Maryland will be exposed to Cox’s problematic views and perceive them as legitimate if he has the stamp of approval from a primary win and the infrastructure of a major political party behind him? All of this could have grave consequences for our democracy and Christianity.

So, we decided to reach out to a different Dan Cox who has a better understanding of religion and democracy. This unrelated (as best as we can tell) Cox is director of the Survey Center on American Life and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“I wonder whether political activism based explicitly on Christian identity or beliefs will prove counterproductive in the long term,” the DC-based Cox told us. “There’s already pretty compelling evidence that the Christian Right has alienated more moderate and liberal Americans, many of whom have left their church or religion altogether.”

“If religious people use state authority to compel compliance on complicated moral questions it risks alienating people from the larger endeavor. Religion becomes an instrument devoted to achieving political goals. And religious beliefs that are coerced lose the power to be personally transformative,” he added. “And I think that’s exactly what’s happening. Young people are less religious, have grown up in less religious homes and are less closely tied to religious communities are increasingly alienated from organized religion partly because of its most public and political manifestation.”

And that’s why we’re so concerned about what happens in the midterm races. In Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and elsewhere, Republicans and Democrats are playing with fire. If they don’t stop, the country and churches within it will get burned.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood 

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