‘Bad Faith’ Sounds the Alarm on the Past and Future of Christian Nationalism - Word&Way

‘Bad Faith’ Sounds the Alarm on the Past and Future of Christian Nationalism

(RNS) — In 1980, conservative political operative Paul Weyrich approached evangelical Christian leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson with a proposal: If they would mobilize their believers to begin voting Republican, he would help them in their quest to roll back many of the civil rights protections they chafed against. Over the next 40 years, Weyrich and his Council for National Policy would guide these groups to greater and greater political success while slowly radicalizing them into a potent force — the Moral Majority — whose particular ideas of Christianity and Christian values drove nearly all their voting decisions.

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

Weyrich was not subtle in his motivations for a reigning political class, telling a group of evangelical leaders in 1980 that “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In “Bad Faith: Christian Nationalism’s Unholy War on Democracy,” filmmakers Stephen Ujlaki and Chris Jones trace the origins of Christian Nationalism from the Ku Klux Klan in the 19th century through the creation of the Moral Majority, the sudden rise of the tea party and the election of Donald Trump. What they uncover is an essential aspect of our current political situation, one that puts evangelical Christianity in new light.

Where many liberals have long dismissed evangelical Christians and their fundamentalist beliefs as ridiculous and absurd, Ujlaki and Brown work to understand them on their own terms — and discover not hypocrisy but a deeply consistent, radically dualistic theology that, for many, is worth defending, even to the point of violence.

Religion News Service spoke with Ujlaki by phone in Los Angeles about the making of “Bad Faith” and the story it tells of how a large swath of religious voters came to believe that President Joe Biden is in league with the devil while Trump is essential to the spiritual salvation of America. The film is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Tubi, and other platforms.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What initially made you want to tell this story?

When Trump got elected, I was shocked. Nobody thought he had a chance. He was obviously a joke. It was never going to happen. When he got elected, I realized I didn’t really know anything about what was going on. I was in a bubble.

Stephen Ujlaki. (Photo by Jon Rou/courtesy Loyola Marymount University)

Stephen Ujlaki. (Photo by Jon Rou/courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)

More than anything, my wanting to make the film was just to find out: How did he do it, how did he win, and who were the Christian evangelicals (who supported him)? But then I discovered all of this plotting, all of these deals, and the fact that those behind them were anti-democratic from the beginning.

The heart of the film is the story of Paul Weyrich and the deal he made with evangelical Christian leaders to use abortion to motivate their people to begin to vote for Republicans. How did that all work?

There were a couple of congressional elections in which the people who were running for office were very anti-abortion. And Weyrich, who had been a Catholic, found that they were successful campaigns, more so than they should have been. Abortion was very successful in ringing people’s bell.

Evangelicals had nothing against abortion. Frankly, they thought it was a good way to keep the Black population down. The Southern Baptist Convention applauded Roe v. Wade in 1973. But Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed to start telling people this is bad, in return for which they were going to get help turning back all the progressive things they hated that the Supreme Court had done and that Lyndon Johnson had done. The Great Society, all of those progressive things that gave a lot of us hope in the 1960s and ’70s were anathema to them, and they were determined to turn that back. So they would faithfully help elect Republicans, and they would get rewarded.

It (abortion) was a great way to cover the fact that they were really trying to stop integration. It’s much better to say that we’re trying to defend the rights of the unborn.

I was surprised to learn that Christian evangelicals were not always so politically engaged.

For many, many years they were completely opposed to political involvement. The public square was the devil’s playground. To convince them to get involved and to vote Republican, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson applied the Manichaeanism of their theology. There’s a good and bad; there’s evil, and there’s God. The Republican Party is the party of God, and the Democratic Party is the party of the devil. They got that.

But this has nothing to do with theology, nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with God or with Jesus. I don’t even consider Christian Nationalism as a religion. What is its ethos? What is its morality? It’s actually amoral, which is why it uses the church. The church lends it that moral, ethical authority that it doesn’t have otherwise.

Jesus is anti-democratic and God likes authoritarian governments? It’s the antithesis of anything Christian.

Would it be fair to say Christian Nationalism’s goal is fascism?

"Bad Faith" poster. (Courtesy image)

“Bad Faith” poster. (Courtesy image)

Yes. It’s pure fascism. It’s pure power. They have been wanting and plotting the same thing for 40-plus years. They were incredibly adept at concealing what their motives were. You had to decode what they were saying. When they were talking about re-creating the kingdom of God on Earth, if you thought they were talking about something theological and spiritual, you would be mistaken. They were talking about replacing democracy with theocracy.

The one exception, and this to me is like the smoking gun in the film, was the Weyrich Manifesto (“The Integration of Theory and Practice,” 2001). Born of his complete frustration with the knowledge that his followers were never going to be the majority, Weyrich argued the only way they were going to create a Christian nation was to bypass democracy. They had to weaken and destroy it, creating a vacuum, which leaves room for the strongman to appear.

If you look around you at the divisiveness and the distrust of institutions that exist today in this country, you will realize how incredibly successful they have been in executing their plan. It’s been like a slow-motion revolution in a way, happening bit by bit all over the place.

And yet even so, Donald Trump seemed like such a reach for people concerned about goodness and morality.

Everything he stood for was against what they believed in. A number of people were saying they would do it but they would be holding their noses, because they didn’t really believe in it.

Then you had his spiritual adviser, a charismatic, Paula White, who had befriended Trump a year or so earlier and was his sort of secret adviser. She started the ball rolling by telling her group that Trump had become a Christian. That was one attempt to deal with the thing. But more was needed.

Then, looking in the Bible, another charismatic Christian came up with the idea that God sometimes uses pagans to accomplish good works on behalf of the Jews. King Cyrus was this horrible pagan who did all kinds of bad things, but he was very good for the Jews.

 And so Trump becomes reinterpreted as, in a sense, part of salvation history?

The notion was that looking at the Bible, we see that what was really happening was God using Trump in order to redeem America and bring it back to God. And as (evangelical Christian and former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security) Elizabeth Neumann says in the film, the notion that they could be living out the prophesies got evangelical Christians so excited they all got behind this notion of Trump as King Cyrus. That’s what God was doing. That was the answer. They figured it out.

There comes a point in the film where you interview a man who seems very thoughtful about Biden’s desire to unify the country. But then his conclusion is that it’s impossible because good and evil cannot work together.

That’s one of the scarier parts of the film. Because he seems like a reasonable, intelligent person, and yet he’s deeply convinced of this, even sad about it, not triumphant. It’s simply a fact, good cannot unify with evil.

The notion that over half the country is in fact demonic and evil, and evangelical Christians are the holy ones and should be allowed to do whatever they need to do in order to take control from the devil, it’s incredible when you think about it.

Watching the film, it certainly sounds like the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see civil war, or something like it, as the path to power.

That’s right. That’s the only way they’re going to get it. They’re not going to get it through democracy, they’re never going to be the majority. They are going to weaken and destroy and then conquer. That’s the game plan.

It’s so hard, people aren’t willing to accept the fact there are sizable numbers of people in this country who don’t believe in democracy. And the national media doesn’t know how to deal with it. They’re constantly accommodating, normalizing, and not fulfilling what I would take to be the mandate of proper newsgathering. They call them “conservative” in The New York Times. They’re not conservative. These are seditionists, treasonous, anti-democratic.

People with this kind of liberal notion of fair and balanced think we’re not going to be over the top like them. But the thing is, one is following the rules and the other isn’t.

It’s so difficult, because you don’t want people to be so terrified that they think it’s hopeless. You don’t want to have to think “I better stay out of this.”

On the contrary, what it should show you is that you need to fight for your democracy if you want to keep it.


RNS is the recipient of an ongoing grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, founded and led by Todd Stiefel, who is an executive producer of “Bad Faith.”