In Youngstown, Ohio, hundreds of people gathered Saturday night to praise their common leader, sing together and participate in ceremonial rituals.
To a casual observer, the gathering had all the trappings of a typical megachurch service. But this was a political meeting, not in a house of worship but in an arena. And instead of worshiping the divine, the crowd was there to announce the evil: Donald Trump and his kind of hateful, deliberately divisive politics.
Similar to a creed, Trump shared his litany of lies that deny the election and have come to shape the Republican Party’s platform.
You’d be forgiven for confusing it with a religious service. Similar to a creed, Trump shared his litany of lies that deny the election and have come to shape the Republican Party’s platform. Like an evil mirror universe version of scripture, attendees heard the disjointed wanderings of QAnon conspiracy theories. And with the feel of an altar call, the crowd raised their index fingers as the organizers played music very similar to the QAnon theme song.
All of this is designed so and once again illustrates how MAGA Republicans use and abuse religious rhetoric and symbols to create a culture where disagreeing with conservative political leaders is no longer seen as a matter of discourse, but as an act of blasphemy .
After long rejecting the historical boundaries of traditional politics and even the basic facts of reality, many of today’s elected Republican leaders are no longer interested in seeking power through democracy. Instead, they seek to connect the MAGA movement with the most cherished religious traditions of their adherents, anchoring their politics as a key tenet of Evangelical and even Catholic Christianity. As a University of Pennsylvania professor and MSNBC contributor Anthea Butler wrote on Twitter after the rally: “You have a major faction of the Republican Party turning into Republican religion…These rallies, especially Trump’s, have effectively mixed religious fervor, calls for violence, and patriotism into a noxious stew.” Your resisting QAnon and MAGA is now your resisting God, country and family, for they are made one and the same in the minds of the MAGA base.
This is all part of what scholars mean by the term “christian nationalism”: The amalgamation of American and Evangelical Christian identities by the Republican Party to proclaim that only conservative Christians count as “real Americans” and that only right-wing Republicans can be considered true Christians. The deliberate linking of MAGA politics with religious imagery is also not just a rhetorical act. Under Christofascism, all that matters is that conservative Christian leaders and their allies are in power. In such a system there is no need for democracy, nor for equal rights.
Trump’s Ohio rally is not the only recent example of a politician usurping religious symbols to seize power. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene labels all her critics “the wicked left”, ignoring the truth that many who object to her embrace of the phrase are “Christian nationalist” in reality hair own colleague Christians. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Republican governor candidate Doug Mastriano, who was present at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 and promoted baseless claims about electoral fraud in 2020, even suggested that the Bible actually forbids Christians to criticize him.
It is not just Republican politicians trying to align MAGA politics with Christianity, but a legion of right-wing preachers and false prophets seeking access to power.
It is not just Republican politicians trying to align MAGA politics with Christianity, but a legion of right-wing preachers and false prophets seeking access to power. Last Wednesday, Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler said that voting the “wrong way” is the same as being “unfaithful” to God. Then on Friday, at the Mike Flynn headlined the “ReAwaken America Tour” in Post Falls, Idaho – a MAGA affair that “QAnon 2.0” — Trump confidant Pastor Mark Burns proclaimed“I come here to declare war on every demonic, demon-possessed Democrat who comes out of the gates of hell!”
Co-opting religion is not only blasphemous; it is also dangerous and has already led to real violence. The most obvious moment, of course, is the use of religious language and symbols before and during the uprising of January 6, 2021 attempt. But even more recently, we’ve seen MAGA supporters – those in the same echo chambers — literally target the FBI, IRS and even the National Archives.
For those who sincerely believe these agencies are carrying out Satan’s orders, storming an FBI field office with an AR-15-esque delusional weapon feels less like attempted murder and more like a sacred obligation.
Of course, all this is not rooted only in Scripture; it actually contradicts Christian values. Right-wing authoritarianism has hijacked large parts of the church to masquerade as religion, and it is the job of faithful churches and faithful people to reclaim and heal what has been seized.
There is hope on this front. For every lost pastor who puts aside his ordination vows to prop up MAGA cult leaders, there is always at least one nearby who will reassure their neighbors about the true teachings of Jesus Christ. For example, wherever Flynn and the “ReAwaken America Tour” travel, locally pastors have finished speak out about something. When the tour visited Post Falls last Friday, Episcopal Bishop Gretchen Rehberg told reporters: “I would urge anyone who thinks Christian nationalism is Christianity to go back and read the Gospels… The words used by Christian nationalists are words of demonization, division, violence, separation. They are not words that Jesus would use.”
Just as the “ReAwaken America Tour” brings more than a dozen pro-Trump preachers on tour in addition to Flynn and Eric Trump, the notorious homophobic evangelist Franklin Graham – who? supported Trump’s election denial and now used heated MAGA rhetoric against the FBI and IRS — prepares to kick off his own latest swing state tour. It is his first since the Big Lie. Here too, Christians speak out against his hijacking of the church for right-wing politics. More than 17,000 people have signed a petition from the organization I lead, Faithful America, call on local event venues not to host Graham’s rallies.
Unfortunately, many moderate and progressive pastors still refuse to speak out against the merger of MAGA and religion, whether it be because they misunderstand the separation of church and state or because they fear losing church members. But the threat of fascism in the name of Jesus posed by the Republican Party’s attempted hostile takeover of the faith is too great a threat to both the Church and democracy to ignore. We Christians must now follow the example of our prophetic brothers and sisters – and of Jesus himself, who repeatedly challenged the corrupt religious and political leaders of his day to put aside their discrimination and thirst for power to love instead all their neighbors, no exceptions.