Did Christian nationalism lose in the midterms? Sort of — but it's not going away

Mastriano took a beatdown, Boebert's in trouble and Trump is tarnished. But religious extremists are still with us

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published November 10, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump pray outside the U.S. Capitol January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Amid conservatives' disappointed hopes for a "red wave" in the midterm elections, one of the biggest losses appeared, at first, to be the ideological movement of Christian nationalism. In Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano — who rejects the label "Christian nationalist" but perhaps best exemplifies it, with his campaign full of prophets, shofars and spiritual warfare — was trounced at the polls by Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro. In Colorado, far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert, who just this summer declared she was "tired of this separation of church and state junk," narrowly trails her Democratic opponent (in one of this election's biggest surprises) and ended Tuesday night with the sour-grapes prayer, "Jesus, it doesn't matter who is in office because you are king." 

Former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, an early advocate of Christian nationalist policies, called the election results "crashingly disappointing" after two years of pastors mobilizing their congregants to vote for "biblical values." 

"This really should have been a wave election," said Bachmann, "and now it doesn't even look like we're dog-paddling." 

None of this seemed especially likely just weeks ago, given the increasingly explicit embrace of Christian nationalism by many leading Republican politicians and religious leaders. At the National Conservatism conference in September, numerous speakers embraced the term overtly. Daily Wire talk show host Michael Knowles used his speech to argue that "the traditional political order of the United States is Christian nationalism." Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley declared, "Without the Bible, there is no America." Another speaker titled his talk, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christian Nationalism."

That in itself marked a shift. As journalist Katherine Stewart noted at the New Republic, Mastriano has claimed the media "fabricated" the term Christian nationalist; more recently, right-wing advocacy group Family Research Council declared it a slur designed to suppress the Christian vote. Former Trump staffer William Wolfe echoed that charge in October, tweeting that "Cynical, secular & anti-God progressive academics" had tried to weaponize the label against pro-Trump Christians, but conservatives had taken "that slur & turned it into a rallying cry for a movement." 

Indeed, in recent months Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress said that if insisting America was founded as "a Christian nation" and should be one again amounted to Christian nationalism, then "count me in"; leading Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler announced that he was "not about to run from" the label; and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., began using the slogan "Proud Christian Nationalist" on campaign merch.

Two recent books by far-right authors explicitly extolling the ideology — Gab CEO Andrew Torba's "Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide to Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations" and podcaster Stephen Wolfe's "The Case for Christian Nationalism" — have gained significant attention, even though the authors have, respectively, promoted antisemitism or argued against interracial marriage and women's right to vote. 

These explicit endorsements of a previously verboten term sparked its own reaction, led largely by moderate, progressive and even other conservative Christians. As Jack Jenkins and Emily McFarlan Miller reported at Religion News Service last week, a group of prominent Christian leaders called on the House Jan. 6 committee to investigate how Christian nationalism helped "motivate and intensify the insurrection." Last month, around 80 Pennsylvania clerics published an open letter denouncing Christian nationalism as "inseparable from the idol of white supremacy." 

Nonetheless, in a new national survey, scholars of Christian nationalism Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead found that 45 percent of Republicans — representing an estimated 50 million Americans — say the term fits them well.

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So what happened Tuesday night? 

In part, argues Brian Kaylor, editor of the Baptist news outlet Word & Way, "The midterm results suggest Christian nationalism is an electoral drag for the GOP in swing states," even as it helped candidates in red states, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Arkansas governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "cruise to easy victories."

One indication of that was visible in the last-minute campaign ad DeSantis released just days before the election, casting himself as part of the biblical story of creation: After creating the world and taking a day of rest, according to the ad, God had also created "a fighter" — DeSantis, clearly — to defend what he had made.

As journalist Sarah Posner, author of "Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency and the Devastating Legacy they Left Behind," noted, the ad's premise that DeSantis is a divine instrument of salvation seems "so ham-handed that one could imagine DeSantis later claiming it was tongue-in-cheek." And yet, Posner continued, it follows a summer of DeSantis invoking scripture to urge followers to "put on the full armor of God" to fight the left.

As Posner elaborated in an interview with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, the ad also amounted to a challenge for turf Donald Trump has long claimed as his own, with many Trump supporters seeing him as a God-anointed "messianic figure who alone can rescue America." Until DeSantis' ad, Posner said, "None of Trump's potential rivals have so blatantly tried to claim that divine blessing."

Trump responded by firing the first overt salvo in what had been a simmering cold war between himself and DeSantis for control over the future of the GOP. At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday night (ostensibly to support Mastriano's campaign), Trump bestowed a new nickname on his fellow Floridian, calling the governor "Ron DeSanctimonious." 

That rally, as well as another for DeSantis in Florida Sunday night, illustrates some of the contours of how Christian nationalism may function in the Republican Party to come. In Pennsylvania, Trump's rally featured a prayer by Kenneth Copeland, a charismatic "prosperity gospel" televangelist best known for his fleet of private jets. In Florida, DeSantis' rally included a comparatively staid invocation by Southern Baptist pastor Tom Ascol, the runner-up in last June's election to lead the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. 

"Trump's choices look suspect and his embrace of Mastriano makes him look like a religious loser," said Anthea Butler. "Will regular evangelical leaders want to be seen with him? Probably not."

By Monday morning, conservative Christians were contrasting the two invocations, and two preachers, in terms of what each said about the candidates they'd blessed, demonstrating what Christian publication ChurchLeaders called "growing fissures" in the "once impassable unity" of white evangelicals' support for Trump. For many, the verdict was summed up in the words of Ascol's daughter, Hannah Ascol Ellis, who runs communications for her father's ministry. "Trump chose Copeland. DeSantis chose Ascol," she tweeted. "One choice was better than the other." 

After the midterm results — and growing Republican anger over Trump's perceived role in their losses — that assessment echoes the larger takeaway that DeSantis may be replacing Trump as the standard-bearer of the right. 

"Trump's choices look suspect and his embrace of Mastriano makes him look like a religious loser," said Anthea Butler, chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "Will regular evangelical leaders want to be seen with him? Probably not."

But that doesn't mean that Christian nationalism is going away, Butler added. Rather, it might just look different going forward, in a way that reflects the Trump-DeSantis split. 

"A key to Trump's previous success was his strong support from two conservative Christian blocs that haven't always trusted each other: traditional white evangelicals and Pentecostal/charismatic Christians," Kaylor told Salon. The charismatic faction, from Copeland to the sorts of "prophets" who became central to Mastriano's campaign, "remains firmly in Trump's camp." But, Kaylor continued, "If DeSantis can gain support from Southern Baptists and other evangelicals" — a much larger pool of voters — "he could find a path to victory in the presidential primaries." 

But in terms of the durability of Christian nationalism more broadly, perhaps there's no real contest, only a question of branding.

Ascol's prayer for DeSantis on Sunday was less partisan (and, for many, less bizarre) than much of what we've heard from evangelical pastors during the Trump era; on the surface, it sounded so benign that conservatives on Twitter shared it as a challenge, asking whether this was the Christian nationalism the left is so worked up about.

Faced with the choices of "secular nationalism, Muslim nationalism" or "globalism," conservative Southern Baptist leader Voddie Baucham concluded he'd prefer "scary Christian nationalism."

Yet Ascol is no moderate. His candidacy to lead the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) centered on arguments that the denomination had become too "woke" and secular. He's retweeted "stolen election" claims and called Vice President Kamala Harris a "Jezebel" who was "going to hell." In August, he argued in his podcast, "There ought to be a separation between church and state, but not between Christ and state... Governors, presidents, senators — everyone is obligated to Christ." 

Ascol's fellow conservative SBC leader Voddie Baucham, who campaigned alongside him as part of a right-wing leadership slate, embraced the concept of Christian nationalism outright in an interview last month. "If you don't want Christian nationalism, what other kind of nationalism do you want?" Baucham asked. Faced with the choices of "secular nationalism, Muslim nationalism" or "globalism," Baucham concluded, his preference was for "scary Christian nationalism." Ascol's ministry is currently promoting a January conference where he and Baucham will talk more about exactly that "scary Christian nationalism." 

This week, after never-Trump conservative David French tweeted his relief over the defeat of the "dangerously unhinged" Mastriano, Ascol denounced French's version of Christianity as unrecognizable. And in his victory speech Tuesday night, DeSantis invoked scripture again, describing Florida as "the promised land" for conservatives undertaking a "great exodus" from liberal states. 

All that is to say, "It's not one or the other," as Posner told Salon. Rather, both versions of Christian nationalism "can work in tandem with each other, and will." The charismatic movement that has long supported Trump "is too sprawling and unleashed for it to go anywhere," while the more respectable version of Christian nationalism represented by Ascol is a cornerstone of the conservative base. "Maybe they're not going to go as crazy as Mastriano, with his prophet or the ReAwaken America crew, but people like Copeland have huge audiences and that's not going to change," Posner added. "Any Republican would need to patch together all of those constituencies of the Christian right to win."

Christian nationalism "has always been there, and it will remain an organizing principle," added Butler. "It's just like 'American exceptionalism' or 'Make America Great Again': catchwords for gaining power and connecting with the base." 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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Analysis Christian Nationalism Donald Trump Elections Religion Republicans Ron Desantis