Trump expands Republicans' big tent of Christian nationalism

Religion expert Paul Djupe explains Trump's unification of the right is an existential threat to American democracy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 21, 2024 5:45AM (EST)

Trump supporters pray as they await the arrival of President Donald Trump at Latrobe Airport on September 3, 2020 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Trump supporters pray as they await the arrival of President Donald Trump at Latrobe Airport on September 3, 2020 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is not a “godly” or “Christian” person. He does not regularly attend church. He is currently facing hundreds of years in prison in multiple criminal trials for alleged crimes including paying hush money to an adult film star who he had an affair with, stealing classified government documents, tax fraud and leading a coup attempt on Jan. 6 that included a terrorist attack by his MAGA followers on the Capitol. As determined by a court of law, Trump also sexually assaulted E. Jean Carroll.

Trump is threatening to be a dictator on “day one” of his presidency and to create a concentration camp system to immediately deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and immigrants, breaking up families and sending people back to the very dangerous and life-threatening situations they came to America to escape. In keeping with his Hitler-like language and threats, Trump is also promising to get revenge and retribution against the human “vermin” who are “polluting” his and the MAGA movement’s country. Trump has also repeatedly threatened his enemies and those of the MAGA movement with violence – including death.

Trump idolizes tyrants and dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump has even gone so far as to tell Putin to attack America’s allies in Europe and that when/if he takes back the White House, he will do nothing to intervene.

In terms of his character, Trump has shown himself to be a megalomaniac, a malignant narcissist, corrupt, greedy and selfish to the extreme, cruel, violent, likely an apparent sociopath if not a psychopath, and the antithesis of being a humble servant to his fellow man or society more generally. In all, for these and many other reasons, Donald Trump can reasonably be described as evil.

Yet, Trump’s strongest base of support and loyalty comes from the Christian right (White Christian supremacists) and other believers in White Christianity. Public opinion and other research have consistently shown that they view Trump as a weapon in their campaign to end multiracial pluralistic democracy and to turn the country into a White Christofascist new Apartheid plutocracy where “Christians” like them will rule unchallenged over all others. The Christian right also justifies its support of a manifestly un-Christian and evil man such as Donald Trump by incorporating him into their magical thinking and mythologies about prophecy, the end of the world, and Armageddon where he is actually some type of emissary and representative of God on Earth.

The various elements of the American “conservative” movement (more accurately described as neofascists) rationalize their elevation of Trump in many different ways. For the Christian right and others so religiously-minded, “God” and their faith can be twisted to justify anything that serves their selfish needs and wants for personal and collective power and to hurt others.

I recently spoke with Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University and the editor of the Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics series at Temple University Press. Djupe is the co-author of "The Full Armor of God: The Mobilization of Christian Nationalism in American Politics," "The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition" and other books, and co-editor of the new anthology "Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics," to be published next month.

In this conversation, he demystifies the Christian right and its relationship to Trump, the MAGA people and American neofascism. Djupe warns that the Christian right and the larger “Christian nationalist” view themselves as being “victims” who are being “persecuted” in “their America”, and as seen on Jan. 6 and beyond increasingly willing to use violence and force to achieve its goals of ending American democracy and replacing it with a White Christian theocracy. At the end of this conversation, Djupe explains that a very large percentage of Americans actually believe that Donald Trump has been chosen by “god” and that supernatural forces influence the country's politics — and that these fantasies and magical thinking are an existential threat to American democracy and society.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. This is the first of a two-part conversation.

How are you feeling about this election cycle? As an expert on religion and politics?

Not great. Like many paying close attention to American politics and the 2024 election, I have a lot of anxiety.  It is profoundly disturbing that Republican leaders have not repudiated Trump’s prospective abandonment of NATO and walked away from immigration reform at Trump’s behest. But we’ve been living in a hyperpartisan era of the “party of no” for at least 15 years now. What truly scares me is on the ground. A substantial portion of Americans are only interested in democracy if they win and appear willing to accept extreme behavior if they do not. And their views are fenced in by conservative (religious) media and social ties that are amplifying the foundations for extreme, anti-democratic behavior. Many people are seeing wildly inappropriate responses to future events modeled for them.

Here’s an example. Jenny Donnelly, an “apostle” and rising star associated with the New Apostolic Reformation, is organizing state capitol rallies this spring in anticipation of a national gathering in October on The Mall. Nothing is wrong with that, of course, but the basis of the event, the language used, is disturbing. In a speech to the “Esthers” in the audience about flipping school boards (“It is time to protect our kids…”), Donnelly raised the stakes with a tweaked quote from the Book of Esther: “and if we die, we die.” Esther was a biblical queen whose bold approach to the ruler, when she could have been killed for approaching him without invitation, saved her people from persecution and led to the impalement of the king’s adviser. So either the Esthers die for speaking their truth to power or they are victorious and can kill the opposition. She’s not alone, of course, in the use of extreme language. Trump is framing the 2024 election as “our final battle” which will result in retribution against his enemies.

These reactions normalize violence as likely and necessary. And many tend to argue that violence is a calling of the faithful given that the opposition is demonic. Nothing about this is normal and makes me profoundly worried.

The 24/7 American news media structures its narratives around politics as a perpetual crisis stuck in a doom loop of “breaking news” and “emergencies.” More generally, as recent political science research has demonstrated, the crisis frame has come to dominate American political discourse since at least the late 1960s, with a predictably very detrimental impact on our political culture. How do you think about time and trends and these “crises”?

Sometimes enlarging the time perspective is a salve, suggesting we’ve been through this before and will again. In this case, I don’t think that’s true. It’s not like conservative Christianity has ignored politics in the past, or that politicians have ignored conservative Christians. But a rapidly growing segment is being mobilized in a very particular way that will ramp up tensions to the point of violence. It wasn’t that long ago that conservative Christian fellow traveler George W. Bush was pretending that he had never heard of the end times and the apocalypse (in a question about the Iraq War). That certainly isn’t true now with Donald Trump referring to the 2024 election as “our final battle,” “The Seal has been broken,” etc. He is actually articulating or embodying all of the elements of an apocalyptic worldview –  (1) ongoing or imminent war with (2) embodied evil opponents who engage in wanton (3) persecution of Christians, while (4) channeling the power of God through prophecy  –  he is anointed by God for a special role to save Christians. Now we have explicit, overt connections being made between political figures and political events with the end times, which only serves to intensify politics as a zero-sum game. End times belief is clearly nothing new, but the extent of it along with the immediacy for such a large population is new. We have shifted from Judgment Day will occur some day in the future to war with the forces of evil is ongoing. That is, these crises that you mention are now articles of faith.

Who is the “Christian right?” How do we define this movement? What are its factions?

This has been fluid as the organizations have come and gone, the elites change, and the academic terms come in and out of fashion. I am hesitant these days to use ‘the article’ to indicate “the Christian right” –  it’s more amorphous than that. At the same time, there has never been a time in American politics where Christians were more consistently aligned on the right with the Republican Party. The hesitancy comes from a shift in the place of Christian conservatives from insurgents in the Republican Party to the core. As organizations like the Family Research Council appear to have lost their independence, the energy among Christian conservatives has shifted to charismatic entrepreneurs.

Political scientist Napp Nazworth has a nice chapter in our new book about how Christian right organizations once had a measure of power, say, in the George W. Bush Administration to push issues and discipline politicians, but no longer can define their own agenda and the actors they support in the Trump era. At the core of the GOP, they are more concerned with power, which is where the charges of hypocrisy stem from. It is impossible to imagine any organizations or elites on the right calling out Trump for, really, anything.

This is why I tend to resort to public opinion to get a handle on the shape of the movement. The trick is to distinguish those who simply want influence and believe their group should be in power because they think their group would do a better job, which is normal, from those who believe Christians should exercise dominion over the US because God ordained it AND that they need to change the rules to enshrine this outcome.  In one of those rare instances, an academic term  – Christian nationalism – has entered the popular lexicon with some public figures actually embracing the term. Whenever an academic term breaks out of the ivory tower, it is going to lose some meaning and that’s true here. But it’s a useful term for the most problematic forms of the movement. It doesn’t just mean conservative and it’s not just patriotism. Instead, it is an exclusionary conflation of Christian and national identities that entails belief and desire that the US government is to be of, by, and for Christians.

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I get the sense of at least three factions that are largely united in the ends sought, but differ in motivations and justifications. For instance, the mainline Christian right organizations desire power to enact just policies informed by their faith and group interests. New Apostolic Reformation leaders “[D]ecree that we take back and permanently control positions of influence and leadership in each of the Seven Mountains” because “[W]e, the Church, are God’s governing Body on the earth.” Then there are Freedom Caucus Republicans who seem more motivated by threat from racial pluralism. But a general preference for (especially white) conservative Christian control of government appears to be the big tent principle here.

What do we know empirically about “the Christian right” and the “conservative” movement’s relationship with it as measured by public opinion and other data?

Let’s think about this in terms of myths. A common myth is that Christian nationalism is another name for evangelical Protestants. In all of the surveys I have examined, while evangelicals do have the highest rates of Christian nationalist worldviews, but there are many Christian nationalists among mainline Protestant, Catholic, and others. Another prominent myth is that Christian nationalism actually means White Christian nationalism. Actually, African-Americans tend to score higher on typically used measures than Whites, Latinos, and Asians. This is partly a function of more African-Americans identifying as Christians. It also doesn’t necessarily mean African-Americans are opposed to a plural democracy  –  that relationship is more heavily concentrated among Whites. It does mean that there are some very conservative Black people and that their conservatism is linked to a Christian nationalist worldview. It is also common for people to think that exclusionary Christian nationalism is another term for Republicans. Yes, there are more Christian nationalists among Republicans, but we can find adherence to the worldview across the partisan spectrum, even among strong Democrats. Christian nationalist partisans are not just more polarized, expressing ingroup love and outgroup hate. That’s true among Republicans. But Christian nationalist Democrats are actually less polarized  – they like Democrats and Republicans about equally. That is why in our book The Full Armor of God we call Christian nationalism a partisan project. The goal of the movement is to elect Republicans and keep them in power through whatever means necessary.

What did you “see” on Jan. 6 and Trump’s coup attempt and the attack by this MAGA forces on the Capitol in terms of that horrible day (the coup is ongoing) and its relationship to the Christian right and the neofascist movement? Given all that we have learned in the three years since, what do you better understand now?

Outstanding reporting from Jack Jenkins, Emma Green, Tom Edsall, and others documented that “The Capitol Insurrection Was As Christian Nationalist as It Gets” (Edsall’s title). That was clear from the actions of the insurrectionists, such as the Proud Boys praying for God’s blessing, the QAnon Shaman praying in the Senate, and from the symbols, flags, and shouts in the crowd. But it was also true in the public opinion data, where Christian nationalism measured have been strongly and consistently linked to support for the insurrectionists, especially when they were characterized as trying to “stop the steal” – more evidence for the ‘Christian nationalism as partisan project’ tag. I was also aware of the Jericho March, which had participants march around the Capitol and Supreme Court (after the 7th circuit, were the walls to tumble and the marchers to slaughter those inside following the Bible story? Fortunately, we never got the chance to find out).

The one thing I didn’t know at the time was the sizable presence of the New Apostolic Reformation, which set up a stage in front of the Capitol on January 6th. They were clearly in on the planning of that day’s events. I credit the outstanding Charismatic Revival Fury podcast for that nugget (and much more).

Your recent public opinion research and other work on how at least 25 percent of Americans and a higher number of MAGA Trump people actually believe he has been chosen by “God” has gotten much attention in the news media. What are the specifics?  

I remember reading Rick Perry suggesting that Trump was anointed by God (others suggested he was a modern-day King Cyrus) and I just had to find out how many Americans believed such a notion. The first survey I had access to was just among Christians in 2019, so when I wanted to compare those figures with 2020 numbers, I needed to subset the data. Tom Edsall reported these numbers, which I stand by, that a near majority (49.5 percent) of white, weekly, church-attending Protestants believed Trump was anointed by God in March 2020, up from 29 percent a year earlier. I later turned to adult population surveys and found that belief in his anointing peaked in October 2020 at about 30 percent of the adult population (not just Christians) and dropped steadily to 13 percent by March 2023.

A sizable proportion of believers in Trump’s anointing also believe that all presidents are anointed. In March 2023, 11 percent believed all presidents are anointed, just a few points shy of the 13 percent who believed Trump was anointed. These are believers in supernatural forces active in the world in the same way House Speaker Mike Johnson suggested he was anointed by God to be speaker just like all elected representatives are in his view.

This is weird language for a Southern Baptist to use, but Mike Johnson is no ordinary Southern Baptist since he has welcomed ties with the New Apostolic Reformation. In this worldview, wars between good and evil are playing out on the spiritual plane as well as in physical space, which encourages classification of leaders as either godly or of the devil. From this perspective, it is necessary to suggest Trump is anointed since the alternative is evil.

If such a large percentage of the American people actually believe that politics and the larger material world are being driven by supernatural forces – these are pre-Enlightenment, anti-rational and anti-science if not even much older types of primitive beliefs – what does that mean for democracy? Problem solving? Deliberation and consensus? Agree upon reality? These basic requirements for a functioning democracy?

You have a group with extreme status anxiety who believe that their right to rule is God-ordained and that other groups are demonic and persecuting Christians as a result. Odds are that they are not going to have any commitment to decision-making processes that are fair and are not guaranteed to return the ‘right’ answer. And that’s what academics have been finding – Christian nationalists, for instance, are not supportive of scientific findings based on evidence rather than their status. And we’ve found that they are not supportive of democracy and express a willingness to turn to authoritarianism. If democracy hinges on at least a tolerance for pluralism, some parts of the Bible are very clear in opposition to it.

In my data, I’m consistently finding about that at least 40 percent of adult Americans believe that they need to “avoid sinful people.” That number grows among Christians to solid majorities. I’m not sure that democratic politics is possible under these conditions. And that’s what a good number of survey respondents say: “I sometimes wish people like me would secede from the United States to form our own country.” Very few of those who reject Christian nationalism agree with that statement, but a third of ardent Christian nationalists agree.

But the answer to the question also hinges on what we mean by democracy. Without getting too esoteric, democracy needs participants, and Christian nationalists are highly participatory. Since 2016, they indicate on surveys that they engage in more political activities than others. Some of that is due to church involvement, but much seems to come from motivation – motivations that seem downright undemocratic in many cases.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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