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Katherine Stewart: The Growth of Christian Nationalism

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Katherine Stewart is a reporter and author who has covered religious liberty, politics, policy, and education for over a decade. Her book The Power Worshippers details how the religious right has risen to power, and how they plan to use that power to impose their vision on American Society.

This episode is guest hosted by Dara Starr Tucker. Following the January 6th insurrection, Dara was inspired to educate others about the political and social issues facing our country, and has become an online political commentator. Her video commentaries have garnered widespread attention, her TikTok and Instagram channels have over a million subscribers, and last year she started the podcast I’m All Over the Place to take a deeper dive into the content she posts.

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Katherine Stewart:

That's a nice way to think about it. I mean, I think it's really important to see that the politicians know they need religious right support, because that is a giant voter turnout machine.

And if you listen to them talk about the resources they're going to bring to bear in election cycles, the number of people that they're going to get knock on doors and make phone calls.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

Dara Starr Tucker:

My guest today is Katherine Stewart, a reporter and author who has covered religious liberty politics, policy, and education for over a decade.

Her book, The Power Worshippers, details how the religious right has risen to power, and how they plan to use that power to impose their vision on American society.

Katherine, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Katherine Stewart:

Dara, it's great to be here. I'm glad to be in conversation with you.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Absolutely. I'm glad to have you here. I'm really excited to talk to you today, because this is a particular area of interest to me. I can't say it's an area of specialty for me, but it is an area of interest to me.

And I have listened to your book and have watched several interviews that you've done on this topic. And so, you are clearly thoroughly researched, and this is an area that it's very meaningful to you and very important to you.

Can you tell me first how you became interested in this topic of specifically Christian nationalism?

Katherine Stewart:

Sure. I got interested in this topic back in 2009. I was living in Santa Barbara, California with my husband and kids. Our daughter was in the first grade. And I learned that something called a Good News Club was coming to her public elementary school.

A Good News Club is an afterschool club that endorses, I would say, like a very deeply fundamentalist version of the Christian faith.

It targets children at the elementary level, just K through five, kids who are too young to read, often with materials that are picture books. And they used children to recruit other children to the club.

I was kind of shocked. Look, I'm a big free speech supporter and I also, don't have a problem with kids talking about their religion at school with their friends. But I do have a problem with kids being deceived into thinking that their public school endorses a particular form of religion.

So, at the end of the day, I started researching. It seemed surprising that this type of club could be legal and widespread in public elementary schools nationwide. I started doing my research. I attended Good News Club from coast to coast.

At every Good News Club that I attended, kids were offered candy often, or points or prizes for recruiting their peers to the club.

And they seem to be doing a kind of end run around this idea that schools shouldn't privilege or endorse any particular form of religion because the kids attending the club would say things like, “I know this religion must be the right religion because they taught it to me in school, and they don't teach things in school that aren't true.”

And Good News Club leaders were clearly trying to take advantage of that misperception among children that public schools have a kind of cloak of authority.

And by placing these clubs in these elementary schools, targeting first graders, second graders, the leaders seemed to be taking advantage of that. So, that's really my way in.

Once I discovered the legal theory that had allowed these clubs to be placed in public schools, I sort of woke up.

I thought to myself, “Wait a second. If they're calling these religious clubs, not religion, but speech from a certain point of view and saying that these activities must be allowed because of the free speech clause of the First Amendment, that's a way of doing and run around the constitutional principle of church state separation.”

“They're getting funding from the school in the form of facility and purity and the sort of great public subsidy. And they're taking advantage of this perception that the public schools have a kind of government stamp of approval.” So, that's really my way in sort of a long way of explaining it.

Dara Starr Tucker:

What was your experience of religion or with religion before that?

Katherine Stewart:

Well, I was raised Jewish and my husband is Catholic, and we actually sent our children for a time to an Episcopalian school.

So, I'm not opposed to religion. We celebrate all of the holidays and I think that religious pluralism and tolerance for religious diversity is a cornerstone of religious freedom in our country.

But one of the critical things that makes that possible is the separation of church and state, where the government and government institutions are not perceived to privilege any religion over any other, but in short, to promote the freedom of all people to worship and believe as they choose.

But not to impose any religion on anyone, not to compel anyone to believe or worship if they don't want to, or support that religion with their tax dollars if they don't want to.

Dara Starr Tucker:

So, your in was specifically through the avenue of education, and obviously, this is a huge target of this particular group of people, this Christian nationalism.

Which I am a product of Christian schooling. That's how I came up. And I went to a Christian college, I went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, against my will.

Katherine Stewart:

I've visited, and they have quite the art collection.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Art?

Katherine Stewart:

Well, actually, I'm sorry. I'm thinking of different …

Dara Starr Tucker:

It's okay. No, their entire campus is just … and if you haven't been there, it looks like someone's concept of what maybe the celestial city is. It was built in the 1960s and it's pretty, pretty freaky architecture.

But so, I definitely understand this whole idea of indoctrination of children. That's how I came up. Certainly not in the public school system, but in the Christian school system.

And I was homeschooled quite a bit growing up as well, which is a big tenant of a lot of Christian nationalists.

But obviously, I am African American, and so my experience of Christian nationalism is heavily impacted by my experience of race in this country. And so, that is a particular conversation that I'm interested in as well.

So, I guess before we really kind of get into the meat of the conversation, can you kind of introduce the audience? Because I really like some of the delineations that you make around what the Christian Nationalist movement is and what it isn't.

So, can you give us kind of your general concept of what Christian nationalism is, at least American Christian nationalism?

Katherine Stewart:

Sure. Well, Christian nationalism is not a religion, and it's not Christianity. I think of it as two things really. It's an ideology. It's basically the idea that America was founded to be a Christian nation, and our laws should be based on the Bible.

And that it's the duty of the right kind of Christians, as we know, Christianity in America is incredibly diverse, but it's incumbent upon the right kind of Christians to quote unquote take it back. So, that's sort of the ideology.

And then it's also, a movement. The movement has a very deep organizational infrastructure. It's very politics focused. It consists of a number of features and organizations that we can group into category.

There are right-wing policy groups, just going to throw out a few names, but this is by no means comprehensive. I'm thinking about the Heritage Foundation, and the Family Research Council, and the American Family Association.

And there are right-wing legal advocacy groups such as The Federalist Society, which grooms and promotes candidates for the courts.

There are groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a kind of legal juggernaut of the religious right. And they're behind a lot of the legal efforts to degrade the principle of separation of church and state and promote the version of Christianity that they prefer over every other.

There are groups like networking organizations like the Council for National Policy that bring together the leaders of a lot of the different organizations with a deep pocketed funders, the people who have the money to sort of keep it all going.

They're right wing think tanks like The Claremont Institute, which is an anti-democracy think tank, doesn't neatly fall within the sort of Christian nationalist movement rubric, but works sort of within that movement in certain ways.

And then you have think tanks that are sort of more religious in their orientation. There are training institutes like the Leadership Institute, which trains and helps promote both religious leaders and political leaders.

And then there's a sort of vast far right messaging sphere that does a terrific job of …

Oh, pastoral organizations, I forgot to mention. But that's very important. Plays an enormous role in drawing these sort of right leaning or conservative leaning pastors into networks.

And then convinces them that they've got to get their congregations out to vote for the supposedly biblical candidates or candidates who will do what movement leaders want them to do.

So, this deep infrastructure is very politics focused, and I think it's really important to know a little bit about how that works so that when we see stuff in the news, we can actually link it to different features of that network.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Yeah, you almost get the sense that it's like a tree. What we see is visible above the ground, but there's a very deep root system that most people may not be aware of.

And then I start to question, like when … I've done many videos. I do social commentary and kind of explainer videos, video essays and things like that online. So, I've done many videos around topics that are either about this or sort of tangential topics.

And it just seems like it's just a never ending string that you pull and pull and pull, and there's just always more to it than what you think.

And there's absolutely no way that you could possibly … I mean, you did an excellent job in your book kind of touching on each of these facets of this movement. But there seems to almost be no end to the organization apparently.

Katherine Stewart:

Yeah. Well, it's very well-funded. And I think when we're analyzing the movement, it's really helpful to distinguish between the leaders and the followers of the movement.

So, when you're talking about the followers, you're talking about a very wide range of people with different interests and ideas.

And when a lot of them cast their vote, say for the candidate who promises to defend the traditional family or protect the babies, they're not really arguing for major changes in the way our government is run. They're really making a kind of statement about what they value in themselves and their identity.

So, their identity sort of as they're more like their affiliations with the larger movement may be quite loose.

But when they're talking about the leaders of the movement, the leaders of these organizations and different pieces of the infrastructure, they're all about power, access to public money, policies that privilege their faith and policies that very importantly, privilege the funders who are giving huge amounts of money to the organization.

Some of these funders are really important to understand because a lot of them, I think, are as motivated, if not more motivated by right-wing economic policy and less concerned about right-wing positions as so-called culture war.

A lot of them are members of extended plutocratic families and have accumulated enormous amounts of wealth, and they want policies that privilege the accumulation of wealth.

So, they want no taxes or low taxes for the rich, minimal regulation of business, minimal regulation that would compel people to respect the environment or they want to erode the rights of the workforce and all that.

But how do you get the rank and file to vote for policies that are actually going to harm them, not help them? You dangle the culture wars as these little shiny bubbles in front of their eyes and get them all worried about a trans kid. Or tell them that there's something called abortion after birth, which there isn't.

But they promote these kinds of lies about that in order to get them really anxious about those issues. And then they get them to vote for those candidates. They know very well, if you can get people to vote on two or three issues, you can control their vote.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Absolutely. Well, it occurs to me, as I said, I grew up in the evangelical movement, very deeply steeped in the evangelical movement. My father was a minister. My parents were not particularly political, so I didn't grow up with this type of nationalism, but it was around us. There were always people who were trying to sort of pull us in to this world in one way or another.

And as I said, of course, being black, that yet my experience of it was a lot different. And my lens of all of this is a little bit different.

But it occurs to me just kind of understanding, knowing how the evangelical world functions, how those churches function versus mainline churches.

With a mainline church, you would have an institution that exists. It's a church that's been built, it's probably existed over many, many years. You have pastors that come and cycle through, and the congregation is loyal to that church body.

Versus an evangelical paradigm where you would have a pastor who himself (usually a man) would establish a church. And therefore, that congregation is loyal to that pastor, and which breeds oftentimes cults of personality.

So, we're going to find one charismatic figure that is central to this whole thing, and we are here out of devotion to him. And what he says is, these are edicts that are being issued from on high. He is the person closest to God.

So, it occurs to me that that framework that an evangelical church member or a Christian would have for understanding their relationship to clergy would be very similar to the relationship that let's say a MAGA Republican would have to Donald Trump himself.

There's a similarity there to me than to a lot of people that is very, very clear. And likely, that's one of the reasons that's someone like Trump or a politician who maybe is not even the most religious or spiritual person because I don't think Donald Trump's faith really ran very deep before he became a politician.

Obviously, there was something in the adherence to this mindset. There was something in them that attracted him, and there was something in him that attracted them. There was a magnetic attraction that happened.

And so, what you're saying here is that the rich and powerful are financially motivated to do what they are doing. And the adherence to these movements are oftentimes motivated by altruistic things such as their belief system and their values.

Are there points at which those things intersect? Do they cross? Look at people like Josh Hawley, or Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Lauren Boebert. Do you feel that it's always this sort of cynical exploitation of the so-called proletariat or the believers?

Is it always exploitative or are there politicians involved in this movement who truly are believers as well?

Katherine Stewart:

I think some are believers and some I would question. Look, we can't know what's in people's hearts, and we can't know to the extent that they're motivated by both power and belief.

But often those two things have a funny way of justifying themselves, especially when power and money are involved. People often sort of see that it's in my self-interest, but they perceive that it's also, in society's self-interest.

But you mentioned something about your father was a pastor and growing up in the black church.

And something that I think is important, or I'd like to talk about is the fact that in recent years, some of the more, I would say, astute and seasoned religious right leaders, people like Ralph Reed are making a huge effort to include pastors of color into their networks.

And particularly they're focused on Latino pastors who are in some instances charismatic or neo charismatic and Pentecostal, which follows a trajectory of what's happening in large parts of Latin America where Catholicism is sort of on the way and Pentecostalism or neo charismatic faith is on the rise.

So, I've attended some of these gatherings that target Latino pastors, and I went to this one in southern California. It was in megachurch in Chula Vista, there were about 400 Latino pastors and their families.

The speakers, some of them spoke English through translators and others just spoke Spanish.

And they were there to sort of draw in these pastors and get them to get political. And they said things like the homosexual agenda is ruining our country, it’s ruining our families. They passed out sheets of information.

They said they're teaching all this stuff in public schools. They showed all this sort of, it was a bizarre mashup of graphics and text that alleged things that are being taught in sex education classes at the K through three level.

And I mean, I found this worksheet alarming because I have two children and I don't want them to learn stuff that's unscientific or inappropriate or age inappropriate.

So, I had to do a little fact checking, and I called all of these different school districts to see, like look through their sex ed classes.

And nothing on the material was being taught either in the manner in which it suggested it was taught, and much of it was not being taught anywhere in any public school at all. But they get people really worried about this stuff.

And then they say, you've got to vote your biblical values. You've got to get your people to vote their biblical values.

And then they actually had a sheet where they named politicians and said, “These Republicans you should vote for because they support a biblical agenda.”

And then there were a couple on the sheet that said, “You can't vote for these because they don't support that.” And they both happened to be a Democrat.

So, they've managed to shift the Latino vote in substantial ways. Between 2016 and 2020, Trump gained 8 to 10 points among Latino voters nationwide.

And they concentrate a lot of this messaging in swing districts and swing states that are critical in election cycles. So, in certain parts of Florida, certain parts of Texas. If you can swing a district, if it's the right district at the right time, you can actually swing a state and that could swing an election.

So, it complicates a lot of the picture. A lot of people characterize the Christian naturalist movement as a white movement.

And certainly, I think for many of the people in the rank and file who are white, it is an implicitly white movement because for them it involves recovering a nation that was supposedly once both Christian and as they like to think of it, all white.

And leaders of the movement, certainly paper over the ways that reactionary religion and racism tend to reinforce one another. And racist conspiracies and ideas, they suffuse the movement in many different ways.

I mean, I've attended a few of these ReAwaken America tours that are sort of traveling Christian Nationalist roadshow put on Mike Flynn. And one of the Trump sons is often there, Roger Stone and a whole bunch of other sort of Trump's most devoted supporters are organizing the event and attend the event.

And you hear every racist conspiracy you can possibly imagine. The great replacement, this idea that liberals or the left, or as they say the communist left, because everyone to the left of them is a communist. They say they're trying to kill off real Americans and replace them with undeserving people of color, immigrants, whatever.

You hear all kinds of crazy, and you actually hear sometimes … this last ReAwaken America tour that I attended in Las Vegas, I heard some really disgraceful messaging from the stage that I would not repeat here.

And then some of the people affiliated with the Claremont Institute, which is this anti-democracy think tank, are sort of vectors and repositories for all kinds of racial hate.

And then of course, in the policy side, the movement is driving support for politicians that are supporting race-based gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like.

So, in this way, like racism and the movement is inextricably linked. But again, this is the movement can see the demographic future very clearly. And they know that the movement will not survive if it remains all white. So, they're engaging in that outreach, and they have been successful in some areas.

Dara Starr Tucker:

It's hard, I will say as a black person, not to see it as an explicitly, I would say, a white supremacist movement. A movement that is inclined to maintain a certain supremacy. And it is obviously I guess a classist movement that exploits the populist message.

But I know that that framing it in that way around race can sometimes be reductive, because obviously, the tent is large. And I grew up around a lot of black Republicans, and so I know that they exist. I know that they're out there and sometimes they can be the most virulent supporters of this type of thing.

But it just occurs to me when you mention the Trump sons and showing up at these meetings, and some of these folks that lead these movements that very clearly are not terribly religious. They are not specifically, at least not evangelical in their religion.

That these environments, and I've seen some clips of these gatherings that you're talking about that they have a very evangelical kind of fervor about them.

Katherine Stewart:

Oh. And there's a lot of religious nationalism from the stage, expressions of it. And if you look at the T-shirts, there's a lot of biblical passages.

I think a lot of these folks didn't identify as religious a few years ago, frankly. But then they see Trump, their hero, who speaks to them, supposedly they think he speaks to the common man.

And when he appears he is got Mark Burns to his right, and he is got Robert Jeffress to his left, these two very political preachers who are spouting this religious nationalism and tying it to Trump.

And so, the people see that, and they think, “Oh, well, that's the right identity to take on, because that's part of this.”

And the reason Trump does it, this sort of sanctimony surrounding himself by these holy men, is its classic religious nationalist authoritarian stuff. He's doing it to bubble wrap himself in sanctimony, to prevent any sort of investigation or criticism of his immorality, of his corruption, of his criminality, his nepotism, and his cronyism.

But this is something that religious nationalist leaders do around the world, whether we're talking about Erdogan in Turkey, we've seen it Moody in India. We're seeing some of that stuff when you look at leaders in places like Iran.

When these leaders bind themselves to reactionary figures in order to consolidate a more authoritarian form of government, then religious nationalism is a great tool for them.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Yeah. When you speak of that, the picture that comes to mind … and again, I'm not involved in evangelicalism anymore. I'm what you would call probably like a deconstructing Christian, barely even could be called a Christian anymore these days. But I'm very much connected to that world because my family and friends are all still in it.

And what comes to mind is that that picture that was taken in — and I don't even know exactly where it was, but there were a group of pastors that had gathered around Trump, and they were all laying hands on him and praying for him.

And a visual like that speaks so loudly to the circles that I grew up in, because it's a sanctioning and it's an enveloping, as you said, of him.

We are men of God that you trust, and we are giving a sense of spiritual authority to this man to bolster his message and to basically endorse him from a spiritual point of view. And that's a very powerful statement to make.

And so, for the folks that I grew up with who are not politically sophisticated, who, as you said, may be like one or two issue voters, that's sometimes all that's needed.

That's all that's needed, is to say, “My pastor endorses him. My pastor says he's good, and he's saying all the right things, and he's against the right things. And so, therefore, I'm going to go and push the button even for people who have not been involved in politics at all, who may not even have been voters before.”

Katherine Stewart:

Right. And then a lot of these conservative leaning pastors are turning their churches essentially into partisan political selves.

Now, I've been to another event called Faith Wins. They held hundreds of events across the country trying to turn out these pastors.

So, I was in this church in Chantilly, Virginia, and dozens of pastors from local area where there. And they're telling them the church is not a cruise ship, the church is a battleship. They're talking about how important it's to get pastors involved in politics.

And then they spread lies about the election. This was, I believe, in 2021. They said, “Oh, you saw what happened in Arizona.” Well, you know what happened in Arizona? This was after a Republican led investigation turned up nothing. They said, “You remember the cyber ninjas? We're going to find all this evidence of illegality.”

And these Republicans who are motivated to find illegality said, “Sorry. We actually found maybe a half dozen or a couple dozen more votes for Biden than we thought.” And yet they were still there talking about …

There was a fellow there who was billed as an election integrity expert. He was a former member of the Trump administration. His name is Hogan Gidley. And he was talking about how dead people were voting. And he said, “You saw what happened in Arizona.”

Well, frankly, most of the pastors perhaps hadn't been reading the news and didn't see the news, or maybe they thought it was fake news. I mean, if you can get people to believe that all fact check news is fake, and if you can spread your propaganda in that way and separate people from the facts, it makes them very easy to control.

And that's one of the reasons for the spread of conspiracism throughout this movement. It's one of the reasons I find the ReAwaken America tours and all the media that sort of thrives on that so deeply, deeply alarming.

Dara Starr Tucker:

The fracturing of the media, the media landscape also, means that people can tune into whatever news affirms the beliefs that they already have.

And so, it would be more difficult, I think, for a movement like this to thrive in the way that it has, if we still had three news networks like we did when I was growing up.

Because at some point, you're going to have to encounter reality. You're going to have to encounter the truth. But they literally do not have to hear any truth other than what they want to hear.

I mean, they started to tell the truth about what was happening with the election on Fox, and people started to drift away to Newsmax and to OAN. And we saw the memos that were happening behind the scenes with Tucker Carlson and others saying, “Oh my God, we can't keep being truthful. We're losing viewers.”

Katherine Stewart:

I know it's really shocking. I also, think that there is some parts of the media system that are frankly in denial because they've thrived for years on this idea that they should cover both sides with respect as a neutral observer.

And it would certainly make it easier for them if they could do so and stay above the fray. But it's like saying the earth is round, the earth is flat. Discuss.

When one side is engaged in a war on the truth, and the other side is trying to talk about policy in the real world, we can't really both sides this.

One of the problems, and it's been quite successful as if the Republican party … and I go to these conferences, these road to majority conferences, or they call it pre vote stand, they used to call it values voters.

And they portray anyone to the left of them as a communist, as a heretic godless … they use every word in the book that they can.

So, they don't see the Democratic Party as a loyal opposition. The idea used to be a little bit like we have different ideas about how to get there, but we all want basically the same things.

One, secure, prosperous country filled with happy families that can make ends meet. Do you know what I'm saying? Like that kind of thing's just a complete breakdown of civil discourse on one side.

And on the left, I still hear at every like talk I give, whatever, how can we reach them? How can we talk to them? How can we draw people out of conspiracism?

My Aunt Sally, or my father-in-law, or whoever, now, believes in these great placement QAnon, all these kinds of crazy conspiracies that all roads lead to Trump.

When people fall down that rabbit hole, those rabbit holes, they're often given this idea Trump is our savior. He is fighting the good fight. He is fighting on behalf of the white hats or whatever they call it. All this kind of crazy stuff.

And I still hear we need to sympathize with their issues and their concerns. I really do not hear that on the right. I just hear mischaracterization after mischaracterization.

Dara Starr Tucker:

So, do you feel like there is a way to draw them in to curtail this? Or do you feel like that's a futile conversation?

Katherine Stewart:

I think those conversations are really worth having for people in your circle still. I don't think that that's where you should put all of your energies.

I think the right has done this, by the way, over five decades through the investment, both money and also, man and woman power and the infrastructure building of their movement.

And this is something that I think was very much neglected among those of us who believe in the principles of pluralism and equality and who seek to preserve our democracy.

I think we need to, although there are people who are doing it now, invest in shoring up institutions and organizations that promote democracy, that get out the vote, we need to protect the vote.

There are, frankly, I think more people in America who believe in equality and pluralism and democracy than people who don't. But they vote in disproportionate numbers because they get the churches out to vote.

So, you don't need a majority to win elections. You just need a disproportionately activated minority.

And look at a country where 40 to 50% of people don't turn out to vote and an additional number have their votes essentially stolen from them through race-based gerrymandering, voter suppression and all that, it just takes that minority that if a pastor can get 90% of his congregation to vote, oh my gosh, those numbers can really make differences. And not just local elections, but collectively in national elections.

We can't forget that a lot of politics is local. One of the things the right is doing now, with its Moms for Liberty groups and the sort of fiction that public schools are turning children into little communists is that they're activating people at the local level.

It's like the Tea Party all over again. And of course, it's supported by infrastructure coming from like the Christian nationalist movement.

I mean, I remember I attended a Family Research Council seminar called School Board Boot Camp, where they're actually getting their people to do this. Well, if no one else gets activated, then they're going to win.

So, it's really important to get engaged in local politics and I think it's worth spending more of your energy sort of doing that.

But those conversations with people who you love or people who you've been friends with in the past or are still friends with are, I think, still worth having. It's really helpful to try to find some kind of common ground and then slowly draw people back into reality.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Yeah, I'm thankful, as I said, because being a black person who grew up in this movement, I'm thankful to not have a ton of family members who have been just pulled down into the abyss with this stuff. There are definitely those that have been.

But I kind of almost feel for white folks who grew up in evangelical circles, because it's so common to have family members who … I have friends who don't talk to their parents anymore.

Katherine Stewart:

It's awful. It's fractured families.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Family relationships have been severed over this kind of thing. And I'm thankful I did not grow up in a deeply politicized church environment, though those folks were always around.

This movement, I know that one of your aims is to take the focus really off of necessarily the cultural or religious aspect of it and really view it through a political lens. And the movement is so well-funded.

I watched a YouTube video a while back on just like where the funding is coming from these groups that put out this type of messaging where they're really getting their funding from. They have always been well-funded.

I saw a conversation that you had with Frank Schaeffer the other day. And that's interesting. I would love to talk to him eventually because at ORU, Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, we had to view his father's films for our humanities courses.

We had four years of humanities, and every year, we would watch his father in those short pants and those grainy, crackly films, how should we then live? So, I'm very, very familiar with Francis Schaeffer. But he mentioned that his father's films had been funded by the DeVos family, I think.

And so, there has always been this sort of deep pocketed funding of these movements. And there are billionaires who are funding a lot of this stuff now. The Ben Shapiro organization is being funded by billionaires, it’s all of it is being funded by billionaires.

Why do you think that they have been so successful in attracting these moneyed folks to their movement? Because I don't think a lot of these — maybe some of them are truly religious or spiritual people, but a lot of them, I would imagine, are not.

Katherine Stewart:

Well, again, it's pointing to those policies that benefit the accumulation of great wealth. I mean, a lot of the religious right funders, I'm thinking about the DeVos Prince family juggernaut, I'm thinking about the Sky Foundation State Policy Network.

They're not just funding like religious right initiatives. They're also funding organizations like the Freedom Foundation, which seeks to, they're promoting what they call right to work laws. They're union busting.

So, it's amazing. Like the religious right is claiming to defend the American family, but they're driving support for politicians and policies that are actually making it much harder for so many families to succeed.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Absolutely. It's one of those ways that you get people to vote against their own self-interest.

I mean, it kind of occurs to me when you talk about the money, where the money comes from, that everyone wants to be a part of a winning team. Everyone wants to be a part of something that is succeeding and that is thriving.

Do you feel that the money and the funding have maybe been a bit of a catalyst for the success of the movement in and of itself? The excitement, the fervor around the movement? Is the money the motivator?

Katherine Stewart:

Absolutely. It's so funny. I mean, money can do a lot. It can give you professional training. It can make everything look nice. It can come up with really great marketing.

I mean, that's one thing the religious right is really good at. They market test stuff. Some of the money comes from McClellan. I mean, we could talk more about the money later, but they invest in messaging marketing, and they do it …

It's interesting. So, the religious right messaging on abortion, for example, is very responsive to our time.

I remember going to this, so was at the Americans United for Life gathering. And this one woman said to me, “A lot of my peers (she was a college student) are really sensitive to issues of qualities. So, we were saying abortion is discrimination based on their age. And that's a message that we found really resonates with our peer group.”

So, they're segmenting messaging, not just for age group and focusing on the youth, but also, focusing on grandmothers and mothers and men and all different sectors.

But they're also, shifting their messaging. Like every year, the March for Life has a different theme. And meanwhile, on the other side, you have the same slogans that have been in use for decades.

And still so many people understand that message, those fundamental messages that a majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support abortion rights in some form.

But I just think about the marketing and the money that goes into the other side, and especially the money that goes into legal advocacy. It turns out a lot of money can buy a lot of law.

The amounts of funding that go through the Federalist Society and its related organizations is astounding.

A few years ago, Robert O'Harrow, the Washington Post, did a really spectacular investigation of the Federalist Society and its head, Leonard Leo. And talked about, I mean, I believe it was like hundreds of millions of dollars. You'd have to go back and look at the piece, but it's well worth reading.

And what they do is they find the perfect plaintiffs. They bring the right cases to the right courts at the right moment. And in doing so, they sort of create these novel legal building blocks that can build up to a very big win.

That's what they did with the Good News Club decision back in 2001. And that's what they've continued to do over time.

Dara Starr Tucker:

It's hard not to see this through the lens of white supremacy. It's hard for me not to see this through the lens of white supremacy. And then I would imagine for someone who is in the LGBTQ community, it's hard not to see this through the lens of very much of like anti anti-gay or anti-trans.

Because I feel like it's difficult to maintain the fervor, the motivation for these movements if there isn't something that you're kicking against. If we can't find a common enemy, it's difficult to organize people in this way for this length of time.

And the amount of money, the amount of time, the length of time that this has happened, it's hard to say that the white dominance is not a motivator, that the dominance or the desire to squelch a particular part of the population is not the motivator for this. It would be really hard to make that case, I think.

Katherine Stewart:

Every authoritarian movement needs a scapegoat.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Yeah. It would be hard not to see it through that lens. And so, obviously there are a group of people that are very much determined to stay in power.

And then there are those of us who are not necessarily part of that group, who would find it in our best interest to ally ourselves with that group of people and say, “Well, the safest position that I can take is to stand beside this group and to stand in lockstep with these people. And maybe I can just get a little bit of the spillover and a little bit of the benefit from being a part of this group.”

Katherine Stewart:

I mean, look, sexuality issues are the rocket fuel of the movement. It's a movement that insists on gender order and LGBTQ identity flies in the face of that and drives them crazy.

And now, it's like I get email from a lot of the different organizations and it's like all LGBTQ all the time because in particular, like trans issues because that's the issue that polls well for them in a way that frankly, abortion rights really doesn't. But make no mistake, they're committed to a gender order.

And in terms of I think the movement leaders, not all of them, but some of them are smart enough or canny enough to distance themselves from overt expressions of racism. But racism is inextricably bound up with the movement overall.

Dara Starr Tucker:

I kind of feel bad when I think of the LGBTQ community because now, it's like, oh, well, black people and other people of color, we knew what it was like to be the target, but it's no longer acceptable to make race the issue that it was 40 or 50 years ago.

It's no longer acceptable, and it's not going to fire people up quite as much. As you said, it's always kind of there underneath the surface, but we are not the clear target.

But it is okay to say, “I don't like gay marriage. I don't believe in that. I don't feel that trans people should exist. I am actively against these people, and what I am doing is clearly and thoroughly motivated by my opposition to their right to exist.” But they can't say that about us anymore.

Katherine Stewart:

Yeah, no, it's true. It's a new target. And then also, the sort of groomer label is incredibly toxic. We want to look for groomers. I mean, we can find lots of them in different sectors of religious organizations.

But to call, not just gay people groomers, but also, to call any public school teacher who happens to read a book having to do with acceptance and equality, a groomer. I mean, it actually inhibits the ability to prosecute like real child abuse, which is a scourge.

And it's so disrespectful to the victims as well as, and I'm talking about the children, child victims of real child abuse, and it's classic authoritarian, can we say fascist?

Dara Starr Tucker:

I was going to ask if you would use that word.

Katherine Stewart:

Scapegoating tactics.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Right. Yeah. It's just kind of crazy to me that in this current age now, that the idea of the exploitation of children can now, be politicized. Now, suddenly this is a huge issue that we just have to deal with. We have to save the children.

And oh my goodness, because I'm guessing that this is all sort of tied to the Jeffrey Epstein thing, and when that happened, then suddenly now, we can create this narrative around the left going off to their private islands and taking the blood of children and all of these crazy conspiracy theories.

But considering the amount of abuse of children that has gone on within the church that has been obfuscated, that has been covered up, that has been completely ignored over many, many years.

And suddenly, we have movies coming out now, about saving the children and how important this issue is when it can be tied to a political agenda. And I find that so deeply offensive.

Katherine Stewart:

Agreed.

Dara Starr Tucker:

And yeah, it amazes me that people for whom morality is supposed to be central could sort of bifurcate this issue in their minds and not take an active position of justice and of advocacy until there is a political motivation to do so. I don't think I will ever be able to get my head around that.

Katherine Stewart:

No. It's always shocking to see that people can say this with a straight face and in a big context where they're not just lying, they're proud of their lies.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Do you feel that they feel that they are lying? And we're talking about the common person, the church goer. We're not talking about politicians or billionaires.

Do you feel that the person on the ground who's now, just saving the children, do you feel that they are actively lying about their concern for saving the children?

Katherine Stewart:

Listen, I think propaganda works, and I think that a lot of the people who have been drawn into this world of conspiracism truly believe, but that doesn't excuse their actions and the hate that they may express.

Listen, there have been all kinds of conspiracies throughout history and scapegoats of those conspiracies. And there have been leaders throughout history that have perpetrated scapegoats.

I mean, let's think about, I don't know, the Uyghurs or any other sort of oppressed group that people have been over time or throughout history, have spread lies about.

I mean, it doesn't excuse the abuse that they're subjected to. And certainly, I think some of the leaders certainly know better. Some of them know exactly what they're doing, and it's disgraceful. They're doing it just to gain power. And they really just think, well, those folks are just — they dehumanize them. They don't think of them as real people.

I was talking the other day to a friend who's Australian, and she said that the indigenous people in Australia when white people came and colonized the country, they classified indigenous people as flora and fauna, not as people, but as part of flora and fauna of Australia. I mean, this is just an old story.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Wow.

Katherine Stewart:

I know, I know. If you can dehumanize people, if you can call them groomers, or if you can see them all as godless, atheist, communist, satanic, then it justifies anything that you'll do to them. Not just stripping away their rights, but also, putting their lives in peril.

I'm sure you saw Mike Huckabee yesterday went on Trinity Broadcasting Network, which is one of the largest religious network.

“This election, next election, if Trump is not allowed to run and win, this election will be (I'm sort of paraphrasing here) decided by, not by ballots, but by bullets. Or it's the last election that would be decided by ballots, not bullets.”

The threat of physical violence and political violence in particular, does not run far from the surface of this movement.

I recently found a lengthy book excerpt by Kevin Slack, who's a professor at Hillsdale College, which is a religious school in Michigan that is very involved in the charter movement and is considered a kind of one of the sort of intellectual nerve centers of movement leaders.

And Clearmont Institute is this very anti-democracy think tank. So, they excerpted a lengthy piece of his forthcoming book in which he said, I'm paraphrasing here again, like, “It's time for Republicans to ally themselves with the AR-15 crowd.”

I mean, there are other folks who are adjacent or involved in the Claremont Institute who have said similar kinds of things where one of them actually, he positive that he should become a warlord when society breaks down. And he is very pro militia.

I mean, this is a threat of political violence, and it must be taken seriously.

And here's the thing. Not all Republicans believe that, but the leadership has not excluded those extremists.

I mean, it just wasn't a few years ago, but a few years ago when that kind of language would've been allowed nowhere near the center of the Republican Party. But there have been great shifts and very rapid shifts if you look at the sweep of history over the last decade.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Yeah. I heard you say in one interview, I don't remember which interview it was, but I heard you say that this was a faction of the Republican party, that basically this kind of hyper nationalistic religious wing of the Republican party that they felt that they could exploit for their gain up to a point. And now, this faction of the party has essentially taken over the party.

And now, they're unable to function without their sanctioning or their approval.

Katherine Stewart:

Absolutely. I mean, if you look at the latest Republican debate, like how many folks on that debate stage said that they would not pardon Donald Trump if he were convicted. I mean, I think it was maybe one, maybe two.

And then if you look at the sort of representative of the sort of Republican party of Old, I'm thinking about Asa Hutchinson off the bat. People like, “Who is Asa Hutchinson?” He is perhaps positing himself as a representative of the Old Guard, and he's pulling, what, 2%.

The movement has really, unfortunately, been taken over by this movement, and particularly other radical factions of the right.

Dara Starr Tucker:

So, I think what I hear you saying is that this is sort of a three-tiered situation. You have billionaires, funders at the top who are motivated by the finances of it.

They want to be able to retain as much of their money as possible. They want to be able to influence environmental policy or policies around regulation of corporations or taxes or whatever it is. They are protecting their financial interests. And so, they are kind of the thrust of being able to fund the entire thing.

Then you have the politicians who are often having their pockets being lined by these billionaires. And obviously, their motivation is to stay in power, is to retain as much power as possible and to self aggrandize.

And then you have the kind of lowly adherence. And many of them are motivated by true ideology and this sort of three-tiered system. I mean, am I interpreting this correctly, that this three-tiered system, they basically are working in tandem and feeding one another and propelling this thing forward?

Katherine Stewart:

That's a nice way to think about it. I mean, I think it's really important to see that the politicians know they need religious right support, because that is a giant voter turnout machine.

I mean, if you listen to them talk about the resources that they're going to bring to bear in election cycles, a number of people that they're going to get knock on doors and make phone calls.

And there have been very sophisticated data initiatives where they will actually look at people's Facebook fees and other social media and figure out, “Oh, do you follow NASCAR? Are you a member of the NRA?” And other measures. “Have you ever signed an anti-abortion thing?”

And if they find those people, they will actually push stuff into their media, targeted media that will get them to vote a certain way.

There was an initiative called United in Purpose that did that. And they've described that on record, the head of that organization described that on video there, sort of all the stuff that they used to do was public.

And then when it got written about, it all of a sudden their website went blank, basically splash page and nothing else. And they haven't spoken too openly about that.

But there is an initiative called Documented that has done a really wonderful job of getting audio from some of these gatherings. The UIP, Ziklag, other organizations that are a bit under the radar, Council for National Policy. And they speak very openly about their goals in these things.

Dara Starr Tucker:

And what's the end goal? What's their goal? What is the ultimate goal here? What do they want to see?

Katherine Stewart:

Well, one could be glib and say they want power. They want policies that they like, they want access to public money, and access to private funding, but the ultimate goal is power.

But then if you think about what they're really doing, a lot of it is destroying, like with education, we going back to where we started our conversation, public education, religious right has a longstanding war on public education. And bear with me for just a minute.

1979, Jerry Falwell said, “I hope to see the day when there are no more public schools, churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.” Well, how's that going to work in a society as irreducibly diverse as ours?

I think you think about the destruction of all these institutions, institutions that have sustained our democracy over time, the judiciary, education, voting rights. They want to dismantle a lot of these things, and it really is the destruction of our democracy itself.

So, what comes after that? I mean, it's a bit of a mystery. Some of them speak about a wonderful order where a certain type of Christian, if you're the right kind, will dominate every aspect of society, including education, finances, law, media, entertainment.

They talk about the seven mountains mandate. What does that look like in practice? I mean, a sort of bureaucratic autocracy? Is that what they're after? Are they after the kind of system that they have in Iran? Is that what they're after?

Dara Starr Tucker:

The folks I grew up with, yes. I would say yes. Absolutely. That's the end game for them. I don't know what the end game is for billionaires, and I don't know what the end game is for the politicians who maybe are not ideologically as plugged into this as they would have you believe.

But I know that the evangelical community that I grew up with, that is the goal. It is a theocracy that they don't necessarily believe in the kind of democracy that our nation is built on.

And so, what's the end game for billionaires? What's the end game for the politicians? Do you have a sense of that?

Katherine Stewart:

Maybe the billionaires think that under that system, it's a cronyism system, they're going to be the ones who are favored as opposed to a place like Poland where a lot of business leaders have actually been arrested recently because they're critical of the government, which is appalling.

But there are always moneyed interests that ally with authoritarian power. Maybe they're thinking, “Well, these little people can't manage their own affairs. So, if we just give them the culture wars, and we all get them to believe in the right religion and have them learn a sort of the right ideology, they'll be on board with this and they'll be happy.” Maybe they think that.

Dara Starr Tucker:

We talk about all this organization and this funding and it's just so overwhelming. It's so extensive when you really start to dig into it.

And I just wonder, does anything similar exist on the left? Are there counter movements? Are these equal and opposing forces, or have they completely out organized and is the left completely out moneyed?

Katherine Stewart:

Both sides are not equivalent. We don't really have any … I speak incredibly broadly. Those of us who want to stand our democracy, don't have a sort of like systematic machine quite the way that they do.

But there are a lot of folks who are working to sustain our voting rights, working to support our democracy, working to defend public education, working to try to sustain our rights.

So, I think the takeover of the courts is really consequential. Movement leaders know if you can get the courts, you can get the country. And that's why that's going to be a real generational struggle.

We can't forget that Mitch McConnell and his allies packed the courts. No, he wouldn't allow Obama to actually legitimately appoint Merrick Garland in his last year. Merrick Garland, who is like hardly a lefty radical. But that's a way of packing the courts.

And then forcing through Amy Coney Barrett at the last minute. Like that's a way of packing the courts. So, the courts have been packed, and we're going to be dealing with that for a while.

But I think it's a moment really for determination. I don't think we can ever underestimate what one person can do.

And I think that, again, like one thing that I have to remind myself all the time, that there are more of those of us who want to preserve our democracy than those who want to tear it down. There are more of us who value pluralism and equality than those of us who don't.

So, I used to think it was sort of like a plus one. When I was young, I'd go to a party or a show or something, and you have your plus one. I think everybody needs to have a plus one when we go to the polls or figure out how to get involved.

Like there are things we can do as individuals, but there are things we can only do when we join together.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Well, thank you for leaving us on a slightly hopeful note, Katherine, after taking in such daunting information. But I think the work that you're doing is so important.

Katherine Stewart:

Me too.

Dara Starr Tucker:

And I appreciate you for taking time to research what you have researched and to write the book, The Power Worshippers, that you have written. Where can people find you online?

Katherine Stewart:

I'm at katherinestewart.me. That's my website. Needs to be updated, but I should do that. And then you can buy Power Worshippers on Amazon or Barnes and Nobles, or bookshop, or anywhere else that books are sold.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Okay. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining me, Katherine, here on Burn the Boats. Everyone make sure to check out her book, The Power Worshippers. The link is going to be in the description.

And I've just had a wonderful time talking to you about a fascinating subject. I'm a communicator and like I said, I do video essays on this kind of thing online, and I'm going to be talking more about this very thing on my platform.

So, thank you for helping me to get a deeper understanding of this topic.

Katherine Stewart:

Thank you so much, Dara. It’s really great to connect with you today.

Dara Starr Tucker:

Thanks again to Katherine for joining me. Make sure to check out her book, The Power Worshippers. The link is in the show description.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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