‘Demolishing democracy’: how much danger does Christian nationalism pose?

<span>‘They’re in bed together, based on economic principles, not theology.’</span><span>Photograph: Win McNamee / Getty Images</span>
‘They’re in bed together, based on economic principles, not theology.’Photograph: Win McNamee / Getty Images

Bad Faith, a new documentary on the rise of Christian nationalism in the United States, opens with an obvious, ominous scene – the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 – though trained on details drowned out by the deluge of horror and easily recognizable images of chaos. That Paula White, Donald Trump’s faith adviser, led the Save America rally in a prayer to overturn the results for “a free and fair election”. That mixed among Trump flags, American flags and militia symbols were numerous banners with Christian crosses; on the steps of the Capitol, a “JESUS SAVES” sign blares mere feet from “Lock Them UP!”

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The movement to overturn the 2020 election for Donald Trump was, as the documentary underscores, inextricable from a certain strain of belief in America as a fundamentally Christian nation, separation of church and state be damned. In fact, as Bad Faith argues, Christian nationalism – a political movement to shape the United States according a certain interpretation of evangelical Christianity, by vote or, more recently, by coercion – was the “galvanizing force” behind the attempted hijacking of the democratic process three years ago.

Bad Faith traces the origins of the movement as a savvy, disproportionately powerful political force, from churches to Republican political operatives to donors, either from conviction or convenience. “I think a lot of Americans have a very difficult time accepting and understanding the fact that such treason, such anti-democratic activity, could be carried out by people who basically look like Sunday school teachers,” Stephen Ujlaki, the film’s director, told the Guardian. By looking back on the half-century of Christian nationalist belief, organizing and action, the events of January 6 no longer seemed shocking, but the logical endpoint of anti-democratic ideals. “It was unmistakable, once you looked in the right place and you listened to what people were saying, and you understood how to decode what they were saying,” said Ujlaki. “Little would you know that when they talk about recreating the kingdom of God on earth, they weren’t talking about something spiritual. They were talking about demolishing democracy so that God, ie themselves, could rule. And for that reason, I call it a conspiracy carried out in broad daylight.”

Though Christian nationalists are quick to invoke the founding fathers, whom they claim were directed by a Christian God, the conspiracy has its modern origins in the 1970s, when the Republican political organizer Paul Weyrich began uniting evangelical parishioners and televangelist preachers like Jerry Falwell with Republican party politics opposing desegregation, via a political action group called the Moral Majority. It’s not that evangelical Christians weren’t political – as the film, narrated by Peter Coyote, points out, the idea of America as a white Christian nation undergirded the Ku Klux Klan, which at its peak in 1924 claimed 8 million members, the vast majority of whom were white evangelicals, including 40,000 ministers.

Accordingly, the crucial tie between white evangelicals and the Republican party came not from the 1972 ruling in Roe v Wade, as is often misattributed, but from opposition to a different ruling preventing racially segregated institutions – including schools and churches – from claiming charitable, tax-exempt status. The ruling brought segregated church leaders such as Falwell in alignment with Republican operatives like Weyrich, who cannily realized that emotional arguments against abortion would drive more grassroots support than openly racist talk against desegregation.

Bad Faith highlights Christian nationalism’s “origins in the racism, and the segregation mentality, and you can draw a straight line from that to gerrymandering and voter suppression,” said Anne Nelson, a film participant and author of Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. Christian nationalist supporters, she added, were “very skillful at ... framing and branding and messaging, that makes something like voter suppression look like electoral integrity. And they do this time after time, on every front”.

The film juxtaposes the decades-long roots of the movement with its evolving principles: that America was founded as a Christian nation, for and by Christians; that maintaining such a state is a divinely sanctioned, righteous fight; that anti-democratic or violent tactics should be employed in the name of God. And in recent years, that Donald Trump – a thrice-married, profligate cheater with too many character scandals to name – is, if not a true “Christian”, a divinely sanctioned “King Cyrus” figure sent to disrupt the secular order. “The divisiveness and the distrust of institutions that we’re seeing today was part of a plan,” said Ujlaki. “It was a result of an actual plan, successfully executed to get to this point. And once the institutions are weakened and people have lost faith in elections, there’s room for the strongman to come in.”

In addition to political experts contextualizing the growth and funding of Christian nationalism, Ujlaki also enlisted several prominent, faithful Christians to dispute another of the movement’s prominent myths: that it’s a true distillation of Christian teachings. “It is absolutely not Christian. It is anti-Christian,” said Ujlaki. He quoted the theologian Russell Moore, who calls the movement “heresy” in the film, as well as the Rev William Barber II, whose faith leads him to advocate for wealth redistribution, racial equality and social justice: “They may have their Trump, but they don’t have their Jesus.”

“They don’t care about the actual Jesus,” said Ujlaki. That’s underscored by the money trail, followed by Nelson and others, which leads to several non-evangelical donors – the Koch brothers and more – who nevertheless benefit from the movement’s weakening of institutions and drive to the far right, as with the Tea Party movement in 2010. “They’re in bed together, based on economic principles, not theology,” said Nelson.

And yet theology continues to drive an anti-democratic movement, for which January 6 was not a disaster but a starting point. Bad Faith ends with a note about Project 2025, announced in December 2023 by the Heritage Foundation. The 900-page document builds on Weyrich’s Conservative Manifesto and recommends, among other things: placing all independent government agencies, including the FBI and Department of Justice, under direct presidential control; purging government employees considered “disloyal” to the president; and deploying the military against American citizens under the Insurrection Act.

Some of the recommendations sound far-fetched and extreme, but if Bad Faith has one point, it is to take Christian nationalism as a serious threat to democracy. “These people are not stupid,” said Nelson. “They’re incredibly strategic. They’re extremely good at organization, and they have a very, very long attention span. If they set out an objective, they will give it 40 years to play out, they will build organizations, they will go into electoral districts not a month before the election, but two years before the election, organizing voters.”

In Nelson’s view, major media organizations misunderstood this in the run-up to January 6. “They look at these events as independent grassroots eruptions, like the Tea Party,” she said. “And they’re actually fully integrated as a strategy with massive coordinated funding and implementation. If you don’t see that, you miss the story.”

  • Bad Faith is now available to rent digitally in the US with a UK date to be announced