As Annika Brockschmidt has already detailed for readers of RD, the June 30 – July 2 Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia was, among other things, a Christian nationalist gathering. At one of its main events, which took place at the Museum of the American Revolution, attendees were treated to Christ-washed American “history” by none other than Tim Barton, son of the Christian Right’s favorite “historian” David Barton and current president of Wallbuilders, the Christian nationalist organization his father founded. Barton told the crowd, falsely, that “The most influential source for the Founding Fathers was the Bible” and lamented that America might not survive, “Because you removed the Biblical foundation that allowed freedom to work.”
This overwrought rhetoric is familiar to me as someone who grew up attending evangelical Christian schools, where reading, writing, and arithmetic—as ends in themselves—took a back seat to inculcating into us a mission to “take our country back for Christ.” We were to accomplish this mission by getting prayer back in public schools and banning abortion in order to stop those evil “libruls” from “killing babies”—thereby condemning the “babies” to hell, according to one of my high school Bible teachers.
The ideas of national decline and possible redemption in which we could play a role imbued our mostly prosaic lives with apocalyptic significance, with all the attendant feelings of anxiety and superiority that thinking brought us. It was our job to “stand for God and His Word”—yes, they made us capitalize the deity’s invariably male pronouns and “Word” when it meant the Bible—no matter how much we had to sacrifice.
Appeals to divine authority and divine callings, as the right-wing organizers behind Moms for Liberty are well aware, can be an effective means of mobilizing people for political action—particularly in conjunction with the targeting of scapegoated “others”. In addition to Tim Barton’s sacralized “history,” their summit featured a “For Such a Time as This” award ceremony—a reference to the Hebrew book of Esther, in which God uses a woman to save the ancient Jewish people, a story that evangelicals invested in “spiritual warfare” commonly invoke as an example to emulate (much like they used the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho in the run-up to the January 6 insurrection).
In addition, each of the Republican presidential candidates who showed up to speak at the Philadelphia summit gave a speech that could be classified as a jeremiad. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy (who, as a Hindu, is the only non-Christian in the bunch) spoke of the “secular cults” of “wokeism,” “transgenderism,” and “climatism” as symptoms of a supposed moral vacuum that must be filled with a new patriotic national identity. Former ambassador to the UN and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, an Indian-American daughter of immigrants who converted to Methodism, similarly railed against a supposed “national self-loathing” evident in things like “critical race theory” that the country ostensibly needs to overcome, in addition to attacking trans rights, peppering her comments with the word “blessed,” and throwing in a “God bless the Supreme Court” for good measure.
Responding to those who might see his rabid culture-warring as a case of misplaced priorities, Florida governor Ron DeSantis claimed “The whole society has decayed” as a result of the Left’s ideology, which makes an anti-woke crusade necessary so that our society will be “rooted in truth” (the existence of transgender people was his primary example of something “not true”). A common theme was the supposed indoctrination of children into “woke” beliefs, with teachers varyingly portrayed as heroic and as part of a villainous cabal devoted to withholding information from parents about their own children. But what the speakers envisioned for education was in fact nothing less than the kind of right-wing indoctrination I grew up with. DeSantis, for example, called for mandatory civics in public schools with curricula shaped by the decidedly right-wing Heritage Foundation and Hillsdale College.
Former president and insurrection fomenter Donald Trump, too, rambled on about how “bad” things are, asserting several times that if Republicans lose in 2024 “there’s no coming back.” And interestingly enough, out of all four presidential candidates present at the summit, it was Trump who not only got the most enthusiastic reception, but also used the most explicit God talk. In his disinformation-filled rant, Trump referred to the “joyful warriors” in the audience as victims of “demented persecution,” spoke of the importance of religious liberty, bragged about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade thanks to justices he appointed, and claimed that Moms for Liberty’s political opponents “hate religion” and “hate God.”
Since the early days of his 2016 run when Trump’s “Two Corinthians” gaffe made many mocking headlines, he’s actually learned to speak evangelical reasonably well—at least for someone with such a limited ability to express essentially coherent thoughts. As I’ve belabored before, clearly recognizing White evangelicals as his most supportive demographic, Trump did more to advance the Christian Right’s agenda than any previous president, including George W. Bush. I expect they will stand by him in the 2024 election cycle, whether or not he receives a prison sentence as a result of the criminal indictments he currently faces.
But whoever Joe Biden faces when the dust settles from the Republican primaries, Democrats will have to be ready to counter the Christian nationalist narrative of decline caused by the “godlessness” of “woke leftists” who have the audacity to believe that queer people should have equal rights and accommodation in the public square; cisgender women and transmasculine folks should have the right to bodily autonomy when it comes to pregnancy; and queer children should have their pronouns respected in school and access to age-appropriate healthcare and information about gender and sexuality. And to respond effectively to Republicans’ narrative of national decline and redemption through the political repression of their opponents, Democrats must refuse to play the game on Republicans’ terms.
The way to respond to accusations of “hating God,” for example, is not to wring your hands and say that Democrats must work harder to “get religion” and attract conservative White Christian voters. Instead, those interested should point to the party’s embrace of pluralism as a coalition of African American Christians, nonreligious Americans, and other groups while putting forth a vision of inclusion and equity.
Make no mistake, the apocalyptic rhetoric featured at the Moms for Liberty summit is dangerous, and we will see much more of it through the 2024 election cycle. This rhetoric divides Americans, peddling fear and demonizing those who don’t fit into a cisheternormative, White supremacist, patriarchal vision of America. The moment we find ourselves in is particularly dangerous for transgender Americans, and the stakes of the election are indeed high. But we can best push back on the spiritual warfare rhetoric that makes some of us into “enemies of God” by upholding our common humanity and the value of pluralist coexistence, refusing to accept debates on terms set by Christian fascists.