This past weekend, infamous FBI fibber Michael Flynn stood on a stage at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and spoke his truth: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.” Christian nationalist mic drop. He’d finally said the quiet part out loud.
Which, to be fair, was maybe not even the craziest thing that happened at Cornerstone last weekend as it hosted podcast host Clay Clark’s “Reawaken America Tour” — a shitshow so very spectacular that Cornerstone, the church of famed end times Christian Zionist John Hagee, had to release a face-saving statement saying that maybe, just maybe, things had gone a little too far even for them (“Cornerstone Church is not associated with this organization and does not endorse their views.”) There was a woman wearing a Jewish-themed prayer shawl and blowing on a ram’s horn, because, as she explained it, “Demons tremble at the sound of the shofar.” There was My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell and disgraced political operative Roger Stone on hand to provide the event with a legitimate dose of illegitimacy. There was Alex Jones growling at attendees that “the devil’s reign on this planet is coming to an end” and that Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama know that “they chose SATAN! AND THEY! ARE GOING! TO FAIL!” There were rousing rounds of the oddly-devised anti-Biden chant “Let’s go, Brandon” and worship music provided by Sean Feucht, graciously in attendance thanks to his failed run for California’s state legislature. There was also, presumably, nary a vaccinated person in the house.
But Flynn’s statements were notable not just because the quiet part was said out loud but because the quiet part has been getting louder and louder, with political and religious leaders calling explicitly for what amounts to a theocracy. Just last month, Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel used the debate stage to opine that “we should be instilling faith in the classroom, in the workplace, and everywhere in society” because, as far as he’s concerned, “there’s no such thing as a separation of church and state.” (“We stand with General Flynn,” Mandel tweeted on Saturday.) Last year, Bill Barr informed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast that, to the extent such a separation does exist, it’s thanks to “militant secularists” who don’t understand that America would be better off if we just let Christians run the show. “It’s been a while since people were willing to say so loudly and so publicly that America is a Christian nation,” says Philip Gorski, a sociologist of religion at Yale. “You didn’t hear George Bush, senior or junior, saying anything like that. Certainly they had a way of alluding to Christian elements of the American experiment, and they could speak to Christians in a language that was a little bit veiled. But they never would have said anything like what Michael Flynn said the other day—surely not in public and probably not even in private.”
Naturally this kind of Christian nationalist talk ruffles major feathers, and with good reason. It sounds crazy because it is crazy. What would a formally Christian America actually look like? How would it be achieved? How would it get around the Constitution? Which version of Christianity would we use? And what would we do with the millions of citizens who happen to disbelieve in that “one religion under God?”
On the surface, such questions may seem like a logical retort to Flynn’s, but they also distort the fundamental issue. In pointing out the impracticalities of the logistics, such questions basically imply that Flynn can’t really mean what he’s saying. “Hell yes, he means it,” says Anthea Butler, professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania and author of White Evangelical Racism. “And whether or not he means it, somebody hearing it will mean it and believe it. What matters is that it’s being said, and somebody is receiving that message.”
More to the point, somebody is out there looking to receive it. The message that America should be a Christian nation, taken quite literally, is foundational to the Christian right. It is not a fringe belief but rather a rallying cry, the principle that animates — and excuses — their foray into the messy political realm, into the lowly things of this world. According to Matthew 25:31-46, when Jesus returns to earth, “All the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” In this so-called Judgment of the Nations, godly countries will be rewarded and ungodly ones punished, which means that in a conservative Christian’s mind, their own fate may in some way be wrapped up in the U.S.’s relation to certain wedge issues like abortion or LGBTQ rights. That, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining why, in 2018, 61 percent of evangelicals said the country was headed in the right direction while 64 percent of everyone else begged to differ.
Though theocratic views range from a desire to simply elect “godly” leaders to a militant call for a nation-state governed entirely by Old Testament law (including a return to the practice of stoning), some form of theocratic thinking now runs through a large swath of the populace. As of August 2021, a national Public Discourse and Ethics survey found that 39 percent of Americans agree that the founding documents are divinely inspired, 34 percent believe that the success of America is part of God’s plan, and 25 percent believe that the federal government should go ahead and formally declare the U.S. a Christian nation.
That desire may be ahistorical—most founders were clear that a theocracy was exactly what they did not want—but it has pervasively peppered American history. One of the Confederacy’s complaints when seceding was that the U.S. Constitution did not sufficiently namecheck God — a concern that was apparently shared by some in the Union. In 1864, a delegation of the National Reform Association (the OG NRA) met with Lincoln to request the addition of a Christian amendment to the document “humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations.” Lincoln politely blew them off, but the idea gained traction again after the school prayer rulings in the 1960s, and again after R.J. Rushdoony published his Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, advocating not just American theocracy but an even more hardcore theonomy — a nation governed by biblical law.
If there is anything different this time around, it’s in the violence of the rhetoric. Here, there are no genteel delegations or academic tomes. In indiscriminately pulling the fringiest elements of American Christianity into his political coalition, Trump melded theocratic thinking with religious radicalization. The effect? According to a Public Religion Research Institute study published early this month, 26 percent of white evangelical Protestants (and 30 percent of Republicans) agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence if that’s what it takes to save the country.” For the attendees of Reawake America, civil war is now a quaint concept; Holy War is more what they’re after these days. Or as Alex Jones put it this weekend, “We’re gonna win in the end because…God WINS!”
Which is why, among religious scholars, there’s a growing frustration with the constant pearl-clutching over what someone like Flynn might say paired with an ostensible lack of belief that he really, literally means it. Likewise, and especially after January 6, there’s a growing frustration with a political faction that believes it is fighting on the side of the angels going up against a political faction that still operates like a compromise can be made. “I mean, I want infrastructure,” says Butler. “I’m sick of the potholes in Philadelphia. But nobody seems to understand the real danger. It’s nice to build bridges, but you’re building bridges for them to come and get you.”
Perhaps the real motives of those like Flynn can be seen when one takes into account the fact that theocracy actually runs counter to the sort of faith these folks profess to espouse. “What confounds me is that undermining the First Amendment, undermining the separation of church and state, really is an attack on religion in American life,” says Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. “The effect of the First Amendment was to establish a free marketplace for religion that has lent an energy and a dynamism to religion in America unmatched anywhere in the world. Why would those groups that have benefited most from this marketplace—namely evangelicals because they know how to compete better than anyone else—turn around and try to undermine the very system that has given them so much currency in the culture?”
One answer could be that the culture — the marketplace of public opinion — no longer matters to the Christian right. This is no longer a humble competition for souls. This is about power. And, quite possibly, violence. “There needs to be some kind of understanding when this kind of language ramps up that you have to pay attention to that,” says Butler. “Honestly, we’ve got jihadists in this country. They’re just Christian ones.” It’s the threat of violence implicit in Flynn’s words — rather than the explicit absurdity — that we should care about.
Not coincidentally, the gospel of Matthew goes on to explain by exactly what criteria the nations should be judged: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed…For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’” But being a Good Samaritan is not what power is about. That’s not the type of work that puts you on the stage at Cornerstone, backed by a shofar and a wave of righteous indignation. That’s the loud part of the Gospel that Flynn and his ilk are keeping quiet.