Fears About Loss of Status Are Driving the Rise of Christian Nationalism: An Interview With Paul Matzko
The movement is back-filling a theology to justify supporting a sinner like Trump
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Reactionary Minds is a project of The UnPopulist. Hosted by Aaron Ross Powell. Produced by Landry Ayres.
The following is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Paul Matzko. Matzko, an evangelical, is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. He is also a historian of the American Right, and the author of The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
I am Aaron Ross Powell, and this is Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. Christian Nationalism has long been a sub-movement on the American right, but recently its profile has risen as an increasing number of conservative media personalities and politicians claim the label and call for America to be reoriented as an explicitly Christian nation.
To help me explore just what Christian Nationalism entails as a movement and an ideology, as well as its history on the right, I'm joined today by Paul Matzko.
Aaron Ross Powell: Let's start by unpacking the term Christian Nationalism. What in this context do we mean by Christian?
Paul Matzko: This is a definitional issue. If you say someone's a Christian Nationalist, most of the time they're going to say, "Well, no, I don't think I am." Because it's a bit of a loaded term. It's important that we define what we mean when we discuss it, how people who are self-identified Christian Nationalists, what they mean by using the term. What folks who we would say espouse Christian Nationalist views, even though they wouldn't call themselves Christian Nationalists, mean by the term.
The funny thing about Christian Nationalism, the two terms there, it's a bit like the old saw about the Holy Roman Empire being neither holy nor Roman, nor much of an empire. Christian Nationalism is neither particularly Christian in terms of its, I guess you'd say, fidelity to historic Christian orthodoxy, nor is it all that effectively nationalist when it comes down to it.
I think of it as a response to a particular moment in American history. But it is a response to this moment by anxious Christians that echoes previous moments in U.S. history when previous generations of Christians have espoused similar views, just cloaked in different language with different targets, for their anxiety. It's both new in the sense that it reflects this particular moment, but also very old in that you can find strains of what I guess today we would call Christian Nationalism, though it's a relatively recent term, all the way back through American history.
Aaron: What is this moment then?
Paul: The way I'd put it is this, if you were our age, you're Gen X, I'm Millennial, if you're our age, you remember the '90s, we're children or teens of the '90s. And we are coming off a period of peak conservative Christian dominance in American culture. Now, not in every American cultural institution, the '90s were not peak Christian influence on the Supreme Court. Arguably that's right now when a majority of the members of the Supreme Court are conservative Christians of some kind or another, nor necessarily dominance in politics. I would argue that the early 2000s were the peak moment of new Christian Right influence in American politics during the Bush administration.
In terms of just cultural majoritarian influence, the ‘90s were it. It's post fall of the Berlin Wall. It felt like godless communism had been defeated by American Christianity. In fact, if you go to the Billy Graham Museum in North Carolina, there's a chunk of the Berlin Wall as one of the exhibits, and the idea being that Billy Graham went and preached in Berlin and the wall fell. It was a triumph of American evangelicalism over godless communism. If you walked into a strip mall or a mall in the '90s, odds are you'd walk by one of the 4,500 Thomas Kinkade, the Christian artist, the painter of light, one of his studios.
You'd hear acoustic contemporary Christian music playing on the mall speakers. It was literally in the air, an aural permeation of the American landscape. I grew up, there was a Christian bookstore in every town of any size all across America. Think of Borders, but with more devotional literature. The '90s are this period of peak conservative Christian, both conservative Catholic and conservative Evangelical, influence in American culture. Since then, that dominance really has been gradually eroding with the rise of the “Nones,” of people who don't identify as Christian. The rise of, oh, the way that Evangelicals themselves would've described it would've been secular humanism, people who don't believe in God. It's a paranoid figment of the imagination in part, but there has been this rise of secular, areligious folks in America over the last 20 years. There are now more “nones” than there are Catholics— N-O-N-E-S, not N-U-N-S. The American religious landscape has changed in significant ways, and so you go from that period of cultural dominance to slipping significance, and that creates status anxiety.
I think the key to note is that episodes of Christian Nationalism in American history, and I can tell you more about the long history of this, tend to correspond with feelings of anxiety and are ultimately rooted in cultural fear that some status or place or significance is being lost and might never return. And it ultimately tends to fuel paranoid political activism, which is what we're seeing right now and which we are labeling Christian Nationalism.
Aaron: How does Trump fit into that then? This goes back, I think, to my initial question of what we mean by Christian because one of the odd things that we've seen is an embrace of a man who arguably does not embody Christian values. He seems to be a consummate sinner and does not seem to know anything. When I grew up, there were always these television preachers you'd flip across when the Saturday morning cartoons had ended and you still just didn't want to get up from the TV. So you're flipping channels, and there'd be these guys. One of their characteristics was, as bizarre as they were, they had basically memorized the Bible and could quote all these things.
Trump doesn't have that either. He doesn't know anything, and his values run very counter to my understanding of the values Christ stood for. And yet he's embraced, which seems like this weird response to a lack of influence, because if what you're imagining is happening is that Christian values are no longer central to American life, but now you're embracing as the guy who's going to represent you and bringing them back, someone who is even more in opposition to Christian values than most of those “nones” or secular humanists seem to be.
Paul: Well, it's true. There is an irony or hypocrisy, I suppose, depending on how you view it there. That is one of the reasons why quite a few, maybe I should put #NotAllChristians, or #NotAllEvangelicals, or #NotAllConservativeChristians, because there are significant numbers who were anti-Trump for precisely the reasons you mentioned. They said, "Look, a twice-divorced notorious liar and a grifter is not a fitting representative of Christian interests in politics." They were the minority opinion. After all, at the end of the day, about 80% of self-described Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and a similar number in 2020. It's definitely the minority opinion.
As far as why it makes sense though, despite that difference is, again, I think you have to see this as rooted in fear. When you're afraid, there is little you wouldn't do. The way this gets justified, and so I don't want to overemphasize the justifications for it because I suspect that even if these justifications weren't invented, other justifications would've been invented. These are ex-post facto, how do we justify the results that we wanted? There are two responses:
One, and we can talk more about Seven Mountains theology in more detail. There's a Pentecostal variant theology, which is obsessed with capturing the seven mountains of cultural influence in America, one of which is government. In that framing, and from that community, there was this idea that Trump represented the symbolic rebirth—to use Christian terminology—almost like a Christ-type rebirth of King Cyrus in the Persian Empire. For those who didn't grow up learning about King Cyrus at Sunday School, well good for you, I suppose.
Cyrus is the king of Persia when he says to the exilic Jews who have been captured and forced into captivity for generations, "You can go back to Jerusalem. You can go back to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem." It's a big deal. In terms of prophetic passages of scripture, Cyrus plays this big role in that he frees the people of Israel, notably despite not being Jewish, obviously and not being a believer, if you will. The idea that a secular king who doesn't share the values of God's people would still look out for the interests and safety and protection of God's people is a literary type in Christian thinking.
That's not exclusive just to the current Christian Nationalists. They seized on the idea and explicitly in the Seven Mountains community said, "Trump is our new Cyrus." The fact that he is an unbeliever or a marginal believer and that he has all these personal problems doesn't really matter, in the same sense that Cyrus had a harem, he had lots of wives. Who really cares? What matters is that he protects God's people. He's God's ordained secular workman on our behalf. There was a way of kind of sacralizing that impulse.
Others got less fancy with the theological trappings. Robert Jeffress, who's the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, a large, Southern Baptist megachurch in Texas, he basically just said, "Look, we're voting for a president, not for a pastor, and at the end of the day, we want the bully who looks out for us to fight off the bullies who are against us, so better Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton."
There was lots of different ways of just saying, "You're the lesser of two evils” including oddly reading him into the scripture as a new Cyrus. A range of responses, all which at the end of the day, I think is rooted just in fear. Fear that if Donald Trump doesn't win in 2016, isn't reelected in 2020, that is the end of American Christianity as we know it, that the godless humanists and feminists and civil rights activists are going to swamp America and destroy what makes us great.
Aaron: When you hear a Christian Nationalists or other people who are coming from a place of these same shared concerns talk about that fear, there’s often something a little odd going on that maybe you can tease out for me. They speak as if secular humanists or non-Christians or the elites are trying to actively destroy their religious belief, stamp it out. That there's like an aggressive attack upon them and their beliefs. Like, you can no longer say Merry Christmas is one version of that.
Paul: The War on Christmas.
Aaron: Right. When they point to examples of what's wrong in America, or when they lash out or they try to get the law changed, it's not so much defensive in the sense of, "There are people trying to force us to bake cakes for gay weddings or whatever." It is more they're lashing out at the growing tolerance for lifestyles that they object to. It's not so much that what they're pointing to are direct assault on their ability to believe the things that they want to believe but rather that other people are being allowed to believe something different. Those aren't quite the same thing, but they talk about them as if they are.
Paul: There's the core irony that conservative American Christians are not just the least persecuted religious community in the world today, they're arguably the least actually persecuted religious community in all of human history. It's a bizarre juxtaposition, and yet if you go and ask—I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I think Barna Group, a religious pollster, or maybe it's Pew that did the poll in which they asked a bunch of different Americans: "Who are the most persecuted communities in America?" If you ask African Americans, they'll usually say African Americans, and for good reason. History of racism, segregation, and so on.
If you ask Christians they will say that they are the most persecuted religious group in America, more so than Muslims, more so than Jews facing anti-Semitism, which is just ludicrous. The question is, what's going on there? Why do they feel so persecuted? I actually think it's sincere. Not that that makes it accurate, but it's a sincere belief. The sincerity, I think, is rooted in a variety of habits and cultural practices, rituals, even if you will. Growing up Evangelical, I would still identify as Evangelical myself today, but growing up in a very conservative Evangelical community, you were steeped in a lot of storytelling about persecution, about the constant imminent just beyond-the-veil threat of persecution. The shoe was always about the drop.
When I was a kid, and this is a reminder that this habit is very old, as young as five or six, I read and had portions read to me from Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which was a Protestant book from the Reformation era. We're talking 16th, 17th century European wars of religion, which was like, "Look, at all Catholics killed and crucified." It was also people from early Christian history being persecuted by the Romans, thrown into the lions, and so on. Literally, some of the earliest cradle instruction I received was, "The world's out to get and kill Christians. The fact that it's not happening now shouldn't make you blasé about that. It's always just around the corner."
That mindset is kind of taught. I don't want to pooh-pooh all of that as nothing. One of the funny things about conservative Christianity in America is that, at least in the '90s, less so today, it was the peak of an era when it was cultural majoritarian and yet they felt like an oppressed minority. Some of that was a memory of an era when they actually were a weird, relatively small, culturally insignificant group. You go back to the 1920s, and Christians are the laughingstock in the stories that are told about the Scopes Trial, creationism on trial, William Jennings Bryan, John T. Scopes, and so on.
Or you go to the era of the 1940s and '50s when mainline Christianity, an ecumenical, liberal Protestantism is far more dominant and actually possesses real political power. Like the Dulles brothers are mainline Christians who have lots of behind-the-scenes power in D.C. All the presidents, Eisenhower, Truman, they all attend mainline churches. Conservative Christians remember a time when they don't control much. There might be a lot of them out in the boondocks, out in rural Tennessee, but they don't hold real power in American politics, until suddenly, they do by the 1980s and '90s.
It's a mindset that's forged in a moment when they do remember being on the margins of American society, and suddenly, they aren't anymore but they can't escape that mindset. It's a combination of that. It's a taught mindset, it's a taught attitude. Also, I think it's rooted in a real experience of being on the relative margins of American political power in society—and the fear of returning to that situation too. That's where the status anxiety comes in.
Aaron: You mentioned in passing some of the theological through lines or influences on this. I want to turn to that because there are people out there who call themselves say Christian Nationalists. Marjorie Taylor Greene has been increasingly using that phrase and saying like, "You're damn right I am, and this is what we need." It's hard to, say, figure out a theological through line for her because she's got Christian influences but also a lot of QAnon, and then there's the Jewish Space Lasers stuff. She seems just to be a hodgepodge. Is there a core thinker or set of thinkers that is the primary driver or influence on this particular emergence now?
Paul: Yes, there are varieties of Christian Nationalism coming out of different particular religious communities and milieus. The one that's most notable now, and I already referenced it with Seven Mountains theology or Seven Mountains mandate as it is sometimes called. That's the main influence behind people like Paula White who prayed at Trump's inauguration. Her prayer said, "For this great country that you have decreed to your people," which is as clear an expression of Christian Nationalism, that God gave this nation to Christians. If that's not Christian Nationalism, what is? Lance Wallnau. Actually, Charlie Kirk, your buddy, Aaron, he got in on this game at CPAC in 2020. He said that with Trump, "Finally, we have a president that understands the Seven Mountains of cultural influence." Rafael Cruz, Ted Cruz's father is a big proponent of Seven Mountains theology, played a role in actually Ted Cruz's success in the Utah GOP primaries in 2016. He actually went on the stump for his son because Mormons are an interesting kind of Christian Nationalism, which is a separate discussion.
This Seven Mountains theology, I don’t want to get too much down the weeds, again, I tend to think of it as an ex-post facto justification for a more basic impulse to be concerned about the direction of America and your community's place in America, and then you go back and you back-fill theologically. But the theological groundings are these verses in Isaiah, in Revelation, about seven mountains.
They're pretty obscure prophetic passages. The meaning that they're given is that these seven mountains describe or represent seven centers of cultural power in America, things like education, family, government, arts, the media, and so on. If Christians don't conquer those mountains and the high places first, then the forces of Satan will, ushering in the Antichrist and the end times. It is a novel interpretation of these passages. It comes out of independent charismatic Christian circles, technically called the New Apostolic Reformation.
In your area, if there's a megachurch that's run not by a pastor or a preacher, and it's not part of a denomination like a more established Pentecostal denomination like the Assemblies of God or so on, but it's an independent mega-church with an apostle leading it, who says, "I'm Apostle Ron Carpenter," the odds are pretty decent that's part of these independent charismatic circles. They're the ones who, again, as part of that interpretation say, "Look, Trump is a fulfillment of prophecies around Cyrus, he's a new Cyrus." When Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, that confirmed in their minds, "Look, that's just like Cyrus sending God's people back to rebuild Jerusalem. Now, Trump is sending in the same way, the U.S. Embassy represents the return of exilic Jews somehow, I don't know. The symbolism was very apparent to them.
It's a combination of, I think, sincere belief, also there's a good amount of grift going on here. Lance Wallnau, one of the main proponents of the source of Seven Mountains theology, he prophesied Trump's election in 2016. He got a lot of street cred. He prophesied the election before it was cool to think Trump was going to win, back when Trump was a marginal candidate. And then he wins and it's like, "Well, obviously, that was a true prophecy, ergo have a high opinion of my views."
He did miss the prediction in 2020. He said Trump would win reelection, though not before selling a bunch of $45 Trump—it's Trump's image superimposed on Cyrus's image on gold coins, which he hawked on Jim Bakker's cable show. You might remember Jim Bakker as the disgraced televangelist from 1980s. It's basically like a sanctified QVC rip-off for end-times preppers in the Ozarks. Lance Wallnau's on the campaign trail for Doug Mastriano running for governor in Pennsylvania.
You just go down the list of figures in the Trump administration. Michael Flynn, he went to John Hagee, his megachurch, and said, "If we're 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." It's pervasive in ex-Trump administration officials of a certain type.
It is pervasive in right-wing politics right now. Charlie Kirk is traveling America on these pulpit and pew rallies, as they've been described, going to megachurches, often Seven Mountains independent charismatic churches and holding pro-Trump rallies and saying, "Look, the key to saving America is doing ‘get out the vote work’ among conservative Christians. This Seven Mountains thing, I think most American observers never even heard of this. It's an obscure theological interpretation, relatively novel, relatively recent, that even most conservative Christians haven't necessarily heard of, but it's actually very pervasive throughout right-wing politics in America today.
Aaron: Let's then turn specifically to the nationalism part of this, and then specifically within that, American nationalism. You could be indifferent to America per se and just have your view be that: "This geographical area with a state that governs it, I want it to be Christian." There does seem to be something more to the connection than that. They see something particularly special about America or America's relationship to Christianity. How does that play out in this?
Paul: Here's where we get to that older impulse among American Christians, and not even just conservative Christians. I've been speaking about conservative Catholics, Evangelicals right now, but this is a very old and cross-theological impulse in American history, this idea of identifying America as a special place in God's divine order for human history. There's actually a technical term for this. In classic Christian theology, both Catholic and Protestant, it's not universal, but it's the consensus opinion, is this proposition. You ever wondered about the difference between Jewish theology and Christian theology? One of the keys is that Christians believe that Jews were sent to Messiah, the Promised Messiah came, Jesus Christ, Jews rejected Him, therefore, they're no longer God's chosen people. Now, the church of Christians are God's chosen people. The technical theological term is supersessionism or “replacement theology” that “the Church” replaces Israel as God's people. Not fully, and this is where you get into Christian Zionism, like the weird Philosemitism, where American Evangelicals are like, "Yay, the State of Israel." That set aside, formally theologically, the standard Christian interpretation has been that the people of God today are the Christian church writ large, not just one denomination, but all Christians.
There's a habit, if you will, throughout Christian history, it's not just an American impulse, it's a broader impulse, that anytime a country is particularly successful or powerful or wealthy, there's this habit of Christians in that country to be like, "Well, obviously God has blessed this nation because we're doing so well. We're doing like gangbusters, therefore we must be God's new chosen people." In the era of Pax Britannica, this combination of the British are going to not just civilize primitive peoples, they're going to Christianize them. Cross and flag went together, were carried together, during high British imperialism.
The same thing happens with the rise of Pax Americana. I think of of during the Spanish American War, a group of liberal Protestants, these are mainline Protestants, this is before that term is used, but these were not just Evangelicals, it was a broad cross-section of prominent pastors in the U.S., got together and told President McKinley, "The U.S. has a sacred obligation to Christianize and civilize the Philippines. You should keep it as a colony, so that you can get these people away from the darkness of pagan traditions, and of course, the darkness of Catholicism." This is peak anti-Catholicism in U.S. history. By Christianize, they mean Protestantize.
There you very literally see God has blessed America so that America as God's people can spread the blessings of civilization and Christianity to the world. More recently, you think of in the post-World War II era, the CIA…we know some of this came out during the post-Watergate Congressional hearings, but we know that the CIA was actively recruiting and working with American missionaries abroad in the 1940s and '50s using them as agents for protecting American empire even as they were seeking to ostensibly merely Christianize, propagate the gospel, in these other countries. That impulse is broad, it's not just conservatives, not just Evangelicals.
It's a function of when Christians have power, they tend to forget all the passages of the Bible that are to God's people when they were in exile, when they are persecuted, when they're minority. They forget all that stuff, and instead they like to read the bits that are more amenable to holding, possessing, and advancing cultural and political power. That imperial impulse, or Christian Nationalist impulse, seeing instead of the church replacing Israel, seeing the nation-state as a replacement for Israel tends to creep into Christian thinking in those moments in time.
Aaron: We've been talking about Christian Nationalism, but the phrase is often written out in, say, newspaper articles about the rise of this as “white Christian Nationalism.” What role then does race play in this conversation, and the particular wave we're seeing now?
Paul: America is exceptional in the sense that we have this very unique view of race. We have our own exceptional form of racism. This is an old point, but other countries have—like if you go to South America, there is still racism, though it looks more like colorism, where gradations of skin color result in certain kinds of social status. A hard racial white and black line is more uniquely American. Race tends to creep into every conversation in American history and culture and politics just by default. It applies here too though.
One of the interesting things though, to some extent when I talk about Seven Mountains theology, most of the believers and practitioners of this theology are white. Some of that's just the function of fissures in American Christianity going all the way back to the early 20th and the 19th century where basically almost every American denomination split over racism and over slavery. You have Southern Baptists, which were expressly formed in defense of the rights of Baptists to hold slaves in the South versus Northern Baptists who said you shouldn't. You just go down the list.
Some of that is a function of the fissures in American Christian groups that are very old and continue today. I think some of it too though, it's important to remember that there are different forms of Christian Nationalism and that just because the current one that's dominant right now wing politics happens to be very white doesn't mean that all forms of Christian Nationalism are white. I would argue that there are somewhat diluted but still very real forms of Christian Nationalism that it's hard to find anyone who doesn't believe in them, except for maybe weird, libertarians like us, and I guess socialists who don't believe in the Christian part. [chuckles]
Think of it this way, every time a politician says America is a “shining city on a hill,” and almost every American president of the last half century has at some point in time or another reference to America as a “city on the hill,” that's an expression of Christian Nationalism. It's taking a Bible verse meant to talk about God's people, the Jews, and Jerusalem as a city on the hill, a beacon to the nations and applying it to America. You don't get more Christian Nationalism than that, and yet it is anodyne. Everyone references it.
My point here too is that then people use Christian Nationalism as a tool to gain cultural acceptance. There are black Christian Nationalisms, which identify, "Look, God had a plan for America. That plan included racial equality among Christians in America, and yet we have fallen away from God's plan for America, promised at the founding." It's kind of jeremiad here, we've fallen away from state of grace and now we need to return to that. Part of that is, in the church then Black church being deeply involved in civil rights activism, that is a claim on “we belong.” We deserve political equality because this is a Christian nation, and in that Christian nation, it should be a land of racial equality. Asserting Christian Nationalism can be a tool for claiming belonging in place.
That's why I would note is that yes, this version that we're talking about here, Seven Mountains theology that is very white-inflected, and it tends to be hostile towards black, brown, others, by default. It tends to be very anti-immigrant, suspicious of immigration, certainly suspicious of, I don't know, things like Critical Race Theory and so on. But that's not the only form of Christian Nationalism that exists. That's the caution I would put with having that conversation.
Aaron: Now, as liberals who are against this thing, namely the takeover of the state and the operationalizing of it as a means to enforce a particular set of religious beliefs across the nation itself, what's the response to this? There's one set of responses if you're simply like a non-Christian, so there's the religious pluralism response of, "Hey, I don't share your metaphysical priors, and so I'm not comfortable with them being enforced upon on me." There’s also a [progressive] liberal response.
What is the liberal Christian response to this, and how do you begin to push back on the idea that? It makes sense to say like, if you are a member of an Evangelical faith, your Christianity goes out and spreads the good news. It's a religion that wants to convert people and get them to live in accord with Christian beliefs and values. And then you've got this tool called the government, you don't want that government to operate in ways that go against Christian values. But it's also a powerful tool for getting a lot of people to, if not embrace those, at least live in ways that don't contradict them. What's the liberal Christian case against Christian Nationalism?
Paul: Yes, that's a good question. Maybe just for your listeners who use these terms, so if you say liberal Christian, it doesn't mean what you mean. By liberal Christian, you mean like classical liberal, libertarianish Christian. If you say liberal Christian to a Christian, they think of liberal, like usually liberal Protestantism or post-Vatican to Catholicism. They think of liberal theology. So classically liberal. How do I think about Christianity as an Evangelical and as a libertarian? It's a good question. The way I would put it, and this is actually a very libertarian point, as a libertarian, we see time and time again, you observe the incompetence of the state at accomplishing its self-set goals.
Like here's the outcome we want, the state tries to do it, and it bungles it, and we not only don't get the outcome we want, we get the opposite of the outcome we want. The inadequacy of state capacity, its inefficiency, its ability to provoke backlash rather than achieve the results at once, that plays a role here. You just say, "Look, if your goal is to have the state advance Christianity, can we historically look at how good the state is at advancing Christianity?" The answer is, it's terrible at it. Just in pragmatic terms, the state is a terrible organ for advancing Christianity.
And by Christianity, I mean true Christianity. I don't just mean the external form of it. This is a marker of Evangelicalism, is this belief that religion is a heart religion. It's about personal affirmation and a relationship with Jesus Christ. Not all religious traditions share that. True Christianity then is this authentic interior, internal relationship with a divine being. The state is horrible in advancing that. All it can really do is impose the external form of Christianity and the long history of both European and early American established state churches is a great example of that. A great way of killing authentic heart religion is for the state to create a religion or to back a particular religious group.
You look at the hollowing out of Christianity in places like Great Britain where Christianity's on life support even though it's the state church and the Queen is the head of the Church of England. Or the official established churches in Germany. In U.S. history, we had these arguments during the early years in the early republic but also during the founding era, should there be state religions in the U.S.? Of course in the U.S. Constitution, they didn't put a state religion, but individual states still had established churches, still had state religions as late as I think the 1830s? I think Massachusetts was the last.
Again, what they discovered time and again, and this was a point made by Evangelical Americans like John Leland and Isaac Backus, they said, "Look, state churches are antithetical. They actively undermine authentic religion because it “just creates a form thereof, an external form, and it hollows out the internal meaning." There's an efficacy concern, a pragmatic. Maybe if the state was good at advancing religion it would be okay but it's not. There's that. There's also then I think a theological critique. I don't want to get too down the weeds here, but there are many Bible passages which deal with the issue of the state and with force.
There's a great book by Oscar Coleman called The State and the New Testament, which I just highly recommend reading sometime. It shows the tension between the Jesus and his disciples and the idea of the state during early Christianity. You look at passages like, think of Christ right before his crucifixion, he's in the garden, he's praying, he doesn't want to be crucified, crucifixion sucks. Representatives of the authorities of the Jewish authorities working, I guess, under ultimate Roman command, come in to arrest him.
Peter jumps up, ultimately the first Pope in theory, Peter jumps up and is like, "Okay, I know what to do when this happens. We're being attacked. They want to kill the Messiah. Pick up that sword and whack a soldier's ear off." He whacks the soldier's ear off, and Christ is like, "Peter. Peter, come on. Peter. This is not the way we do things." He heals the soldier, he puts the ear back on the soldier. Peter's like, "What? What? This is what you do. That's what the swords are for." We talk about this as laying down the sword.
Christ says, "Ultimately, there's this idea that my kingdom is not of this world," and that the sword is not an effective tool for advancing the kingdom of God, this metaphysical community of saints on earth. The kingdom of God that someday in Christian theology and Christian eschatology will become a literal kingdom of God after, during end times events, but now it's just a metaphysical, metaphorical kingdom of God on earth is not to be advanced by the sword. That's just not how you do it. It doesn't work, it's not effective, it's not proper, it's not right.
If you believe as a libertarian does that the sword ultimately is representative of institutionalized violence, and what the state has is a monopoly on violence, then Christ's command to lay down the sword, to expand the kingdom of God via voluntary interaction, via persuasion, not by violence, is essentially a prohibition on using the state to extend Christianity. There's a pragmatic reason to be critical of Christian Nationalist fantasies, and there's a theological reason why conservative Christians should be skeptical.
I can get real down the weeds. There's these old Christian traditions like Two Kingdom theology going all the way back to Augustine. This has been a long tension going to the Constantinian versus Augustinian vision of the role of the state in the advance of Christianity. I think there are very good reasons for sincere conservative Christians to say, "Look, this is not the way to advance our faith, to propagate our religion, to evangelize, both because it's wrong, because Christ condemns it and because it doesn't work, the state is bad at it."
Aaron: Thank you for listening to Reactionary Minds, a project of The UnPopulist. If you want to learn more about the rise of a liberalism and the need to defend a free society, check out theunpopulist.substack.net.
Above is a transcript of Reactionary Minds’ interview with Paul Matzko. Matzko, an evangelical, is a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a historian of the American Right, and author of The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.