The role of Christian nationalism in the race for Pennsylvania governor

State Sen. Doug Mastriano speaks at a campaign event

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

This story originally appeared on WESA.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano made national headlines this summer for his ties to Gab, a social-media site closely associated with the Christian nationalist movement, and once used by the man accused in the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.

Mastriano deleted his account last month, he has found it difficult to put the issue behind him. Two days before he was slated to make a joint appearance in Pittsburgh with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, Rabbi Emeritus Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai warned that in the wake of the Tree of Life shooting, “Until [Mastriano] unlinks his campaign from the rhetoric of Christian nationalism I am extremely concerned that people will act … in ways that harm actual human beings.”

But what is Christian nationalism?

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Brock Bahler, a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said that the belief is easy to define, but the tensions surrounding it date back before the United States was founded.

Scholars “prefer to call it white Christian nationalism [because] there’s this overlap between white supremacy and Christian nationalism,” Bahler said. ”Wherever you find a white Christian nationalism, you typically find a number of prominent beliefs. One: America was intended to be a Christian nation. Number two: that it’s the Promised Land and holds a special role in God’s plan. And three: that the founding U.S. documents like the Constitution are divinely inspired.”

Bahler stresses that “saying your faith shapes your values and your political decision making is not the same thing as Christian nationalism.” And in fact, Christian nationalism “is more tied to political ideologies and myths” than it is to the text of the Bible itself.

But the belief is dangerous, he said, because it assumes that being Christian “is the standard of American life, and everything else or everyone else is a deviation from that.” Such a mindset can become a basis for rationalizing racism, and for delegitimizing anyone outside the faith.

The idea of America as a “promised land” has been a frequent trope in political rhetoric, and Bahler says such ideas remain popular — at least in some quarters. A 2017 poll, he said, suggested that almost 30 percent of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that Christianity should be the state religion.

Other surveys have shown that position to be less popular. But the belief is strongest among Republicans and evangelicals, many of whom insist the country’s founders agreed with them.

But Bahler says the history “is complicated. The founding fathers were not all of the same theological stripe. Some of them you probably could label as Christian nationalists who believe God had divinely ordained … America to be a country for Christians.” But others were more akin to Thomas Jefferson, who famously edited his own version of the Bible to excise references to miracles attributed to Jesus.

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Whether the Christian Bible itself supports Christian nationalism is also debatable: Jesus, after all, was crucified by the powers that be, not put in charge of them. But Bahler said that “what often happens — and you see this in American history — are settlers reading themselves into the text. It’s particularly common with the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. There was a whole movement called the British Israelites where Christian colonizers viewed themselves as the true Jews” — the Chosen People God really had in mind.

That mindset, Bahler said, explains one of the seeming paradoxes of Christian nationalism. As the Mastriano controversy boiled up, Gab founder Andrew Torba doubled down and said Jewish people are unwelcome in the movement … even as Mastriano himself pointedly posted pictures of himself at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, a crucial site in Judaism. And the shofar, a Jewish trumpet used in holiday rituals, is often blown at right-wing events, including some Mastriano has attended.

“This makes a lot more sense when you see it within this historical context,” Bahler said. “He’s not honoring Judaism by taking these symbols and practices: He’s co-opting them for his own purposes.’”

“Is every single Christian nationalist going to promote anti-Semitic views?” Bahler said. “Probably not, but there’s definitely a lot of overlap.”

Mastriano is his party’s nominee to lead a critical swing state, and polls suggest the race is competitive. That fact — along with developments like the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning the constitutional right to an abortion — might suggest that Christian nationalists are gaining steam. Then again, that court ruling has proven unpopular, as have other Christian nationalist ideals. Moreover, interest in religion itself is declining.

Bahler said that “one of the really interesting things about the rhetoric of Christian nationalism” is how it includes both triumphalism and despair. “There’s a kind of ‘we’re in a holy war and we’re guaranteed to win because God’s on our side.’ But simultaneously, [there’s a] language of white grievance, of persecution.” Polling has shown, he said, that “a percentage of white evangelicals believe white people face more discrimination than African-Americans.

“Equality feels like oppression when you’re used to privilege,” he said. “I think that’s really the mentality.”

But Bahler notes that in the United States, a movement does not necessarily have to be popular to succeed: “We’ve seen you can become president without the majority vote, and if you get in power, you can create gerrymandering laws and decertify elections. They could establish a system that could maintain them in positions of power, even though they remain a minority.”

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