In the months leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, Doug Pagitt crisscrossed the country with a message for churches, politicians and voters about religion and politics.
Pagitt is an evangelical pastor and the founder of the nonprofit Vote Common Good. His warning is not that religion and politics don’t mix.
Instead, it’s about how they intertwine — and how, he argues, a particular intersection of politics and religion threatens democracy in the United States.
This intersection is Christian nationalism: a movement to impose particular interpretations of Christian doctrine on public policy, using these doctrines as their own justification and with a willingness to enforce them through violence.
“It is the belief that the United States of America is fundamentally committed to the Christian understanding and agenda in the way it leads society and government,” Pagitt says. “There is an ongoing movement among a number of elected officials who are advocating for Christianity to play a more dominant role in our government – not just in our society, not just in public discourse, but in our government.”
Pagitt, who has worked for about two decades in various churches and religious organizations, is also active in progressive political engagement. He voted for both Republicans and Democrats during his adult life.
“The critique of Christian nationalism does not say that religious groups should not have a political voice,” says Pagitt. “The concern here is not what the preacher says from his pulpit – on either side. The real problem is people who want to use the machinery of government to enforce their religious teachings. That’s what the people are doing. Christian nationalists.
He organized Vote Common Good in 2017 after watching Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election with, by some estimates, the votes of 75% or more of white evangelicals. Yet the former president followed a political agenda that contradicted the beliefs that Pagitt and many other Christians consider central to their faith: to stand up for the poor, welcome the stranger and foster peace.
“We knew there were people in those traditions who didn’t want to do this,” Pagitt says, referring to Trump’s embrace. “We knew they wanted an exit ramp.”
Pagitt’s concerns have grown, he says, over how Trump and his political allies have explicitly based some decisions on religious assertions.
He pointed to the words of Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, defending the administration’s policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their families: “I would quote you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of government because God ordained them for the purposes of order”, Sessions said at a press conference.
Then came the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising in which Trump supporters stormed into the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The rioters directly assaulted members of the Capitol Police and threatened with death Vice President Mike Pence, whose duties included signing voter certification, and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Seeing this helped motivate Pagitt and Vote Common Good to expand their program to explain and expose Christian nationalism, especially to worshipers and leaders who were unaware of how organized the movement was.
“The insurrection was a Christian nationalist effort,” Pagitt says, pointing to the prayers the leaders invoked minutes after breaking through the Capitol. A recent Associated Press/Frontline Documentary on PBS, “Michael Flynn’s Holy War,” about the former general and Trump adviser, explores the movement in detail.
Vote Common Good brought its mission highlighting the Christian nationalist agenda to Wisconsin in October. Pagitt and his crew members stopped in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Dane counties, and Pagitt led a two-hour presentation on Christian nationalism for visitors to the McFarland United Church of Christ.
The discussion of Christian nationalism can get complicated, says Pagitt. Even with the growing media attention on Christian nationalism, many people, including mainstream Christians, do not understand the concept.
“Churches that aren’t right-wing conservatives don’t tend to talk politics,” he says, although some are very active in calling for social justice in public policy. At the same time, “in the United States, we have struggled with the role of religion in government from the very beginning.”
Vote Common Good also aims to model an alternative to Christian nationalism in the expression of faith in public life. The organization seeks to encourage congregations to be willing to enter the discussion of politics and politics in a way that aligns with their values but does not imitate the authoritarian Christian nationalist approach.
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It’s not always easy to get the concept across. “We hear a lot, ‘Be careful not to become the Religious Right, [but] on the left,” Pagitt says. The goal is not simply to favor the “Democratic Party” or the “Green Party” churches. “We want to be able to help their congregations engage in civic life.”
At McFarland United Church of Christ, the Vote Common Good presentation went well with the approximately 45 people in attendance, according to Pastor Bryan Sirchio.
“What Doug was trying to do was wake people up, find our voice and get involved,” says Sirchio. “It shocked a number of people into a deeper level of consciousness and realized how dangerous and insidious it is.”
Sirchio sees the contemporary Christian nationalist movement as a descendant of the religious right that became widely visible in the 1980s through Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and later Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.
“The role that right-wing or conservative evangelical Christianity has played in our political process has increasingly troubled me,” Sirchio says, and has since become more extreme, exemplified by the January 6 insurrection. Yet, he adds, “most people are unaware of the role that Christian nationalism played in the planning and organization of this day.”
Sirchio describes himself as a political progressive and says his own understanding of Christian teaching informs his perspective on social issues and what makes good public policy.
But he makes a distinction between these personal religious positions and the justification he expects government leaders to apply to political decisions in a pluralistic society.
“I don’t think God is a Republican or a Democrat,” Sirchio said. “I would no longer be in favor of the Democrats claiming that if you are a Christian, you have to be a Democrat. Proclaiming at all levels that a certain political party is the party of God is dangerous from my point of view.
Standing with the Candidates
While Vote Common Good’s presentations to religious groups on Christian nationalism are strictly nonpartisan, the organization on its own behalf will also engage in partisan activity.
Under its federal 501-(c)-4 tax status, contributions are not tax deductible, while the nonprofit itself is tax-exempt as long as no more than half of its activity is directly involved in politics.
Vote for the Common Good does not do sponsorship, but asks candidates to sign the promise calling leaders to “commit to an ethic of love in their public and political life” and to work against the anti-democratic Christian nationalist agenda, founder Dout Pagitt said. Visits to Wisconsin and other states included events with like-minded political candidates highlighting their support for the set of principles.
“We became partisan because no Republican will take our pledge,” Pagitt said.