In the months leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, Doug Pagitt has been crisscrossing the country with a message for churches, politicians and voters alike about religion and politics.
Pagitt is an evangelical pastor and the founder of the nonprofit organization Vote Common Good. His warning isn’t that religion and politics don’t mix.
Instead, it’s about how they mix — and how, he argues, a particular intersection of politics and religion threatens democracy in the United States.
That intersection is Christian nationalism: a movement to impose particular interpretations of Christian doctrine on public policy, using those doctrines as their own justification and with a willingness to enforce them with violence.
“It’s the belief that the United States of America is fundamentally committed to the Christian understanding and agenda in how it runs society and government,” Pagitt says. “There’s a movement afoot 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 worked for some two decades in various churches and church organizations, is also active in progressive political engagement. He has voted for Republicans and for Democrats over the course of his adult life.
“The critique of Christian nationalism is not saying religious groups shouldn’t have a political voice,” Pagitt says. “The concern here is not what the preacher says in their pulpit — on either side. The real issue is people wanting to use the mechanisms of the government to enforce their religious teachings. That’s what Christian nationalists are doing.”
He organized Vote Common Good in 2017 after seeing Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election with, by some estimates, the votes of 75% or more of white evangelicals. Yet the former president ran on a policy agenda that contradicted beliefs Pagitt and many other Christians hold as central to their faith: defending the poor, welcoming the stranger and fostering peace.
“We knew that there were some people in those traditions who didn’t want to do that,” Pagitt says, referring to the embrace of Trump. “We knew they wanted an off ramp.”
Pagitt’s concerns grew, he says, at the way Trump and his political allies grounded certain decisions explicitly in religious assertions.
He pointed to the words of Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, defending the administration’s policy to separate undocumented immigrant children from their families: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said at a news conference.
Then came the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in which Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol with the aim of preventing the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. The rioters directly assaulted members of the Capitol police and threatened the lives of Vice President Mike Pence, whose duties included signing off on the election certification, and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Seeing that helped motivate Pagitt and Vote Common Good to expand their agenda to explain and expose Christian nationalism, especially to churchgoers and leaders who weren’t aware of how organized the movement has become.
“The insurrection was a Christian nationalist effort,” says Pagitt, pointing to the prayers that leaders invoked minutes after breaching the Capitol. A recent Associated Press/Frontline documentary on PBS, “Michael Flynn’s Holy War,” about the former general and Trump advisor, explores the movement in detail.
Vote Common Good brought its mission spotlighting the Christian nationalist agenda to Wisconsin in October. Pagitt and his crew members made stops 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 about Christian nationalism can get complicated, Pagitt says. Even with growing media attention to Christian nationalism, many people, including mainline Christians, don’t understand the concept.
“Churches that are not on the conservative right don’t tend to talk about politics,” he says — even as some are very active in calls for social justice in public policy. At the same time, “In the U.S. we’ve been struggling 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 step into the discussion of policy and politics in ways that align with their values but don’t mimic the authoritarian Christian nationalist approach.
It’s not always easy to convey the concept. “We hear a lot, ‘Be careful that you don’t become the Religious Right, [but] on the left,’” Pagitt says. The goal isn’t to simply foster “Democratic Party” or “Green Party” churches. “We want to be able to help their congregations to engage in civic life.”
At the McFarland United Church of Christ, the Vote Common Good presentation went over well with the 45 people or so who attended, according to pastor Bryan Sirchio.
“What Doug was trying to do is wake people up, find our voice and get involved,” Sirchio says. “It shocked a number of people into a deeper level of awareness and realizing how dangerous and insidious this is.”
Sirchio sees the contemporary Christian nationalist movement as a descendent 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 been increasingly disturbing to me,” Sirchio says, and has become more extreme since then, exemplified by the Jan. 6 insurrection. Yet, he adds, “most people are not aware of the role that Christian nationalism played in the planning and organizing of that 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 for good public policy.
But he makes a distinction between those personal faith positions and the rationale he expects government leaders to apply to policy decisions in a pluralistic society.
“I don’t think God is a Republican or a Democrat,” Sirchio said. “I would be no more in favor of Democrats proclaiming that if you are a Christian, you must be a Democrat. Proclaiming across the board that a certain political party is God’s party is dangerous from my point of view.”
Standing with candidates
While Vote Common Good’s presentations to church groups on Christian nationalism are strictly nonpartisan, the organization in its own name will also step into 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 Common Good doesn’t make endorsements, but asks candidates to sign the organization’s pledge calling on leaders to “commit to an ethic of love in their public and political lives” and to work against the anti-democratic Christian nationalist agenda, founder Dout Pagitt says. Visits to Wisconsin and other states included events with like-minded political candidates highlighting their support for the set of principles.
“We’ve become partisan because no Republicans will take our pledge,” Pagitt says.
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