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Trump's army of God: Doug Mastriano and the Christian nationalist attack on democracy

Salon logo Salon 6/12/2021 Paul Rosenberg

a man wearing a suit and tie: Doug Mastriano © Provided by Salon Doug Mastriano

Senator Doug Mastriano Doug Mastriano Official Campaign Website

On May 9, the New Yorker published a feature story by Pulitzer winner Eliza Griswold about Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who could well be the Republican nominee for governor next year, as a flagship example of the swelling power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP. That's an issue I focused on in a 2018 story largely driven by a paper called "Make America Christian Again," co-authored by sociologist Andrew Whitehead. I described this phenomenon as "an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities, and sharpening the divide with those who are excluded from it," and quoted from the paper:

Christian nationalism … draws its roots from "Old Testament" parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.

Despite the "Old Testament" slant, this version of Christianity has no room for Exodus 22:21: "You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt," or numerous other biblical passages — which is why Christian nationalism can't be considered synonymous with Christianity per se. Many people in Trump's base perceive it that way, however, as that paper first showed. And Griswold rightly chose Mastriano as a shining — and troubling — example of what that means in practice today.

First elected to the State Senate in a special election in May 2019, Mastriano has quickly gained prominence over the past year, as Griswold explains: 

[H]e has led rallies against mask mandates and other public-health protocols, which he has characterized as "the governor's autocratic control over our lives." He has become a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, and claims that he spoke to Donald Trump at least fifteen times between the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol, on January 6th.

Since Griswold's story was published, Mastriano has claimed to have Trump's endorsement for governoralong with a promise to campaign with him (though a Trump adviser has disputed this), while new evidence casts doubt on his claims of non-involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. On June 2, he was one of three Pennsylvania lawmakers who toured the Arizona election "audit," calling for the Keystone State to follow suit, the latest front in Trump's effort to delegitimize Biden's election.

Griswold's story is important and compelling, drawing attention to a perennially undercovered phenomenon whose importance is only growing as much of the GOP's traditional issue package has fallen to the wayside — but certainly not its culture war component. Griswold touches base with a wide range of relevant experts, and brings much-needed attention to the under-appreciated power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP, even as Mastriano and others involved with it disingenuously reject that identification.

But right-wing religious politics is so poorly understood by outsiders that any story will inevitably leave a lot out. Beyond that, journalists must navigate layers of deception and denial — reflected in repeated televangelist scandals, for example — that have made the religious right such a perfect epistemic fit for Trump's gaslighting style. That fit, and what lies behind it, was highlighted by retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III in a 2017 essay, "Battle without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare." (The confusion of Christian nationalism with Christianity on the one hand and American democracy on the other reflects the main thrust of what "fourth-generation warfare" is all about, as I'll describe below.) 

To avoid such deception, the term "Christian nationalism" could be more sharply clarified, to dispense with its adherents' denials. The religious movement Griswold mentions — the New Apostolic Reformation — could be more clearly defined, and doing that can shed light on Christian nationalism's lesser-known, but more nefarious fellow-traveler, Dominionism — a creed that adds two more elements: a belief in "biblical law," as adherents define it, and the religious supremacy of their version of Christianity.

All of these are not just threats to American democracy but are also biblically questionable, to say the least, which should be a focus of primary concern to those they appeal to most strongly. At a more granular level, there's a need to illuminate the groundwork for the emergence of figures like Mastriano that's been laid over time — for example, through the state-level organization of Project Blitz, devoted to passing three tiers of increasingly theocratic laws. It's also important to examine Mastriano's Christian nationalist deceptions prior to entering politics, as well as the role of fourth-generation warfare. Let's consider each of these in turn.

Defining Christian nationalism

Griswold summarizes Christian nationalism as "a set of beliefs … which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the [Jan. 6] insurrection." She quotes the aforementioned sociologist Andrew Whitehead (Salon interview here) saying, "Violence has always been a part of Christian nationalism. It's just that the nature of the enemy has changed." 

She follows with five lengthy paragraphs of Mastriano's biography before returning to a discussion of Christian nationalism by giving center stage to its gaslighting denials: 

Many white evangelicals reject the Christian-nationalist label. "Christian nationalism doesn't exist," Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader, told me, calling it "just another name to throw at Christians." He added, "The left is very good at calling people names." Mastriano also rejected the phrase, writing to me, "Is this a term you fabricated? What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?" 

She goes on to note that "historians and sociologists have found the term useful" and brings several expert voices to bear. But centering their denials as she does conveys a false impression that their positions possess some legitimacy. Whitehead addressed this in an email: 

Yes, Graham and Mastriano's claim is absurd. Christian nationalism clearly exists and Americans are found all along a spectrum of how strongly they embrace it. … Survey after survey of the American public demonstrates that Christian nationalism is present within the population, and especially among white evangelical Protestants, where upwards of 80% are at least somewhat favorable of a fusion of Christianity and American national identity.

Graham and Mastriano are clearly within that 80%, and they're more than "somewhat favorable" toward that fusion of Christian and American identity. Graham's father, the Rev. Billy Graham, was the public face of popularizing Christian nationalism in post-World War II America, as Anthea Butler noted on his death in 2018

"Fusing Christianity and Americanism together to create a potent cocktail of Evangelical Christian Nationalism" was part of Billy Graham's lifelong work, Butler wrote. It began with his Feb. 3, 1952 service on the Capitol steps, an AP account of which she directly quotes. That in in turn lead to the establishment of the National Day of Prayer and the prayer breakfasts run by the secretive organization described in Jeff Sharlet's book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." 

As Butler went on to note, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham." 

Typically, Christian nationalists have been proud to conflate their religious faith and the national identity. So why, I asked Whitehead, are they now upset about being called "Christian nationalists"? He said he had no data available to answer the question: 

My guess is that despite being proud of their Christianity and national identity, they see the clearly negative outcomes associated with embracing Christian nationalism and so they balk at being placed in that group. In one sense they want to be able to take pride in both identities, and claim this culture for Christianity, but not wrestle with the repercussions of melding those identities.

Is that a sign of insecurity, I wondered? Perhaps, Whitehead said. Or it may reflect ignorance of what the term means and why academics study it, which of course is "because it is a powerful force in our culture. ... "My sense is that they generally fear anything that might make them reflect on their personal beliefs and actions and consider harm they might be doing to Christianity and democracy in the U.S." 

This idea that Christian nationalism is actually harmful to Christianity, is a central concern of Christian critics and opponents of Christian nationalism, as seen in John Fea's book, "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump," for example. As I explained in my review:

Fear is Fea's central concern, and the one most directly at odds with the Bible. "The Bible teaches that Christians are to fear God — and only God," Fea writes. "All other forms of fear reflect a lack of faith."

An unacknowledged lack of faith may be Christian nationalism's mortal flaw. But it's one secular writers avoid discussing, with a knee-jerk aversion to questioning anyone's religious faith, even when it's bad faith shot through with obvious contradictions and manipulative or even malicious intent. Christian nationalist avoid scrutiny from their co-religionists by demonizing any secular scrutiny whatever, leaving themselves accountable to no one. Their seemingly inexplicable affinity for Donald Trump is a natural consequence.

As Whitehead's research makes clear, Christian nationalism is very much about drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion, and defining the cultural and political landscape in their own terms. It's only natural to ask if their denialism can be seen as a power move, meant to deny others the power of drawing contrasting distinctions.

"This makes sense to me," Whitehead responded. "Language shapes and forms our realities and so being able to say something 'doesn't even exist' allows them to shape that reality. It is similar to consistently pointing to antifa or 'critical race theory' as threats. It doesn't matter so much if those terms are defined, or even exist in any substantive reality. Using them, or in the case of Christian nationalism saying it doesn't even exist, allows them to forego any sustained interrogation of their personal actions or beliefs."

Denialism frequently goes hand-in-hand with projection, such as Franklin Graham's claim that "The left is very good at calling people names." When asked about this, Whitehead said: 

Political scientist Paul Djupe shared this wonderful concept, the inverted golden rule. He finds white evangelical Protestants generally "expect from others what you would do unto them." They assume any attempt to understand the reason why they see the world the way they do (Christian nationalism as a cultural framework) is merely to smear them in some way. Which again, isn't true. Perhaps their fear of such an attack is because this is generally how they treat their perceived opponents.

The New Apostolic Reformation

Griswold reports on Mastriano's involvement with events "events held by a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation," though he denies directly working with the movement. "Many members believe that God speaks to them directly, and that they have been tasked with battling real-world demons who control global leaders," Griswold explains. "Prominent members in the group go by the title Apostle or Prophet to hark back to early Christianity."

This movement was named by C. Peter Wagner, its chief architect. Three of his key teachings — the "Dominion Mandate," the "Seven Mountain Mandate" and the "Great End-Time Wealth Transferal" — are summarized by a Christian critic here. Battling demons is such a central part of the NAR worldview that it can fairly be viewed as a syncretic religion, incorporating elements of the pagan religious traditions it pretends to be fiercely battling against — in that sense, as scholars of religion might note, a replay of the Colossian syncretism

Roland Chia, a professor of Christian doctrine at Trinity Theological College, put it this way in an article titled "Paganising Christianity": 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and 'grave-sucking' (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

A precursor movement known as "Latter Rain" was declared heretical by the Assemblies of God (America's largest Pentecostal denomination) in 1949, and related practices were again condemned in 2000. That second ban had significantly less impact, thanks to the growth of mass media, which has significantly eroded traditional church authority in favor of charismatic hucksters who spread their messages through cable TV, YouTube and other online channels, as well as live mega-events publicized to a global audience, such as the August 2011 event former Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his presidential campaign. One of that event's organizers had written that there was a "demonic structure behind the Democratic Party" — specifically, the demon Jezebel. That "demonic structure" is the reason Black people are so wedded to the Democratic Party rather than the "party of Lincoln," she argued, ignoring the whole history of the "long Southern strategy."

The bottom line is that the NAR is a long way from traditional Christianity. Despite some strategic backtracking, its own proponents, such as Wagner, proudly proclaim as much: NAR represents a "new wineskin" in which the pastor appoints the elders, who report to him, as opposed the "old wineskin" of mainstream Protestant denominations, in which pastors report to church elders. One can clearly criticize the NAR without "attacking Christianity," just as it's legitimate for believing Christians to criticize Christian nationalism as damaging to their faith by shifting focus onto divisive fights over flawed human creations. In both cases, extremists demonize secular scrutiny as a way of escaping orthodox religious scrutiny, while themselves claiming to embody true religious orthodoxy. It's a game of spiritual three-card monte. 

The NAR's untethering from institutional roots gives it a fluidity ideally suited to political activism, as Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers," told me.

The NAR has been much more explicit about its political aims than some of the more traditional or established religious right groups. The theology is very much tied to political developments in the here and now. In the Trump era, they also played a significant role in political mobilization. For a subsection of the Christian right, the NAR has functioned as a kind of Overton Window.

In her New Yorker article, Griswold wrote: "The N.A.R.'s overarching agenda — to return the United States to an idealized Christian past — is largely built upon the work of the pseudo-historian David Barton, who has advanced the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation."

This overlooks the fact that the NAR's agenda is global, and looks forward to a fantasy future in which the wealth of the "wicked" is magically transferred to believers. But it's accurate enough within the framework of domestic American politics, which is Griswold's focus. Barton, who was vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006, has been a key figure in advancing Christian nationalist ideology, both through the GOP and through his fraudulent scholarship on America's founding.

"Barton has been discredited by every American historian I know, including evangelical historians who teach at the most conservative Christian colleges in the country," evangelical historian John Fea told me in 2018. But because his fake history is so politically useful, the fact that all legitimate historians reject his claims is a feature, not a bug. Stewart discussed his significance:

Even as David Barton has cultivated links with the big names in Republican politics, he has stayed close to some of the most extreme representatives of the Christian nationalist movement. He paired up with evangelists Lance Wallnau, who wrote a book comparing Donald Trump to King Cyrus, and Andrew Wommack, who has said opposition to Trump was "demonic deception" and "one of the signs of the End Times," in the Truth & Liberty Coalition, an activist and messaging organization whose mission was described on their website as "the reformation of Nations by igniting the latent potential in the Body of Christ." The website champions "the 7 Mountains Mandate, a powerful, transformative campaign intended to bring about social transformation," a reference to the idea, popularized by C. Peter Wagner and others, that Christians who hold similar beliefs are to dominate seven key areas of culture and society.

Project Blitz — and an instructive precursor

Just after mentioning Barton, Griswold writes this: 

"Mastriano's significance, alongside that of the N.A.R., is that he is attempting to create a theonomy — a system of enacting God's law on earth," Frederick Clarkson, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told me. Bills that Mastriano supported in the legislature would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and would have made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, among other things.

What's left out here is that the bills in question supported are part of an organized nationwide effort known as "Project Blitz," first uncovered by Clarkson in 2018 (Salon report here.) Barton was also a key architect, heading one of its three organizational sponsors. The bills are arranged in three tiers, with the first aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview (including Barton's bogus history) into public schools and elsewhere in the public sphere, the second aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, and the third using a false narrative of religious liberty to privilege religious bigotry. As I wrote: 

Bills protecting the "right" to discriminate against the LGBTQ community are the most salient example of how Project Blitz aims to produce a radically altered "Handmaid's Tale"-style America. But even the most innocent-seeming proposal — introducing the motto "In God We Trust" into schools — has a divisive, discriminatory, damaging impact, sharply at odds with its presentation.

As I described in a later story, Project Blitz commonly works through deceptively named "prayer caucuses," outwardly presented as social bodies devoted to religion, faith or prayer, and not specifically pushing a religious right agenda. "By deceiving caucus members about its ultimate goals and purposes, it can then deceive others as well," I noted. 

Clarkson has continued to research and report on Project Blitz and its broader Dominionist connections. Most recently, in late May, along with his PRA colleague Cloee Cooper, he published an article on the "convergence of far-right, anti-democratic factions In the Pacific Northwest" and its national consequences. The story focused on two former military officers with Dominionist ties, one of whom, Matt Shea, was a Washington state representative from 2009 to 2020, and was founding chairman of the Washington Legislative Prayer Caucus in 2018, a year after he was elected chair of the state legislature's Republican caucus. 

Shea provides an instructive complement to Mastriano, whose rapid emergence in the Trump-COVID era can be challenging to comprehend, compared to Shea's well-documented record. Clarkson writes:

In May of 2013, Shea spoke at a founding meeting of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) along with prominent Patriot and far-right leaders including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers

The "Constitutional Sheriffs" are a far-right organization claiming that county sheriffs have a unilateral right to decide what laws are constitutional and whether they will enforce them. Needless to say, this doctrine is entirely unsupported by the Constitution itself, in which the word "sheriff" never appears. This is simply a form of lawlessness in "law-and-order" drag. 

This lawlessness came to the fore with Shea's involvement in the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by right-wing activists. "For this," Clarkson writes, "he was characterized as a domestic terrorist in a well-documented December 2019 investigation commissioned by the state House of Representatives," which concluded that Shea presented "a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence." He was subsequently removed as GOP caucus chair, and didn't seek re-election in 2020. Included in that investigation was Shea's 2016 manifesto on the Biblical Basis for War, "which reads like a to-do list for religious civil war," Clarkson noted, including the assertion that "Assassination to remove tyrants is just, and is not murder." John Wilkes Booth would surely approve.

"Shea and Mastriano have had different trajectories in their respective state legislative careers," Clarkson told me via email. "Shea launched his career in public life via leadership in Christian right organizations. Mastriano seemed to get right into it — apparently anointed by NAR leaders.

"In one sense, this is what one would expect in any movement or party," he explained. "People will necessarily come from different places to get to where they are. The larger context is the long-term effort by the Christian right to take state legislative seats and chambers. That these politicians used their offices as launching pads for insurrection is troubling, but not really surprising."

This leads us to the question of Mastriano's previous history, and how it prefigures his ongoing insurrectionary activity.

Sgt. York and history: Mastriano's academic fraud

As mentioned above, patterns of denial and obfuscation common to Christian nationalists make it difficult to get a fix on Doug Mastriano's actual commitments and involvements. He clearly knows the strategic value of keeping his position ambiguous. In a 2016 article about Russian hybrid warfare, he wrote about how well this works for Vladimir Putin, citing Putin's use of the "so-called 'little green men' who appeared in Crimea in 2014 — soldiers without national affiliation on their uniforms, who seized key places in the peninsula" as an example.

"This approach was cloaked in a veneer of ambiguity, which played upon the fears and doubts of Western political leaders," Mastriano wrote. "The ambiguity gave Putin near complete flexibility to lower or raise Russian intervention based upon the level of Western resolve." This is highly illuminating, since Mastriano has pursued a similar strategy of deceptively fostering and exploiting ambiguity, as Griswold's account clearly shows. 

Before his recent rise in politics, Mastriano's earlier history shows a clear pattern of deception, alongside his Christian nationalist beliefs. This was summarized in a March 20 story by Mark Scolforo of the AP, focused on Mastriano's academic research into the legendary World War I Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Alvin York, who led a small group of U.S. soldiers behind German lines on Oct. 8, 1918, killing more than 20 German soldiers and capturing 132. That research earned Mastriano a doctorate in history from the University of New Brunswick, along with a book contract from the University Press of Kentucky.  But there were two major problems, as Scolforo notes: 

For more than a decade, other researchers have questioned Mastriano's claim to have conclusively proved exactly where York was during the October 1918 battle. They argue his research is plagued with errors and that a walking trail he helped build actually takes visitors to the wrong spot.

In the past two months, University of Oklahoma history graduate student James Gregory has filed complaints with Mastriano's publisher and with the Canadian university.

"Many of his citations are completely false and do not support his claims whatsoever," Gregory said in a Jan. 25 email to the University Press of Kentucky, identifying footnotes with no apparent relation to their corresponding book passages.

I contacted Gregory, who told me he had cited 35 such examples in his letter to the Kentucky press. Half of those were simple transcription errors, he told Salon, but the rest were "examples of academic fraud. They are instances where Mastriano has made a claim and cited a source, yet the source does not say what he claims. He does this often. ... He also likes to make claims of half-truths or make false 'confirmations' without any evidence."

The most glaring false confirmation is the photo used on the cover of his book — purportedly of the German soldiers York captured on Oct. 8, 1918. That same photo appears in the National Archives catalogue, and is dated Sept. 26. Mastriano knows this, but insists that the archive records are wrong, Gregory explained, forwarding a Feb. 22, 2017, email from Mastriano complaining about records at the Army Heritage and Education Center. "I have no idea why the tag in AHEC says 26 September. It is simply wrong," Mastriano wrote, following a description of York's movements after the battle, which attempts to explain why that photograph was taken by a soldier from the 35th Army Division, not the 82nd, in which York served.

Mastriano's tortured explanation conflicts with two accounts of the 35th Division's movements that Gregory consulted.  "Honestly, Mastriano is really showing his lack of skill as a researcher," Gregory told me, explaining that the 35th Division was roughly 33 miles away from the French village where York's famous battle occurred on Oct. 8, 1918, and there is no plausible way that a photographer from the 35th took any photo related to anything York did. One history of the 35th, however, noted that the division had captured an estimated 450 prisoners on Sept. 26, evidence that the National Archives' official date for the photo makes sense. 

So Mastriano put a fake photo on the cover of his supposedly legitimate historical work, and has defended it with bald-faced lies. This episode has become a major embarrassment to the University Press of Kentucky, whose director told Gregory by email, "We are reviewing all of the author's manuscripts." 

There's more. "Every time Mastriano writes about York, he focuses on York's religious convictions," Gregory told me. "Even in the introduction of his book, Mastriano breaks into a discussion of York's faith," claiming that "people who have tried to attack York's deeds are just attacking his faith and therefore those detractors are an example of cynicism in our age."

Gregory summarized Mastriano's pseudo-scholarly approach this way: "To question Alvin York is to question God. Therefore, anyone who speaks against York is against God and his ability to interact with our daily lives. This is the problem, as I see it, with Christian nationalism and history. Those who write about history through the lens of religion run the risk of writing in a way that creates an ultimatum: If you do not believe that God helped Alvin York, then you do not believe in God."

Christian nationalism provides a compelling, coherent narrative for its proponents — but at the cost of ignoring, rejecting or demonizing anything that does not fit. That includes much of the Bible, as well as the Constitution. It selects the elements it wants and ignores, denies or rejects the rest. 

What is "Fourth-Generation Warfare"?

As Frederick Clarkson told me:

Shea, Mastriano and others are coming at this from a "fourth-generation warfare" perspective, seeking to delegitimize the institutions of democracy with a moral narrative that casts them as evil or occupied by evil, and presenting themselves as a moral alternative with a more compelling moral narrative. James Scaminaci is spot on that this is a core strategy of the Christian right in all of its manifestations, and is a good lens through which to view many current events.

He's referring to Scaminaci's essay "Battle Without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare," which described Donald Trump's final campaign argument in 2016 as "a classic example of a right-wing strategy developed in the late 1980s: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW)," which involves "going beyond the charge that one's individual opponent is wrong or misguided, to claim that the system is illegitimate and one's opponents have no right to power or even to exist."  

The hard right in all its manifestations (cultural, religious, militarist, etc.) has always held that liberalism — if not democracy itself — is illegitimate. What's new about 4GW is that it provided the right a shared model of how to systematically delegitimize an opponent. Although 4GW theory's claims of historical accuracy have been severely criticized, it works well as an organizing mythology for its proponents.

In brief, 4GW theory holds that the three prior "generations" of modern warfare involved massed manpower, massed firepower and non-linear maneuver, but we have now reached a new phase: "4GW expands warfare beyond the physical level to include the mental and moral dimensions," Scaminaci explained. "At the highest level of combat — moral conflict — the central objective is to undermine the legitimacy of one's opponent and induce a population to transfer their loyalty from their government to the insurgent." In other words, 4GW normalizes the concept that political opponents are enemy combatants, building on generations of religious conservatives demonizing liberals as evil or demonic. 

This mentality and its fruits — if not the explicit theory itself — now informs Trump and his allies' relentless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, along with the GOP's ongoing efforts to make it easier for them to steal the next one. When legitimate office holders use their powers illegitimately to change the system, simultaneously claiming that they're the ones doing everything correctly, that's 4GW at work. It's also the logic behind the "constitutional sheriffs" movement noted above, as well as the state legislatures that tried to interfere with the 2020 election and are now trying to rig all future ones. The same applies to the "Oath Keepers," with their selective list of which oaths they will keep and their assumption of a unilateral right to interpret their meaning and act accordingly. 

Christian nationalism helps support all of this, deploying its warped and selective version of Christian faith to attack all other Americans, not to mention other Christians. While pretending to represent the ultimate in Christian belief and American patriotism, it is really a fundamental attack on the core values of both.

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