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BOOK REVIEW

‘The Power Worshippers’ asks are religious extremists taking over politics?


Katherine Stewart is the Paul Revere of American civic life. She gallops through nearly 300 pages shouting, “The religious nationalists are coming.”

Actually, she argues in “The Power Worshippers,” the religious nationalists already are here, though they generally operate under the radar—or work benignly in plain sight. These are not your grandfather’s religious conservatives—honey-throated evangelists like Pat Robertson or overheated preachers like Jimmy Swaggart. They are a different breed for a different era: more focused, more organized, more modern, more determined to grab power.

The earlier religious conservatives wanted to influence power. Stewart argues that this new breed wants to control power. She is blunt in her assessment: “This is not a ‘culture war.’ It is a political war over the future of democracy.”

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She sees these Christian nationalists as embodying not a religious creed but an ideological one. They have roots in churches but branches in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Their movement is less a grass-roots insurgency than a hierarchical operation led more by manipulators than by ministers. And to her eyes it is no primitive uprising of the unschooled and the unsophisticated; it may cite scripture but it harnesses social media. It is preoccupied less by pastoral duties than by power politics.

With the methods of the journalist—interviews, visits to churches, examinations of records—she sets forth both the historical, intellectual, and theological origins of the movement and its modern incarnation.

She escorts the reader to places of worshipful contemplation and to office suites of political mobilization. She introduces us to the leaders of this movement, beginning with Ralph Dollinger, who terms same-sex relationships “profane acts of immorality” and who presides over weekly White House Bible study meetings and additional sessions on Capitol Hill. We meet GOP Rep. Jeff Denham of California, who says that these gatherings are “a special type of ministry that I don’t think we’ve seen before.” And we are confronted with an elemental question: “What is the difference between Bible study and policy advocacy?”

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The ties between religious nationalists and President Donald J. Trump are many, deep, and significant. Ronald Reagan had ties with religious conservatives, to be sure. But while the crusaders of the 1980s such as Paul Weyrich sought to influence politics, the new breed seeks to control politics. The earlier incarnation sought to shape the Republican Party, the new group seeks to dominate it.

Stewart portrays a movement constantly in transition and, with a leadership that is still mostly white and mostly male, it is positioned for change. Now voter guides are published in Spanish, for example, and activists such as Pastor Netz Gómez tell their parishioners, “Hispanic brothers, you came to the United States of North America as an instrument of God.” Though its advocates like to speak the rhetoric of abolitionism, Stewart shows us that this movement is suffused with a disturbing affinity for slavery. This is an unsettling echo of an old-time religion.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once spoke of the states as laboratories of democracy. Stewart calls them “laboratories of theocracy” with the aim of, among other goals, injecting “Christian nationalist ideas more directly into schools and other government entities.”

This movement is fueled by more than preaching. In fact, sermons are the least of it. It is data that provides the power of religious nationalists. The Great Awakening was powered by sermons. Religious nationalism is powered by websites and social media offensives that have created, and then mobilized, this new community of believers and agitators.

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Another source of power: charter schools, not coincidentally the pet project of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. In her previous book, “The Good News Club,” she warned about religious nationalists sneaking into public schools. Here, she contends that the charter-school movement is a vanguard of a movement to privatize traditional government functions. She argues: “This privatization, although it covers itself in libertarian rhetoric, is essential to the project of indoctrinating the next generation in the ‘right’ ideology and the right religion—with the added benefit of funneling public dollars into the pockets of right-thinking businessmen.”

Stewart has produced both a warning about the influence of religious nationalists and, in a brisk epilogue, the beginnings of a handbook about combating religious nationalists. The tools of the counter-revolution she hopes will stanch the religious nationalist drive to power are gerrymandering, fresh initiatives to enforce voter rights, and vigilance against abuses at the ballot box.

But she blames those who revile religious nationalists in part for the growth of religious nationalism itself.

“Reactionary authoritarianism doesn’t come out of nowhere,” she argues. “It draws much of its destructive energy from social and economic injustices that leave a few with too much power and many others with too little hope.... In some ways, Christian nationalism is the fruit of a society that has not yet lived up to the promise of the American idea.” This is a book that is both an examination of a new social and cultural phenomenon—and a call for action.

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The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

Katherine Stewart

Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $19.60

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.