by Dominic Sanfilippo
Dominic Sanfilippo is researching political and theological polarization, conspiratorial rhetoric, and emerging fundamentalist influences on American Catholicism while pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies at the University of Dayton; he intends to defend his graduate thesis in April 2023. He has variously worked as a high school civics and theology educator in California, Illinois, and Ohio; served in the mayor’s office of his southwest Chicagoland hometown; and published writing in several outlets, including the University of Dayton Magazine and Flyer News, the university’s award-winning student newspaper. In 2016, he represented Flyer News at the inaugural White House College Reporter Day.
As pundits and commentators parse the still-clearing smoke of the 2022 US midterm elections, one theme continues to echo across Twitter feeds, Substack newsletters, and global water-cooler conversations: voters from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic largely rejected elected officials and candidates advocating white Christian nationalism’s ascendance in American politics.
From my writing desk in wintry southwest Ohio, it seems rather early to draw any definitive long-term conclusions from the midterms about the future of white Christian nationalism’s rhetorical and organizational impact on our shared civic life. As sociologists and authors of the 2022 book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead caution in a post-election TIME analysis, although white Christian nationalists hold a “minority position in the United States” and many candidates who championed that label were defeated last Tuesday, it is clear from Perry and Whitehead’s recent national Pew Research Study that these nationalists do not believe they are in the minority. That is to say, “the more that white Americans subscribe to Christian nationalist ideology, the more they believe that most Americans share their views on religion in government and the more they think that percentage is growing.”
How should observers assess the disjunctive certainty offered by Christian nationalists in this country?
Moreover, what should Americans from all walks of life make of their neighbors, family members, and electoral candidates who publicly espouse:
- an end to a separation of church and state in (as they perceive it) a divinely chosen nation;
- the imminent return of Jesus Christ;
- Christ’s separation of Americans and all peoples into those belonging to the “light” and those in “darkness” who have “stolen your nation,” as Brian Kaylor recently reported that self-described prophet Julie Green told a “ReAwaken America Tour” crowd in Branson, Missouri the weekend before the midterms.
In trying to both absorb and contextualize this dizzying moment in time, I have found it worthwhile to reflect on a certain cross-generational American fascination with two self-styled Christian warriors: Oliver North and Michael Flynn. North is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and former National Rifle Association president; Flynn is a retired Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who eventually resigned as Donald Trump’s national security advisor after less than a month on the job. North’s and Flynn’s long public arcs and personas are not identical, and I should note that at present, Flynn probably plays a more prominent role than North in trying to cultivate American Christian nationalism. However, there are too many striking parallels to ignore. Both men grew up in close-knit Catholic families, yet respectively embraced a late-1970’s born-again pivot into evangelical Protestantism (North) and continues to fuse QAnon doctrine and fundamentalist Christian rhetoric in his public speaking (Flynn); both were respected military leaders who ended up leaving their senior White House roles amid massive scandals (the Iran-Contra affair for North and lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russians for Flynn, for which then-president Trump pardoned Flynn in the last weeks of his White House tenure); and both occupy, in distinct ways within a larger historical moment, near-mythical status in the minds and hearts of an array of Americans from different socioeconomic and denominational backgrounds.
In her much-discussed 2020 book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Calvin College historian Kristin Kobes du Mez describes North’s “canonization” in the minds of a sizable contingent of conservative Christians even as his star power with the larger American public faded in the wake of his conviction on three felony charges in the Iran-Contra affair. “Jerry Falwell led the way in lionizing North,” du Mez writes; soon enough, with Falwell and other evangelical leaders’ support, North would find himself “standing before a 40-foot by 60-foot flag” at the 1991 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), urging over fifteen thousand Christian leaders from around the country to get politically involved to fight, as he said that day from the SBC stage, “’a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah on the banks of the Potomac.’”
More than thirty years later, while sitting on a sunlit bench last month on my university campus, I couldn’t help but think of North as I read the joint Associated Press and PBS special report featuring Michael Flynn leaping onto “ReAwaken America Tour” stages across the country to assert to tens of thousands of Americans they were fighting a “spiritual war [and] a political war.” Du Mez did not cover Flynn’s role in Jesus and John Wayne’s incisive analysis of white Christian American culture, but in a comment to the Associated Press, she called “ReAwaken” gatherings “pep rall(ies) on spiritual steroids.”
Why was history rhyming in odd ways? Moreover, why do so many of my fellow Americans continue to elevate men like North and Flynn to such laudatory spiritual and civic heights, even as they trade in violent rhetoric, continue to flirt with an emergent conspiratorial landscape, and encourage their listeners to sort neighbors onto different spiritual ‘teams’ which save or damn them in the eyes of their country and their Creator?
For anyone trying to understand white Christian nationalists’ psychological and theological confidence that, despite the statistical trends against them, their work and beliefs align with a larger cosmic “victory [that] is in God’s hands and thus is assured,” as Perry and Whitehead put it, the “ReAwaken America Tour” is a good place to start. The frenetic, merch-table-crowded, conspiratorial Christian nationalist roadshow has garnered headlines, feature-story dispatches, and documentary footage by PBS, NPR, The Washington Post, and scores of other outlets over the last year and a half. (Just last week, Righting America featured a reflection on “ReAwaken” rhetoric by Rodney Kennedy).
Initially coined the “ReAwaken America Tour” by its founder and organizer, former Tulsa, OK mayoral candidate Clay Clark, the roadshow evolved out of initial “Health and Freedom” gatherings convened during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic last spring. As has been widely reported, Michael Flynn helped Clark scale up and organize the smaller “Health and Freedom” gatherings into their current large-scale, barnstorming form; indeed, Flynn is often seen pacing on stage at each “ReAwaken” stop in a neat sport coat and slacks, railing against the “deep state,” offering prayers, and inviting attendees to be publicly baptized.
The roadshow is resplendent with vendors hawking everything from Trump 2024 shirts and “Let’s Go Brandon” hats to, as NPR correspondent Lisa Hagen observed at the October 21st “ReAwaken” stop in Manheim, PA, “vibrating platforms you can stand on instead of exercising” that sold for over three thousand dollars. In Manheim, a bolo tie-sporting man named Everett Triplett handed out free print copies of his prophecies about an apparent global conspiracy against freedom; in the back of his booklet, Everett recommends further research from a variety of sources, including, Hagen notes, “Alex Jones’ InfoWars, a John Birch Society speech and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious, century-old antisemitic hoax.”
The “ReAwaken” website directs visitors to a website where they can request religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates. At nearly every “ReAwaken” gathering, scores of pastors, preachers, and political gadflies take the stage to preach, prophesize, and warn attendees about various national and global plots to both subjugate Christians and destroy the American way of life. Trump-orbit fixtures Roger Stone, Kash Patel, and Mike Lindell regularly appear as “ReAwaken” speakers; in Branson, Missouri, the tour’s final pre-election weekend two-day stop on November 4th and 5th, presidential son Eric Trump put his cell phone on speaker from the stage to relay a live message from his father and, as Ed Pilkington of The Guardian reported, asked the crowd whether they were ready to do “it all again.”
From repeated references from speakers on stage to banners draped over merchandise booths, “ReAwaken” organizers seem to infuse the ongoing “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump into every “ReAwaken” gathering space, somewhat akin to the ways many casino operators pump pleasant scents into the air and utilize flashing jackpot lights to prime their gamblers’ dopamine triggers. As New York Times correspondent Charles Homans wrote this past April, “the performances wrap the narrative of election fraud in a megachurch atmosphere, complete with worship music and prayer.” Pastor and journalist Brian Kaylor, who holds a doctorate in communication from the University of Missouri, visited the Branson roadshow for his most recent Word & Way “A Public Witness” newsletter; in the course of detailing the multitude of ways the Branson roadshow mirrored the affect, style, and symbolic gestures of a Christian worship service, he reported Flynn’s presence on stage prompted a curious form of public “litany” midway through the day’s proceedings. As Kaylor recounts:
Clark: “How many of you believe that Jesus is King?”
Clark: “How many of you believe that President Donald J. Trump is, in fact, our president?”
Clark: “And how many of you believe that General Flynn is America’s general?”
At the height of the day’s proceedings in Branson, the preacher and self-anointed “prophet” Lance Wallnau exhorted attendees to consider themselves as part of a revelatory moment of eschatological significance:
“What’s coming down in the last days — and all the theologians fight me on it, but so what,” Wallnau said. “When Jesus comes back, the Bible says he’s going to gather all the nations in front of him and separate them into sheep and goat categories. Understand something, the sheep nations, by instinct what you’re doing is preserving the sovereignty of the United States from being broken down and assimilated as a beat-up junior partner in a global empire. We will always be separate from that system.”
Wallnau then jumped to Luke 2:34 to offer a “prophecy.” In that verse, Simeon is making a prophecy about the baby Jesus being one that will “be spoken against.” To connect the dots from Jesus to ReAwaken, Wallnau interjected, “This movement is in its infancy, but it’s about to grow very quickly.” And, Wallnau added, they are being spoken against, a framing that puts the movement in the place of Jesus in the words from Simeon. Wallnau then noted that on the Jewish calendar this is the year 5783, which he decided offered another clue.
“If you go to Strong’s Concordance, there’s a word in Greek and a word in Hebrew next to all these different words,” Wallanu said. “What word in the Concordance actually corresponds with 5783? And it means to expose that and make it naked, to reveal what has been hidden.”
The congregation cheered and many nodded their heads in agreement.
Afterward, Kaylor writes, Flynn took the stage to deliver a closing benediction and told the gathered faithful: “Our Constitution is a, it’s a fulfillment of a promise that we make to each other as Americans, just as the Bible is a fulfillment of the promises that we make to each other as Christians on this planet.”
Against the backdrop of the 2022 midterm election results and a larger, worldwide conversation about how to grapple with surging antisemitism, politically violent rhetoric, and certain public officials’ advocacy of Christian nationalism from Washington, D.C to Budapest, it would be naïve to try and unpack all the forces that both Flynn’s “ReAwaken America Tour” and Oliver North’s rhetoric (from SBC and NRA stages to cable news appearances) have unleashed. Rather, my closing thoughts are about relationships.
Anthea Butler, chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 2021 book White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, told NPR’s Hagen “ReAwaken” contains “all the elements of Christian churches, except it’s not in the church. Right? So all of those things that people get sociologically from church connection, validation, affirmation, all of those things are happening in these sorts of places.”
I think Butler’s point is important. In reflecting on the tens of thousands of our neighbors, coworkers, and family members who have attended “ReAwaken America” gatherings and their offshoots in 2021 and 2022, it is important to remember many attendees are consciously or unconsciously seeking belonging, validation, and a way to make sense of a messy, complex world.
Former Republican speechwriter Peter Wehner puts it this way in his October 2022 article in The Atlantic, “The Desecrations of Michael Flynn”:
Today, the people in politics who most often invoke the name of Jesus for their political causes tend to be the most merciless and judgmental, the most consumed by rage and fear and vengeance. They hate their enemies, and they seem to want to make more of them. They claim allegiance to the truth and yet they have embraced, even unwittingly, lies. They have inverted biblical ethics in the name of biblical ethics.
This doesn’t mean these people aren’t good friends or reliable neighbors or beloved family members. It doesn’t mean they are without virtue in other areas of their lives. And it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t show personal kindness to those in need. I know such people; you might too. And even those who hold toxic political views deserve some measure of grace and understanding. Many of them are being misled.
I do not always agree with Wehner’s public prescriptions, but the measured empathy he articulates here is crucial to navigating the still-unfolding civic tempest looming on the horizon.
To be crystal clear, I am not condoning the actions or words of Flynn, his fellow “ReAwaken” travelers, and their most virulent disciples. In my ongoing graduate thesis work on the intersections of a polarized American Catholic landscape and a twenty-first century Christian fundamentalism that continues to utilize digital tools and social media to extend its theological and political influence, I problematize many of the ways that physical spaces like the rented convention center ballrooms of the “ReAwaken America Tour” (and their digital spatial counterparts) heighten the potential for religious and political violence. More than this, I meditate on potential actions governments, religious authorities, and public-facing entities like colleges and universities can take to simultaneously rehabilitate extremist worldviews and increase legal, ecclesial, and communal accountability.
Rather, in both a scholarly and personal sense, I lament the irrefutable fact that men like North, Flynn, and scores of other ostensibly devout Christian leaders have both supported and spread decades worth of bloodstained rhetoric about an eschatologically and materially imminent “battle” to which American Christians must resign themselves. Such rhetoric frays the social, familial, and civic bonds and trust we all need to sustain daily life. Their hyper-masculine, militant approach to the world that scholars like Kristin Kobes Du Mez painstakingly detail turns every person one encounters into a potential enemy. It forces commerce, politics, and nature into malleable, cold levers to manipulate in the service of some rending, destructive End, not complex realities to learn from, sustain, and celebrate. Such wide-eyed, fearful imagery does not comport with the nuanced, still-evolving understanding of apokálupsis (or revelation) that I continue to try and develop as a millennial Catholic who is still trying to figure it out, so to speak. My own conception of God has been shaped by so many extraordinary people who look, think, and believe differently than I do; they’ve helped me experience mediated, partial glimpses of the ineffable Mystery we all seek in our own idiosyncratic ways over the course of our ever-too-brief lifetimes on this beautiful, fragile planet.
Last winter, I participated in a graduate seminar on scriptural exegesis with my cohort of fellow master’s students. We are a close-knit community, and we all work from diverse theological standpoints and worldviews. I’ll never forget our professor’s thoughtful observations, built out over an entire semester, that many ancient Jewish and early Christian interpreters would have understood apocalyptic imagery as representing moments of personal transformation and discovery. Said differently, moments of crisis in our public and private lives that might bring to mind, for instance, Christ’s very human fear and recognition of his own corporeal mortality in the Garden of Gethsemane can be construed as invitations to enter more deeply into both the “temple” of one’s self and the freeing knowledge that, for Christians and all peoples of good will, a divine spark lives within us and in the hearts of all those we stumble across.
Diverse sources such as Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato sí and the work of the early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber remind us that the continual choice to be receptive to encounter and relational mutuality (particularly with those different than us and those on the margins) is crucial on the journey toward the Infinite. In a tempestuous modern era where a loud contingent of white Christian nationalists want to define God’s image, likeness, and will for all of us, we would do well to remember that humble spirit of encounter in journeying together down the winding road we all walk.