Book Review: The Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism
In her insightful book, Katherine Stewart explores the ways in which religious nationalists are hijacking America’s systems of government and education.
This book had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I’m not sure why I took so long to pick it up and start reading it. Perhaps because, on some level, I was afraid of what I’d read. I tend to get a bit stressed out when I read these kinds of books, because they remind me of how organized the religious right is, and how dangerous they are to me and other queer people.
However, now that I’ve finished it, I have to say that The Power Worshipers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, is one of the most important books published on religion and political life in American in the past 10 years. It’s exhaustively detailed and researched, and yet it was one of those books that I simply couldn’t put down. It’s absolutely necessary reading for anyone interested in learning about the ways in which Christian nationalists — those who wish to see the United States become, in essence, a theocracy governed by biblical literalism — have become increasingly powerful over the last twenty years and why they stand poised to achieve even more success in the years ahead.
Stewart has a key journalistic eye, and she provides exactly the kind of detail that we need to understand how this came to pass. She shows us how the religious right has been enormously successful in energizing their base to “vote their values.” More than that, they have also succeeded in infiltrating almost every level of government, from state houses to the White House. Their goal isn’t, as they commonly like to assert, to guarantee religious freedom. Instead, they want to ensure that their particular religious vision is the one that is imposed on everyone else. It’s precisely this element of their nationalistic agenda that is most troubling, because it makes clear that they are opposed to the possibility of coexisting with those who do not share their faith or their vision of the world.
It certainly helps that the movement is supported by a truly staggering apparatus. Though it is somewhat disjoined in its organization, for the most part there are some key movers and shakers that wield substantial influence. What’s more, they have been very successful building an infrastructure that supports their efforts, ranging from publishers to museums, historians to think tanks. Financially, they are supported by a generous network of wealthy donors who have helped to forge strong connections between religious nationalism and free market economics, a marriage that has, so far, worked out very well indeed for both parties.
Most troubling, I think, are the successful efforts by Christian nationalists to bend the public school system to their whims. The issue of charter schools has largely fallen off of the public radar, but the efforts like those of the current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and members of her family — as well as a number of other individuals — have born fruit. Slowly but surely, they have been able to siphon funds from public schools and poured them into charter schools, most of which are explicitly religious in orientation and instruction. Religious nationalists, predominantly Catholics, have also done an extraordinary job seizing control of significant chunks of the nation’s hospital systems. While in theory this doesn’t seem that sinister, in practice it is often disastrous for the physical health and emotional well-being of both women and queer people, many of whom face severe, sometimes life-threatening, discrimination at these institutions.
And, as Stewart aptly documents, these efforts are not restricted to the United States. Instead, they are part of a worldwide network of religious nationalists who aspire to turn most of the west, and indeed the world, into a patchwork of ethno-religio-nationalist states. The religious right’s admiration of and courting of Putin is not really a secret at this point, but I was genuinely surprised to learn that they have also made in-roads in such countries as the UK, where they’ve been able to exploit the Anglican Church’s decline (particularly among young people) to fill their own pews. Their success in doing so reveals that there is a lot of uncertainty in western liberal democracies, and the religious nationalists are determined to exploit that to the fullest.
Reading this book, one can’t help but admire the efficiency and effectiveness of these groups. It’s been well-documented how essential evangelical Christians were to the success of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, but so many other of their efforts have largely flown under the radar. I consider myself fairly well-informed about the workings of politics in America, but even I found myself rather taken aback at just how successful they have been. We on the left tend to think that we won the culture war and that demographic shifts mean that the future is ours for the taking, but The Power Worshipers makes it pretty clear that that’s a simplistic, and dangerous, frame of mind. Progressives, moderates, and even some conservatives would do well to read this book and take its lessons to heart.
The Power Worshipers is a timely reminder, given that we are now entering a presidential election year. The religious right doesn’t really care whether or not they are a majority of the country. They long ago realized that all that matters is that they have power and can use it to bludgeon others into doing what they want. Though they rarely say so explicitly, they are also driven by a deep racial bias. It’s no accident that their efforts were in part jumpstarted by the desegregation of schools. Those of us who care deeply about racial justice — as well as justice for women and queer people — would do well to remember that another Trump term will give religious nationalists even more power to enact their agenda. The past four years have been terrible enough. Imagine what they could do with four more.
For all of our sakes, I hope we don’t have to find out.