“If the American experiment with freedom is to end after 237 years,” wrote Republican campaign strategist David Lane in an essay published on a popular conservative website in 2013, “let each of us commit to brawl all the way to the end.” Quoting Winston Churchill from the darkest days of the German bombing of Britain during World War II, Lane added that “upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.”1
Such rhetoric is so common on the farther reaches of the Right that it can be easy to dismiss. But something has changed in recent years. Such disturbing claims are appearing more frequently, more prominently, and in ways that suggest that they are expressions of deeply held beliefs more than provocative political hyperbole.2 What’s more, there are powerful indications in the writings of some Christian Right leaders that elements of their movement have lost confidence in the bright political vision of the United States as the once and future Christian nation—and that they are desperately seeking alternatives.
The 59-year-old Lane, who generally keeps a low media profile, epitomizes the trend. Lane has been a key strategist in the conservative movement and a behind-the-scenes power broker and adviser to GOP presidential candidates for two decades.3 His main vehicle has been “Pastors’ Policy Briefings,” in which conservative Christian clergy and their spouses are provided expenses-paid trips to (usually) closed-door, invitation-only conferences. Speakers at these events included top GOP politicians and office holders, as well as Christian Right ideologues such as David Barton and experts in the mechanics of church-based electoral mobilization. During the 2010 mid-term elections, such events were held in six states (Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Iowa). The elections swept unprecedented numbers of Christian conservatives into state legislatures and the Congress, largely under the rubric of the Tea Party, helping catalyze the successful effort to oust three pro-marriage equality justices of the Iowa Supreme Court.4
The Iowa Renewal Project, which hosted a briefing in October 2013, is one of several state-level units of the American Renewal Project—which is, in turn, a political development and mobilization project of the Mississippi-based American Family Association. Its most prominent figures are founder Don Wildmon and the abrasive radio host Bryan Fischer. Lane told the Dallas Morning News that the goal of the event, which featured Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and U.S. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX),5 was the same as the others: “the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture.” Lane said: “We’ve been in 15 states now, largely under the radar, and we’ve had 10,000 pastors plus spouses that we’ve put up overnight and fed three meals. The purpose is to get the pastors—the shepherds in America—to engage the culture through better registration and get out the vote.”6
In one sense, little has changed since the methods that have defined the Christian Right were developed in the latter part of the twentieth century. But the heyday of high-profile, mediagenic leaders like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly—and their national organizations—is long gone. Their legacy is a generation of hands-on political operatives who now sustain a more decentralized Christian Right. No one now qualifies as the “leader” of the Christian Right. Instead, a constellation of smaller, electorally focused organizations has emerged, and others have evolved.
Lane’s method turns on the role of clergy in inspiring, sustaining, and expanding the electoral capacity of Christian conservatives. By Lane’s analysis, about half of eligible evangelical voters are either not registered or do not vote—and he believes pastors are the key to changing this, and thereby to sustaining the Christian Right’s strategic capacity for skillful voter mobilization, and exercising outsized political influence en route to dominant political power and governmental authority.7 As such, Lane epitomizes the long-haul political vision of the Christian Right. He has promoted Mike Huckabee at similar events since his runs for statewide office in Arkansas in the 1990s, and as a presidential candidate in 2008.8 Lane also masterminded the 2011 prayer rally that drew 30,000 people to launch Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s short-lived 2012 campaign for president.
Like many other evangelicals, especially those influenced by the Neocharismatic movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation,9 Lane is counting on a revival—another Great Awakening—to sweep Christians of the right sort into positions of power. This would result in the kind of Christian nation that he and his close ally, the historical revisionist (and accused fabulist) David Barton—whose books and interpretations are influential among conservative evangelicals—believe was intended by the nation’s founders. Barton is well known, for example, for his claim that the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state is a “myth,” as well as the variation that the wall is “one directional,” that is, intended only to protect the church from the state.10 A Bartonesque Christian nationalism is the vision that animates Lane’s work across the election calendar.11
But for all the energy he invests in traditional electoral work, Lane clearly is not convinced that his shining vision of America is likely—or even possible. Hence his doubt-filled essay about the “the American experiment with freedom” possibly ending. The piece, “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” was published on World Net Daily (WND), a leading and influential news site of the farther secular and religious Right. WND quickly removed the essay in June 2013 after bloggers called attention to it,12 but Lane soon demonstrated that it was not an aberration. He told conservative Iowa radio talk show host Steve Deace the following month that “car bombs in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Des Moines, Iowa” would be merciful punishment from God for legalized abortion and for “homosexuals praying at the Inauguration [of President Obama’s second term].” Without such divine mercy, Lane suggested, America might “get judgment like Nazi Germany.”13
Lane’s apparent lack of confidence that the Christian Right’s efforts to establish theocratic governance can succeed by using the tools of democracy epitomizes his belief that martyrdom and elections are not mutually exclusive, and that horrific confrontations lie ahead. Indeed, Lane opened his WND essay with a quote from a leading thinker who does not believe that America can be salvaged via conventional politics: the theologian Peter Leithart, 55, a Christian Reconstructionist (hardline theocrat) who makes even David Barton seem meek and mild by comparison.14 “Throughout Scripture,” Leithart declared in a passage from his 2012 book Between Babel and Beast, “the only power that can overcome the seemingly invincible omnipotence of a Babel or a Beast is the power of martyrdom, the power of the witness to King Jesus to the point of loss and death.”15
“You ask,” Lane wrote in his WND essay, elaborating on Leithart’s theme, “‘What is our goal?’ To wage war to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage with all of our might and strength that God will give us. You ask, ‘What is our aim?’ One word only: victory, in spite of all intimidation and terror.”
Lane’s essay is a clarion call for a contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States. And his notion of war is not just a metaphor for politics. He even called for a contemporary “Gideon” and a “Rahab the Harlot” to rise to the occasion. Gideon is the Biblical figure who leads an Israelite army in an ethnic cleansing of the Midianites who were both oppressors and worshiped false gods. The story of Rahab turns on how she sheltered two Israelite spies in preparation for the sacking of the city of Jericho by Joshua’s army, resulting in the massacre of everyone but Rahab and her family. One does not invoke Gideon and Rahab in this way if one is simply calling for religious revival, or seeking to advance a legislative agenda.16
Coming from a top GOP operative, such exhortations to religious war are extraordinary. Lane’s articulation demonstrates an alarming degree of militancy at a high level of American politics. As such, it is a bellwether of an ideological reorganization, or at least reconsideration, now taking place within the Christian Right. It sounds like an expression of the cognitive dissonance experienced by a man whose job is to mobilize political constituencies toward common goals—but who doubts that the enterprise can succeed.
As a result, at least some of the historic culture warriors of the Christian Right seem to be considering an ostensibly unlikely coalition with the Neo-Confederate movement. The coalition would lead their followers in religious and political directions in which violence is as likely as the outcomes are uncertain. It is an unlikely coalition, not necessarily because the Christian Right and most Neo-Confederates differ much on issues, but because Christian nationalism is so fundamentally at odds with the notion of fracturing the nation due to a loss of hope and faith in the role of the United States in God’s plan.
Witness Against America
The accelerating advance of LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality, has become a flashpoint for the Christian Right’s revolutionary impulses. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor in 2013, Peter Leithart took to the influential blog of the journal First Things (founded by the late Neo-Conservative Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus) to declare that the decision “presents American Christians with a call to martyrdom.”17
In 2013, influential GOP operative David Lane wrote an essay titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation,” a clarion call for a contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States. Lane later told a radio host that car bombs in U.S. cities would be “merciful judgement” from God for the nation’s tolerance of legalized abortion and homosexuality.
Leithart is the former dean of graduate studies at New Saint Andrew’s College, whose founder and eminence grise is Douglas Wilson. (Leithart remains an adjunct fellow at the school, which is based in the university town of Moscow, Idaho.) In 2012, Leithart struck off on his own, founding a small school and related think tank, Trinity House, in Birmingham, AL. It seeks to serve as a center for a new Reformed Protestantism, called Federal Vision, whose leading lights include Neo-Confederate authors Wilson and Steven Wilkins.18
Together, Wilson and Wilkins have probably done more than anyone to construct the theology now animating much of the Neo-Confederate movement. Wilkins was one of the founders of the League of the South, the leading organization of contemporary Neo-Confederatism.19 As scholars Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague have written, the League views the Civil War as a “theological war” that continues in contemporary America. The heart of their argument is that the old Confederacy was an orthodox Christian nation fighting for the future against the heretical and tyrannical Union states. Sebesta and Hague also report that that New York Times best-selling author Thomas E. Woods, a traditionalist Catholic and a founder of the League, has argued that “struggles against liberalism, big government and the New World Order comprise ‘Christendom’s Last Stand.’”20
Wilson and Wilkins are notorious for a booklet they published that claimed that slavery was not so bad. Nick Gier, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Idaho, observes that they made a number of historically inaccurate but ideologically significant claims, notably that, “By the time of the [Civil] War, the leadership of the South was conservative, orthodox, and Christian,” and that the leadership of the North had become “radical and Unitarian.” While the Confederates were righteous, “the abolitionists in the North were “wicked” and “driven by a zealous hatred for the Word of God.”21
In his First Things piece , Leithart avoids calling too directly for Christians to risk their lives (perhaps because of the flap over David Lane’s essay). But his call to martyrdom is clear enough. “In Greek, martyria means ‘witness,’ specifically, witness in a court,” he wrote. “At the very least, the decision challenges American Christians to continue to teach Christian sexual ethics without compromise or apology. But Windsor presents a call to martyrdom in a more specific sense. There will be a cost for speaking the truth, a cost in reputation, opportunity, and funds if not in freedoms. [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia’s reference [in Windsor] to the pagan Roman claim that Christians are ‘enemies of mankind’ was probably not fortuitous.”
“The only America that actually exists,” he continued, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.22
“If America is to be put in its place—put right,” he concluded (in David Lane’s hair-raising invocation of a passage from Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast), “Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus an imperator and the church as God’s imperium or to begin drinking holy blood.”23
In Between Babel and Beast, Leithart declared that Christians must respond to the heresy of “Americanism,” by which some conflate the nation with Christianity itself. He called for repenting of Americanism and beginning to cultivate “believers who are martyrs in the original sense of ‘witness’ and in the later sense of men and women ready to follow the Lamb all the way to an imperial cross.”24
Significantly, Leithart has also proposed “the end of Protestantism” in a way that suggests a growing affinity for the kind of Catholicism expressed by George Weigel—a U.S. Catholic culture warrior, neoconservative, signer of the Manhattan Declaration, and fellow First Things blogger. Leithart also proposes the related notion of a “Reformational Catholicism,” which foresees a Rome-based Christian unity.25 He envisions this mutual accommodation as a kind of Christian maturity necessary for Christendom not only to survive but to prevail.
Leithart’s make-or-break vision would either end what he describes as anti-Christian tyranny or, failing that, build a new Christian nation—or nations. He is less concerned with the ups and downs of single issues than with the long-term advance of Christendom. This is consistent with the revolutionary visions of an influential Catholic thinker, Father C. John McCloskey, who believes that regional American strongholds of conservative Christianity may be necessary in light of the culture of religious pluralism and the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
Ending the Tyrannical Regime
The accelerating advance of LGBTQ rights, especially marriage equality, has become a flashpoint for the Christian Right’s revolutionary impulses. “The only America that actually exists,” Christian theocrat Peter Leithart has written, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”
McCloskey, a 61-year-old priest in the conservative order Opus Dei, is best known for his role in the religious conversions of Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and various other prominent and influential conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, economist Lawrence Kudlow, financier Lewis Lehrman, and the late journalist Robert Novak.
McCloskey told columnist Terry Mattingly in July 2013 that “the United States is no longer a Christian country.” Because this is so, he explained, traditionalists will need to cluster in states that are more congenial to their views on such matters as abortion, marriage, parents rights, and homeschooling. “No one in this country has ever really suffered for their faith in any meaningful way,” McCloskey said. “Those days are ending, especially in certain states . . . Among Catholics, we may soon find that many are Americans more than they are Catholics.”26
McCloskey predicted in 2001, and again in 2012, that conservative Catholics and evangelicals would need to band together in a civil war of secession. The “secession of the ‘Culture of Life’ states,” he predicted, would emphasize “the fundamental issues of the sanctity of marriage, the rights of parents, and the sacredness of human life,” and that the secession would precipitate “a short and bloody civil war” that would break the country into what he calls “the Regional States of America.”27 He repeated this general view in an essay in January 2014, in which he discussed separating from the “tyrannical regime” in Washington, D.C.28 McCloskey, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute, has not said how he thinks this might happen, but he has said that the civil war may be all over by 2030. (Unsurprisingly, McCloskey has favorably reviewed one of the books of the prominent Catholic Neo-Confederate Thomas E. Woods, a founder of the League of the South.29)
McCloskey, like the rest of the Republican-oriented Christian Right, believes that the current electoral strategy of seeking political control of the Red states might sufficiently reduce the number of abortions without having to overturn Roe. But he avers that while people from those states who seek abortions “retain the option of traveling to the nearest blue state,” there is “much hope in this area for at least regional decreases in abortions.”30
Centuries of political and military conflict between Christian factions are being set aside in favor of strategic alliances that target the culture and constitutional structure of religious pluralism—and the supposedly “tyrannical” federal government. It may be more a matter of how, rather than when, the conversation about secession unfolds.
McCloskey finds encouragement in nullificationist activity in the Red states against what he considers “unjust laws” that protect abortion rights and access. He points to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback,31 who in 2013 signed legislation that defined life as beginning at conception as part of a bill that severely restricts, but doesn’t ban, abortion.32 Brownback has promoted nullification as a strategy of resistance to what is viewed as federal intrusions on state sovereignty regarding, among other things, gun control.33
“The red state/blue state dichotomy could—perhaps sooner than we might think—result in states opting to pull out of the union,” McCloskey wrote in January 2014. He wondered about what secession might mean for a superpower such as the United States, and about how the armed forces might react.“[B]ut ultimately,” he concluded, “the protection of innocent life trumps any tyrannical regime.”34 McCloskey has said he hopes that it will not come to the violence he has predicted, but for more than a decade he has openly said that a conflict with what he calls “the atheistic American Herods” is probably inevitable.35
This kind of thinking is not new within the farther reaches of the religious and political Right. The Christian Right theorist and prolific author Gary North, for example, wrote about the long-term revolutionary implications of what he and others were doing. North objected to the 1994 assassination of a Florida abortion provider and his escort by a fellow Christian Reconstructionist, Paul Hill, who had also authored a manifesto in which he called for Christian militias to rise up against the federal government.36 North argued that the assassination was premature and that the foundation for theocratic Christian revolution had not been properly laid. Nevertheless, North felt that something serious was already underway. “For the first time in over 300 years,” he wrote in 1987, “a growing number of Christians are starting to view themselves as an army on the move. This army will grow.” He concluded: “We are self-consciously firing the first shot.”37
It is not clear that the Christian Right is any more ready to revolt now than it was in 1994 —a period that was marked by a wave of arsons, bombings, and assassinations against abortion providers, as well as the rise of the militia movement. (Post 9/11, these violent movements were largely neutralized by federal law enforcement.) But as the 2009 Manhattan Declaration and other compacts created between Christian conservatives in recent decades have shown, the religious wars that have pitted Christian factions against one another for millennia, politically and militarily, are being resolved in favor of strategic alliances against the culture and constitutional structure of religious pluralism, and against the allegedly “tyrannical” federal government.38 Thus the Catholic/evangelical conversation may be taking a surprising turn.
It may be more a matter of how, rather than when, the conversation about secession unfolds. Some see restoring the Christian nation (which arguably never was) as a hopeless cause. Others hope that a revival-powered wave of Christian nationalism will propel a profound cultural and political transformation. But if such a transformed America is not to be, a coalition with the avatars of Confederate revivalism will become more appealing, and will be well-aligned with McCloskey’s vision of the secession of conservative states.
Theology of Neo-Confederatism
Those who have long lived at the intersections of the Christian Right and the Neo-Confederate movement will find much in common with the culture warring, secessionist, violent visionary sensibilities of Lane and McCloskey, if variations on the theology of Neo-Confederatism gain further traction. Pastor David Whitney, 56, who leads the small Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Pasadena, MD (near Washington, D.C.), may epitomize the trend.
Though not widely known, Whitney is a well-connected figure on the Far Right. He is chaplain of the Maryland chapter of the League of the South and is a signatory of the “Covenant” of the six-year-old Southern National Congress, which openly seeks an “independent republic.”39 He travels the country as the senior instructor at the Institute on the Constitution, which offers theocratic interpretations of U.S. history, and he is a perennial candidate for political office who has run on the Republican and Constitution Party tickets. In 2014 he ran in a Democratic primary for county council.
Like Lane and McCloskey, Whitney is revealing himself to be increasingly revolutionary.40 He declared on Independence Day 2010, for example, that if government does not conform to God’s law, “the people have a right to secede” from the “wicked regime in Washington, D.C.” and its “despicable and evil tyranny.” He believes that we therefore may eventually have to make the “same difficult decision which our forebears reached on that hot July day in Philadelphia.”41
Whitney has become only more overtly militant since then. In February 2011, he threatened secession in testimony before the Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland State Senate. For example, he claimed that passage of marriage-equality legislation would delegitimize the state government, such that state laws should not be obeyed; that the state courts and executive branch have no authority; that taxes should not be paid; and that “we should from this point forward consider it as our Founders considered King George III.” If the legislation passed, he said, “multitudes” would want to secede from the state.42 While there is no obvious secessionist uprising seeking to fracture Maryland in the wake of the passage of marriage-equality legislation, that issue is hardly Whitney’s only concern—and his seething sensibility has taken a turn to vigilantism.
In a June 2013 sermon, he justified the murder of abortion providers. In discussing a Christian’s duty to defend life, he said that this included the prevention of “the murder of the unborn” and that “we need to understand that there is such a thing as Biblically justifiable homicide.”43 This places him in a distinct lineage of justification for murder that goes back at least to Paul Hill and was specifically rejected as a legal defense by the Florida courts. Hill had advocated the notion of justifiable homicide for more than a year before he decided to take action himself.44
A May 2013 sermon helps to establish the context for Whitney’s notions of extrajudicial killings. “When you talk to people about God’s Law being restored in America,” he declared, “they say, ‘Awww, you’re some ayatollah. Awww, you want a theocracy.’” He explained that, “Well yes, I want obedience to God’s Law because that is where liberty comes from. Liberty comes from God’s law. Tyranny comes when God’s law is rejected by a society as it has been rejected in our day.” He went on to say that any law that “contradicts God’s law… is not law at all.”45
Consistent with his deeply theocratic bent, Whitney wrote in February 2014 that we should “restrict citizenship” to Christians of the right sort: Christians who—whether voting or serving as jurors, government officials, or “in the Militia”—operate according to “God’s Law.”46 In October 2013, he preached that “God’s word is wise in how to structure a human civil government. Because if a human civil government allows a tyrant to control an army, you are going to lose your freedom. It’s only when you, the people, are armed in a militia structure that you can prevent that kind of tyranny from overwhelming the country.”
In a sermon in March 2014, Whitney called for imprecatory prayer against the White House staff (presumably including President Obama), apparently because of the Affordable Care Act. “There are many enemies that we could pray against them that God would do unto them what they are seeking to do unto us,” he told his congregation. “There are those, including those in the White House, through their death panels, who intend to kill us. May God do to them what they intend to do to us.”47
Such Words as These
It could be argued that the so-called culture wars have been long on metaphor and relatively short on violence. That would be fair, even when we consider the violence directed against LGBTQ people and the four decades of arsons, bombings, and assassinations directed at abortion providers since Roe. But the protagonists of the story of the various elements of the Christian Right see themselves as playing a different role than that cast by visionaries of perpetual social progress. There are also clear tensions between those who can live with the social changes taking place in the country, those who can’t, and those who do not see the battle as one of single issues, but one of the survival of Christendom—and whether or not Christians are willing to fight for it.
Taken singly, the views of any of the Christian Right leaders described here would not necessarily signal a trend. But taken together, the commonalities of their views take the edge off of their many differences and reveal distinct, overlapping factions of a dynamic movement towards the ideas of nullification and secession—and the possibility of violence and revolution.
One does not have to believe that secession or revolution of any kind would be successful, or that widespread violence is likely anytime soon, to recognize that the political tensions preceding any major matters of nullification, and moves towards secession by any state, would likely beget violence of many kinds. Which is why ignoring Lane, Leithart, McCloskey, Whitney, and their like—or assuming that they are anything less than deadly serious—could be an error of historic significance.