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Donald Trump’s bizarre altar call in Ohio

In Youngstown, Ohio, Saturday evening, hundreds of people gathered to offer praise to their common leader, join together in song, and engage in ceremonial rituals. 

To a casual observer, the gathering had all the trappings of a typical megachurch service. But this was a political rally, not in a house of worship but at an arena. And rather than worship the divine, the crowd was there to herald the malign: Donald Trump and his brand of hateful, intentionally divisive politics.

Similar to a creed, Trump shared his litany of election-denial lies that have come to constitute the Republican Party platform.

You would be forgiven for confusing it for a religious service. Similar to a creed, Trump shared his litany of election-denial lies that have come to constitute the Republican Party platform. Like an evil mirror-universe version of Scripture, attendees heard the incoherent ramblings of QAnon conspiracy theories. And with the feel of an altar call, the crowd jabbed index fingers in the air while organizers played music that closely resembled the QAnon theme song.

All of this is by design, illustrating yet again how MAGA Republicans use and abuse religious rhetoric and symbols in order to create a culture where disagreeing with conservative political leaders is no longer seen as a matter of discourse but as an act of blasphemy. 

Having long rejected the historical boundaries of traditional politics and even the basic facts of reality, many of today’s elected Republican leaders are no longer interested in seeking power through democracy. Instead, they seek to tie the MAGA movement to their supporters’ most cherished religious traditions, enshrining their politics as a key tenet of evangelical and even Catholic Christianity. As University of Pennsylvania professor and MSNBC contributor Anthea Butler wrote on Twitter following the rally, “You have a major faction of the Republican Party morphing into Republican Religion… These rallies, especially the Trump ones, have effectively blended religious fervor, calls for violence, and patriotism into a noxious stew.” To oppose QAnon and MAGA is now to oppose God, country, and family, for they have been made one and the same in the minds of the MAGA base.

This is all part of what scholars mean by the term “Christian nationalism”: The Republican Party’s merging of American and evangelical Christian identities to proclaim that only conservative Christians count as “true Americans,” and that only right-wing Republicans can be considered true Christians. The intentional coupling of MAGA politics with religious imagery isn’t merely a rhetorical act, either. Under Christofascism, the only thing that matters is that conservative Christian leaders and their allies hold power. In such a system, there is need neither for democracy nor for equal rights.

Trump’s Ohio rally is hardly the only recent example of a politician appropriating religious symbols to seize power. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene labels all her critics “the godless left,” ignoring the truth that many who object to her embrace of the phrase “Christian nationalist” are in fact her own fellow Christians. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, who was present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and promoted baseless 2020 election fraud claims, has even suggested that the Bible actually forbids Christians from criticizing him.

It is not just Republican politicians who try to align MAGA politics with Christianity, but a legion of right-wing pastors and false prophets who seek access to power.

It is not just Republican politicians who try to align MAGA politics with Christianity, but a legion of right-wing pastors and false prophets who seek access to power. Last Wednesday, Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler said that to vote the “wrong way” is to be “unfaithful” to God. Then on Friday, at the Mike Flynn-headlined “ReAwaken America Tour” in Post Falls, Idaho — a MAGA affair that has been called “QAnon 2.0” — Trump confidante Pastor Mark Burns proclaimed, “I’m coming here to declare war on every demonic, demon-possessed Democrat that comes from the gates of Hell!”

Co-opting religion isn’t just blasphemous; it’s also dangerous and has already led to real-world violence. The most obvious such moment is, of course, the use of religious language and symbols before and during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection attempt. But even more recently, we have seen MAGA adherents — operating in the same echo chambers — take literal aim at the FBI, IRS and even the National Archives. 

For those who sincerely believe these agencies are doing Satan’s bidding, the act of storming an FBI field office with an AR-15-style weapon delusionally feels less like attempted murder and more like a holy obligation. 

Of course, not only is none of this rooted in Scripture; it is, in fact, antithetical to Christian values. Right-wing authoritarianism has hijacked vast swaths of the church in order to masquerade as religion, and it falls to faithful churches and people of faith to reclaim and heal what has been seized.

On this front, there is hope. For every lost pastor who casts aside their ordination vows to prop up MAGA cult leaders, there is always at least one nearby who will reassure their neighbors of the true teachings of Jesus Christ. For example, wherever Flynn and the “ReAwaken America Tour” travel, local pastors have been ready to speak out. When the tour visited Post Falls this past Friday, Episcopal Bishop Gretchen Rehberg told reporters, “I would urge anyone who thinks that Christian nationalism is Christianity to go back and read the Gospels… The words used by Christian nationalists are words of demonization, division, of violence, of separation. They are not words that Jesus would use.”

Just as the “ReAwaken America Tour” brings more than a dozen pro-Trump pastors on tour alongside Flynn and Eric Trump, the notoriously homophobic evangelist Franklin Graham — who supported Trump’s election denial and now uses heated MAGA rhetoric against the FBI and IRS — is preparing to kick off his own latest swing-state tour. It is his first since the Big Lie. Here, too, Christians are speaking out against his hijacking of the church for right-wing politics. More than 17,000 people have signed a petition from the organization I lead, Faithful America, calling on local event venues not to host Graham’s rallies. 

Unfortunately, far too many moderate and progressive pastors still decline to speak out against the merger of MAGA and religion, whether it is because they misunderstand the separation of church and state or because they are afraid of losing church members. But the threat of fascism in Jesus’s name posed by the Republican Party’s attempted hostile takeover of faith is too great a threat to both the church and democracy for us to ignore. We Christians must now follow the example of our prophetic siblings — and of Jesus himself, who repeatedly challenged the corrupt religious and political leaders of his time to set aside their discrimination and thirst for power to instead love all their neighbors, no exceptions.

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