Collaboration between white evangelicals and the Proud Boys is another worrying development.
In late July, a close friend of mine received a series of bizarre text messages from her parents, who urged her to stockpile food as quickly as possible. Over the next couple of weeks, they said, food would become scarce as Democrats cut off the supply and shut down the internet, as they attempted to prevent the reinstatement of Donald Trump as president. This was supposed to happen on Friday, August 13. In early August, with the Delta variant of COVID-19 surging and state governments reimposing pandemic restrictions that had only recently been lifted, my friend decided to call her parents and make one last ditch effort to convince them to get vaccinated. Her parents would have none of it. The vaccine was deadly, they insisted; she had survived only because she was protected by their prayers. They also urged her again to stock up on food and prepare for the events that would lead up to August 13.
My friends’ parents were Catholic when she was born. Soon after that they converted to evangelical Protestantism and embraced the prosperity gospel—the belief that God will give Christians health and wealth if they show sufficient faith—that is now associated with many of Trump’s most loyal Christian backers. She grew up attending church and youth group, and, although there was a time after she became an adult that her parents were not regular church attenders, they now attend weekly. Much of their disinformation seems to have come from YouTube, but, as two recent studies show, their status as white, churchgoing evangelical Protestants is not incidental to their vaccine refusal or to their embrace of the GOP’s “Big Lie” about a supposedly “stolen” election.
The first study’s conclusions are written up in a report released in late July by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Interfaith Youth Core, “Religious Identities and the Race Against the Virus.” While the report presents an overly rosy picture of white evangelical Protestants by stressing that the intervention of certain religious leaders had reduced their rates of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal, the raw PRRI data speak clearly enough. White evangelicals remain the religious demographic with the highest rate of vaccine refusal, at 24 percent. The data also show a clear correlation between vaccine refusal and affiliation with the Republican Party, QAnon conspiracy beliefs, and far-right so-called “news” outlets that purvey disinformation.
Meanwhile, using YouGov data, analysts at The Economist provided another piece of the puzzle by testing the hypothesis “that Americans who have no religious affiliation find themselves attracted to other causes, such as the Q craze.” What they found instead is that “Americans who attend church the least are also the least likely to have a favorable view of QAnon.” Conversely, “adults who attended church at least once a month were eight percentage points more likely than we predicted to rate QAnon favourably.” The Economist singled out white evangelicals as the most conspiratorial demographic. While white evangelicals do still have a net unfavorable view of QAnon, they are more likely than members of any other religious demographic to have a positive view of the groundless conspiracy. In addition, 31 percent of white evangelicals believe “that the American government is using the COVID-19 vaccine to microchip Americans, versus 18% among everyone else.” And about two-thirds of them believe the lie that “millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2020 general election”—a rate that is 34 percent higher than the general population.
These studies provide crucial context for understanding the turbulent events that have wracked the United States this summer. To be sure, the August 13 date—promulgated by American fascists like MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who claims that God freed him from his crack cocaine addiction—came and went without another January 6. But the summer has been marred by anti-vaccine and anti-mask rallies; threats of civil war; culture warring against the teaching of critical race theory; new rounds of violence instigated by far-right groups in and around Portland, Oregon; and, especially with back-to-school season, angry conspiracists attempting to dominate and disrupt local school board meetings with their vocal opposition to mask mandates meant to protect children who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID.
There are reports that some of these extremists, some of whom have been charged with criminal conduct, do not even have children attending school in the districts in question (if they have children at all). Indeed, some of the same people have been documented at school board meetings not merely in different districts, but even in different states, making it highly likely that astroturfing is in play. Canadian observers have also noted that their anti-maskers sometimes travel the length of the country to participate in multiple protests; the notoriously homophobic and anti-mask Polish-Canadian Pastor Artur Pawlowski has also been known to stir up trouble in the United States, including in Portland, my adopted hometown.
In the meantime, Florida passed a law banning school districts from mandating masks, with Republican politicians vowing to punish districts that refused to comply. Thankfully, a court overturned Florida’s deadly anti-social law, but Governor Ron DeSantis nevertheless followed through on the threat of punishment by withholding funding from two school districts that passed mask mandates, despite the fact that Florida’s current COVID outbreak is the worst in the United States. The states of Tennessee, Iowa, Utah, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, all of which are governed by Republicans, have also banned school districts from passing mask mandates. In response, the Biden Administration has opened a civil rights investigation over the apparent discrimination against students with disabilities.
At every turn, Christian symbols and rhetoric have been used by the anti-vax, anti-mask, and anti-democratic American extremists to support their actions, which amount to a continuation of January 6—a slow-motion insurrection. In June, for example, DeSantis told audience members at the Christofascist Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference that it was necessary “to put on the full armor of God” in order to defeat those to his political left. By using that language, DeSantis conflated Democrats, liberals, and progressives with literally demonic forces.
Charismatic evangelical worship leader Sean Feucht takes a similar approach with his “Let Us Worship” tour, which brings coronavirus germs and “spiritual warfare” to numerous cities across the United States—frequently without securing the necessary permits for his largely maskless, crowded outdoor concerts—as a protest against the reasonable expectation that churches should comply with legal public health measures. On August 8, Feucht brought his circus to Portland, Oregon, bragging on Twitter about his “security team” consisting of far right-wing street brawlers. This in itself—the increasingly open collaboration between the Proud Boys and their ilk, on the one hand, and explicitly Christian leaders on the other—is a highly concerning development. Similar dynamics have been on display in anti-vax and anti-mask rallies in California. At an August 14 rally that took place in Los Angeles, for example, one speaker openly called for violence in front of signs and banners that included slogans like “Freedom in Jesus” and “Jesus is King.” Other speakers proclaimed that “true conservatism” means “instilling Christian values back into our government,” and, quoting the New Testament book of Romans, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” One sign at the rally read “The blood of Christ is my vaccine.”
As with the January 6 insurrection itself, it concerns me that too few elite journalists and pundits are taking the Christian element of American fascism seriously (to say nothing of the fact that far too few of them are willing to call fascism by its name). There is no way to effectively counter a threat to democracy without understanding the nature of the threat, and to look the other way and pretend that Christianity is always and inherently benign in fact enables the Christofascists by reinforcing Christian normativity and hegemony.
True, the quasi-eschatological predictions for August 13 did not come to pass, despite all the extremist chatter about that date. Nevertheless, it’s been a summer of vocal and violent extremism in North America, much of it theocratic in nature. State-level voter suppression efforts might lead to entrenched minority authoritarian rule by white Christian extremists in the United States in any case, but the left’s counter-messaging should include the robust embrace of pluralism and secular society as the keys to a healthy democracy.