“Christian nationalism has influenced the course of American politics and policy since the founding of this country, while, in every era, moral movements have had to fight for the Bible and the terrain that goes with it,” Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis recently wrote in The Nation. “The January 6 assault on the Capitol, while only the latest expression of such old battlelines, demonstrated the threat of a modern form of Christian nationalism that has carefully built political power in government, the media, the academy, and the military over the past half-century. Today, the social forces committed to it are growing bolder and increasingly able to win mainstream support.”
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc welcomes Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis back to discuss the growing and dangerous influence of Christian nationalism in the US and around the globe—and how to fight it. Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-director of the Kairos Center, as well as a founder and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative. She is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a biblical scholar in New Testament and Christian origins.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show, here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us once again. And we’ll be producing a series of productions and conversations about the rise of the right in America, the danger it presents, what we can do not just to confront it, but to stop it and build a different future. And one of those organizations at the forefront of the struggle has been the Poor People’s Campaign. And one of its key leaders is the Reverend Dr. Liz Theorharis. A couple of weeks ago, she wrote an article entitled, “How Do We Confront White Christian Nationalism?” It was in tomdispatch.com and also featured in The Nation magazine where I first read it.
The power of the evangelical fundamentalist right-wing Christian movement has always been a force in America, but so has its opposite, from the struggle for abolition, to civil rights, to this moment. Now, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theorharis has joined me numerous times over the years and joins us again today. She’s co-director of the Kairos Center, co-founder of the Poverty Initiative, national co-director of the Poor People’s Campaign, and wrote the book, Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She’s an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and spent years of her life battling for social, economic, and political justice on the front lines with grassroots organizations from across the country. And Reverend Liz Theorharis, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Thanks so Much for having me, Marc.
Marc Steiner: I really love this article. It’s funny, when I read this sort of I had just finished reading a couple of articles about Donald Trump’s Trumped-up Christianity, and how he uses his nationals movement –
Rev. Liz Theorharis: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: …To push his own agenda. Let me just begin there. Talk a bit about what you think is this dynamic now with Christian nationalism and where it fits into everything?
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Well, this is so important. And it surely does not start with Donald Trump and it will not end even if his presidential hopefulness for 2024 is defeated. But there is indeed a long history of development of this Christian nationalism. But the way it’s playing itself out in our political and economic life today is one of real concern. And that we must pay some attention to.
What we have is really a theology, an ideology that both blames poor people and immigrants and queer people and women for all of society’s problems, pits us against each other, and then puts it all kind of on God saying that the true followers of the God of history are exclusive, are racist, protect private property, put forward this idea that Jesus was a card carrying member of the NRA. They assert that the real moral issues of our day are who has sex with who, about the health choices of women. When most of the issues that these Christian nationalists are taking a lot of time and effort around aren’t even in our sacred text and traditions.
And yet there’s real silence coming out of many of these communities on the issues that Jesus and the prophets were very loud about. And that is economic justice, that is people having a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, that is actually critiquing those in power who would take the wealth and power of the world just for themselves and allow the deprivation of rights and of livelihoods of a majority of God’s people.
And so today what we have is a politick that has been really kind of veiled or framed… My co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Dr. Barber, often will talk about these Christian nationalists who pray, P-R-A-Y, over politicians who prey, P-R-E-Y on the poor, on the immigrant, on the widow, on the child, on exactly who in our sacred texts God has the most concern and most interest in caring for.
Marc Steiner: So, as you were speaking, one of the things that hit me, this question is a little diversion from America, but I want to ask and come right back to our own country. I’m curious, as a theologian, as an activist, what do you think the dynamic is across the globe right now? When you see this happening among many Christian denominations, you see it happening in the Jewish world as well, especially in Israel, you see it happening in the Muslim world with kind of rural fundamentalists taking charge and battling societies. You see it taking place in India with Hindu nationalists. You see it across the spiritual spectrum. What do you think that dynamic is? Why is that happening at this moment? And what do we have to contend with here?
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Well, indeed there has surely been a rise of religious nationalism of all stripes over the past decades. And I think we actually have to look at the connection that religious nationalism has to both economic shifts and changes that are taking place in the global economy as well as the rise of these autocratic political movements who take advantage of economic shifts and changes and prey on vulnerabilities that exist.
And so indeed, all over the globe there are these nationalistic movements that are gaining strength and who have some very powerful leaders who then have very powerful bases in these nationalistic movements. You have it in Brazil, you have it in India, you have it, really, across the world. I think there is something, though, to be said especially about Christian nationalism, even the world all over because of the role that Christianity plays and has played both being connected to colonialism, imperialism. I think in terms of what we’re seeing now in different countries across the world of these evangelical nationalistic movements that are gaining some traction amongst marginalized people. But then also from how rich and powerful Christians in this country, and sometimes not even very Christian people, but politicians have a real interest in fanning the flames of nationalism and division and using a particular theology. And then importing that to many of the countries across the world where the US has been, as Dr. King calls, a great purveyor of violence in the world.
And so we see this in different parts of Africa, we see this in different parts of Latin America, we see this really all over. Where there’s battles taking place around sexuality, around abortion, but that are kind of really coming from some elite players in the Christian nationalist movement in the United States.
Marc Steiner: It makes me think of one of the… You have a couple of quotes in your article from Archbishop Tutu, one of our most amazing leaders and people that ever existed on this planet, at least in my lifetime.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: What you just said reminds me of a quote that you quoted in the article which is, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” So I’ve always loved that quote. And I’m glad you put that in there, because it’s so apt even for what we’re facing in America today. And you see the lens, the euphemism for what we’re facing in this country today.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: That’s right. So what we have, and again, this has been developing for decades. It didn’t just show up at the Capitol on Jan. 6 or even the kind of religious rally that happened on Jan. 5. But for decades what has been developing in this country, very motivated, very politically motivated, has been a movement of Christians who have taken a position on so many different issues but used, for instance, the desegregation of schools, and when they couldn’t win on that switched over to a fight for abortion and were able to impose a racist framework in local political governments all across the country, especially in the South.
And what we’re seeing still is that the rising influence of these Christian nationalists and especially the ideology that is attacking our democracy, allowing for very racist and anti-poor legislation being passed. And that just puts a veil on grave injustice. That again, our faith traditions, especially Christianity, have a very different message about.
Marc Steiner: So this leads me to two questions here. One is what you just said, what this struggle may portend, especially in the Christian world. But let me start with, how critical is this, for one of a better term, right-wing fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to the right wing surge. And two, its takeover. As we all both know that there are at least now 26 state legislatures that are completely dominated by the far right. And they are dwindling down the right to vote across America, which is in one way in this nation, in this democracy, to seize control legally. And how important is this kind of Christian nationalism to do that? And what is that set up?
Rev. Liz Theorharis: So, indeed, we are seeing the largest attack on voting rights in this country right now since the attack that came in reconstruction. Right after the civil war where we had these fusion governments all across the South of poor white and formerly enslaved and other freed people who had come together, formed these new reconstruction governments, rewrote constitutions, put in beautiful moralistic language, but that about freedom and justice. And in the North Carolina Constitution, for instance, that constitution doesn’t say just pursuit of justice, establishing justice. It also talks about the right to bear the fruit of one’s labor. That’s enshrined in the constitution there because of these amazing reconstruction governments. And yet, what has to happen for those in power to kind of grab their power back is to defeat reconstruction.
And again, who helped to write a bunch of these constitutions and a part of these reconstruction governments were pastors and moral leaders as well as those that were directly impacted. We’re seeing something similar going on today. Because of multiracial democracy, poor and low-income Black and Latino and Native and white and Asian are coming together across all of these different lines. They have those in power greatly scared. It isn’t really possible right now for those that can control the Republican Party to win elections fairly and especially to win national elections. And so what you have is this intense attack on voting rights.
Again, more than 400 voter suppression laws have been introduced since 2021 into 49 states. And 19 of those states have already passed. This will mean that in the next elections 55 million people who voted in the 2020 election will just be disenfranchised. They won’t have the same manners to vote as they did in 2020. But we can’t separate out this political attack, this attack on our democracy from this rise of Christian nationalism and this rise of autocracy and pushing back and the abridging of people’s right to elect leaders that represent them.
And a huge tool that has been used to allow for this huge attack on our rights and on our civil liberties is taking place through this veil, again, of Christian nationalism. And by some very powerful Christian nationalist actors who have, again, not just shown up overnight, but who have been building networks of media, building a base in different churches and taking political power by being very close to different political actors all across the country. And so this is both something that should be a cause for alarm, but again, it doesn’t have to have the last word. There are people pushing back and organizing, and this is why the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is just that. It’s a moral revival because our deepest moral values actually really push back against these extremists in our political views, as well as these nationalists in our religious views.
Marc Steiner: So explore that a bit more. And just in terms of how this is confronted and more importantly, really, I think, to start talking about how it is defeated and how it is stopped and what that means. We have a great quote in your article. Let me just read this for our listeners. And I will encourage everybody at the end to hit the link and to read the article because it’s really worth a read. “The vast majority of food pantries and other emergency assistance programs are run out of them [the churches] and much of the civic work going on in churches is motivated by varying interpretations of the Bible when it comes to poverty. These range from outright disdain and pity to charity to more proactive advocacy and activism for the poor.”
You also write about how the Bible belt in the South is also the poverty belt. So the question is what lessons do we get from that, but also, really, so how do you stop it? When you just said that right now these states are disenfranchising 55 million potential voters through the most horrendous means is just to… It’s just so blatant the way they’re trying to stop people from having the right to vote.
I hate to digress like this, but after kind of being as a young man in the South in the civil rights movement fighting for voting rights across America, to see them be able to take it back. So what now, in terms of the work you do and others around you doing, actually can stop this and build a movement to replace it?
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Well, I really believe that… I’m a pastor –
Marc Steiner: Yes you are.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: I’m a biblical [scholar], and I come to those, both from my upbringing, I was raised in a family that was deeply dedicated to doing the work of justice, but on my mother’s part in particular, a very deep faith commitment. And so I was a Sunday school teacher by 13. I was a deacon by 16. I am the church.
Marc Steiner: You are, really.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: But again, it was never separated that doing justice and advocating for an end to systemic racism. This was what you do, not just to be a good person, not just because there’s injustice, but because that’s what God and our faith traditions command. And that is really important. I’ve been doing grassroots anti-poverty organizing for more than 25 years and almost not a week goes by in my life when somebody doesn’t come up to me and say, I wish you would stop talking about ending systemic racism and poverty because don’t you know in the Bible it says the poor will be with you always.
Now, this does not just come to me from extremist Christian nationalists who have called themselves that. This comes from anti-poverty activists themselves. This comes from scientists and religious scholars. That right now the dominant interpretation of our biblical attacks, our sacred text and theology, really kind of says that God condones injustice. There’s others that go a lot farther and say that, again, God is going to punish poor people and women and all of this. Again, that’s not biblically based. It’s fine that people try to quote the Bible but they always misquote it and can often find very little biblical justification. But what folks have also done is allowed for this kind of overall interpretation of theology to justify poverty and inequality, especially in a very unequal and very impoverished world, an impoverished democracy.
And so to me, one of the responsibilities, but also opportunities that our justice movements have is to reclaim a bunch of the biblical and theological foundations, but also just the values in our society, values that are enshrined in our Constitution or who have been fought to be put there. Values that are in our communities about justice and about fairness and about truth and about welfare. How is it possible that we have the word welfare in our Constitution and yet we’re having a debate this many years into a pandemic about not getting a child tax credit to families that need it. Welfare is in our Constitution, providing for the common welfare. Well, let’s just talk about this. Or for the general welfare, sorry.
But that means that somehow we have allowed a small group of very powerful people to redefine what our values even are. But if we don’t allow that misinterpretation, if we come together and say and show that our sacred texts and traditions, but then also our justice movements are putting forward a different set of values. And that’s that it says in our Bible you can’t honor and worship God without taking care of and welcoming your immigrant neighbor, organizing society around the needs of the poor. That’s not because I want it to be there. It’s because that’s what’s in Deuteronomy. You have anti-poverty programs and pro-justice programs over and over and over in our sacred text. And we see movements including the Poor People’s Campaign take up those biblical and theological foundations and be able to push forward a new vision that’s rooted in these values, that says that everybody must be in, nobody can be left out. And that when you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.
Marc Steiner: [inaudible] as you were speaking I’m thinking that sometimes the inept inaction sometimes of the Biden administration makes you worry about them as much as I do the right wing at times, just in terms of what we face and what we should be doing. So I’d to really conclude with leading up to June 18, which I want people to understand and know about as we finish this conversation, but also what specifically, what strategically are you all putting on the table about what we do and how we organize this defense as well as an offense about building the future and not allowing us to fall into a right wing nationalistic kind of nation.
Because I think we are under serious threat. I think that this is the most serious threat I’ve seen I think America has had since, for want of a better thought, since the late 1800s, the late 1877 when reconstruction was destroyed and on the heels of civil rights and all the other movements and all things people fought for from the ’30s to the ’70s, seeing it all being dismantled and brought down again. And I’m really interested in what you think strategically has to be done, and what you all are doing?
Rev. Liz Theorharis: So what we propose is that a moral fusion movement is the answer to Christian nationalism, to increased poverty, to all of the injustices that are wreaking havoc on people’s lives and livelihoods. And what we mean by that is moral in that it’s rooted in our biblical and theological foundations and traditions that talk about love for one another. And again, lifting from the bottom so everybody can rise. Fusion in that it brings together people from all walks of life, across all the barriers and divisions that right now are really being stoked in our society. And so across geography, across race, across religion.
What we, again, saw in 2020 and what we are trying to do as we organize this moral March on Washington and to the polls is that one third of the electorate in 2020 was poor and low-income. And yet we have very little attention, conversation, and action around the needs of one third of the people that are voting in our elections. And in battleground states back in 2020 it was upwards of 40%, 45% of the electorate was poor and low-income and across race. Native, Black, Latino, and poor white voting together, making the difference in terms of voting for candidates that said that they were going to raise wages and expand healthcare and address systemic racism and do the things that the majority of people in this country need to thrive and not just barely survive.
And so this moral fusion movement that we’re building is also about registering and mobilizing and organizing people for a movement that then can vote, can put independent political pressure on our candidates and on our politicians by saying right now we are living in an impoverished democracy but the power to change that lies in the bodies and souls of poor and low-income people who are really trying to build, as Reverend Dr. Barber has said and we in the Poor People’s Campaign put out, a third reconstruction. And this one to fully address poverty and low wages and address these abridgments on voting rights and address the climate crisis and the militarization of our communities in our world and to address this false narrative of Christian and all forms of religious nationalism.
And so if we take, even from someone like Reverend Dr. King in the last years of his life who is proposing a Poor People’s Campaign, we take some of the strategy there that the Achilles heel, the weak point of our current political system that has allowed for such violence to occur to so many people and poverty and racism to exist, and climate chaos. Then by pulling those people together and having folk organize to take on at the same time systemic racism, and poverty, and ecological devastation, and militarism, and this narrative of Christian nationalism. In this organizing, organizing, organizing kind of way through what we call moral analysis, moral articulation, and moral action. Then we really believe that’s a hope for the nation and to really save the soul of our democracy and to be able to lift people up and put people first.
Marc Steiner: Well, Reverend Liz Theorharis, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. And before we leave each other today I’m going to leave people with a quote that you started your article with from the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But real quickly just tell us a bit more just very quickly about June 18 and what you’re building up towards so people understand what this means.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Great. So June 18 will be a mass poor people and low wage workers assembly and a moral March on Washington then into the polls. People from all across the country will converge and convene in Washington, DC, on that Saturday, June 18 for a declaration, not just a day, where we’re going to come forward with the very solutions to the problems that exist around systemic racism and the suppression of voting rights, around poverty and low wages, around saving the earth and everything living in it, and around all of these issues. And show the power of poor and low-income people.
And so hoping that folks will be involved and invited to help, to organize for this massive generationally transformative event. We already on the poorpeoplescampaign.org website have buses that are being organized and mobilizing kits and information. And so, hope that folks not just sign up to come and be in the numbers, but help to organize thousands of people to join us in Washington, DC.
Marc Steiner: And I’m going to leave you all before we say goodbye to the Reverend Liz Theorharis, at least for today. A quote that the article opened up with, I think that is really important. And I just love the things that Tutu has said. And he said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I love that quote.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Amen. Amen.
Marc Steiner: Liz, thank you so much. Look forward to talking to you again soon.
Rev. Liz Theorharis: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. It was great having you with us. And you can find links to Reverend Liz Theorharis’s article and to the Poor People’s Campaign June 18 action in DC right here on our website. And please let me know what you think about what you heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. And a really important reminder that Bill Fletcher. Jr and I will be producing a series on the rise of the right and what we can do to stop it, coming out on The Real News in March. So for Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank, and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.