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Christian Nationalism is stronger than ever, even without Donald Trump as president

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If anyone thought that Christian nationalism would decline with Donald Trump out of power, they were mistaken. The movement of conservative evangelical churches that believes America must regain its Christian roots is stronger than ever. Yet more and more mainline Christian congregations are speaking out to say that Christian nationalism is wrong. NPR's John Burnett reports.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) And I heard about his healing.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Sunday service at the Patriot Church in the town of Lenoir City, Tenn., starts out like a lot of evangelical worship - hands aloft, Bibles in laps, full-throated singing.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Dear Jesus, come and heal a broken spirit.

BURNETT: When Reverend Ken Peters picks up his wireless mic, the service takes a sharp turn to the right.

KEN PETERS: Don't let the mainstream media or the left tell you that we were not a Christian nation. You know why there's churches everywhere and not mosques? Because we're a Christian nation.

BURNETT: The sermon, titled How Satan Destroys The World, zigzags between familiar grievances of conservative Christians, like abortion and trans rights. But what makes this church different is its embrace of the contemporary agenda of the far right - masks and vaccinations violate religious freedom, the participants in the January 6 riot were proud patriots, the Biden administration is evil and illegitimate.

PETERS: You know he's not the most popular president in America. How many Biden parades did you see? Yeah, he beat Trump with 70 million? Give me a break. We know something's up.

BURNETT: Christian nationalism is on the march, providing a godly underpinning for right-wing activism in venues like school board elections and anti-vaccine protests. The movement holds that America is Christian, that the government should keep it that way, and Donald Trump was and is their best hope to accomplish that.

After the service, I sit down with Jim Willis, a 72-year-old retired army colonel and software salesman who wears on his lapel an American flag inside of a Christian cross.

JIM WILLIS: This is a spiritual battle. It's good versus evil.

BURNETT: Willis says he and his wife fled California for Tennessee because of heavy-handed COVID restrictions, and the Holy Spirit led them to the Patriot Church, which is not afraid to jump into the fight.

WILLIS: And unfortunately, evil has taken charge. And we know what their agenda is. Their agenda is to close down churches, to get rid of religion permanently in this country.

BURNETT: When I point out that President Biden is a lifelong Catholic who attends weekly Mass, he responds...

WILLIS: No, he isn't. No, he isn't.

BURNETT: In this partisan fissure that we're living in, imperviousness to facts is a sign of the times. I head outside to talk to Murray Clemetson, an law school student and father of three kids, all home-schooled. He was among the 80% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2020.

Is this a Donald Trump church?

MURRAY CLEMETSON: I think it is a Donald Trump church. Donald Trump represented what we stand for as a nation. You go to flyover country and people have good moral values. They love the Lord, and they want the best for the country. And that's what Donald Trump tapped into. That's what he represented.

BURNETT: The next morning, I return to Lenoir City, to the barn-like building with the American flag painted on the roof that's home to the Patriot Church. It came into being while Trump was president, and it's done well. There are currently four campuses in Tennessee, Virginia and Washington state with about 350 members. Two more locations are on the way.

Reverend Peters greets me with a warm handshake. He's a rising star in the Christian right and one of the few MAGA church leaders who welcomes journalists. Peters believes so fervently that his candidate won, he went to the Stop the Steal rally in Washington D.C. and addressed protesters the day before the Capitol riot. I told him that one of his parishioners said his church is a Donald Trump church.

PETERS: We love Donald Trump. We love him. We will be accused a lot of worshipping him or being part of his religion as if he's some sort of cult and we're a - no. Donald Trump passes away tomorrow - God forbid - does that stop us? Does that slow us down? Not one bit. We'll be looking for the next guy to lead the way.

BURNETT: The rise of Christian nationalism is both a symptom and an accelerant of the polarization that afflicts America. But there's more and more pushback. Last year, a long list of mainstream and progressive church leaders signed an open letter that condemned Christian nationalism as a distortion of the faith and idolatrous of the former president. That letter and the proximity of the Patriot Church motivated one congregation just up the highway to take a stand.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Lift up your voice and sing unto me.

BURNETT: Church of the Savior is perched on a bluff overlooking Interstate 40 in Knoxville. It's a liberal, inclusive congregation that's part of the United Church of Christ. Senior Pastor John Gill stood at the pulpit one recent Sunday and started his sermon this way.

JOHN GILL: I think many of us believed and hoped that the fever of misinformation about the election and the pandemic and all the related efforts to undermine democracy in our nation would somehow abate. But that's not happening.

BURNETT: Indeed, he says, things have gotten worse.

GILL: It's difficult for me to understand how those who embrace this ideology can call themselves Christian and so thoroughly ignore Jesus' call to nonviolence.

BURNETT: The youth minister at the Church of the Savior is 58-year-old Reverend Tonya Barnett. She sits with a group of church members who agreed to be interviewed. She says Christian Trumpism has also broken out in the Pentecostal churches where she grew up in Appalachia.

TONYA BARNETT: My family would go to the Patriot Church if there were one around Big Stone Gap, Va. The churches they go to teach the same things.

BURNETT: Reverend Barnett is lesbian. She says her sexuality and her progressive church are still rejected by some members of her family in the coal town of Big Stone Gap. She says she understands why people in the Patriot Church are scared.

BARNETT: I think it's some kind of fear of difference, fear of me as being different, fear of the nation changing so that it's not white, cis, straight, male Christians in charge only. And it's moving more toward people who are different.

BURNETT: Barnett says, in her opinion, Christian patriots are completely missing the true message of the Gospel.

BARNETT: Wanting to gain power as Christian nationalists is in direct opposition to what Jesus taught - compassion, kindness and care for the people who are most oppressed. That's what Jesus did.

ED SULLIVAN: I mean, there's nothing new about Christian nationalism. It's been part of this country's history for a long time, decades.

BURNETT: Ed Sullivan is a 55-year-old librarian who goes to Church of the Savior. As he observes, the Bible has been thrust into Republican politics long before the Patriot Church. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority helped to get conservative Christians involved in politics back in the 1980s.

SULLIVAN: But the Patriot Church movement is certainly the most extreme manifestation of that that we have today.

BURNETT: Is there any hope, I ask him, to narrow the chasm that separates these two churches in eastern Tennessee that both profess to follow Jesus?

SULLIVAN: If they view anyone who dissents with their point of view as evil or the enemy or of the devil, I really don't see how there's any kind of common ground that can be found.

BURNETT: I put the same question to Reverend Peters of the Patriot Church. He's not optimistic either. He said they don't want a civil war, but coexistence is increasingly difficult in the same United States. John Burnett, NPR News, Knoxville, Tenn.

(SOUNDBITE OF AXEL BOMAN'S "BARCELONA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.