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Holy War

Why some nationalists are treating foreign policy as a Christian litmus test.

Tucker Carlson speaks at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

If you believe in “America First,” you shouldn’t need some other reason to oppose U.S. intervention abroad.

Your rationale is right there in the label. We should stop spending taxpayer money on weapons for Israel and Ukraine and start spending it on problems afflicting our own people, like the border crisis. America first!

Pretty simple. So why have some of the right’s most prominent America-First-ers begun adding a religious angle to their isolationist arguments?

Recently Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene explained why she’s so irritated by House Speaker Mike Johnson’s plan to fund Ukraine. It’s not just a matter of wanting America to come first, it turns out. It’s a matter of not wanting America to ally with the enemies of Christianity.

The next day, a visibly troubled Tucker Carlson considered the longstanding problem of Christian persecution in the Middle East. Not by the region’s many Islamist governments, mind you, but by the state of Israel.

Once again, it appears, America has aligned itself with the enemies of Christianity in a hot war. It can’t be a coincidence.

All of this is, to quote the late Antonin Scalia, pure applesauce.

Greene’s nonsense about Ukraine “attacking Christians” has been debunked many times, including here at The Dispatch after America-First-er Vivek Ramaswamy made the claim during a Republican primary debate. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has given religious sanction to Vladimir Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine; elements of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, an offshoot of the ROC, chose to collaborate in the effort. The Ukrainian government then moved against those elements. From that, nationalists have deduced that Kyiv is waging a “war on Christianity.”

It takes some very motivated reasoning to watch Russia kill civilians indiscriminately for two years and conclude that it represents the “Christian” side of the conflict, particularly given the many credible allegations of Christian persecution against Putin and his minions.

Carlson’s smear was arguably worse. It’s true that Bethlehem’s Christian population has suffered and dwindled over the years—but that’s because the city has been under Palestinian, not Israeli, control for nearly three decades. Christians flourished there beforehand; now they’re oppressed. The Christian population is, however, growing in Israel, something Tucker might have discovered had he chosen to interview a member of that community instead of … this character.

Even populist-friendly voices at sites like Breitbart felt obliged to rebut him publicly.

It’s bad enough that Carlson and Greene would falsely accuse two U.S. allies of something as grave as systematic religious persecution. That they would whitewash actual religious persecutors by implication is worse. An uninformed viewer would come away from both clips suspecting that, at a minimum, Russia and the Palestinian Authority are no more egregious in their violations of human rights than the Ukrainians and Israelis are. It only seems that way because that’s what “they” want you to believe.

Why are these two very notable nationalists keen to inject religion into how the right thinks about the wars in Gaza and Ukraine? Why isn’t “America First” enough?

Israel and Ukraine are each led by Jews. I think that matters to the analysis.

Carlson and Greene would resent that accusation (publicly, at least). But when your base consists of people prone to hooting “Christ is King” at Orthodox Jew Ben Shapiro, the implication in questioning who the “us” and the “them” are in these two alleged wars on Christianity being waged by Jewish leaders is obvious—and stinks like a corpse lying out in a summer swelter.

Remember, this isn’t the first isolationist movement in U.S. history to operate under the banner of “America First.” The last one wasn’t crazy about Jews either.

What Carlson and Greene are doing, I think, is extending the logic of modern nationalism beyond America’s borders. That nationalism isn’t primarily concerned with putting Americans first, it’s concerned with asserting the traditional majority’s tribal supremacy in a diversifying country and justifying its right to rule through illiberal means. That’s why principled nationalism always tends to devolve into ethnic or religious nationalism; the tribal identity is preeminent and eventually reveals itself as such. The fact that Greene describes herself explicitly as a “Christian nationalist” is no coincidence.

Nor is it a coincidence that figures like Carlson and Steve Bannon, allegedly so focused on the welfare of Americans, can frequently be found overseas kibitzing with foreign authoritarians. That makes no sense as a matter of principled nationalism but it’s elementary as a matter of tribal nationalism. If your goal is to re-establish white, right-wing Christians as the dominant tribe in a pluralistic America, of course you would extol white, right-wing authoritarians like Putin and Viktor Orbán who wrap themselves in Christianity as models of leadership.

By questioning who the real villains are in the current conflicts, Carlson and Greene are trying to cultivate a more tribal mindset in the American right’s Christian majority. Traditionally, Republicans would sympathize instinctively with the pro-Western liberal side in any war; nationalists want them to suppress their instinct to ask who’s right and who’s wrong morally and instead approach disputes by asking, “Which side of this is more closely aligned with my ethnic or religious tribe?”

Ironically, that may help explain why Carlson in particular has gotten such intense blowback on the right for his smear of Israel. Some are rightly and righteously indignant that he would defame a liberal democracy victimized by a terrible terrorist attack last year. But for others, the tribal calculation in this case simply might not compute: Muslims, not Jews, are supposed to be American Christians’ closest tribal kin in the Middle East? 

Donald Trump is also keen to play on tribal identity, of course, as one would expect of the head of a nationalist movement. He’s an Orbán admirer, like Tucker, and he’s gotten more prone lately as the presidential campaign heats up to speaking in tribal religious terms, from hawking Christian nationalist Bibles to saying stuff like this:

His relationship with the Christian right over the last nine years has been one long experiment in mingling nationalist politics with religious identity, to the point where many of his supporters now call themselves “evangelical” despite seldom attending church. They’re not truly evangelical in the theological sense—but they’re tribally evangelical. They know which side they’re on and whom they’re supposed to follow; the instinct to ask themselves who’s right and who’s wrong in a political dispute has been conditioned out of many of them, especially when that dispute involves Trump.

The thing to understand about all of this tribalist urging from the likes of Trump, Carlson, and Greene is how insincere it is.

Not entirely. All three would agree privately, I assume, that America is a Christian country and therefore is properly ruled by Christians. Their tribal identity is real. But I suspect their interest in religious tribalism (especially Trump’s) derives chiefly from their interest in mainstreaming authoritarianism. The more they can persuade Christian Republicans to sympathize with illiberal regimes abroad on tribal religious grounds, the more at ease those Republicans will be with an illiberal regime here at home that belongs to the same tribe. And the more obedient they might be when their political leaders start smashing civic norms. 

They’re manipulating Christian identity for political ends, which isn’t just cynical but wicked. It’s one thing to slobber over fascists, it’s another to do so with the Good Book in hand.

And if they can persuade Christians that their faith compels them to take certain uncomfortable positions on foreign policy, they might be able to persuade them that their faith likewise compels them to take certain uncomfortable positions on domestic policy. Like, say, with respect to abortion.

If Trump, Tucker, and Greene cared as much about Christianity as they claim, one would think they’d be gung ho for federal restrictions on abortion next year.

They are not. In fact, not only did Trump reiterate his opposition to those restrictions on Thursday morning, at last check he was nudging Arizona to relax its newly reinstated state abortion ban

This is where the distinction between Christian belief and Christian tribalism is laid bare. As a matter of belief, Christians may feel obliged to conclude that every life is sacred from the moment of conception and that the federal government should do its utmost to protect those lives.

But as a matter of tribal loyalty, Christians are obliged to facilitate the tribe’s path to political power. If pushing federal abortion restrictions would damage Trump’s chances at reelection then members of the tribe should support him in opposing those restrictions.

Given how thoroughly Christian religious and political identity has been commingled over the last nine years, sincere evangelicals should be very worried about how tribal pressures might lead their fellow believers to ditch their commitment to the pro-life cause not just as a matter of expediency—but as a matter of conviction.

After all, if Donald Trump has decided that abortion restrictions are now an impediment to tribal political dominance, a Christian Republican might resolve the cognitive dissonance between what his faith requires and what his tribe requires by concluding that there’s … actually no dissonance to resolve. Jesus never spoke explicitly about abortion, did he? Some religious faiths permit abortion, don’t they?

Maybe it’s Christian belief, not Christian tribalism, that requires a rethink.

Earnest evangelical leaders like Russell Moore are already anxious about how Trump’s political needs have influenced Christians’ sense of morality since 2015. There’s no obvious reason abortion would be an exception, especially after pro-lifers already got to claim a great moral victory in seeing Roe v. Wade overturned. Christians won! Now they can move on.

The more political tribalism infects Christian identity, the easier it should be for Trump and other talented demagogues like Carlson and Greene to mold Christian belief to their political ends.

To some degree, they’ve already done it. The ominous messianism around Trump, replete with prophecies, is an obvious example. The QAnon phenomenon, rich with mythology and divination, is another. Conspiratorial thinking is itself a form of religious faith in how it imagines all-powerful unseen forces controlling the universe; not coincidentally, Trump, Carlson, and Greene are probably the three most unhinged conspiracy theorists in the upper echelon of the MAGA movement.

Tucker’s shtick about Israel and Bethlehem reeks of the stuff. “A consistent but almost never noted theme of American foreign policy is that it is always the Christians who suffer,” he told viewers in his latest interview, plainly implying that that’s no coincidence. Malign, shadowy influences bent on destroying Christianity must be at work inside America’s establishment. Carlson didn’t name them—although we can all guess who he has in mind—but here again, he’s purporting to pull back the veil of ignorance that blinds his congregants to the hidden truth that explains reality.

Eclipses, earthquakes, bridge collapses: Everything happens for a reason in MAGA world, Brian Klaas noted recently at The Atlantic. That reason is invariably simple, reductionist, and quasi-religious. Why should seemingly unrelated examples of Christians suffering because of American foreign policy be any different?

We’ll soon find out whether this ersatz Christianity, so useful for tribal ends, will supplant the real thing on the American right. If Trump pays no electoral penalty for functionally abandoning the pro-life cause, that’ll be a strong clue.

But it’s not a sure thing:

Prominent evangelical Trump allies like Albert Mohler are also unhappy with him. For a movement as cultish as the modern right tends to be, the nascent backlash among pro-lifers is noteworthy.

Right-wing Christians will need to decide whether to shoot the hostage in November to prove a point, boycotting the election to force the GOP to take their agenda more seriously going forward, or whether to stay true to tribalist form. Most of them will do their tribal duty and show up at the polls, no doubt, reasoning that an anti-anti-choice Trump is still preferable to a pro-choice Biden.

But given how tight the last election was and how much tighter this one looks likely to be, it wouldn’t take many of them to blow the whole party up by staying home.

Either way, rest assured that even if pro-lifers do show up for him, Trump will blame them and their animating issue for his defeat if he ends up losing. He did that once before when Republicans underperformed, you may recall. In his desperation for a scapegoat to explain his own failure, he’ll do so again in November if the outcome is adverse—to the extent he’s not submerged in another quasi-religious conspiracy theory about secret vote-rigging, of course. Pro-lifers’ reward for suspending all sense of morals with respect to their leader for the past nine years will be to have him dub them traitors to the tribe they’ve loyally served.

As a matter of poetic justice, I can’t say they won’t deserve it.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.