This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
If Doug Mastriano, the frontrunner in tomorrow’s Republican gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania, prevails and goes on to win the general election in November, he could single-handedly threaten American democracy. That’s not only because he is the Trumpiest of the Trumpists, having received the former president’s “Complete and Total Endorsement” on Saturday. It’s not just because he has enthusiastically promoted Trump’s stolen election lie, participated in the January 6 insurrection, and signaled his intent to abuse his power as governor to overturn any Democratic presidential victory in Pennsylvania in 2024. It’s because Mastriano believes he is on a mission from God — and has an energized Christian nationalist movement at his back.
That the Christian right is intertwined with a Republican candidate is hardly new. Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the movement has defined GOP politics. What is new, and increasingly perilous, is that over the ensuing years the movement has become more highly radicalized, a trend that was validated and accelerated by Trump’s candidacy and presidency — and especially by his stolen election lie. A movement that elevated Trump to messianic status and shielded him from his 2019 impeachment was able to convince millions that satanic forces had robbed God’s man in the White House of his anointed perch as the restorer of America’s white Christian heritage. Their duty, as patriotic spiritual warriors, was to go to battle on his behalf.
Mastriano, a state senator, has not only ridden the wave of this radicalized movement, he has openly embraced it. He spoke at the December 12, 2020, Jericho March on the National Mall, which promoted the stolen election lie and pledged to rally a spiritual army to overturn the election results. Earlier this year, he announced his run for governor at a Christian nationalist event at which a shofar was blown, an increasingly commonplace occurrence as a symbol of Trump’s victory over satanic forces, otherwise known as our democracy. As Brian Kaylor and Beau Underwood detail in their newsletter, A Public Witness, Mastriano has been campaigning at events like Pennsylvania For Christ, whose organizers claim their goal is to “reestablish the kingdom of God in PA,” and Patriots Arise for God, Family, and Country, where he pledged, “in November, we’re going to take our state back. My God will make it so.”
This type of politicking is a result of the explosive growth of politicized, right-wing charismatic Christianity, a strand of evangelicalism that emphasizes the “gifts of the spirit,” such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, direct revelation from God, casting out demons, faith healing, spiritual warfare, and Christian nationalism. Escalating even before Trump weaponized it, Christian nationalists believe America had a divine, Christian founding, and that patriotic believers must rescue it from secular and satanic forces. Among these overlapping and interconnected movements and trends are the word of faith movement, also known as the prosperity gospel, which teaches, among other things, that believers can receive direct revelation from God and speak their desires into existence; the New Apostolic Reformation, which teaches that modern-day apostles and prophets receive prophecies from God and are called to take dominion over secular institutions; and seven mountains theology, which holds that Christians have a divine directive to take over the “seven mountains” of public life, namely religion, family, education, government, media, arts and entertainment, and business.
These ideas are spread far beyond pulpits and pews. Over the five decades during whichthat evangelicalism has become a force in Republican politics, these movements have become more widely influential, owing to televangelism, the proliferation of conferences and books, and, more recently, social media and podcasts. As the means of spreading these ideas grow, there are fewer barriers to entry in a sprawling market of self-styled prophets and spiritual warriors — a phenomenon that also has played out in the arena of QAnon, which has also captivated pro-Trump white evangelicals.
Trump’s elevation of these movements has transformed the party’s relationship with them. Both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had to be convinced by their religious advisor, the late Doug Wead (himself raised Pentecostal) that they should cultivate relationships with religious leaders in the charismatic world to capitalize electorally on their outsized influence and audiences. Compared to Trump, though, both Bushes held these relationships at an arm’s distance.
With these movements’ growing influence, there were key inflection points for their integration into presidential politics. One was John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, who hailed from this charismatic world, as his running mate in 2008. Another was then-Texas governor Rick Perry’s enormous prayer rally in Houston’s professional basketball stadium in 2011, on the eve of his announcement of his 2012 presidential run, where speakers focused on spiritual warfare, obedience to Jesus, and reclaiming a Christian America.
As a reporter, I have closely covered these movements, and have seen them in action from blockbuster events like Perry’s day-long stadium prayer rally, to round-the-clock houses of prayer, to tiny rural gatherings where spiritual warfare, dominionism, and Christian nationalism are the order of the day. But never, before Trump, had a Republican president been so flamboyant in his alliances with the charismatic world. Trump showcased his close advisor, the televangelist Paula White, and her friends. He surrounded himself with spiritual warriors, counting on them to convince millions of followers that God had anointed him as president, and that they must battle satanic forces conspiring to unseat him. For them, Trump’s own irreligiosity was of no consequence; they were convinced that God had chosen an “unlikely” leader to save America, and in this quest, his autocratic nature was a feature, not a bug.
Mastriano is campaigning on Trump’s stolen election lie, but so much more. If Trump’s religious acolytes are elected to offices from which they can unlawfully manipulate election outcomes because God told them to, election subversion in 2024 could, even more than in 2020, be wrapped in a flag and a cross.