Experts Place New Secret Society Squarely In The Christian Nationalist Revival

Right-wing secret society asks prospective members for thoughts on "Christian nationalism," but denies that it's a Christian nationalist organization
US President Donald Trump awards the Claremont Institute, accepted by their president Ryan Williams, the National Humanities medal in the East room of the White House on November 21, 2019. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-... US President Donald Trump awards the Claremont Institute, accepted by their president Ryan Williams, the National Humanities medal in the East room of the White House on November 21, 2019. (Photo by Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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A men-only, Christian-only, right-wing secret society with the aim of installing certain kinds of Christians in a future U.S. government does not want to be called Christian nationalist.

The Society for American Civic Renewal asks prospective members to discuss “Christian nationalism” when interviewing them for admission, and defines itself in a mission statement obtained by TPM as believing in a form of Christianity “not blurred by modernist philosophies.” One of its objectives is to prepare members to run an “aligned regime” that the organization believes is coming.

To experts who study Christian nationalism, SACR seems to fit the definition perfectly.

A key member, Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams, told TPM in a text on Monday that SACR is not “a ‘Christian nationalist’ organization.”

“SACR looks for members who are able to see past how the media frames these things and are interested in a fresh perspective on the path forward for conservative Christians in a world that now regards Christian orthodoxy and the historic American political tradition with contempt,” he wrote.

TPM spoke with several experts who study Christian nationalism, including some who, at points in their life, identified as Christian nationalists themselves. All of them, after reviewing TPM’s reporting on SACR and the internal documents from the group that TPM obtained, said that the group seemed to embrace an extreme form of the Christian nationalist tradition.

“Honestly, it’s the perfect example,” Andrew L. Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University, Indianapolis, told TPM.

Whitehead described Christian nationalism less as a label that could be applied to any one group and more as a cultural framework. At its core, Christian nationalists believe that Christianity should define American nationhood and that political viewpoints rooted in Christianity should be placed above others.

TPM revealed in a Saturday morning story that inside documents at the Society for American Civic Renewal show the group’s objectives and recruiting strategy. SACR’s membership is secret, but TPM first identified key members of the group’s board, including Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams and Boise State University Professor and Claremont official Scott Yenor.

Among the documents unearthed by TPM were membership criteria and processes for determining whether to accept prospective members. That included asking candidates for their thoughts on Trump, the Republican Party, and Christian nationalism.

Williams told TPM in a phone interview last week that the questions were not meant to be “litmus tests,” and denied in texts on Monday that SACR was a Christian Nationalist organization.

Williams then texted TPM a January article written by a SACR member, Andrew Beck, titled “The Case for Christian Civilizationism.” The article argues for “re-Christianizing America,” and suggests, in effect, that “nationalism” is the wrong tool for the job. It identifies a “yearning” for “a Christian civilization,” which it distinguishes from Christian nationalism. Beck writes:

If harmonious Christian civilization is the destination, the wagon should not simply crash headlong into American political advocacy, capturing seats of power to codify Christian ethics, or using the power of government to evangelize. Rather, those who want Christian civilization should prioritize re-Christianizing America, not re-nationalizing Christianity.

The article repeats much of what Claremont and others on the far-right have argued for: that the country should return to its 19th century existence as a “loose union of localized states,” removing the federal hand which, presumably, prevents “those who wish to live in virtue and preserve Christian civilization” from doing so.

“In such a system, sorting on moral lines is natural,” Beck wrote. “Those who wish to live with Christian values (or at least their societal benefits) in their lives will do so, while others who do not can try their luck with Atheism or perhaps Islam, short of anarchy. The results will speak for themselves.”

Charles Haywood, a SACR board member who made his fortune as a shampoo magnate and incorporated the group’s national non-profit, has a similar outlook. He shares in the belief that America is a house of cards waiting to collapse, and has tweeted that he anticipates a collapse as soon as 2026. As an antidote to this apocalyptic outlook, Haywood has described on his blog a reorganization of society that he calls “foundationalism.” It advocates for the state to “prefer” Christianity — in one example by mandating that all public school teachers be “practicing Christians.”

Whether you decide to call all of that “Christian nationalism” may be beside the point.

Kristin Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, told TPM that she thinks of it in terms of Christian supremacy over the norms of a plural society.

“Do all Americans have an equal right to bring their faith traditions, or no particular faith, to bear on the public sphere? If the answer is no, then we’re talking Christian nationalism here,” she said.

It’s a basic question of political equality, one that’s familiar to anyone who has followed American politics in recent years. Do people of different political persuasions have equal right and ability to bring their views into the public sphere? In this case, it’s applied to religion: do different faiths — or denominations within Christianity — have the equal right to public participation?

SACR, for example, only allows certain kinds of Christians into its ranks: trinitarian Christians. LDS members, Unitarians, and some pentecostals would not qualify under this rubric.

Much of SACR’s worldview is couched in the idea, as argued by Beck, Haywood, Williams, and others, that there’s a true American political tradition related to Christianity which has been lost over the course of the 20th century. As SACR put it in its non-public mission statement, there was once a “successful path,” and now “America has strayed.” It’s up to a “robust network of capable men” to “reverse that decline;” per SACR rules, those men — and they’re all men — must all be trinitarian Christians, heterosexual, and play a dominant role in their home life’s affairs.

“While it is a national movement with national ambitions, it is going to made up of local chapters as well,” Yenor, the Boise State professor and Claremont official, wrote in a draft email to prospective members obtained by TPM. “Local chapters will unite public-spirited men who are interested in doing the work of civic renewal. This might involve shoring up teetering institutions. It might involve seeking to turn corrupt institutions.”

To Brad Onishi, a professor in the religious studies faculty at the University of San Francisco, SACR is very familiar. Onishi identified as a Christian nationalist in his late teens and early twenties before leaving the movement.

Onishi described Christian nationalism as an attempt to “sell you on the idea that” if you return to the country’s founding and the years after, you’ll find “what they call orthodox Christianity in perfect alignment with the American founding.”

“And so the story is a recovery story — if we can realign orthodox Christian practice without any of the infection of modernist philosophies about gender or sex or anything else — or government or socialism or whatever — then we will have the America that we were promised and that we want again,” Onishi added.

There’s also the idea of raw power.

SACR says that it intends “to recruit men of good character whose loyalties are grounded in strong virtue, correct religion, the moral life, and piety toward their forebears. Most of all, we seek those who understand the nature of authority and its legitimate forceful exercise in the temporal realm.”

In part, that appeals to the self-perception of those currently in the group, and seekers who might find meaning in such a venture. They, the mission statement suggests, “understand the nature of authority.” They may need to use force, it implies, as they go about their project of civic renewal.

After TPM published its story about SACR on Saturday, Beck suggested that the public’s response to SACR’s objectives can be chalked up to a fundamental difference in perception: traditional activities that “built civilization” come off as “scary to the broken, unmoored victims of modernity’s failed social engineering programs,” he wrote on social media. Another member, channelling the same impulse, wrote: “Thanks for making us sound so cool.”

TPM put the line about understanding “the nature of authority and its legitimate forceful exercise in the temporal realm” to various experts.

Whitehead, the Indiana University professor, told TPM that “they’re essentially saying that somebody in this world has to have power, so why shouldn’t it be us?”

Onishi had a similar read, describing it as follows:

“Hey, we’re recruiting men who are willing to exercise their God-given authority in the United States to use whatever means possible to put the country back in the shape that it should be.”

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