In today’s Republican Party, the path to power is to build up a lie in order to overturn democracy. At least that is what Senator Josh Hawley was telling us when he offered a clenched-fist salute to the pro-Trump mob before it ransacked the Capitol, and it is the same message he delivered on the floor of the Senate in the aftermath of the attack, when he doubled down on the lies about electoral fraud that incited the insurrection in the first place. How did we get to the point where one of the bright young stars of the Republican Party appears to be at war with both truth and democracy?
Mr. Hawley himself, as it happens, has been making the answer plain for some time. It’s just a matter of listening to what he has been saying.
In multiple speeches, an interview and a widely shared article for Christianity Today, Mr. Hawley has explained that the blame for society’s ills traces all the way back to Pelagius — a British-born monk who lived 17 centuries ago. In a 2019 commencement address at The King’s College, a small conservative Christian college devoted to “a biblical worldview,” Mr. Hawley denounced Pelagius for teaching that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives and that grace comes to those who do good things, as opposed to those who believe the right doctrines.
The most eloquent summary of the Pelagian vision, Mr. Hawley went on to say, can be found in the Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Mr. Hawley specifically cited Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words reprovingly: “At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The fifth century church fathers were right to condemn this terrifying variety of heresy, Mr. Hawley argued: “Replacing it and repairing the harm it has caused is one of the challenges of our day.”
In other words, Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right. Mr. Hawley is not shy about making the point explicit. In a 2017 speech to the American Renewal Project, he declared — paraphrasing the Dutch Reformed theologian and onetime prime minister Abraham Kuyper — “There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.” Mr. Kuyper is perhaps best known for his claim that Christianity has sole legitimate authority over all aspects of human life.
“We are called to take that message into every sphere of life that we touch, including the political realm,” Mr. Hawley said. “That is our charge. To take the Lordship of Christ, that message, into the public realm, and to seek the obedience of the nations. Of our nation!”
Mr. Hawley has built his political career among people who believe that Shariah is just around the corner even as they attempt to secure privileges for their preferred religious groups to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove. Before he won election as a senator, he worked for Becket, a legal advocacy group that often coordinates with the right-wing legal juggernaut the Alliance Defending Freedom. He is a familiar presence on the Christian right media circuit.
The American Renewal Project, which hosted the event where Mr. Hawley delivered the speech I mentioned earlier, was founded by David Lane, a political organizer who has long worked behind the scenes to connect conservative pastors and Christian nationalist figures with politicians. The choice America faces, according to Mr. Lane, is “to be faithful to Jesus or to pagan secularism.”
The line of thought here is starkly binary and nihilistic. It says that human existence in an inevitably pluralistic, modern society committed to equality is inherently worthless. It comes with the idea that a right-minded elite of religiously pure individuals should aim to capture the levers of government, then use that power to rescue society from eternal darkness and reshape it in accord with a divinely-approved view of righteousness.
At the heart of Mr. Hawley’s condemnation of our terrifyingly Pelagian world lies a dark conclusion about the achievements of modern, liberal, pluralistic societies. When he was still attorney general, William Barr articulated this conclusion in a speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, where he blamed “the growing ascendancy of secularism” for amplifying “virtually every measure of social pathology,” and maintained that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.”
Christian nationalists’ acceptance of President Trump’s spectacular turpitude these past four years was a good measure of just how dire they think our situation is. Even a corrupt sociopath was better, in their eyes, than the horrifying freedom that religious moderates and liberals, along with the many Americans who don’t happen to be religious, offer the world.
That this neo-medieval vision is incompatible with constitutional democracy is clear. But in case you’re in doubt, consider where some of the most militant and coordinated support for Mr. Trump’s postelection assault on the American constitutional system has come from. The Conservative Action Project, a group associated with the Council for National Policy, which serves as a networking organization for America’s religious and economic right-wing elite, made its position clear in a statement issued a week before the insurrection.
It called for members of the Senate to “contest the electoral votes” from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states that were the focus of Republicans’ baseless allegations. Among the signatories was Cleta Mitchell, the lawyer who advised Mr. Trump and participated in the president’s call on Jan. 2 with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state. Cosignatories to this disinformation exercise included Bob McEwen, the executive director of the Council for National Policy; Morton C. Blackwell of The Leadership Institute; Alfred S. Regnery, the former publisher; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Thomas Fitton of Judicial Watch; and more than a dozen others.
Although many of the foot soldiers in the assault on the Capitol appear to have been white males aligned with white supremacist movements, it would be a mistake to overlook the powerful role of the rhetoric of religious nationalism in their ranks. At a rally in Washington on Jan. 5, on the eve of Electoral College certification, the right-wing pastor Greg Locke said that God is raising up “an army of patriots.” Another pastor, Brian Gibson, put it this way: “The church of the Lord Jesus Christ started America,” and added, “We’re going to take our nation back!”
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, a number of Christian nationalist leaders issued statements condemning violence — on both sides. How very kind of them. But few if any appear willing to acknowledge the instrumental role they played in perpetuating the fraudulent allegations of a stolen election that were at the root of the insurrection.
They seem, like Mr. Hawley himself, to live in a post-truth environment. And this gets to the core of the Hawley enigma. The brash young senator styles himself not just a deep thinker who ruminates about late-Roman era heretics, but a man of the people, a champion of “the great American middle,” as he wrote in an article for The American Conservative, and a foe of the “ruling elite.” Mr. Hawley has even managed to turn a few progressive heads with his economic populism, including his attacks on tech monopolies.
Yet Mr. Hawley isn’t against elites per se. He is all for an elite, provided that it is a religiously righteous elite. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School and he clerked for John Roberts, the chief justice. Mr. Hawley, in other words, is a successful meritocrat of the Federalist Society variety. His greatest rival in that department is the Princeton debater Ted Cruz. They are résumé jockeys in a system that rewards those who do the best job of mobilizing fear and irrationalism. They are what happens when callow ambition meets the grotesque inequalities and injustices of our age.
Over the past few days, following his participation in the failed efforts to overturn the election, Mr. Hawley’s career prospects may have dimmed. Two of his home state newspapers have called for his resignation; his political mentor, John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, has described his earlier support for Mr. Hawley as “the biggest mistake I’ve ever made”; and Simon & Schuster dropped his book. On the other hand, there is some reporting that suggests his complicity in efforts to overturn the election may have boosted his standing with Mr. Trump’s base. But the question that matters is not whether Mr. Hawley stays or goes, but whether he is simply replaced by the next wannabe demagogue in line. We are about to find out whether there are leaders of principle left in today’s Republican Party.
Make no mistake: Mr. Hawley is a symptom, not a cause. He is a product of the same underlying forces that brought us President Trump and the present crisis of American democracy. Unless we find a way to address these forces and the fundamental pathologies that drive them, then next month or next year we will be forced to contend with a new and perhaps more successful version of Mr. Hawley.
Katherine Stewart (@kathsstewart) is the author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.”
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