The GOP Game of Thrones headed by former President Donald Trump, Christian nationalists and an assortment of unsuitable candidates met reality on Election Day. Instead crowing about big wins, they are eating crow instead — and pointing fingers. Some high-profile Christian nationalist candidates — most notably Doug Mastriano, the Republican who ran for governor of Pennsylvania — struggled Tuesday. What does it mean for those candidates, and do Tuesday’s results mean the promotion of Christian nationalism will no longer be a Republican political strategy?
Do Tuesday’s results mean the promotion of Christian nationalism will no longer be a Republican political strategy?
Christian nationalism is the general idea that America is a Christian nation and that it should be run by Christian leaders (with no regard for the idea that we have a secular government and that there should be a separation between church and state). And the biggest takeaway for the candidates who generally embrace those beliefs is that being a raving Christian nationalist isn’t enough by itself to win. At least not the biggest elections. Yes, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., one of few Republicans to actually embrace the Christian nationalist title, won her noncompetitive congressional district in Georgia with 66% of the vote; but Mastriano, who talks like a Christian nationalist even if he doesn’t explicitly call himself one, lost by 14 points to Democrat Josh Shapiro in that statewide race.
In those big races, Republicans found out that the issues they thought would be winners with voters were weaknesses. Take, for example, those Republicans, such as Mastriano, who were ecstatic about the U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and ecstatic about the rollbacks of abortion rights that followed that decision. They found themselves the victims of a backlash. On top of that, all of the five statewide ballot initiatives that would have restricted or eliminated abortion access were defeated by voters Tuesday. Kansas voters upheld abortion rights in August.
The large turnout of younger Generation Z voters and other voters disturbed by that Dobbs decision and the looming threat of authoritarianism from people pushing for an officially Christian nation stopped the predicted “red wave” from happening.
What is clear from that outcome is that Trump did poorly. He endorsed Mastriano, who lost. And stuck in very tight races are Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Col., who said “The church is supposed to direct the government” and Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, who has said, “The same God who parted the Red Sea, who moved mountains, is with us now as we save this republic.”
What happened to these candidates? I believe that their histrionics, the religious posturing, and their thin messaging on issues that Republicans have traditionally cared most about hurt them. We can contrast them with J.D. Vance, who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio, after he made appeals to Christian voters, especially conservative Catholics, in ways that were not as overt.
As for Christian nationalism, it is not going away. A Pew Research survey found that 45% of Americans say that America should be a Christian nation. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, half of white evangelicals believe that America is their promised land. These kinds of beliefs about America, which require that we ignore the clause in the Constitution that says there shall be no “religious test” for candidates, have made conservative Christianity a foundational plank of the Republican Party.
What we also see emerging from this election cycle is the ascendancy of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s pushed a high school civics program that says the country’s founders didn’t want a real separation between church and state. Before he easily won re-election, his wife put out an ad declaring her love for her husband and declaring that on the eighth day of creation, God created a “fighter,” i.e., Ron DeSantis. Immediately, the ad was derided for being in poor taste, and former Republican Committee chair Michael Steele called it “a--backwards blasphemy.”
While the ad may be hokey, it does achieve what ads from other candidates in the 2022 election cycle did not achieve. It conveyed the ideals of Christian nationalism, for example, that he’s the Christian leader to lead a Christian state, in a folksy manner and resonated with the traditional values of country and family that Republicans espoused before Trumpism, QAnon and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s response to the ad — He made up the derisive nickname Ron DeSacntimonious — is proof that he sees DeSantis as his rival in 2024.
The Republican Party is not the party of conservative values anymore; it is the party of extreme religious views.
The troubles some Christian nationalist candidates had this election cycle may hold some clues to the 2024 cycle. The RNC will have to decide if putting up Trump-style candidates who are all bluster but have lackluster messaging and theocratic leanings will be enough to retake the Oval Office, Congress and the Senate. The public is now much more aware of QAnon, and conferences such as ReAwakening that feature religious hucksters. The Republican Party is not the party of conservative values anymore; it is the party of extreme religious views that attract not only conspiracy theorists but violent agitators. Trump continues to be a drain on not only the party but also on the finances and political accomplishments of the party.
Republicans face a serious choice if they have any hopes for winning in 2024. Either they ditch Trump for a more sophisticated Christian nationalism, like that of DeSantis, or they fall into a deeper ditch by sticking with him.