What Pro-Democracy Activists Can Learn From Their Adversaries

White Christian nationalists have pushed an agenda eroding democratic norms — and have gained momentum by meeting people’s spiritual and material needs. Pro-democracy forces need to take note.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rahna Epting
December 1, 2023

There is no shortage of commentary and analysis about the dismal state of American democracy. At the core of our crisis is a powerful strain in the nation’s political culture that needs more attention from philanthropy: white Christian nationalism and its revolt against democracy. 

Writing in the New York Times last month, columnist Thomas B. Edsall laid bare the stakes for the upcoming election year: “Will voters care in 2024 (and beyond) that one of America’s two major political parties has been taken over by an alliance of MAGA forces and their white evangelical allies, who have clearly indicated their willingness to abandon democratic norms — that is, democracy itself — in the pursuit of power?” The ascension of Mike Johnson, widely considered a Christian nationalist, to speaker of the House, underscores the movement’s rise.

After January 6, the two of us — one a biblical scholar, pastor, and antipoverty organizer (Liz) and the other a progressive leader and the head of MoveOn (Rahna) — began discussing how to defend the promise of multi-racial, inclusive democracy in the face of a rising white Christian nationalism. It’s a movement that has wrenched power not just by effectively taking over one political party but by doing patient and persistent work on the ground — work that pro-democracy activists and donors can frankly learn from.

Christian nationalists believe that America is a “promised land” for European Christians — a worldview that’s been around since the nation’s founding. Recently, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, those beliefs have “intersect[ed] with other ideologies such as anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant views, antisemitism, anti-Muslim attitudes, and patriarchal gender roles.” Adherents of this ideology have been winning state and local elections and playing a long game to co-opt schools, libraries, law enforcement, and the media. 

To better understand the movement’s success, we conferred with organizers, faith leaders, journalists, academics, and people across the political spectrum. We found that white Christian nationalist organizations are growing in no small part because they’ve made community-building and meeting people’s everyday material and spiritual needs a priority.

During climate emergencies, far-right parachurch organizations and paramilitary groups are often first on the scene with food and shelter. During stabler times, vast evangelical networks in thousands of communities offer services such as child care and assistance for the elderly, as well as spiritual guidance.

In other words, the movement has occupied ground that progressives have largely ceded. The anti-democratic challenges posed by this movement are colossal and require an equally enormous response by pro-democracy forces. That response should include a generational commitment to organize in rural, Southern, and red state areas that progressives too often ignore. And it should embrace the reality that religion and morality are critical to effective organizing. 

Pro-democracy advocates must claim the moral high ground, connect with people who may be turned off by politics but tuned into a deep sense of right and wrong, and build long-term power by meeting people’s material, social, and emotional needs.

A Path Forward

Fortunately, our research — detailed in the report “All of U.S.: Organizing to Counter White Christian Nationalism and Build a Pro-Democracy Society” — uncovered democracy advocates across the country who in small but significant ways are contesting the territory upon which white Christian nationalism is growing. They are showing what’s possible if increased philanthropic support enables widespread expansion of their work.

They include groups such as Hoosier Action, which has found that connecting through religion and spirituality — something progressive movements typically avoid — can be a powerful means of building trust and organizing people to take action. 

The nonprofit works in low-income southern Indiana communities that have virtually no other progressive grassroots organizing, an aggressive right wing, and high rates of loneliness and despair. It connects with people of different races and faiths to advocate on local and statewide issues and engage people in the democratic process.

To fuel this work, Hoosier Action’s organizational practices include prayer and blessing rituals and a collective memorial garden for lost loved ones. Members share meals together and gather in person as often as possible. 

“Given our geography and demographic, we cannot approach people with a narrow political issue or partisan ideology. In many ways, we appeal to people’s deepest needs — a holistic experience of connecting and being seen,” says executive director Kate Hess Pace. 

Many pro-democracy groups increasingly understand that people who are struggling to meet their basic needs are less likely to have the bandwidth to join movements that seek to improve their lives. That’s why NDN Collective, which aims to build political power in Indigenous communities and works on long-term campaigns to strengthen democracy, also provides a range of direct support services including feeding the unhoused and caring for the sick.

Providing aid of this kind builds trust, which is critical to everything the group does, says NDN’s president and CEO Nick Tilsen. “We don’t have a movement — no movement — unless you have built trust.” 

White Christian nationalists have become more successful in recent years at attracting Black, brown, poor, and incarcerated people. This creates another obstacle and potential opportunity for democracy advocates. For example, the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition has made immigration and criminal-justice reform — alongside anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion policies — a central focus of its political advocacy work. Most prison outreach programs are also run and funded by deeply conservative Christian networks. 

Disrupting such efforts is a goal of the Black Male Voter Project, which has pioneered innovative approaches to voter engagement among Black voters. One of its programs, Street Legacy, trains Black men with felony convictions to provide palliative care for other Black men who are ill and don’t have a community to support them. 

The program offers members concrete opportunities to care for one another and heal together, while also developing leaders to engage in longer-term electoral organizing and democratic participation. “We took the lessons from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and made it a political structure,” says Mondale Robinson, founder and principal of the Black Male Voter Project. 

Pro-democracy work is destined to fail unless it confronts the white Christian nationalist movement underpinning democracy’s destruction. This requires renewed commitment, collaboration, and investment on the part of both organizers and funders. The good news is that people from many walks of life are open and ready to join a pro-democracy movement if it meets their needs and speaks to the reality of their lives. But if we want their support, we need to support them first.

Rev. Liz Theoharis is director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.

Rahna Epting is executive director of MoveOn and the MoveOn Education Fund.