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Jesus and the Founding Fathers: Christian nationalism is playing a major role in Ozarks politics

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Praise Assembly in Springfield, where summer 2022 Patriot Academy sessions were held.

The Ozarks has a rich religious history, and evangelical Christians make up one of the largest faith communities here. Their votes and their beliefs drive much of Ozarks politics. Scholars and preachers discuss the rise of Christian nationalism among some of the faithful — and what it might mean for southwest Missouri.

It’s a quiet Thursday evening in late July. A small crowd gathers in north Springfield. They’re watching a video lecture on the roots of American democracy.

The eight-week lecture series is called Patriot Academy, and in this lesson, hosts Rick Green and David Barton comb over the Constitution. They promote a socially conservative view of the world. The hosts praise small government, free-market capitalism, and individual freedom. They quote the Founding Fathers to reinforce these ideas.

Presentations like this wouldn’t be out of place at a political rally. But the crowd is watching Patriot Academy from the atrium of Praise Assembly of God, an evangelical church. After the video concludes, the group discusses how important the Bible is to American government. One woman asks how she can teach young people about the country’s Christian foundations.

Faith and country, as one 

“Biblical citizenship” is how Patriot Academy hosts describe their vision for America. But many scholars use another term: “Christian nationalism.”

Dr. John Schmalzbauer, Missouri State University religious studies professor, says Christian nationalism is a belief system that the destiny of the United States is linked to its Christian past.

“It’s kind of a fusion of a certain kind of Christianity — not everybody’s kind of Christianity — with a kind of veneration of nation, so that there’s not so much daylight between those two,” he tells KSMU.

Citing research by sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, Schmalzbauer says Christian nationalists believe America was founded as a Christian nation, and that it needs to be “taken back” for God. Schmalzbauer says this ideology isn’t new, but it’s become increasingly popular among some Christians.

Dr. Daniel Ponder teaches political science at Drury University. He says Christian nationalists favor policies aiming to put Christianity at the center of public life.

“Things like getting school prayer back into public schools, teaching the Bible, perhaps not just as a historical document, but as a religious document,” Ponder says.

Schmalzbauer also says Christian nationalism can include a racial element, particularly among white folks who favor the ideology.

“If you are white and you adhere to the same kind of beliefs, of the fusion of the nation and Christianity, it is an excellent predictor of your views,” he explains. “[The views] are likely to be more anti-immigration, more questioning of other religions coming into the United States, more likely to say discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against African Americans.”

Ponder, the political scientist, says Christian nationalists are more likely to support restricting ballot access for demographics perceived as getting in the way of their goal to dominate state and federal government.

“Different types of voting restrictions — if not targeted at minorities, for example, or young people — tend to fall disproportionately on them, and make it harder for them to vote,” Ponder says.

Citing the January 6th attack, Ponder adds that some — but not all — who believe in extreme forms of Christian nationalism may support violence in pursuit of their political goals.

“You saw a lot of religious symbols, particularly religious Christian symbols, literally trying to beat down the doors of the U.S. Capitol,” he says.

Both scholars stress that not all Christians believe in Christian nationalism. Three weeks ago, a Pew Research poll found that a slim majority of Americans do not think the U.S. should be a Christian nation.

The same poll found that 81 percent of white evangelicals believe America should be Christian. White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

The share of evangelicals who supported Trump increased from 2016 to 2020, suggesting political polarization is a factor driving some Christians to the right.

Christian nationalism in the Ozarks 

The Ozarks has a deep religious character. Out of all Christian faiths, evangelicals have some of the biggest numbers here.

The most recent figures from the Association of Religion Data Archives found that in Greene County, evangelical Protestants made up 35 percent of the overall population and more than three-quarters of people in Springfield’s faith communities.

The two largest evangelical groups here are Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God. Headquartered in Springfield, the Assemblies of God is a Pentecostal denomination counting nearly 70 million members worldwide. Meanwhile, the Ozarks is less racially diverse than the U.S. in general: Southwest Missouri is roughly 90 percent white. The U.S. is 75 percent white.

Ponder says many Christian nationalist ideas appeal to some Ozarks evangelicals.

“If you’re white evangelical Protestant, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re Christian nationalist, and if you’re Christian nationalist, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re white evangelical Protestant,” he says.

“But there is a strong family resemblance, and there is a lot of overlap. Because of the demographic makeup of the Ozarks, this is an area where — if we are going to see Christian nationalism — we would not be surprised to see it here.”

Praise Assembly church declined to comment on its hosting of Patriot Academy and did not allow interviews at the video sessions. However, one Patriot Academy attendee shared his beliefs with KSMU.

On the campus of Missouri State University, Allen Kemper hands out what he calls the “Gospel Constitution” to students. It’s a booklet containing the entire U.S. Constitution, along with Bible verses and Kemper’s views. He repeats David Barton’s position that the separation of church and state is a “myth.” He says the Founders were all very devout men who wanted religion at the forefront of public life.

“They were so wanting this nation, in all areas, to be influenced by the word of God,” Kemper argues. “And they never intended it to be taken out of schools. They intended that the Bible be taught as the main textbook. And that’s government-sponsored!”

Kemper doesn’t like the label “Christian nationalist.” He calls himself a “Bible believer.” He says he wants Christian morals at the center of government.

“The world is plunged into darkness, because we’ve gotten away from the Bible. And because we are a Christian nation, because we started out promoting the Bible and God blessed us, certainly we should get the Bible back in. Certainly we should allow it to make our laws, and formulate our ideas about how we should run our country.”

Political scientist Daniel Ponder says Christian nationalists fight for the free exercise of religion, but not necessarily for the free exercise of all religions.

“Christian nationalism, by definition, sees Christianity, not just religion, but Christianity, as the religion,” he says, “because of this mythology that the United States is a Christian [nation]. By definition, that means that you have some people above others. Christians above everybody else.”

He says the influence of these beliefs in Missouri politics has grown in recent years.

“And in Missouri, I think what you do see, is you sort of see this movement, particularly in elections, where you’re at least seeing, I think, rhetoric, particularly campaign rhetoric, and then also rhetoric in the state legislature, that is, if not Christian nationalist, is certainly part and parcel, or wouldn’t be at odds with Christian nationalism.”

In a Missouri campaign ad, Republican Mark Alford argues liberals have “erased God from our schools,” and promises to “stand up, and take America back.” Earlier this month, Alford won Missouri’s 4th Congressional district in a landslide. The 4th District borders Springfield’s 7th District. There, Alford got 71 percent of the vote, almost triple the votes of the runner-up, Democrat Jack Truman.

In Branson, a diversity of beliefs 

As the professors note, Christian nationalism is by no means universal. Many evangelicals oppose it. Schmalzbauer says studies show that the most devout Christians often don’t agree with the tenets of Christian nationalism.

“An interesting irony is that how religious you are is not correlated with Christian nationalism as a belief system. In fact, sometimes it cuts against it,” he says.

That contrast was on display early this month in Branson, as the ReAwaken America tour made its final stop before the midterm elections — its 17th destination since the tour began in 2021. Speakers included Eric Trump; the pro-Trump CEO of MyPillow, Mike Lindell; and others linked to the former president.

Also at the event was Rev. Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister who used to pastor a church in Branson. Kaylor describes ReAwaken America as a mix of political rally and religious revival. He says rally speakers promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines, masks, and even 5G cell tower “radiation.” For Kaylor, the rally represents a “toxic” ideology — not one that lines up with his faith.

“Christian nationalism is a heresy because it undermines basic teachings about Christianity,” Kaylor told KSMU. “Jesus didn’t come just for one nation, and it is wrong to conflate American identity and Christian identity as if they can be easily mixed together,” he says.

Kaylor is among 30,000 who signed a statement from the organization Christians Against Christian Nationalism. He says more people who share his faith should stand up to this ideology.

“What I hope we’ll see more of is what happens in a lot of churches every week,” Kaylor says. “And that is an understanding that God loves the whole world. An understanding that we are a community, a kingdom that transcends human-made boundaries and borders, and that being a Christian has nothing to do with the country in which you live.”

John Schmalzbauer, the religious studies professor, says Christian nationalism in the Ozarks isn’t going anywhere soon — in part because the area is older, whiter and less religiously diverse than much of the country.

Schmalzbauer says, “I think that a lot of people would say that things look brighter for a multireligious, multiracial public square maybe 25 years ago than they look today, that there are some clouds on the horizon. Storm clouds.”

Still, even as this version of the Gospel is frequently preached in Missouri, the United States as a whole is becoming less religious.

Pew Research found that Christianity will likely lose its majority in the U.S. within a few decades.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the worldwide adherence of Assemblies of God at 16 million. This was based on an outdated figure, and according to the church's website, it counts over 69 million members.

Josh Conaway is a graduate of Missouri State University with a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in International Affairs. He works as a news reporter and announcer at KSMU. His favorite part of the job is exploring the rich diversity of the Ozarks and meeting people with interesting stories to share. He has a passion for history and running.