How Politicians are Exploiting Religion for Political Purposes with Investigative Reporter Katherine Stewart
This week’s guest Katherine Stewart is an investigative journalist and author with articles written in the New York Times and The Guardian. She focuses on religion and politics mainly and the separation of church and state. Her book, THE POWER WORSHIPPERS: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, looks inside the movement that brought Donald Trump to power. We talk with Katherine Stewart about the recent exploitation of religion for political purposes, and how this is shaping modern politics.
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How Politicians are Exploiting Religion for Political Purposes with Katherine Stewart
Kathy Fowler: Welcome to After Deadline: The Media Podcast. I’m Kathy Fowler…
Marc Silverstein: …and I’m Marc Silverstein.
Kathy Fowler: We are veteran TV news reporters who turned to the dark side and now work as PR and marketing gurus.
Marc Silverstein: Our guest this week I’m fascinated by. An investigative journalist and author along with articles for The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Republic, and more. She’s written two books, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism and The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. There’s so much to dive into here. We are honored and excited to welcome her to the show.
How did you become a reporter?
Marc Silverstein: I am fascinated by the topic of Christian nationalism. I can’t wait to ask a whole lot of questions. Can you give us a little background? How did you become a reporter? Did you always want to be a reporter in print or TV? What motivated you?
Katherine Stewart: Well, out of college, I got an internship with Wayne Barrett, who is a sort of legendary investigative reporter at the Village Voice. He wrote the first biography of Donald Trump, I believe that was published in like ’87 or ’88 or ’89. He was researching a lot of the New York City scandals, Department of Transportation scandals and things like that, and he was a really legendary guy. He was kind of a one-man journalism school.
When I met him, what I was in college, I used to wait for Wednesdays when we got the Village Voice to our library, and I would eagerly read the paper. I always loved Wayne Barrett’s column, because he just seemed like the model of a really fantastic investigative reporter. So, I was so honored when he accepted me as an intern.
I was very shy at the time, and he taught me so much. He really beat the shyness out of me. He taught me to go into a room full of people and find the person with the most light on them and ask them the one question that they didn’t want to be asked. He taught me to dig through warehouses in the Bronx and tell me, “You’ve got to find such and such a document,” and I had to figure out how to do that. He taught me to follow the money, and he taught me that listening is really important. I think sometimes, but the hardest thing for us to do is to listen to people, listen to what they say, and take them at their word.
So, I was very lucky to have been taken on as an intern by him, and a lot of the work that I do today, I’m still able to draw on some of those methods.
Who was the first person you interviewed and shined a light on?
Marc Silverstein: That’s such a great lesson to walk into a room. Who was the first person you did that with, and were you nervous when you walked into the room, found the person with the most light on them, and asked them the question they didn’t want to be asked?
Katherine Stewart: It was terrifying. It was some guy, I don’t remember his name, but he was responsible for some massive real estate scandal. Actually, the first story I ever published wasn’t for the Village Voice, and it was about a real estate scandal. Someone who had been doing things that he wasn’t supposed to do.
And I remember when I finally called him up and asked him the series of questions that made him realize that I knew what he had done, he started to cry on the phone. I felt so bad for him, but at the same time, he was responsible for bilking people out of a lot of money. A lot of people who couldn’t afford to be bilked were affected.
Marc Silverstein: Were they real tears or alligator tears? Which one?
Katherine Stewart: I don’t know if they were alligator tears. Here’s what I learned from Wayne: you can be intimidated or frightened, but if the story needs to be told, you tell it anyway.
Kathy Fowler: Sometimes people feel bad, but sometimes they feel bad because they got caught, so did he feel bad about milking people or did he feel bad about the fact that I was calling him out on it and he was going to be publicly embarrassed?
How would you classify yourself as a journalist?
Kathy Fowler: Now, some of the articles that you write are classified as opinion pieces. For example, the article in the New York Times, headlined “Christian Nationalists are Excited About What Comes Next.” How would you classify yourself as a journalist? Are you an investigative journalist, an opinion journalist, or both? What’s your role in journalism?
Katherine Stewart: I’m really an investigative journalist. I also don’t pull any punches. I think that when stuff needs to be called out, I’m not going to both sides it. I’m extremely concerned about the rise of authoritarianism in America and also globally. I think that there’s a kind of rise in the exploitation of religion that threatens liberalism across a number of liberal democracies in other countries around the world. I’m worried about the extreme polarization, the spread of disinformation and conspiracism.
So yeah, I guess you could call that advocacy journalism in a way, but I really see myself as an investigative journalist because my opinions draw from the facts.
Kathy Fowler: I like that you said, “I’m not going to both sides it,” because I think a lot of journalism has or is in this Catch-22, especially because we were called liberal journalists for so long, right? The liberal media.
And I’m like, “Gosh, if you look at Fox, CNN, Newsmax, now Twitter and Parler, if you all those big voices or platforms are owned now by conservatives or Republicans.” So, I find it funny that we are still classified as the liberal media.
Katherine Stewart: But I would just reject that label completely. I think that sometimes folks who rely on fact-based journalism are allowing the other side to frame the conversation, and we should not be doing that.
If you work for a publication that has a good fact-checking department – and most of the publications I write for do – if you write that something is a lake, they’ll say, “Okay, is that a lake or is it an estuary, or could it possibly be a pond?” Like, you have to check every single fact, even if it’s in the opinion section. Most of the pieces I have written for, quote-unquote opinion sections, actually have a tremendous amount of reporting in them, and all of the facts are really carefully checked.
How does the media fight being labeled as a liberal elite media?
Marc Silverstein: So, how does the media fight being labeled as a liberal elite media?
Kathy Fowler: And also, I think they get lazy. I mean there are some journalists who… I think we get confused about what true journalism is and who true journalists are, compared to bloggers or people who just have a platform and a mouth and haven’t really studied journalism. Because when you said “both sides of it,” we think to be equal and fair, we have to give 50% to that person and 50% to that side, even though if 50% to that side is a complete and utter lie. That’s not journalism, but that’s what happens a lot of times, would you agree with that?
Katherine Stewart: If you have one political party that has been taken over by conspiracism and is working really hard to spread misinformation, it makes their people easier to control because they’ve been separated from the facts and made immune to certain kinds of information, and prone to believe disinformation conspiracism. But it also makes our country less governable, and I think that’s by design because it increases polarization and makes us less capable of addressing our real problems in our country, which we all share as Americans.
That kind of rise in chaos and political polarization clears the way for an authoritarian reaction, and I think that’s by design. I think our country functions best when we have two rational political parties that can engage in the politics of power-sharing and compromise, but that’s not what’s happening right now. We have had 50 years of investment in the infrastructure of Christian nationalism, which is not just an ideology, it’s also a political movement, an organized quest for power.
This is a movement that for years the Republican Party made use of because they delivered a reliable slice of the Republican vote, but really kept outside the mainstream of the Republican party, and frankly at this point, the Republican party is dominated by it.
Marc Silverstein: Do you think there are any messages? I know as we sit here and talk and Tuesday’s election is still being sorted out, do you think there was any kind of message there? The way I look at it, Christian nationalism is in it for the long game, they don’t let elections interfere with what they’re doing.
Katherine Stewart: That’s absolutely true. Remember, DeSantis put out that promo ad saying that God sent him to save the nation in Florida. Look, he and his people know that Christian nationalism is the road to power in today’s Republican party. They also know that when faith leaders and others denounce his abuse of religion, his exploitation of religion, leaders of that movement are going to quickly reinterpret that as an attack on God, as an attack on themselves, and they’re going to use it to stoke paranoia among the rank and file and affirm that sense of, I would say it’s almost like a tribal identity.
You’re an insider or you’re outsider, you’re one of the pure versus the impure. Religious nationalism is really a way of kind of like saying who properly belongs in a nation, like who is properly American.
What is Christian nationalism?
Marc Silverstein: Let’s get a definition of it just so we make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. What is Christian nationalism? Is it Christian nationalism? Is it white Christian nationalism? Is it white nationalism?
Kathy Fowler: What’s the difference?
Marc Silverstein: And there are differences, aren’t there?
Katherine Stewart: Well, Christian nationalism is not the whole of Christianity, of course. It’s not a religion. It is a political movement that involves the exploitation of religion for political purposes. So I think of it as combining two different kinds of things. It’s, on the one hand, a set of ideas and ideology, and on the other hand, it’s a political movement, an organized quest for power.
The ideology boils down to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, Christian here referring to a very narrow and reactionary conception of Christianity and all of its cultural implications. And this ideology says that all of our problems stem from the fact that we’ve forsaken the supposed heritage of our founding. But this ideology is really just a tool, like an incredibly useful tool for a leadership-driven political machine that turns this mythology, this deep story of America’s allegedly Christian founding, into political power.
And the strength of this movement is in its dense organizational infrastructure, which consists of a number of organizations that can be categorized. So there are networking organizations like the Council for National Policy that get leaders of the different organizations on the same page and bring them together with big donors of the movement. Then you have policy groups like the American Family Association or Family Research Council, legal advocacy groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom. You’ve got the Federal Society that plays an extraordinary role in grooming talent and directing money toward the shaping of the courts. You have legislative initiatives, data initiatives, a messaging sphere, and all that.
So that infrastructure is a means of persuading a large subsection of the American public to vote for the political candidates that the movement favors. And when they can’t get the results that they want at the ballot box, they can go through the courts.
Kathy Fowler: Right the courts and the judges that hopefully they appointed because they’ve been working on those judges for a long time.
Marc Silverstein: Exactly. That’s part of the ground game. I mean, there is a long ground game.
Kathy Fowler: And the school boards, and the things that Democrats aren’t looking at at all, probably.
Marc Silverstein: Michigan was a situation where they turned it around, I think, or it’s turning around, is that correct about, you know that Democrats un-gerrymandered the lines? They had a lot of success in local elections. Maybe I’m incorrect, but yeah, there seems to be that they’re in it for the long game, and they will continue to do schools, local councils.
Will the long game that they’re playing work on the next generations who are less religious?
Kathy Fowler: So my question is, the Christian nationalists, they’re… this is their way to political power, but if you look at religion and you look at the country, less and less people, especially Gen Z and Millennials, identify with a religion or organized religion, let’s say. So is this long game that they’ve been doing, is it going to work for the next generations who really don’t identify as much? I mean, religion around the world and in this country has actually gone… has actually decreased, right?
Katherine Stewart: Well, this may be true, but what this ignores is that you don’t need a majority of the population to win in election cycles or to dominate through the courts. All you need is an incredibly organized, disproportionately organized minority of people. This is a movement that rejects democracy itself; it rejects the consequences of elections. Movement leaders spread the big lie of Trump, which he promoted.
Over the past 15 years that I’ve been researching this movement, I do a lot of my research by going to where they are, like I go to right-wing conferences and strategy gatherings and summits and things like that. I’ve heard a number of folks like David Barton say, “All you need to change the whole country is 10%.” In a country where 40 to 50 percent of people don’t bother to vote, and an additional number have their votes essentially stolen from them through race-based often gerrymandering, voter suppression tactics, etc., you really don’t need a majority.
So, let’s look at 2016. In 2016, an evangelical pollster named George Barna, who’s said only 10% of the country are the most devoted religious right supporters. He calls this group Sagecons, which stands for spiritually active governance engaged conservatives. He said in 2016, 91% turned out to vote, and 93% of those turned out to vote for Donald Trump. If you have one group, a small group, voting in such disproportionate numbers, you can really dominate.
But gerrymandering has really stopped… stacked the deck against Democrats. In another gathering I was at, Ralph Reed, who was one of the movement’s very seasoned strategists, was very cheerful about this. He said, “If Democrats are up,” he said, “Thanks to the Republican reapportionment advantage,” it’s what he called gerrymandering, the Republican reapportionment advantage.” He said, “Democrats are up 1 to 3 percent, we win. If they’re up 4 to 7 percent, it’s a jump ball.” And he said, “If they’re up eight points or more, that’s when they win.”
Think about that. If Democrats are up 4 to 7 points, it’s a jump ball. I mean, that’s just disgraceful. And that’s the consequences of all this gerrymandering that is driven by the radical right because they don’t believe in the legitimacy of the vote.
This is a movement that does not believe in the legitimacy of democracy, of democratic elections. They engage in scapegoating LGBT Americans, people who happen to not be religious, members of religious minority groups, the wrong kinds of Christians, etc. They engage in this kind of demonization, language of demonization of the political other. So, I do think it represents a serious threat to our democracy. I don’t think we can understand what’s happening in American politics today without understanding this movement and its people.
What is its ultimate goal?
Marc Silverstein: What’s its ultimate goal?
Katherine Stewart: Power – access to public and private money, policies that privilege certain religious and political viewpoints in our laws and in society. Power is a great motivator.
Kathy Fowler: So, what do you think? Because basically, what you’re saying is it doesn’t matter that their beliefs… because it’s really a political movement, not a Christian movement. Because they’re anti-Christian, like everything they’re doing is completely opposite of any of the Christian values, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a political movement. They don’t necessarily need to co-op people who really believe in the true values and morals of Christianity. Is that what you’re saying?
Katherine Stewart: That’s no, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s not the whole of Christianity. What I’m saying is that in those spaces, people are worshiping with as much sincerity and passion as anyone. So, all religions are really diverse. I think it’s really false and presumptuous to say that we can know who is a true Christian and who’s not, or who’s a true Muslim and who’s not, or who’s a true Jew and who’s not. I mean, I think that all religions are very diverse.
That movement, you know, some people describe it as “the evangelicals.” Well, it includes many evangelicals, but it does exclude many evangelicals too. And it includes representatives of a variety of both Protestant and non-protestant religions. So, the movement includes leadership of ultra-conservative Catholics like Leonard Leo, who headed up the Federal Society. All six current ultra-conservative members of the Supreme Court are current or former Federalist Society members. The movement includes many Pentecostals and folks who follow neo-charismatic faiths, folks like Lance Wallnau, who is a sort of New Apostolic Reformation figure. Then, it also draws support from people who don’t identify as Christian at all or who really don’t seem motivated by religion in any way.
I think about Barre Seid, a Jewish fellow from a billionaire from Chicago, who just donated $1.6 billion dollars to form what’s called the Marble Freedom Trust. He put Leonard Leo in charge of this, and its donations for Republican politics. He’s donating his support to the movement. If you think about somebody like Peter Thiel, who seems more motivated by I would say far-right almost libertarian ideology.
Something that I think people don’t appreciate is that this movement, you know, they often think about it as the culture wars around abortion or same-sex marriage or some of the newer culture wars that the far right is pushing like trans sports stuff. But I think of those sometimes as distractions from what the right is doing in terms of Economic Policy. The religious right, in those spaces, I’ve heard so many speakers when they’re not just talking to the rank and file but when they’re talking amongst themselves, talking about biblical economics. They get a lot of money from a subsection of America’s billionaire class, people like the DeVos Prince family Juggernaut or Sean Feiler, or the Wilkes brothers, and so many others that I talk about in Power Worshipers, that are as committed if not more committed to low taxes for the richer, low minimal regulation for business, no regulation of the environment, minimal rights for the workforce, the kinds of policies that are going to intensify the economic divides that have already reached record levels in our society.
So, this is really not just a culture war, this is really a political war. It involves a grab for economic policy and foreign policy as well as domestic policy.
Is the movement going too far that it will backfire on them?
Kathy Fowler: So the fact that the abortion movement, like the Christian nationalist, necessarily because they probably saw that as a distraction too. But when some people go too far with it because abortion was on the ballot in the last election and it actually got a lot of people, Republicans even and independents, to go the other way and vote for Democrats instead of Republicans. So, is there a… That was a distraction you said for basically the Christian nationalists, but are they going too far or is the group going too far that at some point they go too far and they will not be successful because they’re pushing things too far too fast?
Katherine Stewart: They’re very clear that they want to ban abortion in all 50 states. This is what they’ve been saying for decades, and they can’t roll back on that because for so long it was all abortion, all the time.
But they, and I think they’re just waiting for a favorable moment to start pushing that. But I think that this movement is very tactical, and they recognize they’re afraid of the pushback, so they’ve switched to these new cultural issues that they’ve created, this sort of fake CRT panic in the public schools or the issue of transgender… bunch of transgender kids who they say oh, they want to start playing in girl sports teams and whatever you make of those issues, those are complete distractions. I mean, you’ve got this tiny little thing over here, and meanwhile, we’ve got some real problems in our country that we need to solve.
It’s also for them, I mean, those issues for them are like a twofer, right? They reduce faith in public education. The movement has long held a deep hostility to public schools, which they see as non-sectarian, and therefore, anything that fails to affirm their agendas is mischaracterized as oppressive to them. But they also want to siphon public money from public schools and divert it over to religious schools, and they’ve been pushing voucher initiatives for years and are having a lot of success in setting up a situation through the courts and through legal strategy that will allow church schools or religious schools to be funded on the same basis as public schools.
What is the next issue they’re going to bring up?
Marc Silverstein: What’s the next issue that they’re going to bring up because, yeah, you know, if you look at the Daily Mail, which I do too many times a day because it’s fun, but it’s not very fun because so there you know all on the election run-up with crime in Democrat-run cities, trans, even in Florida where they, you know when what people would go what are the dancers called or what are they anyway? What’s the next, what’s the next issue that they’re going to be bringing up to us, and we’re going to go, oh, they’re crazy, but they like it when we say they’re crazy.
Katherine Stewart: Yeah, you know, I think they’re pretty happy with some of the culture war issues that they’ve cultivated in recent years. Like there’s a study that Media Matters did about mentions of CRT prior to March of 2020. Critical race to everyone was mentioned maybe like a couple of times, and then from a certain moment on after Christopher Rufo, you know, at the Manhattan Institute, is a right-wing activist, sort of decided this CRT would be a great sort of strategy for them.
They all of a sudden had thousands of references to CRT on Fox News and that’s what they do. They do their market testing. The movement is very strategic and they do their market testing and they figure out how they can not just work the cultural issues that they have, which I think they’re sincere about, like I really think they’re just getting started with overturning Roe. They’re going to go after a range of individual rights, not just the right to reproductive care, the right to same-sex marriage and the the right to vote itself in all these different ways I think is being challenged. There are a couple of Supreme Court cases on the docket that are going to challenge that.
They’re also very good at creating these new cultural issues in order to get the rank and file you know in a panic about all kinds of stuff.
Sorry, one last thing I want to say is that gender anxiety is the rocket fuel of the movement, so the trans stuff, it’s all about identity and sexuality and so even though it holds very little relevance for public education and society overall, I mean it does decrease confidence in public schools. It provides a really great scapegoat, you know they love to scapegoat sexual minorities and then it also just gets a lot of the rank and file upset. It’s like that cat toy with the red laser beam where you got the cat chasing the red laser beam and not looking at the big picture.
Is there anything Democrats or liberals are doing to compete?
Kathy Fowler: So is there anything that the Democrats or the liberals are doing on the other side to combat that? Because you see they are so well organized in the ground game and this is, like Marc said, is long term. They’re in it for I mean 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years. Is there anything that liberals are doing to combat this or trying to do something on the other side that actually is… I don’t know, maybe we could bring PR to facts and all the other important things, that morals and values and things and democracy.
Katherine Stewart: Yeah there’s so much that’s being done to shore up our democracy. There are people working on all the investment in Democratic political infrastructure and voting rights, all the efforts to sort of shore up different kinds of individual rights, to bring true election integrity to our country, to defend the rights of every American. There are a lot of people of faith who are speaking out against this movement and saying this doesn’t represent our understanding of the Gospel or of moral values and I think that’s important.
But we have to acknowledge that the religious left is not the equivalent of the religious right in any way shape or form. It does not do the same kind of exploitation of faith congregations to turn them into partisan political cells, although some people have alleged that souls to the polls does something along those lines, but I have not seen for instance, you know I’ve gone to these gatherings of groups like Watchmen on the Wall which has tens of thousands of affiliated pastors across the country or Faith Qins which has, again, thousands of pastors across the country and they’ll go to these churches or mega churches and do events for dozens or even hundreds of pastors at a time. They give them messaging materials. They give them voter guides. They’re all about those like abortion, defense of family values and same-sex marriage, and their idea of religious freedom, which is actually a religious privilege or the right to discriminate against others.
So they give you these voter guides that leave people no question about how they’re supposed to vote, their so-called biblical values. You don’t see this on the other side anywhere. They’ll give these pastors sermon starters. They give them instructions for forming, within their churches, what they call Community Impact Teams, which is where the pastor doesn’t want to tell the congregants how to vote, but he’ll get a team of congregants within the church. And they give them all this material and all these resources, and then these congregants will tell other congregants how to vote and sign them up and hold them accountable to vote.
So you just don’t see, and then data tools. Some of these organizations have actually offered, like church voter lookup where a pastor can look up their congregation, see what percentage of the congregations voted in the last elections. They could even look up individual church members and see if they voted in the last election.
You can just imagine the conversations that emerge from that, like, “Hey, Mrs Jones, I see you didn’t vote in the last election. Don’t you know it’s your biblical value or your biblical duty to vote? You know, not telling you how to vote, but I’m hoping you vote in the next election. You should vote your biblical values.” I mean, you can sort of imagine how that goes. I do not see any of this on the religious left. The religious left doesn’t have anywhere near the funding of the religious right.
Marc Silverstein: It’s all tax-free. They don’t have to pay taxes on any of this, right?
Katherine Stewart: Yeah, there’s that sort of complete ignoring the Johnson Amendment, ignoring the sort of respect for the fact that they are tax-free. And the justification for remaining tax-free is they remain sincerely non-partisan. But yeah, there still is a lot of private money going to many of these organizations. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for instance, has an annual budget last fiscal year of $102 million dollars. There’s an estimated over a billion dollars or more of money going into this movement every year. The National Christian Foundation, which is a donor advice group, which also funnels money to a number of these various organizations, disbursed, I believe, it was $1.5 billion dollars in the last fiscal year or somewhere thereabouts. So it’s just an incredibly well-funded movement.
What’s it like going to the conventions and conferences?
Marc Silverstein: What’s it like going to those conventions and conferences? And do they know who you are, and do you have to get out of the room and reporting and get some air?
Kathy Fowler: Do you get nervous reporting about this?
Katherine Stewart: I use my real name. I don’t lie, and I try to keep my ears open. And I think sometimes listening is really hard for people. Sometimes when we hear stuff, we tend to try and reinterpret it in ways that are going to make us feel more comfortable. But it’s important to listen.
They’ll say what they’re going to do, and then they do it. They’re not hiding. I think some of those of us in the media, we have a hard time really taking them at their word. So I just go, and I listen. I listen for what’s useful. I always watch for trends. I watch for what’s unexpected. It’s very interesting.
What’s the next thing we should be on the lookout for?
Marc Silverstein: What’s the next trend, what’s the most unexpected thing that we should be on the lookout for?
Katherine Stewart: I don’t know about the future because I can’t predict it, but I will tell you a couple surprises in the past.
Okay, prior to January 6, I would not have guessed that one of our major political parties would defend a violent insurrection against our capital. I would not have predicted that a political party would stand by as a former president had stole or absconded with, or who knows what, was uh, the hundreds or thousands of documents pertaining to our national security and would push back on efforts to hold that person to account and to, you know, figure out what the hell happened to those documents and what actually, you know, say that you know FBI, uh, director who is frankly, you know, a Trump appointee was should be impeached because of it. I mean, that just really has surprised me, but it shows the depth of anti-democratic sentiment that this movement has inflicted on one of our two major political parties in our politics at large.
Are there enough investigative journalists covering this?
Kathy Fowler: So what is the, and you’re investigative journalist and you cover this, do you think the one of the problems is that people don’t, are there enough investigative journalists, are there enough storytellers out there who are really spending time diving in and educating the public? And give me a little bit of, you know, the state of investigative journalism. It used to be that a lot of media outlets really invested highly in hiring and making sure that they had investigative journalists who could, you know, talk about these tough topics, uncover scandals, and these kinds of stories. Like, what is, is it the fact that the media has also, um, you know, we’re not doing as many as much of this job, and that’s also why this is able to to increase and flourish?
Katherine Stewart: I think there’s a lot of terrific investigative journalism out there. I don’t think that’s the problem. I do wish there was, of course, more support for investigative journalism. It’s very difficult for an independent investigative journalist to do that work. But there are advantages to being independent as well. But I don’t think the problem is lack of investigative journalism. I think the problem, well, for a long time, you know, a lot of investigative journalism in this area is a little bit, it’s a little, I mean, late to the party.
There have been wonderful people who have been on this beat for much longer than I have. I’m just gonna throw out a few names, but I’m gonna leave people out. I think about people like Michelle Goldberg, who wrote Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Religious National Christian Nationalism. I think about Jeff Charlotte, who wrote The Family. I think about Sarah Posner, whose latest book is called Unholy. I think about so many other folks, people at the Americans United for Separation of Church and State who have been on this beat for a long time. There are so many others, some of the folks at Political Resource Associates and other places.
But for a long time, they were called extremists. When people tried to draw attention to the anti-democratic nature of this movement, they were called extremists. I remember a former speechwriter for George W. Bush called this a movement that could fit into a phone booth. Well, the phone booth moved into the White House in 2016, refused to leave in 2020, and threatens to come back in 2024. And it’s not a phone booth, it’s stadiums all across the country. I mean, we really need to set aside these kinds of premature dismissals. I still hear people saying that demographic trends are going to save us. No, they won’t.
Marc Silverstein: Well, I was going to ask that. I mean, is this the candle burning bright before it goes out?
Absolutely not. This movement is really still there. The organizational infrastructure is not going away. It’s become frankly so extreme as time has gone on. And it’s going to continue to sow chaos in our politics. And now they’ve got the courts that they want, and they’re really excited about what comes next.
So I do think that there’s plenty of hope for the future. I also think that Octavia Butler had some great quote where she said, “Oh, I’m gonna bungle this.” She said something to me like, “There are thousands of solutions, and you can choose to be one of them.” There’s like no, guess what she was saying, essentially, there’s no magic bullet, right? But there are so many different avenues of engagement, and you can choose to be part of that struggle for our democracy or not.
But so I do think there’s always hope, but I think that we’re facing a deeply authoritarian movement that is, frankly, bent on seizing power and imposing a different vision of our society than most Americans would agree with.
What country do you want to move to?
Marc Silverstein: So what country do you want to move to?
Kathy Fowler: It’s happening globally too, so it’s like you do have to be careful, you can’t just move anywhere.
Marc Silverstein: The Jewish billionaire from Chicago, is this against his greater good for him? I don’t understand. I mean, I understand, I get the, you know, why he might do it, but explain it to me.
Katherine Stewart: I think for some folks it has to do with far-right economics. Like, I think about the Kochs. Frankly, I don’t think they’re motivated by any deep-seated religious convictions, although I can’t speak for them, I don’t know. But I do think that they’re very libertarian or far-right in their economic orientation.
So, you know, a lot of folks think that’s the way to do it. You know, they want to concentrate power at the top, and they think that that’s the best way to govern our country.
Kathy Fowler: Because it’s not really about religion, right? It’s really about the religion of power and money. I mean, God has nothing to do with this.
Katherine Stewart: I don’t think God has nothing to do with it because it involves Christianity. It involves the exploitation of religion and using that to manipulate people. And then I think when you’re thinking about the religion piece of it, it’s really helpful to remember that people can see things as being in their, like, on the leadership, so leadership-driven movement. Two things can be two at the same time. They can truly believe that, you know, that abortion is a sin, same-sex marriage, and all the like. But they can also believe that what they’re doing that’s benefiting them, you know, that they’re arguing in their own economic interests, is also what’s right. So they can, I think some of them are more sincere than others. I’m not going to name names, but there are folks I see in the movement who I think wow, that’s like a really cynical person and then others who I’m like man that guy, he’s like all-in right, but for all of it, but I do think that, um, for a lot of the folks in the movement, it’s very much about this different vision of how we’re supposed to govern our country.
How do you see this turning around?
Kathy Fowler: So, I know we’ve got to wrap up, but leave us with something. You said there’s hope, um, because this has been very heavy and wow, scary. Um, it’s obviously that’s because it is scary, but how do you see this turning around or how do you see, um, how do you see a way out? Is there a way out? I mean, are you seeing anything in your reporting that you’re like, “This gives me a little bit of hope”?
Katherine Stewart: I think hope is, you know, I’m going to paraphrase a friend of mine, uh, Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, the hope is in the struggle, you know? She spoke and has written about her relatives who were enslaved, and they fought for freedom even though they knew they would never experience freedom. They fought on behalf of people they would never see, and I just think about how, you know, comfortable so many of us in our own lives, if we don’t have it in us to fight for our democracy and to struggle for our, you know, restore our democracy, then shame on us. So, um, as Octavia Butler said again, you know, there are a thousand solutions, and you can choose to be one of them, and, uh, I do think it’s an all hands-on deck moment, and there are things we can do as individuals, and there are things we can do when we join together.
I think the first challenge is that people can’t meet their challenges unless they know what they are, so bringing out information about what our challenges are is really important. Beyond that, I think there’s no powerful substitute for the vote. I think it’s really important to defend voting rights, to make sure every vote is counted, and then there are, of course, many organizations that are working on shoring up Democratic infrastructure, work on various issues, various rights issues, and things like that. There are a lot of folks working on the solution, and, um, that gives me hope.
Marc Silverstein: Whether it’s an all hands-on deck situation as you said, and I guess the meters are pointing to red, so we got to get busy, got to pick a solution and go fight for it.
How can people follow you?
Kathy Fowler: How do people follow you? Um, you know, and name the books, read your stuff. You have a couple of amazing books that, um, I’m sure they can just Google and find out or wherever they get their favorite books. Tell us a little bit about how people can follow what you’re doing and read up on all the information they really need to know.
Katherine Stewart: Sure, well, the paperback edition of “The Power Worshippers” just came out. It’s called “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.” My previous book in this area is called “The Good News Club.” It’s really about, it came out in 2012. It’s about the religious right’s efforts to infiltrate and undermine public education.
I tend to post most of my articles on my website, which is catherinestewart.me, and I’m on Twitter at @KathSStewart, k-a-t-h-s-s-t-e-w-a-r-t-m. I’m on Mastodon, but frankly, I haven’t figured out how it works yet, so we’ll see if I need it.
Kathy Fowler: Yeah, the question is, have you paid your eight dollars to get certified or whatever?
Katherine Stewart: No, I did not pay for my blue check, and I’m not going to.
Marc Silverstein: Did you, did you bring any booze to end this with? Because…
Katherine Stewart: Sorry.
Kathy Fowler: Well thank you for enlightening us. This was a very important conversation. I hope a lot of people listen, a lot of people read great articles, and thank goodness there are people like you who are diving in and not giving up, educating people about these topics.
Katherine Stewart: Likewise, thank you so much for everything you guys do, and it’s really been a great conversation.
Marc Silverstein: Thank you, Catherine Stewart. Thank you very much.
Kathy Fowler: Wow, I’m so inspired to know that there are journalists like Katherine out there. And I tend to think, I guess I’m like looking at this half glass empty, because I tend to think that journalism out there, I don’t see enough of it. But I was glad that she reminded me, ‘Hey, there’s great people working in the fields.’ I think there need to be more, but she, you know, she was inspirational.
Marc Silverstein: Yeah, I love what she said, ‘Hope is in the struggle.’ Going to a room and find the person with the most light, and then ask them the question they didn’t want asked. That was, that’s a great thing to learn for any journalist. You can be intimidated or frightened, but if the story needs to be told, you tell it. And she calls it out, she doesn’t both sides it. I mean, and you know, that was the all stuff we got to before we got into the discussion of Christian nationalism which, uh, scares the hell out of me.
Kathy Fowler: And it should scare everybody because it’s not, it’s a political movement. Like she said, it has nothing to do…
Marc Silverstein: It’s a power movement.
Kathy Fowler: So we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. After Deadline: The Media Podcast is a production of On the Marc Media. If you enjoyed and want to hear more of our interviews with incredible journalists across the country, around the world, actually, be sure to follow us on social media @OntheMarcMedia and subscribe to After Deadline: The Media Podcast anywhere you get your podcasts. Until next time, we’ll catch up with you after deadline.