For years, Sarah Posner has been one of the most perceptive journalists covering the political activism of U.S. evangelicals and the broader Religious Right. In 2016, she became one of the first reporters to track the rise of the Alt Right, and its relationship to the wider conservative movement, including getting former White House advisor Steve Bannon to admit that he saw his website, Breitbart News, as “the platform for the alt-right.”
With the release of her new book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump (Random House, 2020), Posner has vividly demonstrated how these two movements overlap and tie together in surprising and disturbing ways. Posner spoke with PRA this spring about her groundbreaking reporting.
PRA: One of your book’s most impressive accomplishments is in revealing the connections between the Christian Right and the Alt Right, two movements people often think of as separate.
Posner: Both movements oppose changes that took place in the second half of the 20th Century that promoted civil rights, human rights, and dignity for all citizens. Obviously those goals still need to be fully attained. But both movements similarly opposed those changes. And so what unites them in support of Donald Trump is his contempt for those very liberal democratic virtues: pluralism, democracy, the rule of law, human rights. The Alt Right doesn’t really care about abortion, and you won’t meet many people on the Christian Right who’d go to a Nazi rally and walk around waving a swastika. But Trump is a vessel for both movements and their hostility towards liberal democracy and human rights.
PRA: Almost everything written about Trump and evangelicals highlights the contradiction between his personal immorality and the Christian Right’s purported values, concluding that evangelicals hypocritically traded their values for raw political power. You say that’s too simplistic, and that a deeper bond exists between them.
Posner: As much as Trump couldn’t cite a Bible verse correctly, he nonetheless articulated, in a way few other politicians dare to do, his contempt and disdain for “political correctness”—which is code for everything they believe is infringing on their rights as Christians or that’s diminishing the Christian America they claim is the true foundational nature of the United States. They saw in him a hero who was not cowed by what they claim is this oppressive, tyrannical political correctness that’s trying to silence Christians. So it didn’t matter that he can’t talk about the Bible, or the time he was saved, or when he was baptized, or had his Road to Damascus moment. None of that mattered because they’d never had a champion like that who would so unabashedly voice their grievances.
PRA: You also write that Trump offered evangelicals something more than just political power; that he gave them “new life.”
Posner: When I talk about him giving them new life, I was talking principally about politics and policy. If the 2016 election had gone the other way, the country was on the road to, for example, full equality for LGBTQ people. The Christian Right thought 2015 and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide was a watershed moment, like Roe v. Wade, where they would have to mobilize to either overturn or chip away at it. They were a very powerful demographic within the Republican Party, but a minority in the country in their view that LGBTQ people shouldn’t have full and equal rights. That view was about to be culturally marginalized, so it was a tipping point for them, where they might have been unable to do that chipping away without Trump’s help, in terms of policy and personnel, and also in terms of all these anti-LGBTQ judges that he’s nominating.
With regard to the fringe or less well-known players who now have greater prominence, I think that’s a function of Trump’s fluency in the televangelist world and also his position on political correctness. Unlike previous Republicans, Trump doesn’t shy away from people who believe in QAnon, or that vaccines are a government plot, or whatever conspiracy theories his supporters believe. So not only has he given them new life in that policy way, but he’s also giving new exposure or notoriety to figures that were far from being household names.
PRA: You observe that Trump seems to have studied televangelism and used it as a model for his public persona and career.
Posner: Trump has long been friends with Paula White, a fairly popular televangelist who is now not only his personal spiritual adviser but an official White House adviser to his faith initiative. Back in the early 2000s, the lore goes, he supposedly liked watching Christian television, saw White preach, and had his office call her. And the rest is history: they’ve been friends for close to two decades. But whatever the truth is in that story, it’s pretty clear that he has studied televangelists and their ability to entertain, to promote magical thinking, to talk about money, and just the ostentatiousness that’s so evident in televangelism.
It’s also said that as a kid he went to the church of Norman Vincent Peale, who promoted “the power of positive thinking” even before these televangelists were on the scene. I think that mentality is on display with Trump right now during the COVID pandemic, because he clearly seems to think that if he just hopes that it goes away, it will.
But his connection to contemporary televangelists goes deeper than that. It’s really about money and celebrity and thinking that being rich is evidence of God’s blessing on you. The prosperity gospel goes a long way towards explaining what these self-professing Christians see in Donald Trump.
PRA: Racial grievance is an important through-line of your book, not least in your history of how the contemporary Christian Right came into being.
Posner: Again, it all goes back to this antagonism towards the government doing anything to promote civil or human rights that the Christian Right sees as a threat to their own rights. The modern Religious Right got organized around a grievance about IRS policy regarding private schools. After Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of America’s public schools, a lot of private schools were formed in areas where people didn’t want to send their children to desegregated schools. Some were segregation academies, explicitly formed to avoid desegregation. Then there were others, like Christian schools, that weren’t formed with that explicit purpose but because Christians had other grievances, too, like the striking down of mandatory school prayer and Bible readings, which occurred around the same time.
The IRS developed a policy that if you don’t have a certain percentage of minority students, and you’re not taking steps to make your school more diverse, then you’re not entitled to a tax exemption because you’re basically trying to evade the policy of the United States government. One of the schools that had its tax exemption taken away was Bob Jones University, because they had a policy against interracial dating. Bob Jones became this rallying cry for the Christian Right: that the government was trying to impose its views and interfere in the religious beliefs of Christian schools. And while Bob Jones was the most celebrated case and went all the way up to the Supreme Court, a lot of other schools, particularly primary and secondary Christian schools, were also getting very riled up. This pushback to the IRS led to White evangelicals getting involved in the Christian Right. It really wasn’t abortion, which was tacked on and later marketed as the primary reason evangelicals got involved in politics.
PRA: You describe Trump as not an aberration but rather the belated culmination of the New Right’s plans: a figure whom social conservatives could use to punish establishment Republicans for taking them for granted.
Posner: A lot of the historical memory of the creation of the New Right focuses more on the Religious Right than on racial grievance. And I think that’s by design. But at the time, the founders of the New Right, like Paul Weyrich and Howard Phillips, really wanted to stick it to the Republican establishment, the country club Republicans. They thought there was going to be this Middle America, blue-collar, White Christian guy who would reject the [National Review founder] Bill Buckley view of what conservatism should be.
Posner: From the 1980s through the early 2000s, the Republican Party looked pretty much like the Buckley view of the world: respectable, connected with the Chamber of Commerce and the foreign policy establishment. But when I looked back at the writings from the early ‘70s to early ‘80s, when Weyrich was putting the New Right infrastructure together, you realize how much it was driven not just by the Christian Right’s desire to “return America to her Christian roots,” but by the idea that liberalism has ruined America. That all these liberal ideas about immigration and civil rights have been terrible for us and we need to create this new right-wing movement that opposes that stuff, but also opposes the country club Republicans. And when you look at that early writing, it’s remarkable how much it sounds like Trump. There’s this desire to shunt aside the establishment Republican view of things and create this new right-wing movement that pushes back on the government trying to institutionalize these new civil rights that have gone way too far.
Looking at that, you could almost make the argument that the Bushes and McCain and Romney were the aberrations. Because if the New Right was the beating heart of the American Right wing, that really spoke to their grievances and antipathy to government or judicial action to promote civil rights and democratic values, then Trump speaks to those roots more than Mitt Romney or John McCain or George W. Bush.
PRA: You also report that, although mainstream conservatism treats the Alt Right as marginal, there’s a sort of dance between the establishment GOP and the Far Right in terms of what they admit is part of their coalition. For example, you report that Peter Brimelow, founder of the racist website VDARE, told you many Alt Right people have mainstream roles, staffing conservative think tanks, flying under the radar.
Posner: Brimelow himself is a case study in this. He once worked as a staffer to Senator Orrin Hatch. He’s written for mainstream conservative publications, including the National Review, until Buckley let him go—to Brimelow’s ever-lasting resentment. On VDARE, Brimelow still talks about Buckley and “Conservatism, Inc.” But while Brimelow was cut loose from National Review, and some people have been cut loose from places like the Heritage Foundation, others don’t get that treatment. And there’s no more glaring example of somebody who believes in the White nationalist agenda in a very aggressive way than Stephen Miller, who previously worked for Senator Jeff Sessions and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and who now has a very prominent role as one of Trump’s longest lasting aides in the White House.
I don’t know precisely who Brimelow was thinking of when he told me that back in 2016. But when you think about how Miller ascended to the highest level to the White House, and how many other Stephen Millers there are who haven’t ascended to that level, who might just be working at a think tank or for some obscure member of Congress, I think that’s what Brimelow was talking about.
PRA: You also write about the ways the Christian Right and the White supremacist Right overlap, including on the international stage, with figures who seem different but are fighting similar fights—people like Allan Carlson of the World Congress of Families and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.
Posner: I don’t think they’re secret allies but that they have affinities that are coming together in this moment when we’re seeing the rise of far-right authoritarianism across Europe and the former Soviet Union and even in South America. To them, it’s important to have a strong leader to push back on liberal ideals, or what Bannon might call globalist ideas.
When Bannon talks about globalism, it’s code for the idea that we’re all global citizens and human rights should be protected and promoted and ensured for everyone. And when Allan Carlson talks about gender ideology—which is World Congress of Families jargon for reproductive and LGBTQ rights—he’s talking about a very similar thing: that there are these outsiders or minorities who come in and demand these rights, but those rights infringe on our rights. So while you might not see Carlson and Bannon in the same room together— although that wouldn’t surprise me greatly—these affinities are working together such that both movements are not only okay with autocratic leaders like Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán, but they’re actively promoting them.
Bannon also recognizes, at least domestically, that he needed the Christian Right to be on board with the Alt Right. In the same interview where he told me Breitbart was the platform for the Alt Right, he also said the Alt Right needs the Christian Right in order to win elections.
So I’m not arguing that Tony Perkins got together with Richard Spencer and had a meeting about how to get the Christian Right and the Alt Right together. I don’t think those two would get along in the slightest. But there are these affinities and Trump worked those affinities and Bannon worked those affinities and here we are.
PRA: Is the Right’s use of religious freedom rhetoric an example of that?
Posner: Religious freedom was the language used to push back on Christian schools’ efforts to oppose desegregation. And it’s the very same language that’s used today to push back on LGBTQ and reproductive rights.
Now, you won’t see the mainstream Christian Right saying that civil rights for African Americans infringes on their religious freedom. Even though they’re in an effective relationship with the Alt Right in supporting Trump, and Trump is obviously very racist, they try to keep up this pretense that they’re a big tent and not just about White evangelicals and Catholics. We can have a separate discussion about whether that’s sincere. But they use the same language and arguments that they used with respect to Bob Jones then with regard to LGBTQ and reproductive rights today. And when Obergefell was on the verge of becoming the law of the land, they were gearing up for this. They were talking about explicitly invoking the Bob Jones case and saying this is going to be a disaster for our religious freedom because now the government will come after us over what we believe about marriage and they’re going to take away our churches’ tax exemptions. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen and didn’t happen. But the language is deployed to great effect.
 Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/08/stephen-bannon-donald-trump-alt-right-breitbart-news/.