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January 6, Trump and the rise of America's dangerous 'shadow gospel'

A new framework for understanding the far-right builds on what we know about Christian belief and identity while accounting for secular media and influences.
Donald Trump
Religious leaders pray with then President Donald Trump after he signed a proclamation for a national day of prayer to occur on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, in the Oval Office, on Sept. 1, 2017.Evan Vucci / AP file

There is a lot to say (and worry) about the election-denying, culture-warrioring, satanic-conspiracy-theorizing slate of pro-Trump Republican politicians running for election and re-election in national, state and local primaries. There is similarly a lot to say and worry about Big Lie zealotry, highlighted by the Jan. 6 hearings. The danger doesn’t just lie with what proponents of a stolen election — including Republican politicians — did in the lead-up to the insurrection; it’s what they are doing now to undermine future elections and reframe election challenges as a “crusade.”  

When describing these trends, their consequences for democracy, and their potential for fomenting violence, many scholars and critics have adopted the term “white Christian nationalism.”

When describing these trends, their consequences for democracy, and their potential for fomenting violence, many scholars and critics have adopted the term “white Christian nationalism.” As a concept, white Christian nationalism does important rhetorical work: to emphasize the “deep stories” at the core of many far-right beliefs and to highlight how religious fundamentalism is driving millions to embrace anti-democratic ideals.   

At the same time, the term has its limits for one basic reason: A great deal of what is described as white Christian nationalism is secular. Many of its most enduring talking points — even the ones that swirl through evangelical churches — originate from cable news outlets like Fox News. Prominent evangelists are cable television personalities and are propped up not by churches but by networks of dark money organizations. Centering Christian belief and identity also fails to explain how so many people who have never stepped foot inside an evangelical church end up with beliefs — most conspicuously those related to a stolen 2020 election — that mirror those espoused by “insurrectionist Christians.” 

These secular energies do not mean that a focus on Christianity is unfounded. Nonreligious framings, for instance the Biden administration’s adoption of the term “ultra-MAGA” to describe the pro-insurrectionist wing of the Republican Party, miss the full picture as well. What we need is a framework for describing the far-right that builds on what we know about Christian belief and identity while accounting for secular media and influences. Something more hybrid — and much more difficult to pin down — is happening, and we need to explain what, how and why if we hope to have any hope of pushing back effectively.      

In our current book project, we identify the source of this hybridity (and its difficult-to-pin-down-ness) as the “shadow gospel”: decades of conspiratorial, self-reinforcing messages propped up by densely overlapping secular and evangelical media. The zealotry inspired by the shadow gospel is religious in nature. But this is a religion untethered to any of the structures — or restrictions — of formal Christianity, including the Bible, church leaders and even belief in God. It is undergirded by the logic of diabolism, which cleaves the world between good and evil and obsesses over identifying, routing out and punishing evil. This logic is mapped onto the otherwise secular belief that “real” America is under relentless attack from a dangerous un-American “them” associated with the political left.     

As we argue, the shadow gospel emerges from two mid-20th century contexts. The first is anti-communism. Sometimes obvious, as evidenced through McCarthyism, anti-communism can also take more subtle forms as a pervasive feature of mid-century U.S. culture, politics and national identity. Joel Kovel chronicled how anti-communist ideology defined what counted as “real” Americanism, in the process helping cleave the world into two distinct moral universes. “Real” America was good, a shining city on the hill. Communism was the externalization of all that was evil. Anything that was lumped in with communism, including a range of leftist causes deemed “subversive” such as civil rights, labor organizing and feminist activism, was a threat to the very soul of the nation.  

As we argue, the shadow gospel emerges from two mid-20th century contexts. The first is anti-communism.

The explicitly Christian, not to mention apocalyptic and conspiratorial, framings of anti-communism — regardless of whether anti-communists were themselves Christian or had ever stepped foot in church — dovetails seamlessly with the shadow gospel’s second context. And that is parachurch evangelicalism, the evangelical messages, media and leaders that exist outside formal church institutions. By the 1940s, radio ministers and other parachurch community organizers had undertaken a targeted and ambitious communication effort designed to bring their messages, including what was often virulent anti-communism, to a mass audience. These efforts represented a fundamental shift from the insularity of fundamentalism. It also shifted focus from the conversion and salvation of the individual to the conversion and salvation of society — and to the threats they believed Christians were facing from secularism. 

The rhetoric of parachurch evangelicals and secular right-wing media figures overlapped significantly during the Cold War, and so did audiences for these messages. These overlaps, including between publishers and funders, strengthened over time, ensuring that messages entering one node of the network would ricochet through others. Thus, evangelical and secular audiences heard the same arguments — and same demonology — over and over. The secular origins of messages to evangelical audiences and the evangelical origins of messages to secular audiences increasingly blurred.  

The takeaway is that the Church of Fox News might be a uniquely powerful force in our present political moment. But its rise has been a slow, 80-year burn.     

Understanding this history is key to understanding how the shadow gospel, turbocharged by social media, is able to spread messages with all the power and emotional resonance of religion but with none of the pesky tethers to religious theology. Consider Fox News’ annual festival of grievance known as the “War on Christmas.” This is not an argument about the need to cultivate deeper faith or to keep Christ in Christmas, a common refrain posted to local church billboards; this is an argument about how Christians, a term used synonymously by the network with conservatives, are under attack from liberals. It’s a cancellation argument, in other words, one that doesn’t just point to a cause, it points to a solution — to fight back.  

As they have for decades, these fights center on liberalism and its perceived threat to “real” America.

As they have for decades, these fights center on liberalism and its perceived threat to “real” America. Echoing the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and '90s, those on the extreme edges of the shadow gospel openly claim that liberals are in league with the literal figure of Satan, or are Satan worshipers (an accusation sometimes also leveled at conservative people and organizations deemed inadequately right wing). At the very least, liberals are described as morally evil.  

But the shadow gospel can also be more subtle and much more secular, focusing instead on “liberal indoctrination” and “parents rights.” The explicitly religious messaging — not to mention the fire and brimstone — might be tamped down, but the same conspiratorial argument and apoplectic call to action remains: They are trying to take America away from us, with the stakes no less than the end of our world as we know it.  

In the effort to prevent this from happening, the shadow gospel seeks to convert American culture, politics and society to protect the interests of the white conservative Christian minority with little regard for the interests of the multiracial, pluralistic majority. It does so by defining and weaponizing the morality of “real Americans,” defined as those who align themselves with traditional gender binaries, traditional family structures, traditional social hierarchies. It aims to control what is taught in schools, what kinds of people run for political office, and what personal lifestyle and medical choices are available. It hides behind discourses of freedom, including religious freedom, as a shield against incursion, while simultaneously using the concept of freedom as a sword to undermine the freedoms of others. Perhaps most characteristically, it reframes disagreement of any kind as an attack warranting punishment — some political, some professional, some related to basic safety. In extreme cases, dissent is treated as treason.  

Our use of the term shadow gospel is a nod to Anne Nelson’s phrase shadow network, which describes the dark money influences that have powerfully — and covertly — animated the conservative movement for decades. So long as the shadow network remains shrouded, Nelson argues, citizens will themselves remain in the dark about who and what is driving U.S. politics. This confusion undermines the democratic process. Similarly, so long as the shadow gospel remains unchallenged, so long as it is able to grow and adapt and be weaponized by those singularly focused on their own power and comforts, the minority — one that has zero interest in making any concessions to the majority — will always rule.  

The only way to counter this power is to expose it. Otherwise we will remain stuck in a loop of surface-level solutions as problems continually bubble up on social media and in school board meetings, churches, local elections and families. Identifying the shadow gospel will help target the older and much more gnarled causes of the seemingly insurmountable problems plaguing our politics. It will also help craft responses that avoid feeding into the narrative that they are coming to get us — and the subsequent impulse, so we’d better start fighting back.

The center cannot hold for very much longer. It’s time to drag the shadow gospel out into the light.