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Michael Flynn, Donald Trump and the ascendance of spiritual warfare in America

Flynn has become a central figure in a network of extremists, conspiracy theorists and election deniers held together by the mechanism of Christian nationalism. 
Michael Flynn, Donald Trump
Michael Flynn, left, introduces then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally, in Bedford, N.H., on Sept. 29, 2016.John Locher / AP file

In September, The Associated Press and PBS Frontline released the first part of an in-depth reporting project that looked at how retired lieutenant Army general Michael Flynn, former President Donald Trump's national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, has been relentlessly stumping for Trump while warning his audiences that the U.S. is in the midst of spiritual warfare. Flynn “has drawn together election deniers, mask and vaccine opponents, insurrectionists, Proud Boys and elected officials and leaders in state and local Republican parties,” writes Michelle R. Smith. In sum, the report details how Flynn has become a central figure in a network of extremists, conspiracy theorists and election deniers held together by the integrating mechanism of Christian nationalism. 

Christian nationalism is becoming a bigger factor among Republican voters, with 61% of Republican respondents saying they supported declaring the United States a Christian nation.

Also last month, a new University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll was released suggesting Christian nationalism was becoming a bigger factor among Republican voters, with 61% of Republican respondents saying they supported declaring the United States a Christian nation.

These two things are not unconnected. 

As the scholars Samuel Perry and Philip Gorski show in their recent work “The Flag and the Cross,” white Christian nationalism especially is not about orthodox Christian belief or even Christian practice. The “Christian” in Christian nationalism is really a cultural identity that uses Christian symbols and myths to bind together American nationalism to white ethnicity. In other words, it provides a transcendent authority to a movement that seeks to consolidate political power and, often, maintain white ethno-cultural standards. 

Image: Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn speaks onstage during the ReAwaken America tour at Cornerstone Church, in Batavia, N.Y., on Aug. 12.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

One of the geniuses of Christian nationalism is its agility. As a cultural identity, Christian nationalism is nimble and flexible enough to include militia groups, QAnon theorists and election deniers who believe Trump is the rightful president — not to mention conservative Christians for whom the rhetoric of spiritual warfare and apocalypse are everyday parlance. 

Flynn is a particularly high-profile leader who has seamlessly married faith, conspiracy, politics and militancy. But he is not exactly unique. Plenty of Christian nationalists on the American right are becoming MAGA celebrities. Some earn significant sums by claiming the election was stolen and asking God to restore the country to greatness, even if it takes a civil war. (And they’re often saying so in even more bombastic ways than Flynn is.)

What is unique about Flynn is that he was once a legitimate insider in the American armed forces. The three-star general may have retired from the military, but he remains a loyal soldier in Trump’s army. In the minds of his audiences, Flynn’s authority and credentials are unassailable. Thus, his appeal stretches across the various dimensions of the MAGA movement, making him a powerful node in a hardy coalition. When, as the AP/Frontline report shows, Flynn says that America is in the midst of “spiritual warfare,” claims that public schools are teaching “filth” and “pornography,” explains that many Americans are “evil” and “don’t think and act like us,” and asserts that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a literal demon, it hits differently. 

While the report from AP is alarming, those who had read Flynn’s memoir already knew how conspiratorial his worldview had become over the past decade. Former President Barack Obama warned Trump not to pick Flynn as his national security adviser — to no avail. Shortly after Flynn started the job, staff members quickly became worried about how extreme his views seemed. During a  December 2020 meeting with Trump, Flynn reportedly spread lies about election fraud and called for martial law. He has not softened his tone.

While Christian nationalism is more about cultural identity than theology or religious practice, it’s worth peering behind the rhetoric to understand the theological underpinnings of this crusade to “save” America. Flynn has teamed up with a specific brand of Christian extremists who belong to a movement largely unknown to most Americans, dominionism, inspired by something commonly referred to as the Seven Mountain Mandate. Flynn appeared on stage with the Rev. John Hagee, a prominent dominionist, at Hagee's San Antonio church during a November 2021 stop on the “ReAwaken America” tour. There, Flynn called for a national American religion. “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God,” he said. 

Dominionism, like Christian nationalism, is still mostly a descriptive term applied from the outside, by academics and journalists. However, now that various right-wing politicians and pundits have started to embrace the term “Christian nationalist” we might start to see a more open embrace of “dominionism” as well. 

The movement has roots in Pentecostalism, which in turn has its roots in a 19th-century American movement centered on the Holy Spirit and the conferral of pastoral authority through direct anointing from God. But dominionism also draws significant influence from R.J. Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionism, which calls for theonomy — a society governed by the biblical laws and guidelines found in the Hebrew Bible. Dominionism specifically calls for Christians to reclaim the “seven mountains of dominion” in society for God: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. 

The dominionist subgroup that has arguably gotten the most traction lately is the New Apostolic Reformation. Founded by C. Peter Wagner in the 1990s, its adherents, like Paula White, became famous during the Trump administration. NAR adherents believe in modern-day prophets with a direct line to God, anointed apostles and spiritual warfare fought by Christians against demons. Certain adherents of spiritual warfare believe that not only people but buildings and institutions can be possessed by evil spirits (hence Flynn's comments about Pelosi). 

As the AP/Frontline report highlights, white Christian nationalism has united disparate parts of the MAGA movement by offering them a cultural identity to rally behind. And while it may be hard to believe, Flynn is actually more understated and matter of fact than many of the celebrity pastors and pundits who garner headlines. That makes him powerful — and the consequences of that power are worrisome.