“In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God.”
Former Pres. Donald Trump focused on cementing his relationship with the Christian right in his June keynote address to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s national conference.
“We know that families and churches – not government officials – know how to create a loving community,” he said to the crowd of hundreds gathered for the annual FFC meeting in Nashville last month.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition was founded in 2009 as a response to Pres. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Headed by Ralph Reed – who’s known in right-wing politics for taking over one of the country’s largest conservative Christian political organizing groups from televangelist Pat Roberts – FFC is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, which allows it to engage in some political activity, including lobbying. The organization describes its annual conference as the nation’s “premiere pro-faith, pro-family event.”
On the same weekend 700 miles away in D.C., another group of faithful gathered. The Moral March on Washington brought about 150,000 people to the capital calling on Congress to take action, to pass laws that will help poor and low-income Americans at one of the most challenging economic times in the country’s recent history.
“How much more are we supposed to take?” Priscilla Waddy, a West Virginian who helped organize a trip to the march for her United Methodist church, said.
Waddy, a mother and grandmother, said the government is just not working for families like hers. Inflation is at its highest rate in 40 years, real hourly earnings fell by nearly 2 percent over the last year, and gas prices recently hit a record national average of more than $5 per gallon. Families – perhaps especially those in Appalachia – need relief.
But while these two events – and the groups that sponsored them – say they are concerned about the struggles families face, they cast two very different visions of faith in American politics today and its role in helping them. On one side, a Christian right ideology that seeks power in the political and cultural arenas. On the other, a vision of an inclusive community with public policies that benefit the larger society, starting with those at the bottom.
King’s Moral March
Waddy’s day began early in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, on the steps of Simpson Memorial United Methodist Church, a historically Black congregation. The handsome brick building sits in the middle of what used to be a thriving Black neighborhood, but now boasts little more than a major interstate interchange.
She and another congregation member had organized a charter bus for a group of about two dozen people to Washington for the march to rally for a number of causes. One of Waddy’s biggest concerns is the erosion of voting rights, especially for Black people.
“This is America!” she said. “I don’t want to see my children and grandchildren go backwards.”
The bus pulled into Washington around 9 a.m. that Saturday. As the group made its way toward the main stage on Pennsylvania Avenue, they were greeted by cheers and clapping from a small crowd, clad in purple SEIU t-shirts – a union for service employees. The West Virginia group passed by other labor unions as well as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ activists on their way through the crowd.
Sponsored by the Poor People’s Campaign, the Moral March on Washington is rooted in the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his 1968 autobiography, King wrote that combating endemic poverty in the U.S. – across racial and ethnic lines – was key to moving the country forward. He specifically mentioned the inclusion of “Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachians, and others,” as being part of this movement.
Five decades later, the modern iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign is co-chaired by Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor from Goldsboro, North Carolina. Barber rose to national prominence in 2013 when he led a broad coalition of activists in a series of demonstrations at the North Carolina statehouse in Raleigh.
Known as the Moral Mondays protests, the group organized sit-ins to push lawmakers into action on a number of things, from increasing regulations for natural gas drilling to removing voter ID laws and more. Barber’s template for organizing soon spread across the country and was copied, including in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama in Appalachia.
The Poor People’s Campaign reflects and expands on Barber’s earlier organizing efforts and seeks to build progressive policy power through a multi-racial, interfaith, social movement coalition. A 14-point list of policy priorities from the PPC includes establishing a national health care system, expanding the Voting Rights Act to counteract gerrymandering efforts in several states, and a comprehensive national jobs program, focusing on critical urban and rural areas to build up public utilities, addiction treatment and broadband access.
Speaking from a stage blocks from the nation’s capital, Rev. Barber told the crowd that “systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and our distorted moral narrative,” meant that 43 percent of the nation’s population lived in poverty or low-wealth conditions.
Calling it a crisis and moral failing, Barber told the crowd that regressive government policies “are not benign. They are forms of policy murder.”
‘Our Glorious Destiny’
Meanwhile, in Nashville, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s policy priorities were reinforced by a slate of 2024 GOP Presidential hopefuls at their “Road to the Majority” conference. They included former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Sen. Tim Scott and Florida’s Sen. Rick Scott.
On its website, the FFC lists seven areas of policy focus, including a pro-life stance, along with what it describes as “traditional” views of marriage, gender and family – language similarly used on far-right organizing websites and social media.
“We have to stop this gender nonsense,” Haley said in a nod to those values.
Haley and Scott both tied their Christian faith to American greatness in their addresses to the FFC, a key element of the organization’s vision statement.
“When you adhere to the principles in the Gospel, human flourishing cannot be stopped,” Scott said, while Haley told the crowd that her faith would help her “to move our country forward and upward toward our glorious destiny.”
Sen. Rick Scott provided the most detailed set of policies during his speech. His 12-point “Rescue America” plan includes many of the Republican Party priorities you’d expect to see, like cutting the national debt, securing the nation’s borders, increasing penalties for violent crimes, and cutting taxes. But it also contains some elements seen as controversial in even some conservative circles.
“Our kids will stand for the national anthem and learn that America is the greatest country in the history of the world,” Scott said to scattered applause from the crowd.
The government will never again ask for race or ethnicity to be identified on any form, according to the Rescue America plan. It will protect the integrity of elections and – a clear tie to the FFC’s position – “defend and promote” traditional family structures.
“Men are men. Women are women. There’s two genders, science confirms it,” Scott said as he continued detailing the plan, this time to louder applause. “Unborn babies are babies.”
Less than a week after his speech in Nashville, conservatives like Scott watched as these political stances based in faith resulted in action. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending constitutional protections for abortion. On its website, the FFC claims credit for the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, its chairman Ralph Reed saying in a 2019 interview that Trump “kept his promise to us.”
Dominism vs. Liberation: The Relationship Between Policy and Theology
Underneath the policy stances and the rhetoric articulated at these events are two very different theologies, or systems of religious belief. Dominion theology informs the policy stances of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, according to Frederick Clarkson, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank based in Boston.
Dominion theology is rooted in a Genesis scripture from the Old Testament: “Be fruitful and multiply…and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Essentially, dominionists believe their interpretation of the Bible should govern all aspects of society: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.
“It’s a comprehensive social and political agenda,” Clarkson said. “Dominion theologians have talked very specifically about a comprehensive biblical worldview and the implementation of God’s laws as they understand them.”
Sociologist Sarah Diamond describes dominionism as the “central unifying ideology of the Christian right.”
But dominionism, Clarkson explains, is on a spectrum. The idea of Christian nationalism – that America is fundamentally a Christian nation – is an example of the “soft” side of dominionist rhetoric. Other more radical dominionists believe their faith is superior to all others, including that of their fellow Christians.
At its most extreme, Clarkson said, dominionism has a theocratic vision in which the Constitution is seen as a means to codify biblically based laws. Ultimately, dominionism is about political power, and it utilizes religiously-based social movements like the FFC to achieve its ends through the electoral process, Clarkson explained.
Liberation theology, on the other hand, is rooted in powerlessness, said Rev. Darick Biondi, and that is the basis of the Poor People’s Campaign and their political action.
“Jesus did not try to take over the state; he was executed by it,” Biondi said.
An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Biondi describes himself as an “Appalachian liberation theologian.” He leads a Lutheran congregation in Putnam County, West Virginia, and represents the state in the Faithful Democracy Campaign, a coalition of interfaith partners that sees “a fair democracy as a moral issue,” according to its Facebook page.
Much like dominionism has its roots in scripture, Biondi explained he looks to the nativity scene from the Gospel of Luke as key in his understanding of liberation theology.
“The news of Jesus’s birth, in that Gospel, came to the shepherds first,” Biondi said, the blue-collar workers of their time. “We never really hear about them.”
But he sees parallels between the shepherds in that Bible story and today’s essential workers, who were often invisible until a global shift in our worldview through the COVID-19 pandemic showed their importance.
Policy based in liberation theology works to lift up those who live on the margins – who have limited power in society, according to Biondi. Raising the minimum wage and protecting voting rights are expressions of that theology in public policy.
For Clarkson, the simultaneous existence of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Faith and Freedom Coalition points to a country that still embraces religious pluralism, and by extension, democracy.
After all, he noted, a pluralistic society should tolerate a range of beliefs. The problem comes when a single group seeks to replace a democratic government with its own belief system.
“One of the central challenges of our time,” Clarkson said, “is…to figure out how to preserve democracy for everybody.”
On one side, Clarkson said, groups like the FFC pit people against one another, to distract and deflect from what they are really up to. But recent events – including the House Subcommittee Hearings on the January 6 insurrection – he said show that people across the political spectrum are wising up.
“Seeing neoconservatives of the Reagan and the Bush eras speaking passionately and movingly about preserving constitutional democracy, that is really something,” Clarkson said.
Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, he said, also show that different groups of people are coming together in an effort to expand and strengthen a diverse democracy in the U.S. at the same time.
“This is a remarkable thing,” he said.
‘Better for All of Us’
A single mom raising two daughters in Fayette County, West Virginia, Andrea Meier works at a local Dollar General Store. She also takes care of her father, who suffers from early-onset dementia. The four of them live together in his home.
“If we didn’t live with my dad, we couldn’t make it,” she said. “There’s no housing [in Fayette County].”
Then there’s a lack of well-paying jobs, access to health care, attacks on civil and voting rights – all things she’s worried about and reasons why she joined Priscilla Waddy on the bus to the Moral March.
Meier considers herself a Christian, but doesn’t go to church. She’s a registered Independent and said she’s voted for Republicans and Democrats over the years. She’s frustrated with political leaders on both sides of the aisle, but says that politicians should not use people’s religious faith to manipulate them for votes.
“You don’t use the Lord to better yourself,” Meier said.
When asked to describe the differences between the Poor People’s Campaign and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Meier paused for a moment.
“Ours [the PPC] comes from a loving place of needing change,” she said. Trump’s speech at the FFC, “came from a place of hate.”
“We want things to be better for all of us.”
Laura Harbert Allen is a Report for America corps member covering religion for 100 Days in Appalachia. Click here to help support her reporting through the Ground Truth Project.