As a black man in America, Reverend Richard Freeman is used to right-wing extremism. He saw it with his own eyes.
But over the past decade, he’s seen it gain new prominence, and he’s seen it spread more and more by those who claim to represent his faith.
“I grew up in the south, okay? This is not new to me. It’s just louder than I’ve seen it in a long, long, long time. It’s louder than I’ve ever been in my life,” says the 62-year-old pastor of Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock.
Pittsburgh has gained a reputation as a prominent location in the growing Christian nationalist movement, fueled by the rhetoric of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. Although he refutes this label, Mastriano is often criticized for his involvement in Christian nationalisms.
Christian nationalism is exactly what it sounds like: a fusion of Christianity and nationalism. An online statement titled “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” which has been endorsed by Christian leaders across the country, defines the term:
“Christian nationalism demands that Christianity be privileged by the state and implies that to be a good American one must be a Christian,” the statement said. “It often overlaps and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
Because of this overlap with white supremacy, the term is often paraphrased as “white Christian nationalism.”
A New Yorker May 2021 article defined Mastriano as the personification of the “revival” of Christian nationalism. Mastriano became infamous referring to the separation of church and state as a “myth”. Mastriano has had a controversial relationship with churches in Pennsylvania, including Grace Life Church in Pittsburgh, where Mastriano spoke and received legally questionable support in September, according to Pittsburgh’s Action 4 news.
Mastriano did not respond to a request for comment on his characterization as a Christian nationalist.
A real clear policy average survey Democrat Josh Shaprio leads Mastriano by about 7 points in the Pennsylvania governor’s race as of press time. However, the fact that Mastriano won the GOP nomination has many worried about the power of Christian nationalism in the state, and that concern goes beyond Mastriano. Michael Flynn, who briefly served as US national security adviser at the start of Donald Trump’s administration and is often associated with the far-right conspiracy theory Q-Anon, accepted the deadline as one who “believes[s] in God and… “love[s] their country,” during a stop in Pennsylvania on the “ReAwaken America” tour.
Some of the region’s religious communities say they are alarmed by what they have seen.
Freeman spoke at the August press conference speakers against Christian nationalism because of his concern about the movement’s growth. He says his church, which is mostly attended by people of color, is very aware of these issues and speaks about them often.
“Let’s not hide it: the Klu Klux Klan started with the same mantra. It was the face of a church that supported and championed a nation that, frankly, was for white America,” says Freeman. “And the language is different, but the intent is pretty much the same.”
Shannon Garrett-Hadden says that as pastor of Community Church of Reconciliation in Oakland, she maintains a very progressive atmosphere. She is alarmed by Christian nationalism, which she considers an affront to her Christian values.
“Christian nationalism is anti-Christ,” says Garrett-Hadden. “It doesn’t make any sense…it’s almost hard for me to make sense of it.”
About 50 regular churchgoers spoke with her about family and other churches, sharing opinions that seem to revolve around Christian nationalism.
“We did have some parishioners who reported that their family members were Christians and who would not take the vaccine because of their particular theology,” says Garrett-Hadden. “And that theology usually came back to such a white, Christian, national, patriotic identity that they had some special protection that other people didn’t have.”
Vincent Kolb, pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill and president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, says his faith rejects Christian nationalism as the sin of idolatry.
“We believe that you can love your country and be critical as a citizen of its policies, its direction, and that doesn’t mean you don’t love your country,” Kolb says. “But the notion of loving one’s country to such an extent that one cannot question what is happening socially or politically is dangerous.”
People of other faiths also condemned Christian nationalism. Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who retired after nearly three decades at the helm of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, wrote opinion article opposing white Christian nationalism for Pittsburgh Jewish Chroniclenoting that practicing ideologies have turned out to be violent, citing the 2018 Tree of Life shooting as the most prominent example.
“White Christian nationalism is a direct threat to the physical safety and spiritual well-being of the vast majority of Pennsylvanians who do not believe as they do,” Gibson wrote.
Gibson wrote that he is a “proud representative” of the PGH activist group Jews United Against Extremism. Marla Werner and Sue Berman-Kress, O’Hare and Squire Hill Township residents and members of the group, respectively, discussed this wave of extremism with members of the Pittsburgh community. To begin with, they shared shocking quotes from political figures to attract people’s investment. They then asked these people to sign a letter against right-wing extremism, such as Christian nationalism. About 400 people signed up.
“Part of our goal was to start a conversation in the community. So, whether your name is in the ad or not, you probably got a copy of that email in the mail because it kind of went out,” Berman-Kress says. Pittsburgh City Paper. “Some people have said they’ve received it five times from different people they know, and it’s really activated our community and started talking about extremism and the dangers of it.”
White pastors also opposed Christian nationalism. David Swenson, pastor for eight and a half years at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church in Swissvale, considers Christian nationalism to be a denial of Christian principles.
“The rise of Doug Mastriano and his rhetoric, which is clearly Christian nationalism and in some ways militaristic at the same time … for me, I understand that in following Jesus, part of that is non-violence,” Swanson says.
Swanson believes in the separation of church and state because of his strong support for religious freedom, and because he believes that Christianity can be much more powerful and beautiful if it is separated from government.
“The state, however necessary and good it may be, does not fulfill the role of love, which is the center of religious life,” says Swanson. “So Christian communities and faith communities outside of Christianity, but certainly Christianity as I understand it requires tolerance, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, which the state cannot do, and it is not even appropriate for the state. to [do].”