“Wow. God is good,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano began his victory speech on the night of May 17. The crowd shouted back, “All the time.” “And all the time,” said the successful candidate. “God is good,” answered the crowd. Notice, I believe God is good all the time. But that’s not the usual way election candidates start big speeches.
Mastriano is not a usual candidate. He is a Christian nationalist. “Are there any freedom-loving Americans in the house here? He continued. “1 Corinthians 1:27 gives us all hope. ‘God uses fools to confound the wise and the weak so that they may be found strong.’ It’s his story. And he chooses people like you and me to change history. I always like to say that when we make his story our story, we can change history.
Considering America’s place in the world as providential is as American as apple pie. From John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon delivered to his fellow Puritans in 1630, through Manifest Destiny, the post-war struggle against “ungodly communism”, the idea that working for American greatness equaled somehow to achieve the Kingdom, is almost a commonplace. It is not for nothing that the Society of the Cincinnati commemorated the centenary of the final abandonment of isolationism by the United States and its entry into the First World War with an exhibition entitled “The Great Crusade: The First World War and the Legacy of the American Revolution”.
This providentialist story has always played a little too quickly and loosely with the facts. New England was populated by strict Calvinists in the 17th century, but most other colonies were more obviously commercial enterprises. The American foundation was led mainly by deists like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington or Unitarians like John Adams. The United States Constitution makes no mention of a deity, and the Bill of Rights specifically failed to privilege any particular type of religious expression or affiliation.
Abraham Lincoln was not only our greatest president, but also the outstanding American theologian of the 19th century. His second inaugural speech, delivered as the Civil War drew to a close, acknowledged a deity deeply committed, but whose only partisanship was in the name of justice and charity:
Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his help against the other. It may seem strange that a man dares to ask God for help just to wring his bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us not judge that we are not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither was fully answered.
The Almighty has his own designs. “Woe to the world because of offenses because offenses must come, but woe to the man through whom the offense comes.” If we suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must necessarily occur, but which, having continued during its appointed time, he now wishes to suppress and which he gives to the north and in the south this terrible war like the misfortune due to those by whom the offense came, we will see there a derogation from those divine attributes that believers in a living God always attribute to him.
We sincerely hope — we fervently pray — that this mighty scourge of war can be quickly eradicated. Yet if God wills it to continue until all the wealth accumulated by the serf’s two hundred and fifty years of unrewarded toil is poured out and until every drop of blood drawn with the whip is paid for by another drawn with the sword as it was said three thousand years ago, it must still be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and absolutely just.”
These words convey a different sense of the relationship between divine will and national purpose than heard at Mastriano’s campaign headquarters the other night.
In 1980 Reverend Jerry Falwell published a book, Listen, America!, in which the political neophyte wrote, “Any diligent student of American history will discover that our great nation was founded by godly men on godly principles to be a Christian nation. That same year, however, an editorial in Falwell’s Moral Majority Report was titled “Moral Majority Opposes ‘Christian Republic'” because Jewish adherents to the newly formed group objected to the term.
Throughout his career, Falwell sometimes blurted out the phrase “Christian nation,” but he always apologized, even though his whole approach to politics was rooted in his particular brand of Christian identity.
Mastriano thinks America has gone through tough times because we have abandoned God’s ways. He opposes vaccination mandates and gay rights and anything transgender related, critical race theory, property taxes and any restrictions on gun ownership. As a state senator, he held a hearing after the 2020 election to examine false claims of voter fraud made by former President Donald Trump’s legal team and to discuss ways to overturn the election results. the victory of President Joe Biden. He was present during the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Trump made a controversial endorsement of Mastriano’s offer late in the race and it appears the endorsement was ratified, it did not create, the groundswell of support for Mastriano.
At a “Patriots Rise for God and Country” event in April, Mastriano told the rally, “We have the power of God with us. We have Jesus Christ whom we serve here. He guides and directs our not.” Mastriano’s language is steeped in religious idioms, just like mine, but he doesn’t care to confuse the city of God with the city of man. Mastriano refuses to recognize the label of Christian nationalism, but he is almost an archetype of the phenomenon. You half expect the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to show up at one of his gatherings.
Pope John Paul II, on his first trip back to his native Poland as pontiff, explained the Polish nation’s complex relationship with Christ and his church. “It is therefore impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nation — this great millennial community — which is so profoundly decisive for me and for each one of us,” he said during his sermon in Victory Square in Warsaw on June 2, 1979. “If we reject this key for understand our nation, we expose ourselves to substantial misunderstanding. We no longer understand each other. It is impossible without Christ to understand this nation with its past so full of splendor and also of terrible difficulties.”
It was in the sufferings of Poland that the pope founded this national hermeneutics. It was not the cheap “prosperity gospel” that, applied to politics, comes from the mouths of Mastriano and his ilk.
Christians are called to engage in the world, and to engage in it as Christians. But without the mediating influence of a teaching body like Catholic social teaching, or the Calvinist theology of Abraham Kuyper, or the distinctions drawn by Talmudic scholars, confusing God’s purposes with our own purposes is always a dangerous business.
This is why the Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania must speak out. Mastriano’s crude political theology has religious as well as political ramifications. If people think his version of Christianity is genuine, even more people will stray from the religion. Either way, bishops have a responsibility to teach their flock that Catholic theology does not traffic in the often hateful, sometimes crazy ideas that Mastriano says are part of its divinely inspired platform. Yes, God is good, and good all the time. These are the ends to which Christian nationalists put the eternal goodness of God which stinks of the sin of pride.