Steve Bannon speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
Steve Bannon speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Steve Bannon wants Jews to ‘hard weld’ to Christian nationalists. Not so fast

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Steve Bannon just entered federal prison, so for now I won’t be able to ask him what he meant when he said American Jews must join with Christian nationalists like him to save themselves and Israel.

“We’re the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish group out there,” Bannon, the architect of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, told David Brooks of The New York Times in a July 1 interview. “What I say is that not just the future of Israel but the future of American Jews, not just safety but their ability to thrive and prosper as they have in this country, is conditional upon one thing, and that’s a hard weld with Christian nationalism.”

But based on my conversations with theologians, scholars and rabbis, and a former Christian nationalist, I say: Don’t fire up that welding torch just yet.

Christian nationalists’ central, simple belief is that Christians should rule our nation. Although they are a cross-denominational minority of Christians — between 10% and 30% of American Christians are estimated to adhere to or be sympathetic to the ideology — they have been effective in making their voices heard and gaining public office. 

The movement’s goal is not conversion to Christianity, but what one of its founders, C. Peter Wagner, called The Seven Mountain Mandate, or influence over seven spheres of American life: family, religion, education, media, arts and entertainment, business and government. 

Their success was on display most recently in Louisiana, where Gov. Jeff Landry signed into law three notable bills: one requiring teachers to address transgender students by whatever gender was on their birth certificate; another allowing public schools to hire chaplains; and the third mandating the display of the Ten Commandments — in English, not Hebrew — in all classrooms.

 In Oklahoma, the state school superintendent is forcing public schools to teach the Bible.

“We don’t quit,” Landry said. 

But the growing influence of Christian nationalism isn’t only apparent in red states. As Bannon told Brooks, the movement is organizing nationally and locally. Russell Vought, who oversaw the creation of Project 2025, a plan to “infuse Christian nationalism into a second Trump term,” according to Politico, is likely to be Trump’s chief of staff if Trump wins the presidency in November. Locally Christian nationalists are becoming precinct captains in voting districts and members of local school boards. 

“You can see the local influence anywhere you live,” said Diane Winston, a professor of journalism and religion at the University of Southern California, speaking at a panel discussion on Christian nationalism I moderated last week.

Wagner helped define and guide the movement from his home base in Pasadena, where his unaccredited Wagner University is part of a national network of Christian nationalist educational institutions and think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College, Liberty University and Claremont Institute. Wagner’s successor as president of the 1,900-student university is Che Ahn, a Korean-American pastor, who led a Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C. a day before the Jan. 6 riot. 

“I believe that this week we’re going to throw Jezebel out and Jehu’s gonna rise up, and we’re gonna rule and reign through President Trump and under the lordship of Jesus Christ,” Ahn told the crowd

Bradley Onishi, author of the recent book “Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism, and What Comes Next” and host of the podcast “Straight White American Jesus,” credits the late Sen. Barry Goldwater with first deploying the “the holy trinity in the Christian nationalist theological pantheon” — God, nation and freedom — in his unsuccessful 1964 Republican presidential campaign.

There is this thoroughgoing fetishization of Israel and yet a disdain for Jewish people.

Bradley Onishi

Putting aside the irony that Goldwater’s father was Jewish (the family name had been Goldwasser), Goldwater, who was raised in his mother’s Episcopalian faith, used Christianity to advance his political aims. 

As Goldwater developed his vision, Onishi pointed out, he led with politics before Christianity. “The foundations of the belief system are not Christian love or neighborliness,” Onishi wrote, “but individualism, capitalism, and Whiteness.”

Would American Jews, as Bannon insisted, thrive under such a trinity?

Onishi, who was a Christian nationalist youth activist in Orange County before leaving the movement, said that antisemitic conspiracy theories are “built into the movement from the very beginning.”

He drew a direct line from Christian Ku Klux Klan leaders, who twisted themselves in knots to explain away the fact that Jesus was Jewish, to equally contorted conspiracies about Jewish financier George Soros today.

“There is this thoroughgoing fetishization of Israel,” he said, “and yet a disdain for Jewish people.”

The attraction to Israel is rooted in their belief that the country will play a key role in the End of Days and their messiah’s return. 

Winston, the USC professor,  pointed out that on college campuses, some of the most strident pro-Israel protesters during recent student unrest over Israel’s war with Hamas were Christian nationalists.

“On the one hand, Christian nationalists love the Jewish state,” she said. “On the other hand, they look at Jews as the worst of the worst, because we control blacks, gays, Mexicans, all the other people they hate, somehow Jews are controlling them.”

Still, there are Jews who find the Christian nationalist embrace reassuring. 

In the Reagan era, Jerry Falwell, the late evangelical preacher, forged a deep alliance with conservative and pro-Israel Jews, saying, “The Bible Belt is Israel’s safety belt.” While many more Jews were repelled by Falwell’s intolerance toward homosexuality and Hollywood and his occasional outbursts of antisemitism, some Jewish leaders embraced the swell of evangelical support for Israel he heralded, and spoke out or actively opposed Falwell on domestic issues. 

Could that same strategy work with a rising Christian nationalist movement? American Jews, who find themselves attacked by their allies on the left when it comes to Zionism, may be tempted to find some kinship over Israel among Christian nationalists. 

But to do even a soft weld, Jews would have to willingly overlook a deeply troubling aspect of Christian nationalism — its propensity toward violence. 

Bannon himself emphasized this crucial aspect in his interview with Brooks.

“This is a street fight. We need to be street fighters,” he said. “You’re a conservative, but you’re not dangerous. You’re reasonable. We’re not reasonable.”

The movement’s good Christians fall in behind Trump, a convicted sexual predator and adulterer, because they see him as a warrior, a tainted blade of God’s wrath, said Rev. Jonathan Chute, a Methodist pastor who took part in the panel discussion I moderated. 

“There is no sort of theology of nonviolence that has been taught to these folks, or that these folks have embraced,” he said.

Onishi pointed to the Christian nationalist imagery and symbols wielded by the rioters on Jan. 6 as evidence of their quest to conquer all seven mountains, by any means necessary. 

And if you thought that was bad, just wait.

“They really view a second Trump presidency as a permission structure for cultural violence and social domination,” said Onishi. “People see it as time for revenge, time to get back at those who stole the election in 2020. You don’t believe in the right God. You don’t have the right ethnicity. You are conspiring to undermine our religion and our country.”

It’s hard to see how welding ourselves to that ideology will make American Jews — or America — thrive.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of J. or the Forward, where this article originally appeared.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is a senior columnist for the Forward. Follow him on Instagram @foodaism and Twitter @foodaism or email [email protected].