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By Susan Stubson
Ms. Stubson is a member of the Wyoming Republican Party.
CASPER, Wyo. — I first saw it while working the rope line at a monster-truck rally during the 2016 campaign by my husband, Tim, for Wyoming’s lone congressional seat. As Tim and I and our boys made our way down the line, shaking hands and passing out campaign material, a burly man wearing a “God bless America” T-shirt and a cross around his neck said something like, “He’s got my vote if he keeps those [epithet] out of office,” using a racial slur. What followed was an uncomfortable master class in racism and xenophobia as the man decanted the reasons our country is going down the tubes. God bless America.
I now understand the ugliness I heard was part of a current of Christian nationalism fomenting beneath the surface. It had been there all the time. The rope line rant was a mission statement for the disaffected, the overlooked, the frightened. It was also an expression of solidarity with a candidate like Donald Trump who gave a name to a perceived enemy: people who do not look like us or share our beliefs. Immigrants are taking our guns. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. You are not safe in your home. Religious freedom is on the gallows. Vote for me.
The messages worked. And in large part, it’s my faith community — white, rural and conservative — that got them there. I am a white conservative woman in rural America. Raised Catholic, I found that my faith deepened after I married and joined an evangelical church. As my faith grew, so did Tim’s political career in the Wyoming Legislature. (He served in the House from 2008 to 2017.) I’ve straddled both worlds, faith and politics, my entire adult life. Often there was very little daylight between the two, one informing the other.
What’s changed is the rise of Christian nationalism — the belief, as recently described by the Georgetown University professor and author Paul D. Miller, that “America is a ‘Christian nation’ and that the government should keep it that way.” Gone are the days when a lawmaker might be circumspect about using his or her faith as a vehicle to garner votes. It’s been a drastic and destructive departure from the boring, substantive lawmaking to which I was accustomed. Christian nationalists have hijacked both my Republican Party and my faith community by blurring the lines between church and government and in the process rebranding our state’s identity.
Wyoming is a “you do you” state. When it’s a blinding snowstorm, the tractor’s in a ditch and we need a neighbor with a winch, our differences disappear. We don’t care what you look like or who you love. Keep a clean fence line and show up during calving season, and we’re good.
But new sheriffs in town are very much up in their neighbor’s beeswax. Legislation they have proposed seems intent on stripping us of our autonomy and our ability to make decisions for ourselves, all in the name of morality, the definition of which is unclear.
Rural states are particularly vulnerable to the promise of Christian nationalism. In Wyoming, we are white (more than 92 percent) and love God (71 percent identified as Christian in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center) and Mr. Trump (seven in 10 voters picked him in 2020).
The result is bad church and bad law. “God, guns and Trump” is an omnipresent bumper sticker here, the new trinity. The evangelical church has proved to be a supplicating audience for the Christian nationalist roadshow. Indeed, it is unclear to me many Sundays whether we are hearing a sermon or a stump speech.
Christians electing candidates who reflect godly values is a good thing. Tim, who ran against Liz Cheney in the 2016 Republican primary, has no doubt been a recipient of votes from our friends in the faith community. Yet Christian nationalism has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with control.
In last year’s elections, candidates running on a Christian nationalist platform used fear plus the promise of power to attract votes. Their ads warned about government overreach, religious persecution, mask mandates, threats from immigrants and election fraud. A candidate for secretary of state, an election denier named Chuck Gray, hosted at least one free screening in a church of the roundly debunked film “2,000 Mules,” about alleged voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. (He won the general election unopposed and is now next in line to the governorship.)
None of those concerns were real. Our schools largely remained open during the pandemic. Businesses remained open. The border is an almost 1,000-mile drive from my home in Casper, and the foreign-born population in the state is only 3 percent. Wyoming’s violent crime rate is the lowest of any state in the West. Wyoming’s electoral process is incredibly safe. So what are we afraid of?
Yet fear (and loathing for Ms. Cheney, who voted to impeach Mr. Trump and dared to call him “unfit for office”) led to a record voter turnout in the August primary. The Trumpist candidate, Harriet Hageman, trounced Ms. Cheney. Almost half of the Wyoming House members were new. At least one-third of them align with the Freedom Caucus, a noisy group unafraid to manipulate Scripture for political gain under a banner of preserving a godly nation.
The impact of this new breed of lawmakers has been swift. Wyomingites got a very real preview this past legislative session of the hazards of one-size-fits-all nationalized policies that ignore the nuances of our state. Last year, maternity wards closed in two sparsely populated communities, further expanding our maternity desert. Yet in debating a bill to provide some relief to new moms by extending Medicaid’s postpartum coverage, a freshman member of the State House, Jeanette Ward, invoked a brutally narrow view of the Bible. “Cain commented to God, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” she said. “The obvious answer is no. No, I am not my brother’s keeper. But just don’t kill him.”
This confusing mash-up of Scripture (Ms. Ward got it wrong: The answer is yes, I am my brother’s keeper) is emblematic of a Christian nationalist who weaponizes God’s word to promote the agenda du jour. We should expect candidates who identify as followers of Christ to model some concern for other people.
Rhetoric like Ms. Ward’s can have devastating implications when it results in policy change. Even though the Medicaid bill became law, the hospital in Rawlins no longer delivers babies, meaning Wyomingites about to give birth must now travel 100 miles over one of the nation’s most treacherous stretches of Interstate. Woe to those with a winter due date.
I am adrift in this unnamed sea, untethered from both my faith community and my political party as I try to reconcile evangelicals’ repeated endorsements of candidates who thumb their noses at the least of us. Christians are called to serve God, not a political party, to put our faith in a higher power, not in human beings. We’re taught not to bow to false idols. Yet idolatry is increasingly prominent and our foundational principles — humility, kindness and compassion — in short supply.
“It was a great day!” one of our pastors proclaimed on social media last year when Mr. Trump came to town to campaign against Ms. Cheney. Though many agreed with him, some of his pastoral colleagues grieved, traumatized by the hard right turn in their congregations.
I recently attended a conference devoted to spiritual maturity. Of the attendees, a large percentage were pastors. Some had flown in, seeking anonymity for fear of job loss or reprisal. Many had dared to raise hard questions, challenging their congregation to think deeply about immigration, puzzle through the church’s treatment of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, to dive into Scripture and to find answers.
For some, just making the suggestion had put their neck on the line. One pastor was recently fired. Another, who was nearing the end of his career, lamented: Where did I go wrong in my teaching? Am I complicit in this movement? Have I created this monster? I have failed my flock.
I can think of no better illustration of the calamitous force of Christian nationalism than a room full of faith leaders, regret lined deep in their brows, expressing shame and disappointment in those they were called to lead.
In February, Gov. Mark Gordon hosted a prayer breakfast, a tradition in the Wyoming Legislature in which leaders come together, read Scripture and listen to an inspirational message. The breakfast came toward the end of the Legislature’s session, one pockmarked with ugly exchanges between the Freedom Caucus and other right-wing legislators and the moderates, a house more divided than ever.
The Senate president, Ogden Driskill, and the House speaker, Albert Sommers, were each invited to read a passage from the Bible. They carried the shrapnel of the session in their slumped shoulders as they approached the dais. They were tired. Weary. Both are veteran legislators, throwbacks to a time when lawmakers disagreed, then shared a drink at the end of the day. This session was different. Meaner.
Mr. Sommers is the quieter of the two. Before reading, he said he was not the best versed in the Bible but spoke of his experience finding faith and said he viewed his prayer and relationship with God as largely private. Mr. Driskill was equally humble: If anyone ever told me I would be in this position, standing in a room packed with political and business leaders, he said, I never would have believed it. And yet here I am.
Both leaders have deep roots in the state. Mr. Driskill and Mr. Sommers are the faces of my beloved Wyoming, a place so intent on preserving our live-and-let-live cowboy culture, we enshrined it in our state code, Section 8-3-123. They are earnest public servants who choose service over self, who love the state and are willing to make unpopular decisions at the risk of their political futures, who think nothing of leaving their homes to travel hundreds of miles across the state for a steak dinner and a reasoned discussion on carbon capture.
This is the state I cannot quit. I rely on those gritty and courageous leaders who hold tight to our rural values. They are the Davids in the fight against the Philistines. They are our brother’s keeper.
Susan Stubson (@wyorodeoqueen) is a pianist, lawyer and member of the Wyoming Republican Party.
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