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Why right-wing populism should worry us all

Religion can make you better, or it can make you worse. A podcast on white evangelical populism in America.

A scene from a video for

(RNS) — I love malapropisms.

My favorite: A number of years ago, a bar mitzvah kid was leading services from an earlier Reform prayer book, “Gates of Prayer.”

He was supposed to have read: “In a world torn by violence and pain …”

Instead, it came out of his mouth as: “In a world torn by violence and prayer …”

He got that right.

Meet my guest, Professor Marcia Pally. Professor Pally teaches at New York University and at Fordham University and held the Mercator Guest Professorship in the theology department at Humboldt University-Berlin, where she is an annual guest professor. Her latest book is “White Evangelicals and Right-wing Populism: How Did We Get Here?” We discuss her concerns about right-wing evangelical populism. Listen below.

Want to watch something terrifying?

Check out this video of the song “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Watch those young, beautiful children doing exactly as the lyrics would teach: preparing to become Christian soldiers, marching as to war.

The images are terrifying.

This subject is so hot, so alive and, frankly, so upsetting — precisely because it is about the weaponization of faith.

A group of insurrectionists prays inside the U.S. Senate chamber after breaching the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Video screen grab via Luke Mogelson/The New Yorker

A group of insurrectionists, including Jacob Chansley (shirtless), prays inside the U.S. Senate chamber after breaching the Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Video screen grab via Luke Mogelson/The New Yorker

Check out this quote from Professor Pally’s book:

Among those who on January 6, 2021 rioted at the US Capitol building claiming that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump was a small group that stormed the Senate chamber. Removing his horned helmet, a bare-chested “shaman” figure named Jacob Chansley led the group in prayer:

Thank you heavenly father for gracing us with this opportunity… to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs. We will not allow America, the American way of the United States of America to go down … Thank you divine, omniscient and omnipresent creator God for blessing each and every one of us here and now …. In Christ’s holy name, we pray.

I could not put Professor Pally’s book down, and then I went on to watch Andrew Callaghan’s documentary “This Place Rules,” which just came out and which is available on HBO Max.

It is a chronicle of his trips across the United States, visiting people who wound up — or whose compatriots wound up — on the steps of the Capitol building on Jan. 6.

Many of these people were terrifying. I also mean they were physically terrifying. While I believe everyone has the right to do with their bodies as they want to — these people seem to have gone out of their way to alter their appearances so as to look really scary. They define the meaning of terror.

It worked. I have to say: It terrified me. The whole issue of how faith becomes intertwined with right-wing politics, violent bigotries — all of that — I was fascinated. Grimly fascinated.

I was grimly fascinated and terrified and depressed by the interviews in the film with children who believe in various conspiracy theories, including the QAnon conspiracy theory.

But even more than that: I found it absolutely revolting that they were quoting those theories and then using terms like “globalist” or “Rothschilds,” which are antisemitic dog whistles.

All of which reminded me of something about faith. The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as the chief rabbi of Great Britain and who had a warm relationship with the current King Charles, once said — and it has always stayed with me — that religion has the power to make good people better, and it has the power to make bad people worse.

It is ultimately our choice.

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