David Remnick: Our contributor, Eliza Griswold, has been reporting from Pennsylvania on the political trends affecting the midterms. There's the senate race between Mehmet Oz, Dr. Oz, and a lieutenant Governor John Federman, who suffered a stroke this year that's impacted his campaign, particularly after he struggled in a recent debate. There's also something else going on in Pennsylvania, an energized movement of Christian nationalists aiming for power in state government. Those nationalists see God, not the will of voters, as the source of authority in government. Our writer, Eliza Griswold, says the movement is truly significant at the state level where it can put far-right candidates into the legislature.
Eliza, this is not your old-school Christian right that we used to talk about, the era of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell. Is it?
Eliza Griswold: Not at all, David. This is something really different. This isn't about injecting Christian values into society. This is about overthrowing secular democracy.
David Remnick: In what sense?
Eliza Griswold: In the sense that what we see is people who believe that a God-ordained government requires that they take over the institutions of democracy. It's actually thinking called dominionism that's growing very popular in some circles in Christianity.
David Remnick: How is that influencing the races in Pennsylvania?
Eliza Griswold: Let me take you back to an event that happened in early July.
Doug Mastriano: Any free men and women in the house?
Eliza Griswold: This took place in the rotunda of the State Capital Building, which is a beautiful building that nobody ever goes to in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Doug Mastriano: What a great day. Thank you.
Eliza Griswold: Doug Mastriano, who is the Republican candidate for governor, he was a headliner to this.
David Remnick: What did he have to say? What were the ideas that he was espousing?
Eliza Griswold: This is a press conference that marked in Pennsylvania the Charter Day, which nominally it's a day that recognizes that anniversary of King Charles II Granting William Penn the land essentially that is now Pennsylvania, which he did in 1691. Now William Penn did that. He came to America because he needed religious freedom. That's the idea really, that Mastriano seized on.
Doug Mastriano: William Penn had a dream given to him by God, of a place that we know later on as Pennsylvania where men and women can live as they see fit and not as any king or magistrate or governor [unintelligible 00:02:37]. As you can--
Eliza Griswold: Mastriano and many other members of the Christian nationalist movement use William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, as a model and precursor for their imagined recapturing of history.
Doug Mastriano: Having suffered so much for his faith and being castigated from being a Christian and condemned in the media and judged by those people who think they're so self-righteous and better than others, that they can stand in judgment of other parents--
Eliza Griswold: What Mastriano means as freedom is freedom for a tiny minority. He doesn't mean when he talks about persecution or persecution by the media or religious freedom. He isn't talking about diverse freedoms. He's talking about freedom for Christians like him.
David Remnick: Now Eliza, my understanding of the politics of the midterm elections revolves around inflation, around basic economic issues, around crime, around whether you like Joe Biden or not, or whether you think he's too old to be president and all kinds of, what's usually called kitchen table issues. This is something quite different. Is it really an animating part of the governor's race in Pennsylvania?
Eliza Griswold: It is an animating factor because it fuels-- In Pennsylvania, what's happened as has happened elsewhere is that it fuels the idea of basically stop this deal. The idea that God gave this Christian nation also gives people the obligation to overthrow what they say is illegitimate governments. That's really how these two movements have fused between Christian nationalists who claim the moral authority of God and election deniers who are looking for a base who will support them in their claims that 2020 was fraudulent and we have to massively change voting for the future.
David Remnick: Another person who spoke at that event along those lines is a woman named Abby Abildness. Can you tell us who she is?
Eliza Griswold: Abby Abildness calls herself an apostle in this movement to literally capture state legislatures and bring America back to an imagined past when it was a Christian nation. She has risen to prominence as a leader of these Jericho marches, which really sprang up and got powerful in the wake of the 2020 election and in many ways became a precursor to what we saw on January 6th.
Abby Abildness: We're in the middle of the Jericho march going around. We just did the first two times around--
Eliza Griswold: The idea at the core of them is that the state capital, the seat of secular government is evil, as evil as the city of Jericho was in the Bible. These guys are calling on God to knock down the seat of secular government so that they can inspired by God come in and take it over by walking seven times around the capital.
Abby Abildness: Strategy was march around seven times. You'll see me bring it down. God will bring it down. This is a big call on our whole nation, but Pennsylvania really is pleading from our founder.
Eliza Griswold: Abby Abildness really brings together a lot of these different elements, because on one hand she is an apostle in this movement we've been talking about. On the other. She helps lead the Biblical Prayer Caucus in Pennsylvania. These prayer caucuses are across the country. They are the way that over the past decade, we have seen the far right take over state legislatures by infusing these different kinds of biblical bills like gay people can't adopt children. Constitutional bans on abortion, that's really associated with this group. It's growing and it's powerful and it is a way that the old-school Christian right has become something very new and far more muscular.
David Remnick: We hear the term Christian nationalist all the time, and as someone who's been reporting on this movement, tell me what the term means to you and also how many people identify truly as Christian nationalists in this country.
Eliza Griswold: What the term means, most of the people who espoused to these ideas, most of the people who believe in these ideas don't like that term at all. They reject it as a liberal construct. Mastriano asked me, is this a term you fabricated? How it's different from the old-school Christian is this idea that Christians, of course, America is a Christian nation.
Now that's something according to a recent study, 45% of Americans believe, which is alarming enough. Then you take that idea, it's not just that America is a Christian nation. Christians are duty-bound to take over the instruments of government and society, and that really is different. Now, how popular is it? That's a harder question to answer. The truth is, a lot of this is rooted in Pentecostalism, speaking in tongues. This is the fastest-growing religion in the world. It's highly decentralized. It doesn't have numbers attached. People claim their own authority. With these people are prophets and apostles who say that God has told them to do certain things. That is really new and that is pretty concerning.
David Remnick: I can't help asking the decisive race in these midterm elections may be the Senate race in the state of Pennsylvania. Some months ago, we would have thought that Mehmet Oz just didn't have a chance. He was being described quite roundly in Pennsylvania as somebody who doesn't live in the state. As someone who is improvising all the time in terms of policy in the worst possible sense, and just somebody destined to lose to Federman. Then things changed. He had a stroke. The recovery process has been very complicated, and that culminated in what I have to think was a problematic at best and possibly disastrous debate with Oz. Where is that race now?
Eliza Griswold: Good question. That race is too close to call and will be for some time. John Federman, who is 6'8 in shorts in snow, he's a burly Democrat. Which we may see as the future of the party. Maybe that's helpful when we talk about left populism. There is something very human about his hesitations now, which I myself experienced with him when I interviewed him, which we had to do with closed captioning.
He couldn't do that in person. We make all kinds of allowances for people. Just to say that, but at the same time, the people who he's going for, the disaffected white work in class who went for Trump and peeling them off the Republican party, which is one of the places he's been so successful. These are not a lot of guys who are looking for empathy and talk about ableism so the question is, can he hold them if he doesn't look competent?
David Remnick: What has been the course of the numbers in the last couple of months?
Eliza Griswold: The margin has just gone down and down. He was leading with a super comfortable margin. Oz exactly looked like a joke, especially, and Federman was so good with that. You would drive around, and you'd see signs. On lawns you'd see signs for Federman and Mastriano. Those days are behind us and it's hard to know is that because of his health? Is that because race is always tightened? It's unclear. Republicans, I've talked to several this week who are actually gleeful and also feel generous enough to say, "Well, I hope the guy is okay." You can see that they think they scored a major point, and we'll have to see how that plays out.
David Remnick: Eliza, thank you so much.
Eliza Griswold: David, thank you.
David Remnick: You can read Eliza Griswold's reporting on the Pennsylvania election campaign and much more at newyorker.com.
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