Michelle Goldberg: Whose version of Christian nationalism will win in 2024?

Will it be the doctrinaire variety of candidates like DeSantis, or the violently messianic version embodied by Flynn and Trump.

FILE - Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he speaks with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during a town hall, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, file)

Last week the ReAwaken America Tour, a Christian nationalist roadshow co-founded by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, rolled up to the Trump National Doral Miami resort. Two speakers who’d appeared at other stops on the tour, the online streamers Scott McKay and Charlie Ward, were jettisoned at the last moment because of bad publicity over their praise of Hitler. (“Hitler was actually fighting the same people that we’re trying to take down today,” said McKay, not inaccurately.) But as of this writing, the tour’s website still includes McKay and Ward, along with Eric Trump, as featured speakers at an upcoming extravaganza in Las Vegas.

ReAwaken America’s association with antisemites did not stop Donald Trump from calling into the rally to offer his support. “It’s a wonderful hotel, but you’re there for an even more important purpose,” he told a shrieking crowd, before promising to bring Flynn back in for a second Trump term. Flynn is exactly the sort of figure we can expect to serve in a future Trump administration — a MAGA die-hard uninterested in restraining Trump. So it’s worth paying attention to how he has changed since he was last on the national stage.

Flynn has long been a paranoid Islamophobe, and toward the end of Trump’s presidency, he emerged as a full-fledged authoritarian, calling on Trump to invoke martial law after the 2020 election. Now he’s become, in addition to an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and QAnon adherent, one of the country’s most prominent Christian nationalists. “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion,” he said at a 2021 ReAwaken America event. “One nation under God and one religion under God, right?”

A major question for Republicans in 2024 is whether this militant version of Christian nationalism — one often rooted in Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on prophecy and revelation — can overcome the qualms of more mainstream evangelicals. The issue isn’t whether the next Republican presidential candidate is going to be a Christian nationalist, meaning someone who rejects the separation of church and state and treats Christianity as the foundation of American identity and law. That’s a foregone conclusion in a party whose state lawmakers are falling over themselves to pass book bans, abortion prohibitions, anti-trans laws, and, in Texas, bills authorizing school prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

What’s not yet clear, though, is what sort of Christian nationalism will prevail: the elite, doctrinaire variety of candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or the violently messianic version embodied by Flynn and Trump.

ReAwaken America’s Miami stop had just concluded when Trump ran afoul of some more traditional evangelical leaders in his effort to set himself apart from DeSantis. In a Monday interview with The Messenger, he criticized the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed in Florida, even as he would not say whether he’d sign a similar one himself. “He signed six weeks, and many people within the pro-life movement feel that that was too harsh,” said Trump.

Of course, lots of people believe that the Florida law is too harsh, but they’re not generally members of the anti-abortion movement, where Trump’s statement was poorly received. Rebuking Trump, Bob Vander Plaats, probably the most influential evangelical leader in Iowa, tweeted, “The #IowaCaucus door just flung wide open.” Right-wing Iowa talk show host Steve Deace tweeted that he was “potentially throwing away the Iowa Caucuses on the pro-life issue.”

There is an obvious opening for DeSantis here. He is fluent in the language of the religious right, and strives to check all its policy boxes. “Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes,” he said at the Christian Hillsdale College last year, substituting the “left’s schemes” for the “devil’s schemes” of Ephesians 6:11. In addition to the abortion ban and his war on “woke” education, he will almost certainly sign a recently passed bill intended to keep trans people from using their preferred bathrooms in government buildings, including schools.

But it remains to be seen whether rank-and-file religious conservatives care more about consistency or charisma. For the religious following that Trump has nurtured, he’s less a person who will put in place a specific Christian nationalist agenda than he is the incarnation of that agenda. Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the organizer of Christians against Christian Nationalism, attended the ReAwaken America event at Trump Doral. She described a type of Christian nationalist fervor that was “very much tied to the political future of Donald Trump and nothing else.”

Tyler didn’t hear any of the ReAwaken speakers talk about abortion. Instead, she said, they spoke about “spiritual warfare.” There was also “a lot of talking about guns, about this sense that you’re put here for this time and this place.”

If DeSantis treats Christianity as a moral code he’d like to impose on the rest of us, Trump treats it as an elevated status that should come with special perks. That’s how he can slam DeSantis for being “sanctimonious” even as he wraps his own campaign in biblical raiment. If a Republican wins in 2024, the victor will preside over a Christian nationalist administration. The question is whether that person will champion an orthodoxy or a cult.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.