Questions about whether the United States is a Christian nation and if governing requires the separation of church and state are as old as the country itself.
In my previous life as the Casper Star-Tribune’s opinion editor, I was fascinated by this ongoing debate in the letters to the editor section. Readers regularly traded pre-Revolutionary War quotes about our founders’ intentions versus what actually made it into our Constitution. They always viewed the issue as black-and-white; neither side acknowledged any merit to the other’s arguments.
What sparked my memories of this conflict was a recent New York Times op-ed by Susan Stubson of Casper, a member of the Star-Tribune’s editorial board. In “What Christian nationalism has done to my state and my faith is a sin,” Stubson examined what’s behind the ideological upheaval in the Republican Party, nationally and in the Equality State.
“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,” Stubson wrote.
Christian nationalism is the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation and that our laws, regulations and government policies should reflect the Christian faith — or at least the interpretation of the Christian faith held by those espousing Christian nationalism. While Stubson’s concerns with this ideology are legitimate, I want to explore how we got here and why things will get worse unless traditional conservatives retake the GOP’s reins.
Like many other progressive political observers, I am guilty of blaming former President Donald Trump and his unlikely connection to the religious right for the faction’s current outsized influence and its propensity for gaining power by fomenting fear. It didn’t start with Trump, nor will it end whenever he leaves politics and is replaced by other, perhaps even more dangerous leaders, if you can imagine that.
In the modern political era, it began with President Ronald Reagan. Backed by conservative evangelicals, like Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, who aligned with many of his beliefs, Reagan loudly opposed abortion and homosexuality.
Reagan “gleefully courted and ushered in the religious right into the White House and gave certain Christian leaders unprecedented access to the leader of the free world,” A.F. Alexander wrote in “Religious Right: The Biggest Threat to Democracy.” “Since Reagan, the religious right has continued to establish more footholds into the GOP. They continue to shape the Republican Party into what they want it to be.”
Sarah Posner, author of “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters,” addressed the state of the GOP in 2009:
“Some elite Republicans are shocked, shocked, to discover the ugliness lurking in the party,” Posner wrote. “Figures from Peggy Noonan to Colin Powell cannot believe it! The party of the city on a hill is turning vulgar!”
Posner called the feigned surprise laughable, and it still is. Her analysis is an excellent summation of what the GOP has become and explains precisely where it’s at today.
“The only card left in the Republican deck is straight out of the religious right’s 30-year-old battle plan, which the GOP has warmly embraced since Reagan,” Posner wrote. “The Republican Party has validated the religious right’s mythology of Christian nationhood, cowed to its authoritarian litmus test, and made demagoguery not only fashionable but heroic.”
What does this mean for Wyoming, long one of the reddest states in the country? Its government policies have increasingly turned hard right since the 1990s after the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected at-large legislative districts in favor of single-member districts that essentially made all contests two-person races.
Democrats previously had a chance to win at-large seats, particularly in large counties, since many were popular throughout entire House and Senate districts. But in a state where Republicans already had a significant majority of registered voters, the GOP’s dominance in the Legislature quickly increased. By 2022, it led to the election of only seven Democrats in the 93-member body. All were from Albany or Teton counties.
GOP lawmakers were successful in keeping new or higher taxes off the books, which isn’t a great surprise. But many of the signature issues of the religious right that were passed in neighboring states didn’t gain traction here.
The Wyoming Legislature didn’t pass further restrictions on abortion for nearly three decades until a few relatively minor bills were approved in 2017. While moves to pass anti-discrimination bills to protect LGBTQ rights went nowhere, measures like “bathroom bills” to keep transgender individuals out of public restrooms failed too.
But as evangelical Republicans gained power, the Legislature’s agenda shifted accordingly. Abortion bills were soon filed every session, and when the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, Wyoming lawmakers had already passed a “trigger” law that banned abortion with few exceptions.
Only lawsuits and the judicial branch have kept Wyoming women from completely losing their reproductive autonomy — for now.
The Wyoming Freedom Caucus, a collection of state House representatives modeled after Congress’ anti-liberal fringe group, started organizing in 2020. Initially, its numbers were so low, and its members so feckless that the caucus couldn’t get any bills passed. But as its ranks grew, the track record improved. The national hot-button issues they pushed in 2022, like banning trans athletes from girls’ sports and banning “critical race theory” in classrooms where it’s not even taught, passed the Senate but couldn’t make it through the House.
That changed this year when Freedom Caucus membership in the House grew to 26 members who consistently voted as a bloc. The anti-trans bill passed, and the only thing standing in the way of measures against CRT and outlawing gender-affirming care was moderate House Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), who considered the Freedom Caucus’ prime objectives to be bad legislation.
Rep. John Bear (R-Gillete), the Freedom Caucus chairman and poster boy for Christian nationalism in the state Legislature, joined other members in assessing the group’s future in April. They said it will only take flipping 10 seats in the House now held by RINOs — “Republicans in Name Only” — for the group to take over the chamber in 2025.
That’s doable, which should scare GOP moderates to death. Fortunately, by holding steady and joining the few House Democrats this year, the new “Wyoming Caucus” kept the far-right contingent from passing the most extreme parts of its agenda, including banning LGBTQ-themed books from school and public libraries. That controversial wedge issue will not die anytime soon.
The Freedom Caucus is increasingly at ease using religious arguments against their opponents, like declaring women who choose abortion are murderers and Christians must step up to save innocent babies.
It’s time for the conservative Republicans who helped defeat a 1992 constitutional amendment banning abortion in Wyoming to speak up again, and vote for pro-choice legislative candidates at the ballot box next year.
“Christians electing candidates who reflect godly values is a good thing,” Stubson wrote. “Yet Christian nationalism has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with control.”
I think a coalition of limited-government traditional conservatives, with support from the few Democrats (and hopefully more) in the Legislature, can keep the Freedom Caucus from taking over. But those of us who are positive Christian nationalism will harm Wyomingites had better get our act together soon, or the long-term dreams of the religious right will soon be legislating its version of morality.