“[Roger] Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”

He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. […] — John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 2012

When state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, announced for governor today, Statehouse bureau chief Mark Maxwell of WCIA-TV in Champaign, noticed a bit of graphics on his campaign bus (i.e. a quote from Ephesians 6:10-18) that puts him squarely in the ranks of today’s white Christian nationalists. Here’s a screen grab from his Twitter account:

Screen grab of Mark Maxwell’s tweet, Feb. 22, 2021

I had scarcely heard of Christian nationalism until Jan. 6, when supporters of ex-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to overturn the election of his successor. Even then, I couldn’t hear all the dog whistles. But in the next few weeks, it started coming out. Thomas Edsall of the New York Times’ op ed section has an especially good primer on the movement, which is more widespread — and, in my opinion, dangerous — than I’d thought. It’s headlined “The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets.”

It’s hard to tell at this juncture whether it’s more than a garden-variety “Christian right” phenomenon, but the religious buzzwords and paraphernalia at the riot prompted scrutiny of what had been considered a fringe movement. It turns out to have deeper roots than I’d thought.

White Christian nationalism, probably best characterized as something between an attitude and a movement, presents itself lately as a heady mix of white nationalism, evangelical Protestantism, identity politics and hard-right, authoritarian political action. Esdall’s column interviews a number of academics who have studied it — and features a wonderful quote from Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale and the author of American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present. (I’ve got the book on my bedside table.) The quote came when Gorski was asked if the mob action at the Capitol was a Christian nationalist uprising. He answered:

Many observers commented on the jarring mixture of Christian, nationalist and racist symbolism amongst the insurrectionists: there were Christian crosses and Jesus Saves banners, Trump flags and American flags, fascist insignia and a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ hoodie. Some saw apples and oranges. But it was really a fruit cocktail: White Christian Nationalism.

A fruit cocktail. I’ll go with that! I’ll go with calling it “white Christian nationalism,” too. The racial subtext is clear.

Edsall also quotes Samuel P. Perry, a professor of communications at Baylor, who finds a sense of grievance, of losing ground to unbelievers and other enemies, at the heart of the movement … at least as it manifested itself Jan. 6 in Washington. This is common to white supremacists, Christian nationalists and, after the Nov. 3 election, Trump supporters. Perry says (as quoted by Esdall):

Christian fundamentalists and white supremacist militia groups both figured themselves as targeted by the government in the aftermath of the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. As scholar of religion Ann Burlein argues, “Both the Christian right and right-wing white supremacist groups aspire to overcome a culture they perceive as hostile to the white middle class, families, and heterosexuality.”

Sen. Bailey is plowing that field. Or, should I say, toiling in that vineyard?

Most of his announcement speech, in Effingham, was fairly standard downstate Republican rhetoric. But he dog-whistled several of the more prominent MAGA and white Christian nationalist themes — often they’re difficult to tell apart — with this sound bite, as Brendan Moore’s writeup in the Bloomington Pantagraph indicates:

“We’ve been used, we’ve been mocked, we’ve been marginalized,” Bailey said. “People in Illinois have been ignored based on their race. They’ve been ignored based on their class, their zip code, or by special interest, all while a political class has done absolutely nothing but enrich themselves while destroying our state and robbing our children and our grandchildren of our future.”

“…  the days of putting the interests of the corrupt political class above the people is over,” Bailey said. 

Rich Miller’s reaction to this in Capitol Fax, an Illinois Statehouse newsletter that aggregates coverage of state government and politics and maintains a public blog: “It’s the victim campaign.”

In the Chicago Tribune, Rick Pearson, veteran Statehouse correspondent and the Trib’s chief political reporter, quotes a portion of Bailey’s announcement that blended Trump’s political themes with his own:

“I will be a governor for the people of Illinois, guided by the lessons that I’ve learned from faith, family and community,” he said. “It’s time to lift ourselves out of the mire and partisan anger and cynicism. It’s time to restore confidence in government. It’s time to revitalize our state. It’s time that we live up to our name: the heartland of America.”

Bailey, 54, is a farmer who also runs a private Christian school with wife Cindy. He is from Xenia, a village of about 400 people about 250 miles south of Chicago. After winning an Illinois House seat in 2018, he was elected to a state Senate seat in November in a district that covers a large area of east-central Illinois.

Bailey has been the most persistent public face of downstate Republican resistance to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s efforts to enforce Illinois Publid Health Department measures designed to limit community spread of the Covid-19 virus. He sued the state repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) last year, and was admonished by the state House of Representatives for refusing to wear a mask on the House floor. Even before the pandemic, he was a vocal member of an “Eastern Bloc” of downstate GOP legislators, mostly from eastern Illinois, who railed against what they refer to as Chicago liberal values” and urged the creation of a 51st state — without Chicago. As Pearson’s story makes clear, he blended religious themes with a Trumplike sense of grievance and a longstanding downstate hostility to Chicago. Pearson writes:

A social media devotee, Bailey frequently offers a daily Bible message. Before his announcement on Monday night, he invoked God’s help to restore Illinois’ finances, culture and values.

“This is a God-sized challenge we face here in Illinois, and it is going to be our faith and our creator that’s going to have to be involved in turning this state around,” Bailey said.

Criticizing Pritzker’s signature on community justice legislation opposed by law enforcement groups, Bailey said he was “going to be eager to see what kind of law enforcement protection” the governor had in touring the state. The legislator credited law enforcement for working to “protect and serve” in the wake of “just demoralizing behavior that seeks to destroy everything you stand for.”

He also cited progressive efforts to change the state’s college curriculum for incoming teachers aimed at avoiding personal biases, as another example of Chicago and liberal idealism interfering with Downstate cultural values.

“Now, right in the heartland of America, Illinois has become a stronghold for this evil, wicked stuff. So we just got to take it back and then we’re going to reverse all this,” he said to his Facebook followers. “Something’s going to start here in Illinois, in the heartland of this land and it’s going to spread across this nation.”

Reaction to this fandango in Rich Miller’s blog was predictable. Capitol Fax is written for a readership of elected officials, legislative liaisons, lobbyists, political operatives and state and local government officials who closely follow Illinois state government and politics. And Bailey has not endeared himself to Statehouse professionals — or to Chicagoans in general. But there were some telling comments to Miller’s blog.

Fairly typical was a comment by “Flyin’ Elvis’-Utah Chapter” (a screen name) , at 10:12 am: “Republicans, always with God’s proxy.” (Capitol Fax has a well-moderated comments section, but screen names are allowed. Part of the fun for regular readers is trying to guess which officeholder or agency official is behind which screen name.) There’s a lot of inside baseball in the comments, but, unlike most online forums, they are almost always informative.

Other comments noted that Bailey reflects national trends and political initiatives. For example:

– TheInvisibleMan – Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 10:24 am:

This religious aspect that has worked into politics is a long time coming. Project Blitz is now coming to fruition, which was the explicit plan of the religious right to start taking small local offices all the way up into higher offices, for the purposes of enabling a national theocracy.

The problem with this, of which there are many, is that when the person involved feels they are on a mission from a higher power, they will not let anything worldly get in their way. Resigning or admitting fault is only seen as failure of the mission, and will be avoided at all costs – no matter how much damage it is causing. Such an ideology is fine for your personal life, but is incompatible with public service.

The Will county GOP is absolutely full of these types of individuals, most notably the county board member who was running the stage inviting Mary Miller to spew her own brand of religious politics.

Project Blitz, according to Wikipedia, is a right-wing lobbying coalition that “seeks to protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square”; it is opposed by the National Council of Churches, the Anti-Defamation League and the Hindu American Foundation.

Other commenters suggested that Bailey may be more successful than it might appear around the Statehouse — or the State of Illinois Building at Clark and Randolph in the Loop of Chicago:

– hisgirlfriday – Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 10:38 am:

@Publius – FWIW, Bailey has been campaigning all over the state for a lot longer than he has been an announced candidate. I got stuck behind a campaign bus of his last fall in Bloomington when he was doing some open up everything tour and was participating in a Trump fan caravan.

A family acquaintance/FB friend who is not an active political activist/CapFax type but just a socially conservative church lady has been sharing Darren Bailey posts on her feed at least that long. She lives Downstate but not in Eastern Bloc territory.

Given the type of people who still identify as Republican these days, I would not be surprised if Darren Bailey is the GOP nominee. It’s the same type of Republican that thinks it is a good idea to censure Adam Kinzinger and there are a lot of those people voting in the primary.

I mean Jeanne Ives nearly slayed Rauner in a primary not that long ago and the GOP base in IL has only got more extreme since then. The suburban moderate types are Dems now.

One longtime commenter from the suburbs said he’s skeptical:

– Oswego Willy – Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 10:59 am:

In the end, Bailey wants the racists, insurrectionists, and conspiracy theorists to be with him… him and religion.

Will it work?

The needlework may knit him a flag but that flag if waved in the General Election, it will be a losing banner.

But others suggested his appeal shouldn’t be underestimated:

– Steve Polite – Tuesday, Feb 23, 21 @ 11:34 am:

“Does anyone outside this blog and the folks in the eastern block even know who Darren Bailey is?”

Anecdotally, I have family members, who live in Springfield, don’t read Capitol Fax, and who are not politically active, who view Darren Bailey as a republican hero for standing up to Governor Pritzker because of the Covid restrictions.

I’m willing to wait and see, but I’ve got a hunch I need to post this stuff to the blog because it may just fit into the research I’m doing on 19th-century Swedish immigrants and the separation of church and state. And as Maxwell of WCIA-TV noted, Bailey certainly raised those issues when he tricked tricked out that bus with that quote from Ephesians about standing up to powers and principalities. That wasn’t a dog whistle, it was a damn foghorn.

A footnote (kinda). When news accounts went statewide that Sen. Bailey, R-Xenia, had announced for governor, the internet trolls went to work on his Wikipedia page. Since then it has been corrected, but for a few shining moments it proclaimed:

Works Cited

John M. Barry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, Jan. 2012 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/god-government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280/.

Thomas B. Edsall, “The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets,” New York Times, Jan. 28, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/opinion/christian-nationalists-capitol-attack.html.

Rich Miller, “Darren Bailey Roundup,” Capitol Fax, Feb. 23, 2021 https://capitolfax.com/2021/02/23/darren-bailey-roundup/#comment-13377382.

Brendan Moore, “Darren Bailey announces run for governor, says ‘Illinois is hurting’,” Bloomington Pantagraph, Feb. 22, 2021 https://www.pantagraph.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/watch-now-darren-bailey-announces-run-for-illinois-governor/article_ca630065-c0eb-539d-aa8b-7551945b42bb.html.

Rick Pearson, “Conservative Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey announces governor run, pledges to fight ‘political elites’,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 22, 2021 https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-illinois-governor-race-bailey-20210223-4bx7cetz4zdqzffph5sjlsaury-story.html.

[Published Feb. 24, 2021]

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