Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee to be Pennsylvania’s next governor, wants everyone to know he is fighting a holy battle. A holy battle to wrest government control away from the forces of evil. A holy battle against “election fraud” and the agents of the devil who are scheming against God’s anointed heroes. A holy battle to make the United States into a good, righteous, Christian nation.
That’s far from the most eyebrow-raising part of his campaign.
Mastriano came to national prominence by leading protests against COVID protocols, and became one of the leading voices in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election. He literally brought bus-loads of supporters to the Jan. 6 insurrection and appeared to cross police barricades during the riot. He has spread Islamophobic conspiracy theories and tweeted out QAnon content. He pals around with white militias and prays to God to protect Confederate monuments. He once said women who have abortions should be charged with murder.
If he becomes Pennsylvania’s next governor, he will almost certainly pressure lawmakers to change the state’s election laws, attempt to give the Republican legislature the power to pick electors in a “contested” election, and appoint a Secretary of State who would refuse to certify the next presidential election, if won by a Democrat. (He has also already said he would not sign off on the certification, should it get that far.)
But it’s his claim to a holy mission that is central to understanding Mastriano and the movement he represents.
If Mastriano wins, he will arguably become the most important politician in modern memory to win major office while running as a full-fledged Christian nationalist. Though he is currently trailing in the polls, he has not attempted to move to the center at all, as many of the Republican party’s MAGA-heavy primary winners did.
To be clear, Mastriano has not described himself as a Christian nationalist (unlike Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently adopted the term mostly as a way of owning the libs). But his entire campaign has been built around messages—sometimes coded, sometimes incredibly blunt—that urge his supporters to embrace an extreme and violent form of the ideology, which holds that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation and should be reclaimed as such.
Lots of people want a more “Godly” country. But what distinguishes Christian nationalism from standard religious conservatism is its anti-democratic bent. Extreme adherents of Christian nationalism agitate for the government to officially collapse the barriers between the church and state, and to declare the U.S. a Christian nation—one that bases its laws and institutions on their particular conception of faith and that privileges Christians above all others.
More and more, for Christians who see a takeover of the state as a righteous mission, warfare is not just defensible but virtuous; it’s how they justify violent, anti-democratic events like the Jan. 6 insurrection as holy campaigns for God.
So how, exactly, does Mastriano fit into all this? To get a better understanding of how his particular form of Christianity shapes his political aspirations, it’s worth looking at three of his talking points—and what they say about one influential and ascendant segment of the religious right.
“Our Esther and Gideon Moments”
A military Christian nationalism
At times, Mastriano’s faith has been quite military-oriented. Last year, he told the New Yorker that when he was stationed in Iraq, God miraculously intervened with a sandstorm to help his unit fight Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. He believes that happened in part because his wife, Rebecca, led other churches in “spiritual warfare”—in this case, prayer—for his unit.
But Mastriano also seems to mix militarism with his spiritual identity in a more fundamental sense as well. On Dec. 30, 2020, just one week before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Mastriano gave a short prayer on a Zoom call organized by election deniers. In it, he called elected officials in Pennsylvania “weak and feckless” for not fighting against the election’s certification and drew an analogy to September 11th, comparing himself and his fellow Donald Trump supporters to the passengers who bum-rushed the cockpit of United Flight 93, causing the hijacked plane to crash into a field.
God, we come before you in Jesus’ name…. We remember 1776, our Declaration of Independence, speaking God’s truth and word over what would become the United States of America…. And in 2001, while our nation was attacked by terrorists, a strong Christian man from Cranberry, New Jersey—Todd Beamer—said, “Let’s roll.”
God, I ask you to help us roll in these dark times. That we fear not the darkness, that we will seize our Esther and Gideon moments…. We will take responsibility for our republic and not waver in these days.
I pray, God, that we will not waver in this time of need, when our republic needs us most. God, you’re calling forth modern day Esthers and Gideons, and I pray that you’ll give us the courage to do so.
I pray that we’ll take responsibility. We’ll seize the power that we have given to us by the Constitution and as well by you, providentially.
In short, Mastriano envisions himself as a hero fighting a last-ditch battle against evil for the soul of the nation, and he looks for inspiration not from the peacemakers of the Bible but from its military figures: The prophet Gideon, who leads 300 Israelite men to victory over a much larger Midianite army, and Queen Esther, who foils a plot to kill the Jews of Persia and secures the Jews’ right to kill their oppressors.
Mastriano’s version of “spiritual warfare,” though, is a battle not just for souls but for the control of earthly territory on behalf of God and against the forces of evil (which is his view include Democrats, LGBTQ groups, and liberal educators).
In general, extreme Christian nationalists who share this view are not subtle about their symbolism. At a far-right conspiracy theorist event in April where Mastriano was one of the main speakers, two organizers (one dressed in an American flag shirt and American flag cowboy hat) presented him with a sword inscribed with the words “For God and Country.” One host explained that they were giving him a “Sword of David” because “you are fighting for our religious rights in Christ Jesus.” She followed it up with a joke: “You’ve been cutting a lot of heads off.”
“An Appeal to Heaven”
Dominionism and a country on a divine mission
There is overlap between extreme forms of Christian nationalism and a theology known as “dominionism,” which asserts that Christians have a mandate from God to take command of society and government. It’s not clear if Mastriano subscribes to dominionist theology specifically. His church in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, certainly does not. But the concept fits with his presentation as a man on a holy crusade, and Mastriano has attended dominionist events.
He has also won support from the right-wing pastor and activist Lance Wallnau, who popularized the “Seven Mountains Mandate”—a variation on dominionism that lays out a divine mandate to take over the world through the “seven mountains” of religion, family, education, government, media, business, and arts and entertainment. The two have been seen together at events as well.
Mastriano has also been involved with an influential dominionist movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. The NAR, which has grown largely out of Pentecostal churches, combines elements of Charismatic Christianity—speaking in tongues, prophesying, faith healing, and exorcism, for instance—with the belief that Christians should take control of modern society to clear the path for Jesus’ return. The NAR has been highly strategic about this in modern political terms, organizing “election integrity” events and forming connections with well-placed GOP officials and candidates. Mastriano has denied his associations with NAR, according to the New Yorker, but he has spoken at NAR events.
Much the same the way dominionists take Christian nationalism to a harder and more theologically intense extreme, the NAR takes the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and extends it slightly further: The U.S., as the NAR conceives of it, is an instrument for spreading and fighting on behalf of Christianity. The nation’s founding, in this belief system, reflects a divine mandate and special relationship with God, one with a binding covenant, similar to the Israelites.’
Mastriano, again, hasn’t identified himself with the NAR publicly. But he has signaled his alliance with these ideas. In his Zoom prayer in December 2020, which took place during an event organized by an NAR leader, Mastriano started out by promising to “remember 1776, our Declaration of Independence, speaking God’s truth and word over what would become the United States of America.” And according to the New Yorker, when Mastriano spoke at the Jericho March that occurred the afternoon of Jan. 5—one of a string of these Judeo-Christian marches in December and early January that sought to overturn the election—he asked the crowd to “do what George Washington asked us to do in 1775. Appeal to Heaven. Pray to God. We need an intervention.”
The phrase “appeal to heaven” comes from a treatise John Locke wrote in defense of the concept of violent revolution under tyrannical rule. It has become one of several quasi-slogans for Mastriano. He has an “an appeal to heaven” sign on his door and an Appeal to Heaven flag, a Revolutionary War flag that has been appropriated by the far right.
Several NAR “apostles” have also embraced the slogan and flag as a symbol of the nation’s sacred founding. In their view, they are not only justified in their actions but commanded to seize control of the U.S. through whatever means—not just to make the country more righteous and holy, but to help it fulfill its divine mission, with God on their side.
Then there are the shofars. When Mastriano announced his campaign, he did so with the blowing of the horn Jews traditionally play to mark the high holiday of Rosh Hashana. (In this case, it was blown by a man identified as “Pastor Don.”) Some fundamentalist Christians have recently begun to coopt these horns, along with other trappings of Judaica, to signify their identification with the biblical chosen people. (Mastriano’s adoption of Jewish symbols is particularly eyebrow-raising because of his own personal history of using coded antisemitic language. He once described the Jewish day school his opponent sends his children to as “privileged, exclusive, elite” and illustrative of “disdain for people like us”—tapping into a long, dangerous history of portraying Jews as outsider elitists. He has also come under fire for paying the strident anti-Semite founder of Gab for “consulting.”) According to Salon, Mastriano has also been involved with a group called the “Shofar Army,” which performs shofar rituals as an act of spiritual warfare. Kitschy as it may be, it underlines how Mastriano essentially views himself as an Old Testament hero, ordained by God.
“My God Will Make It So”
A prophesied hero
Many members of the Christian nationalist community Mastriano moves in, and foot soldiers of the NAR in particular, believe in the existence of modern-day prophets who receive direct communication from God. Whether Mastriano himself subscribes to this belief is not entirely clear.
There are reasons to think he might. At the far-right event in April where he received the “sword of David,” speakers delivered political prophecies alongside their QAnon conspiracy theories.
“We have the power of God with us. We have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps,” Mastriano said at the gathering. “In November, we’re going to take our state back. My God will make it so.”
According to the Patriot-News, Mastriano and his wife attend a church that belongs to the Conservative Mennonite Conference, a conservative Christian church of the Anabaptist tradition that is not traditionally associated with charismatic practices, like the belief in prophecy. But it’s not obvious whether the Mastrianos align theologically with their church. (They don’t seem to align with the church’s emphasis on peace, for starters.) And we do have some evidence that Mastriano is himself a believer in right-wing “prophets,” at least when their prophecies are in his favor.
For example, Wallnau, who has campaigned with Mastriano, is a self-styled “prophet.” And Mastriano has also campaigned alongside a woman named Julia Green, who has made the rounds in right-wing and QAnon-adjacent events prophesying the fall and even execution of liberal politicians. (Mastriano has also shared a video of one of Green’s prophecies on Facebook.) Green once told an audience that Mastriano had invited her to speak at an event because of a message she received from God about him:
Doug Mastriano, I have you here for such a time as this, saith the Lord. It is now time to move forward with the plan that you have been given. Yes, Doug, I am here for you and I have not forsaken you. The time has come for their great fall; for the great steal to be overturned. So keep your faith in me.
Again, it’s impossible to know whether Mastriano actually believes in these prophecies or if he’s just using these claims to energize a far-right support base. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But this aggressive, dominionist perspective that he invokes represents an increasingly powerful and well-connected segment of the evangelical movement, and it’s worth paying attention to the creep of the Christian right toward a theological extreme. If Pennsylvanians elect Mastriano in November, it will not just be a victory for him, but for the anti-democratic mission he represents.