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How Doug Mastriano makes use of religion to fend off criticism — even from different Christians

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (RNS) — It’s well-known that Doug Mastriano, the Pennsylvania state senator now operating for governor on the Republican ticket, has a behavior of energetically fusing faith and politics, giving voice to Christian nationalism and deriding the notion of separation of church and state as a liberal fabrication.

Amongst different issues, the retired Military colonel has made headlines for appealing to the Almighty to overturn the 2020 election outcomes and incorporating a reference to the Gospel of John (“Stroll as free folks”) into his marketing campaign slogan.

However whereas some politicians have pivoted towards Christian nationalism this election season, Mastriano was not solely leaning into the ideology years in the past, however using it as a part of a larger pattern of distancing himself from criticism. Though he rejects the time period Christian nationalist, Mastriano has invoked religion each as a gasoline for his activism and a protect towards detractors — together with his fellow Christians, who stay involved about his heavy-handed remedy of their beliefs.

In July 2020, greater than a 12 months earlier than he declared his candidacy, Mastriano’s rhetoric sparked a theological battle with a bunch of distinguished Lutheran clergy in his personal state Senate district of Gettysburg, a uncommon instance of the politician participating immediately with ideological foes. When the religion leaders invoked Christianity to criticize him, he responded by suggesting the Bible prohibits Christians from publicly criticizing elected officers, all whereas doling out his personal condemnation of native non secular leaders.

“He was telling us what to do in our church buildings,” the Rev. Maria Erling, a professor on the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary who was amongst those that criticized Mastriano, instructed Faith Information Service.

Mastriano has drawn hearth for showcasing intolerance towards faiths not his personal. A Rolling Stone report turned up a 2019 radio interview during which he stated Islam is “not appropriate” with the “Christian-Judeo concepts” of the U.S. Structure, and “not all religions are created equal.” Jewish teams have decried his affiliation with Andrew Torba, head of the social media web site Gab, the place antisemitic messages and memes are sometimes shared. (Mastriano later deleted his Gab account and condemned antisemitism, though he didn’t condemn Torba.)

However Mastriano’s dispute along with his Lutheran constituents exhibits he’s equally prepared to reject the voices of different Christians, significantly views typically expressed by average and liberal Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others identified collectively as “mainline” denominations (named, some scholars argue, for the prosperous suburban Philadelphia Principal Line communities, the place these congregations flourished). Though not as dominant as they as soon as have been, white mainline Protestants nonetheless signify 18% of Pennsylvanians — equal to the variety of white evangelicals within the state, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.


RELATED: The activist behind opposition to the separation of church and state


Mastriano, for his half, has been linked to Pond Financial institution Group Church, a conservative Mennonite congregation. Church officers didn’t reply to requests to verify that Mastriano is a member, nor did Mastriano reply to a number of interview requests.

Marketing campaign indicators for Doug Mastriano in yard in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS picture by Jack Jenkins

Mastriano’s debate with the Lutherans dates again to a since-deleted interview with a pair, Allen and Francine Fosdick, self-described Christian prophets with an internet ministry known as Individuals of Prophetic Energy Ministries. 

“‘Separation of church and state’ — anybody who says that, present me within the Structure the place it says it,” Mastriano instructed the Fosdicks whereas sitting at his desk within the Pennsylvania state Capitol. “It’s not in there. It’s by no means been in there.” In a formulation that has develop into in style amongst conservatives, Mastriano added, “We have now freedom of faith, not freedom from faith.”

Mastriano, who was gaining reputation in conservative circles on the time for strident opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, referred to a “pretend COVID disaster” and chided his fellow lawmakers who had imposed limitations on massive gatherings in Pennsylvania. He insisted Christians ought to present extra “braveness” in resisting lockdown measures and provided as a mannequin Martin Luther, the Sixteenth-century founding father of Lutheranism and chief of the Protestant Reformation.

“Pastors, it’s time so that you can lead,” Mastriano stated within the video, which later disappeared when the Fosdicks’ YouTube account was revoked for violating the corporate’s pointers. (A mirror of the video stays accessible on an archival web site.) “If that pastor — and others — doesn’t need to open up, then congregation, perhaps it’s time to search out one other church the place they’ve slightly extra braveness.”

As he put it in one other a part of the interview: “I’d prefer to see the church buildings rise up — we now have sturdy non secular freedoms in Pennsylvania.”


RELATED: How Christian nationalism won Pennsylvania’s GOP primary


Native church buildings did, the truth is, rise up, albeit maybe not the best way Mastriano supposed. Forty-six native Lutheran leaders — together with vicars, former seminary presidents and the pastor at St. James Lutheran Church, a number of doorways down from Mastriano’s native workplace — published a full-page ad within the Gettysburg Occasions supporting many COVID-19 restrictions and rejecting Mastriano’s interpretation of their denomination’s namesake. The advert cited the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s place, which quoted Luther to argue that Christian choices ought to “at all times be made in the perfect pursuits of the neighbor.”

“The senator’s interpretations of scripture and Luther’s actions within the Protestant Reformation are taken out of context to serve his political agenda,” the advert learn.

A statue of Martin Luther at the campus of United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

A statue of Martin Luther on the campus of United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS picture by Jack Jenkins

Their voices carried weight within the city, the place the oldest constantly working Lutheran seminary within the nation occupies a distinguished a part of the native panorama — and U.S. historical past. Based in 1826, the varsity’s purple brick buildings sit atop a hill referred to as Seminary Ridge, a strip of land that traded arms between the Military of the Potomac and the Confederacy in 1863 within the Civil Struggle battle that made the city well-known.

The seminary is thought right this moment because the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary, which additionally has a campus in Philadelphia. Sitting within the seminary’s library and leaning over an archival textual content, Erling, a professor of recent church historical past and world mission, recalled the controversy with Mastriano with barely disguised frustration. She doesn’t impugn his private religion, she stated, however has little regard for his public theology.

“I don’t take him critically as a spiritual voice in any respect. I completely don’t,” stated Erling.

Publicly criticizing Mastriano’s religion musings wasn’t one thing the group did frivolously, she stated — amongst different issues, she and her fellow clergy needed to pay for the advert themselves. However Erling argued the state senator left them no selection.

“He was saying that folks shouldn’t go to the church buildings except they’re complying along with his ‘stroll as free folks,’ and that any restrictions will not be of Christ,” she stated. “He hit a ball into our court docket.”


RELATED: Republicans keep mostly mum on calls to make GOP ‘party of Christian nationalism’


In accordance with a Pew Research survey from the time, solely 6% of church buildings or homes of worship have been conducting worship companies as they’d earlier than COVID-19 struck. Some 31% weren’t open for in-person companies in any respect. A separate University of Chicago Divinity School/AP-NORC poll performed in Might 2020 discovered that greater than half (52%) of white mainline Protestants stated in-person companies shouldn’t be allowed.

Mastriano fired again on the Lutherans in a Facebook Live video, calling their message “hateful” and describing them as “fashionable Pharisees” that embody folks with a “hostility towards Jesus Christ.” He railed towards the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s extra liberal place on abortion rights.

“They put on the title of Christ, however they don’t act as Christians,” Mastriano stated of the clergy.

State Senate office of Doug Mastriano in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

State Senate workplace of Doug Mastriano in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS picture by Jack Jenkins

Mastriano additionally argued that he might dismiss the pastors’ allegations, citing the Gospel of Matthew, saying they have been certain to method him as Christians earlier than publishing their remarks. “We will fully low cost their allegations, as a result of they’ve a type of godliness, however deny the ability thereof,” he stated.

The video quickly vanished from Mastriano’s Fb web page with out rationalization, however later that week he was requested in regards to the advert on a neighborhood radio program. He insisted he was “not at battle with any denomination” however accused the clergy of favoring his Democratic (and Lutheran) opponent, Richard Sterner.

Mastriano went on to quote the thirteenth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a New Testomony passage generally interpreted to imply Christians ought to respect the ability of governing authorities. “They’re truly supposed to wish for me and assist me as their authorities chief,” he stated, referring to the Lutheran pastors. “I’m over them politically. I’m their senator. I signify them. And as a substitute of participating me with civility, they’ve a political hack job.”

The episode sheds mild on simply how Mastriano mixes religion and authorities by quashing dissent, even dissent coming from Christians, on non secular grounds.

That method nonetheless troubles the Rev. Timothy Seitz-Brown, a Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania’s Decrease Susquehanna Synod who recurrently participates in activism on the state Capitol.

“I’m involved, if he will get elected, what I’m going to be risking” by persevering with with activism, Seitz-Brown stated. “Is (Mastriano) going to deal with clergy like me, that he disagrees with, with a tough coronary heart and gentle ft, or is he going to have a gentle coronary heart and a minimum of pay attention slightly bit?” 

Critics have additionally identified that Mastriano, who was in the crowd outdoors the U.S. Capitol throughout the Jan. 6 rebel and spoke at “Jericho Marches” that denied the outcomes of the 2020 election within the days earlier than the assault, has not proven the deference to authority he insists Paul demanded. (Mastriano has insisted he left the Capitol grounds when issues turned violent, though his precise account of the day has been disputed.)

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a major evening election gathering in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Might 17, 2022. (AP Picture/Carolyn Kaster)

The Rev. Taylor Berdahl, who signed the open letter and now serves as pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in close by Hanover, stated the advert was meant to be a protection of religion, not an assault on Mastriano. The letter, she stated, was “much more about concepts and faithfulness to the theological witness of what we now have some duty to keep up and train than in regards to the individual of Mastriano.”

However she took situation with the candidate’s interpretation of Romans 13. Studying it by means of Luther’s views, Berdahl argued that whereas Christians ought to have “a respect for many who have authorities authority,” Jesus Christ fashions the necessity to voice devoted dissent when crucial.

“In the best way that Jesus did in his lifetime, when there’s overreach of presidency, when there’s oppression enacted by governments, our religion additionally strikes us to talk out towards these issues which can be harming the people who we’re known as to like and serve on behalf of Jesus Christ,” she stated.

She added: “We worship God. We don’t worship our elected officers.”

This story was produced underneath a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and introduced as a part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a lightweight on the threats and alternatives dealing with American democracy. Learn extra at usdemocracyday.org. 

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