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How Doug Mastriano uses faith to fight criticism even from other Christians

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (RNS) Its popular that Doug Mastriano, the Pennsylvania state senator now running for governor on the Republican ticket, includes a habit of energetically fusing religion and politics, giving voice to Christian nationalism and deriding the idea of separation of church and state as a liberal fabrication.

Among other activities, the retired Army colonel has made headlines for attractive to the Almighty to overturn the 2020 election results and incorporating a reference to the Gospel of John (Walk as free people) into his campaign slogan.

But although some politicians have pivoted toward Christian nationalism this election season, Mastriano had not been only leaning in to the ideology years back, but deploying it within a larger pattern of distancing himself from criticism. Although he rejects the word Christian nationalist, Mastriano has invoked faith both as a fuel for his activism and a shield against detractors including his fellow Christians, who remain worried about his heavy-handed treatment of these beliefs.

In July 2020, greater than a year before he declared his candidacy, Mastrianos rhetoric sparked a theological struggle with several prominent Lutheran clergy in their own state Senate district of Gettysburg, a rare exemplory case of the politician engaging directly with ideological foes. Once the faith leaders invoked Christianity to criticize him, he responded by suggesting the Bible prohibits Christians from publicly criticizing elected officials, all while doling out their own condemnation of local religious leaders.

He was telling us how to proceed inside our churches, the Rev. Maria Erling, a professor at the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary who was simply the type of who criticized Mastriano, told Religion News Service.

Mastriano has drawn fire for showcasing intolerance toward faiths not their own. A Rolling Stone report resulted in a 2019 radio interview where he said Islam isn’t appropriate for the Christian-Judeo ideas of the U.S. Constitution, rather than all religions are manufactured equal. Jewish groups havedecried his association with Andrew Torba, head of the social media marketing site Gab, where antisemitic messages and memes tend to be shared. (Mastriano later deleted his Gab account and condemned antisemitism, although he didn’t condemn Torba.)

But Mastrianos dispute along with his Lutheran constituents shows hes equally ready to reject the voices of other Christians, particularly views often expressed by moderate and liberal Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists among others known collectively as mainline denominations (named, some scholars argue, for the affluent suburban Philadelphia Main Line communities, where these congregations flourished). But not as dominant because they were in the past, white mainline Protestants nonetheless represent 18% of Pennsylvanians add up to the amount of white evangelicals in hawaii, based on the Public Religion Research Institute.


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


Mastriano, for his part, has been linked to Pond Bank Community Church, a conservative Mennonite congregation. Church officials didn’t react to requests to verify that Mastriano is really a member, nor did Mastriano react to multiple interview requests.

Campaign signs for Doug Mastriano in yard in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Campaign signs for Doug Mastriano in yard in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Mastrianos debate with the Lutherans goes back to a since-deleted interview with a couple of, Allen and Francine Fosdick, self-described Christian prophets having an online ministry called Folks of Prophetic Power Ministries.

Separation of church and state anyone who says that, show me in the Constitution where it says it, Mastriano told the Fosdicks while sitting at his desk in the Pennsylvania state Capitol. Its not within. Its never experienced there. In a formulation that has been popular among conservatives, Mastriano added, We’ve freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

Mastriano, who was simply gathering popularity in conservative circles at that time for strident opposition to COVID-19 restrictions, described a fake COVID crisis and chided his fellow lawmakers who had imposed limitations on large gatherings in Pennsylvania. He insisted Christians should show more courage in resisting lockdown measures and offered as a model Martin Luther, the 16th-century founder of Lutheranism and leader of the Protestant Reformation.

Pastors, its time and energy to lead, Mastriano said in the video, which later disappeared once the Fosdicks YouTube account was revoked for violating the companys guidelines. (A mirror of the video remains accessible on an archival website.) If that pastor among others doesnt desire to start, then congregation, maybe its time and energy to find another church where they will have a bit more courage.

As he put it in another portion of the interview: Id prefer to start to see the churches operate we’ve strong religious freedoms in Pennsylvania.


RELATED: How Christian nationalism won Pennsylvanias GOP primary


Local churches did, actually, operate, albeit not just how Mastriano intended. Forty-six local Lutheran leaders including vicars, former seminary presidents and the pastor at St. James Lutheran Church, several doors down from Mastrianos local office published a full-page ad in the Gettysburg Times supporting many COVID-19 restrictions and rejecting Mastrianos interpretation of these denominations namesake. The ad cited the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americas position, which quoted Luther to argue that Christian decisions should be produced in the very best interests of the neighbor.

The senators interpretations of scripture and Luthers actions in the Protestant Reformation are removed from context to serve his political agenda, the ad read.

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

Their voices carried weight in the city, where in fact the oldest continuously operating Lutheran seminary in the united kingdom occupies a prominent area of the local landscape and U.S. history. Founded in 1826, the schools red brick buildings sit atop a hill referred to as Seminary Ridge, a strip of land that traded hands between your Army of the Potomac and the Confederacy in 1863 in the Civil War battle that made the city famous.

The seminary is well known today because the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary, which also offers a campus in Philadelphia. Sitting in the seminarys library and leaning over an archival text, Erling, a professor of modern church history and global mission, recalled the debate with Mastriano with barely disguised frustration. She doesnt impugn his personal faith, she said, but has little regard for his public theology.

I dont take him seriously as a religious voice at all. I absolutely usually do not, said Erling.

Publicly criticizing Mastrianos faith musings wasnt something the group did lightly, she said among other activities, she and her fellow clergy had to cover the ad themselves. But Erling argued hawaii senator left them no choice.

He was saying that folks should not visit the churches unless theyre complying along with his walk as free people, and that any restrictions aren’t of Christ, she said. He hit a ball into our court.


RELATED: Republicans keep mostly mum on calls to create GOP party of Christian nationalism


In accordance with a Pew Research survey from enough time, only 6% of churches or houses of worship were conducting worship services because they had before COVID-19 struck. Some 31% weren’t open for in-person services at all. Another University of Chicago Divinity School/AP-NORC poll conducted in-may 2020 discovered that over fifty percent (52%) of white mainline Protestants said in-person services shouldn’t be allowed.

Mastriano fired back at the Lutherans in a Facebook Live video, calling their message hateful and describing them as modern Pharisees offering people who have a hostility toward Jesus Christ. He railed contrary to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Americas more liberal position on abortion rights.

They wear the name of Christ, however they dont become Christians, Mastriano said of the clergy.

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

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

Mastriano also argued he could dismiss the pastors allegations, citing the Gospel of Matthew, saying these were bound to approach him as Christians before publishing their remarks. We are able to completely discount their allegations, since they have a kind of godliness, but deny the energy thereof, he said.

The video soon vanished from Mastrianos Facebook page without explanation, but later that week he was asked concerning the ad on an area radio program. He insistedhe had not been at war with any denomination but accused the clergy of favoring his Democratic (and Lutheran) opponent, Richard Sterner.

Mastriano continued to cite the 13th chapter of the Apostle Pauls Letter to the Romans, a fresh Testament passage sometimes interpreted to mean Christians should respect the energy of governing authorities. Theyre actually likely to pray for me personally and support me as their government leader, he said, discussing the Lutheran pastors. Im over them politically. Im their senator. I represent them. And rather than engaging me with civility, they will have a political hack job.

The episode sheds light on precisely how Mastriano mixes faith and government by quashing dissent, even dissent via Christians, on religious grounds.

That approachstill troubles the Rev. Timothy Seitz-Brown, a Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvanias Lower Susquehanna Synod who regularly participates in activism at hawaii Capitol.

Im concerned, if he gets elected, what Im likely to be risking by continuing with activism, Seitz-Brown said. Is (Mastriano) likely to treat clergy like me, he disagrees with, with a difficult heart and soft feet, or is he likely to have a soft heart and at the very least listen a bit?

Critics also have remarked that Mastriano, who was simply in the crowd beyond your U.S. Capitol through the Jan. 6 insurrection and spoke at Jericho Marches that denied the outcomes of the 2020 election in the times prior to the attack, have not shown the deference to authority he insists Paul demanded. (Mastriano has insisted he left the Capitol grounds when things turned violent, although his exact account of your 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 primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Rev. Taylor Berdahl, who signed the open letter and today serves as pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in nearby Hanover, said the ad was designed to be considered a defense of faith, no attack on Mastriano. The letter, she said, was a lot more about ideas and faithfulness to the theological witness of what we’ve some responsibility to keep up and teach than concerning the person of Mastriano.

But she took issue with the candidates interpretation of Romans 13. Reading it through Luthers views, Berdahl argued that while Christians must have a respect for people who have government authority, Jesus Christ models the necessity to voice faithful dissent when necessary.

In the manner that Jesus did in his lifetime, if you find overreach of government, if you find oppression enacted by governments, our faith also moves us to speak out against those ideas which are harming individuals that people are called to love and serve with respect to Jesus Christ, she said.

She added: We worship God. We usually do not worship our elected officials.

This story was produced under a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation and presented within the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.

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