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Doug Mastriano embodies a Christian nationalist movement as he runs for governor: ‘We have the power of God’

Mastriano is now a front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor of Pennsylvania. He’s also become the epitome of a resurgent movement of Christian nationalism.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) in 2020.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) in 2020.Read moreJulio Cortez / AP

The Shofar Army took the stage, nine white men and one woman draped in fringed Jewish prayer shawls, each clutching a ram’s horn — the instrument traditionally sounded on the Jewish high holidays.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on the holy mountain!” bellowed the leader. “The day of the Lord is here!”

He blew his shofar three times, and the crowd responded as instructed with “Arise, oh Lord, let your enemies be scattered.” The rest of the Shofar Army blew theirs in unison.

So began a two-day, far-right Christian gathering last month called “Patriots Arise for God and Country.” The event, at a Gettysburg hotel, was organized by Francine and Allen Fosdick, self-described prophets who have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory that falsely accuses Democrats of being pedophiles who control the country.

Speakers included current and former aides to Donald Trump, pastors, and politicians. But perhaps the main event came around 4:30 p.m. that Saturday.

“Last year, it did seem like God abandoned many of us. I felt I did not hear his voice,” Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano told the crowd. The Franklin County Republican described the “persecution and oppression” endured by him and others who have challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election. He said he couldn’t believe his country “had become such a dark evil place.”

But, Mastriano said, the faithful persevered.

“We have the power of God with us,” he said. “We have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps.”

It was classic Mastriano — how God told him to run for governor and how he was the candidate who could save the state from its descent into evil.

Fusing politics with religion

Mastriano, 58, is now a front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor in the nation’s fifth largest state. With just a couple weeks left before the May 17 primary, he has consistently led or been near the top of polls in the nine-person race. A career Army officer who has enjoyed a rapid political ascent since he won a south-central state Senate seat in 2019, he is known by many as a leader of the push to invalidate Joe Biden’s 81,000 vote victory in Pennsylvania, and for his presence at the Jan. 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington that led to the Capitol attack.

But Mastriano has also become the epitome of a resurgent movement of Christian nationalism. Its followers believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation whose divine mission is under threat.

The movement’s adherents want to see Christianity “fused with American civic life” — from education to business to government — and are “very comfortable with violence and militarism in order to essentially defend this idea of a Christian nation,” said Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at Indiana University and coauthor of the book Taking America Back for God.

Mastriano’s platform is not dissimilar from that of his opponents. He supports gun rights, charter schools, and lower taxes. He opposes vaccine mandates and abortion.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in the 2022 Pennsylvania primary election

But Mastriano communicates with a fervor on certain issues that often sets him apart. He brought buses of supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6. In his first 100 days as governor, Mastriano says he would “immediately end all contracts with compromised voting machine companies” and push to enact various voting restrictions.

After a draft opinion published by Politico on Monday appeared to show the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, Mastriano reiterated his support for legislation that would effectively ban abortion after about six to eight weeks. He has said he will “do whatever it takes to end the barbaric holocaust of abortion happening in our state.”

And his campaign seeks to transform politics into religious experience — megachurch-like events draw hundreds if not thousands of supporters, who join together in prayer, song, and entertainment. A key campaign aide — Vishal Jetnarayan — is a pastor and founder of a Christian publishing company.

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to interview requests. When an Inquirer reporter showed up at a campaign event in Lancaster County last month, two security guards asked him to leave. A printout of his photograph and those of other journalists was visible at the check-in desk. “We’re not very trusting of reporters right now,” a campaign representative said.

Mastriano, who worships at a Mennonite church, has said he does not identify as a Christian nationalist, telling the New Yorker last year, “Is this a term you fabricated? What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?”

Yet to Philip S. Gorski, a sociologist at Yale and coauthor of the The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, Mastriano is perhaps the “most purely distilled version of a Christian nationalist politician I’ve run across.”

These bona fides are on display at rallies and in his rhetoric — from the shofar-blower on stage at his campaign launch, to the biblical allusions built into his mantra to “walk as free people,” to calls to action like “Let’s rise up and secure our state.” Mastriano often invokes Esther, the biblical Jewish queen who saved her people from slaughter by Persians, casting himself and his followers as God’s chosen people who have arrived at a crossroads — and who must now defend their country, their very lives.

“It is the season of Purim,” he said at a March event in Lancaster, referring to the Jewish holiday celebrated in the Book of Esther. “And God has turned the tables on the Democrats and those who stand against what is good in America. It’s true.”

» READ MORE: Get to know the 2022 candidates for Pa. Senate and governor

Mastriano has been featured at events with leaders of a charismatic strand of Christianity known as the New Apostolic Reformation, which places an emphasis on “spiritual warfare” and portrays its opponents as literal demons. They see the shofar as a spiritual weapon.

“It’s really quite radical stuff,” Gorski said. “This is increasingly people who are using metaphors of warfare and violence and, you know, in some cases are readying themselves to engage in actual violence for the sake of their political and religious visions.”

‘Seed of a nation’

Mastriano, a military historian, often puts Pennsylvania at the center of a historic struggle. In his telling, William Penn’s vision of a land unencumbered by the whims of a monarch has been under assault.

“He established our great state to be the seed of a nation where you can come here and live your life as you see fit, not as some governor or king saw fit,” Mastriano said when launching his campaign in January. “The dream was snatched away from us by a governor drunk with power.”

Some supporters, in turn, place Mastriano himself in that story.

Mastriano has attracted a devoted fan base: In March, he reported collecting more than 28,000 signatures to get on the ballot, far exceeding his rivals.

He’s also drawn criticism from faith leaders who say he twists scripture to fit his politics.

“The senator’s interpretations of scripture and [Martin] Luther’s actions in the Protestant Reformation are taken out of context to serve his political agenda,” read a 2020 letter from local Lutheran leaders in the Gettysburg Times. And Jewish organizations in his district sent an open letter to PennLive objecting to the appropriation of Jewish symbols at his campaign launch — the shofar and the prayer shawl, or tallit.

Ira Beckerman, a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg, which signed onto the letter, said it was disrespectful for Mastriano to use sacred Jewish symbols as “campaign props.”

When criticized, Mastriano has said his opponents are not on the side of God — another move from the Christian nationalist playbook.

“We can completely discount their allegations, because they have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof,” Mastriano said of the Lutheran leaders who criticized him. He even questioned the Christianity of a Breitbart reporter who wrote that Mastriano might have been violating the law by campaigning without a formal campaign committee.

Historically, both major political parties in Pennsylvania have nominated mainstream candidates with broad appeal in statewide races. But in a fractured Republican primary field with nine candidates on the ballot, Mastriano could win the nomination with a fraction of the vote.

While most of the top-tier GOP candidates are largely relying on big donors or personal loans, Mastriano has received the most support from small-dollar donors. The average amount is $206, according to the most recent data, the lowest among the top five contenders. He had 3,446 unique donors — about the same amount as his top four rivals combined.

Mastriano casts himself as a political outsider, emphasizing how little time he’s spent in office, a point that resonates with supporters like David Molony, 68, a Lehigh Valley acupuncturist. “The rest of the field,” he said, “is fairly lackluster.” The other candidates are “normal politicians, rich guys trying to do their thing,” he said.

Peter Sneeringer, a 40-year-old from Adams County who contributed almost $29,000 to the state senator’s campaign, said: “Mastriano is not a RINO,” shorthand for Republican In Name Only.

Predicting the enemy’s moves

He spent more than 30 years in the Army, working as an intelligence officer, a job he described as “trying to predict what the enemy was going to do.” He served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and in Afghanistan, and retired in 2017 as a colonel. He earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of New Brunswick and taught at the U.S. Army War College. He wrote two books, including a 2014 biography of Sgt. Alvin York, a World War I hero and devout Christian, which was criticized last year for its factual inaccuracies. The University of Kentucky Press, the book’s publisher, has said it will issue a corrected version this year.

Mastriano ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018 and was elected to the state Senate the following year. During the state Senate campaign, his opponent highlighted Mastriano’s promotion of anti-Islam content on Facebook, such as an article titled “A Dangerous Trend: Muslims Running for Office” and a meme that said Islam “wants to kill” gay rights, Judaism, and Christianity.

“I don’t know of any politician that brings up faith like he does.”

Ray Kreider, 68, Mastriano supporter

His profile started to grow early in the pandemic, when he built a following by speaking at “reopen” rallies, blasting Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions, and hosting regular fireside chats on Facebook from his home. (Though his Republican rivals are now resurfacing statements he made in March 2020 calling for a rollback of privacy protections for COVID-19 patients.)

He gained national attention — and high praise from Donald Trump — in the aftermath of the 2020 election, as he pushed the lie that the election was stolen from the former president. Mastriano hosted a November 2020 hearing in Gettysburg during which Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani aired baseless claims of voter fraud — and Trump himself famously called in. Mastriano also participated in a plan to send a pro-Trump slate of electors to Washington, according to the congressional committee investigating the Capitol attack.

He used campaign funds to bus people to Washington for the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. He has said he and his wife left the Capitol grounds before the riot ensued, but video footage appears to show them among a crowd passing through breached barricades set up by police to keep rioters at bay.

His supporters say they respect his military history, his crusade to overturn the election, and his emphasis on Christian values.

“He involves God in everything he does,” said Ray Kreider, a 68-year-old retired truck driver outside a “Pennsylvania for Christ” Mastriano campaign event in Lancaster County last month. “I don’t know of any politician that brings up faith like he does.”

Though Mastriano has said “God is central to my decisions and my worldview,” that wasn’t always the case. He has said he was “not raised in a strong Christian family,” but when he was a teenager, a student invited him to a youth group called “The Way” — where an “on-fire youth pastor” led him to God.

His wife, Rebbie, grew up in a more religious household. Her father, Ellis “Bub” Stewart, worked for a Hermitage-based Christian nonprofit, Bill Rudge Ministries, for 20 years.

“There came a point where … [Mastriano] took his faith like I took my faith — beyond just a label and an identity,” said Rudge, the nonprofit’s founder, who has known the Mastrianos for 30 years and attended their wedding. Rudge, 69, described the couple as “very kind” and “people of integrity.”

While Mastriano was in the Army, the couple invited Rudge to speak at military bases. In an interview, Rudge said he addressed Mastriano’s unit in Nuremberg, Germany during a chapel service before they deployed to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1. Mastriano would often pay for Rudge’s expenses.

“He was just the kind of person that made you proud to be an American,” Rudge said.

In Mastriano’s telling, the country he defended overseas is now under threat from within. But the country has been through dark times before, he said at the Gettysburg “Patriots Arise” event in April. “God is good. … God is really working in our state,” he said. “I know things are dark. I know it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to win on May 17.”

When Mastriano finished his speech, Francine Fosdick presented him with a gift she called the Sword of David, inscribed with the words “for God and country.”

The gift was appropriate, she said, because of the “warfare” that both Mastriano and his wife have had to wage. “You’ve been fighting for our country, and you’re fighting for our religious rights in Christ Jesus,” she told him.

“Oh yeah,” Mastriano said, holding the sword. “Where’s Goliath?”

-Staff writer Aseem Shukla and news researcher Ryan W. Briggs contributed to this article.