I have good news and bad news. The good news is that, after years of ignoring, marginalizing, or mocking the threat, the mainstream media finally seems to be taking Christian nationalism seriously. In recent weeks, major national outlets have released a flood of stories raising the alarm. Politico wrote about the plan to “infuse” Christian nationalism into a second Trump administration. The Hill referred to the growing trend of Christian nationalism as “a threat of Biblical proportions.” The New Republic covered Christian nationalist plans to “ban abortion and cut LGBT rights” if Trump is re-elected.

The bad news is that, despite the increase in attention, large swaths of the media still do not seem to understand quite what Christian nationalism is, much less how it functions. Their theory of the case – that cohorts of Christian nationalist ideologues are patiently awaiting Trump’s return, so that they may pursue their agenda – is unable to account for the steady forward drudge of the Christian nationalist agenda during the three-plus years since Trump left office. 

Make no mistake, Trump would be a boon for Christian nationalists, allowing them to exercise their agenda on a wider scale than ever before. Trump is not, however, essential for Christian nationalism, and his ouster from office did not cause the ideology’s advance to halt in its tracks. Far from it: in the three years since Trump was removed from office over the violent objections of flag-and-cross-toting supporters, Christian nationalists have arguably made more progress toward their agenda than they did during his four years in office.

Over the past decade, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand how ideas become movements, and how values can turn into laws – an understandable hazard of majoring in moral philosophy before spending a decade running political campaigns. The quest to understand that condensation of ideas into reality is what drove me into politics, and it is, amongst other things, what drives my desire to both understand and explain the forces allowing the agenda of Christian nationalism to advance in a democracy where most voters do not adhere to it.

One conclusion I have reached in this quest to understand is that extreme movements convinced of the absolute righteousness – or even divinely inspired – nature of their crusade, do not view power in the same way mainstream political movements do. And, as a result of that different relationship to the concept of power, these fringe movements – Christian nationalism chief among them in the contemporary American context – build and use their power in ways that traditional political movements often fail to understand or anticipate. Their focus is less on building a broad base of popular support than on moving true believers into places of power and influence; less on controlling the entire apparatus of worldly power than on getting zealots close to certain levers of power, from the local level to the national, and then yanking them.

We saw one of those unexpected outcomes last week, the yanking of one of those levers, when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos used in the process of in vitro fertilization are, in fact, human beings, protected under the law just like you or I. This is, of course, nonsense on its face: if you were to lock a human child in cold storage for months, they would suffer serious consequences – and so would you. Neither is true of embryos. Nevertheless, embryos are officially Alabamans, at least for now.

The ruling was not a fluke. It was the payoff for years of patient strategizing by the Christian nationalist movement; years of moving people like Justice Tom Parker into places of influence, and, from those places of influence, changing the law by means largely outside of public oversight. Very few people were demanding that embryos be deemed human beings – but the ones who were demanding it have spent two decades flooding every bench in the country with as many fellow travelers as possible, and now it’s the law. Without ever so much as courting majority support, Christian nationalists pushed one of their sacred envelopes further than it has ever been pushed before.

While big, attention-grabbing victories like last week’s IVF ruling have helped open eyes to the threat Christian nationalism poses to a pluralistic society, they do little to help those who value pluralism understand how the movement they are up against operates. They appear as black swan events, disconnected from the networks and years of organizing that made them possible. 

To understand the movement, it is crucial to look at the work that doesn’t make the headlines, the work being carried out in small battlegrounds around the country, where determined Christian nationalist organizers and organizations are pursuing dogged strategies not only to claim every piece of cultural real estate left undefended, but to lay the groundwork for future national victories.

I have spent the last year documenting one of those small battlegrounds –  one which has been mostly neglected by the national press corps, despite the fact that the stakes of the battle being waged there could have national consequences. That battleground is Woodland Park, Colorado, where for two-plus years major organizations aligned with the Christian nationalist agenda have worked to turn the town, and its school system, into a laboratory for Christian nationalist experimentation.

It’s a story that has kept me returning to Woodland Park like a bad penny – not because I am fascinated by the characters involved, but because I am convinced that what we are seeing in Woodland Park is bigger than Woodland Park. Because what is happening in Woodland Park is not a pilot project for conquering picturesque little mountain towns; it’s a pilot project for conquering a vital, taxpayer-funded pillar of society that the Christian nationalist movement has long regarded as an enemy: the public school system. 

I have written at great length about the attempt to take over the Woodland Park School District and the town in which it is situated, but it warrants a quick recap.

Everyone who has followed the saga knows when the fight started. It was April 2021, when Andrew Wommack – a controversial charismatic faith healer whose global ministry empire is based in Woodland Park – made a declaration to his flock. 

“Man, as many people as we have in this school here,” Wommack said, referencing Charis Bible College, which he runs, “we ought to take over Woodland Park.” 

So they set about trying. That November, a slate of conservative candidates ran an aggressive campaign to win the majority of seats on the school board. The candidates were not all Wommack-affiliated, but each of them aligned with Wommack’s key vision – that Woodland Park ought to be “dominated by believers” – and all of them were endorsed and supported by Wommack’s Truth & Liberty organization. Their victory, as it turned out, was just the start. Over the next two years, the board put the war into culture war, turning the district inside out one calculated policy decision after another. They banned books, demonized the teachers’ union, cut funding for mental health services, flouted open records and public meetings laws, and did everything within their power to approve and support a controversial conservative charter school

Unfortunately, all of that was prelude. It was not until January 2023 that the Wommack-backed board’s ultimate target became clear: not administration, but transformation. When the board introduced the American Birthright social studies standards for approval that month, it became evident that their goal was not to ensure that the students of Woodland Park received a quality education, it was to ensure that they received a conservative education – and they were going to do so by changing history.

After months spent researching and reporting what was happening in Woodland Park, I still struggled to understand what the ultimate goal was, or why it seemed to be attracting attention from well-heeled national conservative organizations. But the introduction of that last piece of the puzzle, American Birthright, allowed the rest of the pieces to start falling into place. It revealed that what was happening in Woodland Park was not being driven purely by Andrew Wommack – that there were national forces at play, and that the repercussions could be national as well.

A lot has happened in Woodland Park over the past two years, but the shepherding of American Birthright into the public school system trumps all of them – not only in importance and the potential for national ramifications, but in what it shows us about how a small group of determined radicals struck a major blow for Christian nationalism.

A thorough misreading of history has always been central to the Christian nationalist project: a defining trait of people who scholars identify as Christian nationalists is that they believe America to have been founded as a “Christian nation,” to have fallen from righteousness, and to be in desperate need of restoration to its “Christian origins.” More than anything else, those beliefs are what drive and unite the Christian nationalist movement. But the propagation of those central beliefs has always faced one main obstacle: they are not true. 

Generations of Christian nationalists have attempted to circumvent the difficulties presented by the demonstrable falsehood of their core beliefs. They have homeschooled their children, or sent them to private Christian schools which they could trust to teach a shoddy, ideological version of history. And, in some ways, that’s exactly how our free society is supposed to work! We all chip in for a public education system to teach our kids to read, write and recall basic facts about history and science, to equip them for some degree of meaningful participation in society. If you’d prefer something else — an arts-focused private school or a Catholic-run institution — you’re free to do so, but not on the public’s dime. The Christian nationalist movement, though, has long seen the public school system as Enemy Number One (give or take Satan). How, Christian nationalists long lamented, can we win the nation back for Christ when the public schools won’t tell the kids the truth about the United States being a Christian nation?

That is the problem the American Birthright standards were created to solve, and it’s what the past two years of hullabaloo in Woodland Park have been about achieving: the insertion of Christian nationalist ideas into public school curriculum.

The product of collaboration between some of the largest, best-funded, most prominent national entities on the right and religious right – the State Policy Network, the Freedom Foundation, Claremont Institute, Moms for Liberty, and dozens more – the American Birthright standards were created as a Trojan horse which could be smuggled into the school system, in an attempt to co-opt an institution Christian nationalists have long seen as an enemy into a role of unwilling allyship.

The funding relationships behind the creation of American Birthright. Logan M. Davis, 2023, not to scale (source)

The American Birthright social studies standards teach students an alternate view of history, in which Biblical events are treated as established historical fact, the crimes of slavery and imperialism are papered over, and the founding of America is depicted as the culmination of the “Judeo-Christian” worldview. When the Woodland Park school board adopted the standards, they became the first district in the country to do so. Proponents’ goal is that they not be the last.

“Woodland Park,” exclaimed David Randall, one of the chief architects of the Birthright standards, “has just become a model not only for other school districts in Colorado, but also for school districts around the nation.”

 Every time a new district, or new state, adopts the standards, it will become easier for the next district, the next state, to do the same. Woodland Park did the hardest part: they went first. 

So, why am I writing about the American Birthright standards again, after all the ink I have already spilled over them? Because I believe their creation, the foothold they grasped in Woodland Park, and their proponents’ plans for future expansion present an excellent example of how the Christian nationalist movement seizes territory, and how their approach differs from mainstream political movements.

Despite adherents to American Christian nationalism numbering in the tens of millions, many of them situated in the wealthiest and whitest enclaves in the country, they believe themselves to be the scrappy underdogs, fighting against a culture over which they no longer hold hegemony. It’s a belief that shapes how they view power, and how they engage with politics. 

Mainstream political movements focus on building broad bases of support in the general population. They start from the assumption that popular will dictates outcomes in democracies. They believe that, if they win enough people to their viewpoint, they can affect change. The Christian nationalist political movement operates on a different assumption: that the majority of the population will not side with them. Not yet, not until the nation has been “restored” to its “Christian roots.” After all, if the majority agreed with them, they would not be persecuted minorities – and they have already decided that they are.

Operating on this foundational assumption of their own persecution, their own rejection by the majority, Christian nationalists have sought to affect political change in antimajoritarian ways. In recent years, Christian nationalist political organizing, guided by this assumption, has focused on the parts of the American system where power is most removed from the national popular will. Hence, the judiciary. Local governments. School districts. They look for opportunities, places where the ground might be soft enough to sow a seed, and they wait. They wait for the abortion cases to cross their docket, or for the opportunity to cancel the local Pride parade to come before them on city council, or, for instance, the opportunity to take the first, hardest step in smuggling Christian nationalist curriculum into the American public school system. It’s not about cultivating mass support and using it to turn a large ship slowly; it’s about distributing true believers through society, waiting for the iron to get hot, and then supporting them when they strike. 

You don’t have to take it from me: as part of my reporting on Woodland Park’s woes last year, I obtained secretly recorded audio of Brad Miller – a long-time conservative legal operative, and lawyer to the Woodland Park school board – spelling it out explicitly from the stage at a Freedom Foundation convention. 

“We don’t have a majority in a lot of places,” Miller can be heard saying on the recording. “And so, when we grab it, it’s quick.”

“You have to be very cognizant of building a structure quickly but without being too dramatic,” he said.

As Miller expounded on his work through the nearly two-hour discussion, he not only laid out the strategy of striking while the iron is hot, he made it clear that he was motivated in these actions by his distinctly nationalistic brand of Christian faith. 

“I look, for example, in Colorado, the transgender expression laws, and the opportunity that our state has given to children to ostensibly express their gender differently, and I feel like Winston in 1984,” Miller said. “I feel like I’m alone against the world. And the truth is, most of our community is blind to the truth…As a believer, it feels End-Times-ish to me.”

Ultimately, what happened in Woodland Park was that Andrew Wommack created an opportunity – a prominent Christian nationalist leader who held sway over a sizeable bloc of local voters declared his town open for takeover – and a constellation of true believers, national organizations, and political operatives seized that opportunity. 

I’m telling this story again now not because the threat has abated, but precisely because it has not. Even now, the American Birthright standards are being considered for statewide implementation in Ohio. Even now, in a hundred small towns around the nation, including here in Colorado, opportunities are being created and apparatuses are revving into gear to seize them for God and country. Even now, other cases concerning IVF, or abortion, or birth control are finding their way to courts where judges steeped in the beliefs of Christian nationalism eagerly await their opportunity to strike a blow for the Kingdom. 

And even now, amidst all of this, the country’s center-left mainstream remains focused on the shiny objects of national politics, scarcely dreaming that some judge is about to ban IVF, or that the local church might be plotting to take over their kids’ school. Even now, the threat is being underestimated. 

The struggle against Christian nationalism will not be won with an election. Even with Trump out of office, their agenda has advanced on multiple fronts, often in ways that the media, the Democrats, and the broader culture are inclined to overlook. While the mainstream operates as a traditional field army, holding crucial cultural emplacements, advancing battalions slowly in neat rows, it is up against a force of guerillas burning supply lines, fomenting unrest, and recruiting partisans in occupied territory. It is up against a distributed opposition organizing on levels lower than it has considered in years, and it would do well to take them seriously. It would do well to understand how they operate, and, in some ways, to emulate them – to meet them not on the field, but in the pews, in the schools, in the supermarket aisles, to share with them at every opportunity that freedom of religion means freedom for their religion too, but theocracy risks everyone’s. To reach them even while we resist their aims. To tear down superficial boundaries and unite with anyone who will unite with us against the threat to pluralism – like they have done in Woodland Park, where a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, believers, and unbelievers has come together to protect the home they share from those who would make any of them less welcome in it. 

I am relieved that the media is finally taking the threat seriously. Now the organizers need to follow suit. Because while the struggle against Christian nationalism cannot be won with an election, it can be lost with one, and time is getting short. We would do well to heed the lessons of Woodland Park – to learn how to fight supremacy with community, and how to recognize what is being fomented in our midst – before the clock runs out altogether.

A note: Since November, I have been working on a long-running investigation for the Muckraker column, dealing with one of Colorado’s most prominent outposts for Christian Nationalism. I hope to share some of my findings with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime — and as I work on new investigations going forward — I will publish opinion and analysis pieces under my byline.