Over the last several years, the United States has seen a dramatic rise in Christian nationalism, a loosely defined ideology that fuses patriarchy, xenophobia, and pretextual economic populism with an overtly biblical foundation and a deep distrust of democracy. This phenomenon has manifested in many ways, but one of the organizations driving the trend is a far-right think tank called the Center for Renewing America.
Several former Trump administration officials are associated with the group, including its president, Russ Vought, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump. Vought led the administration’s efforts to demonize critical race theory, including removing anti-racism training from federal agencies. He is a regular guest on Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Pandemic and on Fox News. His organization is one of several far-right groups under the umbrella of the Conservative Partnership Institute, whose top officials include former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows and right-wing legal activist Cleta Mitchell. Both Meadows and Mitchell were intimately involved in Trump’s attempted insurrection, as were at least 18 other people associated with CPI, including CRA senior fellow Kash Patel, former Trump Pentagon official.
Perhaps the most significant of Trump’s top coup allies is CRA senior fellow Jeffrey Clark, a former environmental lawyer at the Department of Justice who was hired by the think tank in June. About three weeks later, Clark was targeted in a raid by federal law enforcement. Little is publicly known about the investigation into Clark, but it may revolve around his proposal “to send a letter to state officials in Georgia falsely stating that the department had evidence that could lead Georgia to rescind its certification of Mr. Biden’s victory in that key swing state,” according to The New York Times.
CRA works on an array of disparate, seemingly unrelated issues. In addition to CRA-linked individuals’ considerable efforts to justify the January 6 insurrection, the organization has sown doubt about future “election integrity.” Vought has remained at the heart of the anti-critical race theory push even after he left OMB. He is virulently anti-trans, calling trans identity a “contagion” in a 2021 podcast, and CRA has supported anti-trans legislation and opposed laws that would ban discrimination based on sexual and gender identity. Senior fellow and immigration restrictionist Ken Cuccinelli and Vought successfully lobbied counties in Texas to declare that they were under “invasion” by migrants. CRA is also an active participant in the conservative legal community, as exemplified by its senior fellow Mark Paoletta, who prepared Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas for their confirmation hearings. Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Vought celebrated Paoletta’s central role in the court’s rightward shift.
What unites these issues is what Vought refers to as a “biblical worldview,” a concept that has long been prevalent on the religious right and refers to an all-encompassing ideology derived from a conservative interpretation of the Bible. Although Vought eschews the aesthetics of some of the street-fighting Christian fascists who terrorized Pride events in June, he overtly believes the United States should be a Christian nation. CRA’s mission is to “renew a consensus of America as a nation under God.” Vought is signatory to a national conservative statement affirming that “the Bible should be read as the first among the sources of a shared Western civilization in schools and universities.” Most revealingly, in 2021 Vought wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek with the headline: “Is There Anything Actually Wrong With 'Christian Nationalism?'
Vought argues that, no, there’s nothing wrong with Christian nationalism, so long as it’s defined in a circumscribed, non-threatening way.
“Once stripped of its superimposed liberal scar tissue, ‘Christian nationalism’ is actually a rather benign and useful description for those who believe in both preserving our country's Judeo-Christian heritage and making public policy decisions that are best for this country,” Vought writes.
This is a fig leaf. Christian nationalism as it actually operates — sometimes taking the modifier “white” at the beginning — endorses the racist “great replacement theory,” which posits that global elites are fueling non-white immigration to the United States to “replace” white people. The conspiracy theory holds that this upending of power relations will be done through demographic changes, and at the ballot box — which helps to explain CRA’s obsession with “secure borders” and “election integrity.”
For Vought, CRA’s issues of focus are not discrete policy battles. As he made clear recently on a right-wing podcast, he believes the country is in a Manichean war between the forces of good and evil. The battleground is so-called cultural issues, which, properly understood, are liberation movements to end racist and patriarchal oppression, but for Vought they must be opposed at every step of the way.
“These are the issues that if we don’t fight on we lose our civilization,” Vought said. “Critical race theory has to be front and center. Transgender contagion in our schools, impacting our daughters across the country, needs to be a front and center issue."
Vought wants to create an “army” of activists ready and waiting to serve in government who can be trusted to carry out a Christian nationalist agenda. And as former director of OMB, Vought has a unique insight into how to implement a whole-of-government approach to enacting a presidential directive, which is what he did with Trump’s initiative against so-called “critical race theory.”
“When the president says, ‘I want to not fund critical race theory through the federal government,’ that’s involving all of the agencies, and we have to then make sure that the president’s agenda is executed,” Vought said in the same interview.
More broadly, Vought lamented that not enough religious right activists “operate on the basis of worldview.” As a result, less dogmatic “elite Christians” have adopted ideologies that “lack clarity at best” and are “damaging at worst.” Vought wants hardliners in the church and in the public sphere. In the context of running the government, that means replacing career staff with “ideologically committed individuals up and down the agencies.”
That idea aligns with the upcoming plans from the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, who, along with Vought and CRA, spearheaded the broader backlash against critical race theory. As Rufo said in a recent interview:
As we approach 2024, I will be publishing a policy paper on “eliminating left-wing ideologies in the federal government,” using the power of the presidency to fundamentally reshape the bureaucracy with a six-part program targeting budget, content, personnel, grantmaking, and oversight. The idea is to centralize ideological control over the federal agencies in the White House and create a team at the Office of Management and Budget to enforce it. We could easily wipe out a significant portion of the infrastructure for the left-wing ideologies within the federal bureaucracy and within the network of federal grantees and contractors, which would shift American politics in the right direction.
These plans are not theoretical. CRA is one of many hard-right organizations involved in the Heritage Foundation’s 2025 Presidential Transition Project, a coalition of zealots determined to avoid some of the shortcomings and incompetencies of the Trump administration. (Vought is a former vice president of the organization’s grassroot and advocacy arm, Heritage Action for America.)
Vought has made no secret of what he would do if given the opportunity to serve as a Cabinet-level appointee in a Republican administration. He would attempt to eliminate or drastically curtail the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and others.
“We got to get after these agencies we talked about before, the administrative state, big money, EPA, CDC, [and] NIH that's weaponized against the American people and we need to put them on the chopping block before we get to some other things down the road,” Vought said on Steve Bannon’s War Room.
A subsequent Supreme Court decision that drastically limited the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions would likely serve as a template for Vought to dismantle broad swaths of the executive branch’s regulatory authority.
Vought’s antagonism toward the regulatory state extends to aspects of federal law enforcement, but only when those agencies are investigating conservatives for attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Right-wing podcaster Charlie Kirk asked Vought about the Department of Justice’s supposed persecution of conservatives, including his colleague Jeffrey Clark, and how he thought it should be addressed.
“The long-term plan is to structurally change it,” Vought said. “We've got to deconstruct the state that is weaponized against the American people.”
Like other organizations that have sprung up to harness Trumpism in the last several years, CRA’s broad influence remains limited. But its success in promoting the backlash against critical race theory shows it shouldn’t be underestimated, even though that topic may not have had the electoral influence Vought and others have claimed. What’s undeniable is that Vought and his fellow travelers have sweeping ambitions and the zeal of a true believer. They are telling us exactly what they are going to do if they return to power at the federal level, and it is a chilling vision of theocracy and repression.