Pastor Ron Tucker took the stage last weekend at Grace Church in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights to deliver a sermon on Romans.
In the first 15 minutes, Tucker railed about antifa, Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, feminism, gun laws, abortion, protesters disrupting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s dinner at a D.C. steakhouse, and promoted the baseless claim that the Capitol riot was a hoax.
“Their woke ideology is separating people into groups and taking our nation apart, and it’s being taught in our schools under the heading of critical race theory,” Tucker said. “The way you get promoted in a woke business is based on your degree of victimhood. If you’re a Black lesbian, you’re at the top of the heap. I mean, would you trust someone to fly your plane just because they’re part of a minority?”
Tucker founded Grace Church, a nondenominational congregation, in 1978. These days, it’s not unusual for him to use his time in the pulpit to unleash a torrent of right-wing grievances and stoke fears of an imminent “Marxist takeover.” But according to some of his congregants, it’s a stark departure from his old preaching style.
“It’s honestly weird because it never used to be like that,” said Emily Lynch, 33, whose family joined Grace Church when she was 5 years old. “I can remember the sermons growing up, and they never spoke about politics. It was a quote-unquote ‘feel-good’ church.”
Noelle Fortman, 23, and her mother had similar early experiences with Grace Church, which they joined in 2010. “It was a pleasant community. It was welcoming and diverse,” she said. “The sermons were just very uplifting, and, you know, biblical.”
Now, instead of talking about compassion and loving your neighbor, Tucker is preparing his 1,500-strong flock for a bloody “final battle” where “the bullets are real.”
In the “weekend resources” section of its website, Grace Church also offers a lengthy list of reading and watching recommendations, including books by far-right commentator Candace Owens and the “documentary” 2000 Mules by the far-right activist Dinesh d’Souza, which promotes baseless claims about fraud in the 2020 election. Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s special downplaying Jan. 6 as “mere vandalism” also makes the list.
“This is not cruise-ship Christianity right now,” Pastor Tucker said in another sermon earlier this year. “We are a battleship.”
“This is not cruise-ship Christianity right now. We are a battleship.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Tucker’s radicalization began, but Fortman said she first started noticing politics creeping into his sermons around the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency. Initially, she said, it was easy to shrug off. Tucker was a trusted pastor and had been a consistent voice in her life for years. Plus, she and her mom weren’t that involved in the church community itself. They came for the Bible stories and the concert-quality music performances.
“He’d start his sermons with this rambling 30- to 40-minute rant that sounded like it was taken straight from, like, Fox News,” she said. “One time we went there, he referred to the COVID vaccine as the ‘mark of the beast’ that we needed to fight against. And I was like, ‘yo, this is crazy.’”
Another time, she saw a Black family get up and leave halfway through one of Tucker’s rants about critical race theory. She began noticing a lot of churchgoers doing the same. At the same time, she began seeing new faces, older and whiter than before. Fortman and her mother both left the church that year.
(In one recent sermon, Tucker acknowledged that he may have “offended” some members of the congregation. “I’ve read your emails. I’ve watched people walk out of church as I’ve gone into the stuff,” he said. But we’re in a “critical moment,” he said, and he’s concerned about the church being taken over by “a government agency called the Ministry of Truth.”)
Tucker did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
This story is not unique to Grace Church. Politics and culture wars have crept into pulpits and pews across the U.S. in recent years. It’s not just the Evangelical church, whose ties to the GOP have been the target of heavy scrutiny for decades. It’s churches and parishes across denominations, state lines, and socioeconomic status.
Christians from around the country who spoke to VICE News said they’ve witnessed their congregations lose focus and slide into Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalists believe that America is an inherently Christian nation and that the nation’s laws should reflect evangelical values. This belief system directly undermines the founding philosophy of the United States: the separation of church and state. It also results in a murky moral framework where right-wing culture war issues—whether its Hunter Biden’s laptop, Drag Queen story hours, or the results of the 2020 election—take on biblical significance.
Trump was hailed by many of his supporters as a God-sent, Christlike figure—despite his reported philandering and habit of using crass language. His presidency ushered in a new era of Christian nationalism in the U.S. A widely cited report earlier this year identified Christian nationalism as the overarching ideology among the mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Far-right members of Congress have since proudly identified themselves as Christian nationalists. One of them, GOP Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, recently decried “this ‘separation of church and state’ junk.” The recent slew of regressive opinions from the Supreme Court have included dismantling the national right to abortion and opening the door to allow Christian prayer in public schools.
At the same time, extremist groups are co-opting the language of Christian nationalism to build alliances, blend into the mainstream, and justify political violence.
The Catholic Church, for example, has sought to distance itself from Church Militant, a far-right organization that claims to be Catholic. QAnon conspiracies have crept into the pews of evangelical churches. Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, a social media platform popular with the far-right, has talked about the need for “Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians to unite against the rise of communism in the West.” White nationalists bearing crucifixes have shown up to abortion-rights rallies. So-called “OrthoBros,” or young, far-right Orthodox conservatives, have flocked to Russian Orthodox churches. And Proud Boys have provided security for Christian nationalist pastors.
Noah Jones, 23, from Dalton, Georgia, was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, the world’s largest Baptist denomination. Jones said he was on track to become a preacher and served as a youth pastor for a stint and as an assistant choir director. He also voted for Trump in 2016.
Jones loved—and still loves—the stories from the Bible. But when preachers started sprinkling in references to Trump while talking about those stories, he felt like something wasn’t right. He became increasingly concerned that church leadership was cherry-picking Scripture to make political points or to promote lawmakers like Trump or Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“I began seeing the way those stories were interpreted and being used almost as a means to—and I don’t say this lightly—but to control people,” Jones said.
Like for Fortman, 2020 was also the breaking point for Jones. When COVID-19 hit, Jones felt that the church was prioritizing politics over people’s health by continuing to hold in-person services.
When Jones and many other members of the community in Dalton—which has twice the poverty rate of the U.S. as a whole—lost their employment as a result of lockdowns, he says the church wasn’t helpful, despite having millions of dollars in the bank.
And when nationwide racial justice protests broke out in response to police murdering George Floyd, Jones said his church turned its back.
“The church was not showing love in any capacity. That’s where I really drew the line, because in my own idea, Christianity is about love, it’s about loving your neighbor,” he said. “It’s about showing compassion to every single person.”
Jones left the church that year, and while he still identifies as a Christian, he said he’s been unable to find a local congregation that adequately reflects his faith.
“It feels to me that the churches in this area are no longer true Christian churches. They’ve morphed into something that’s completely unrecognizable,” he said. “And I don’t think a lot of people know that they’ve been radicalized.”
“Something has happened to these people,” he continued. “I think it’s Fox News. I think it’s social media, causing division among people. And they’re using Christianity as a means to divide people.”
“It feels to me that the churches in this area are no longer true Christian churches. They’ve morphed into something that’s completely unrecognizable.”
Although many Americans might be just waking up to the threat of Christian nationalism, the radicalization happening in pews and pulpits has been happening for years. And faith leaders have been sounding the alarm.
In 2018, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an 86-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based group of ministers, lawyers, and political activists formed a new initiative: Christians Against Christian Nationalism. Thousands of Christian leaders from around the country have since signed onto their mission statement, acknowledging Christian nationalism—described as a “damaging political ideology”—poses a “persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy.” The statement also points out that Christian nationalism “often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.”
“At the time, we felt a real need to provide this resource, because of escalating violence around Christian nationalism,” Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty executive director Amanda Tyler said. The catalyzing event was the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Though there was no indication that the shooter explicitly identified as a Christian nationalist, the combination of references to religious violence, Trumpism, and conspiracy theories in his social media ramblings troubled Tyler.
(The Baptist Joint Committee also co-authored the 2021 report that identified Christian nationalism as the driving ideology behind the Capitol riot.)
A Pew survey conducted in March 2021 found that 21 percent of Christians believe that the federal government should declare the U.S. a “Christian nation,” and a quarter of them believe that the federal government should stop enforcing the separation of church and state. Though these beliefs place them in the minority of Americans, it still adds up to an alarming number of Christians.
The survey also identified a close overlap between support for Trump and a desire to break down the walls between church and state. Seventy-three percent of respondents who believe Trump was a “great” or “good” president also wanted church and state to be integrated.
But Christianity’s embrace of politics has raised a key question: Should these kinds of churches be allowed to maintain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status? According to the Internal Revenue Service, 501(c)(3) status only applies to churches or charities that do “not participate in, or intervene in… any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office).”
The editorial board at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks that Grace Church has crossed a line. The paper ran an op-ed in March noting that the church had shared a flyer on its website promoting two church members in their bids for school board elections. Although the document was eventually removed, the editorial board wrote:
“Federal law couldn’t be more clear. Grace Church has stepped far beyond the boundaries and deserves a thorough review of its tax-exempt status.”
As soon as Trump took office, Jonathan Coate sensed a shift among his fellow parishioners. At that time, he was serving as a youth minister in an Episcopal church in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.
“Typically, the Episcopal Church is one of the last places you’d expect to see a lot of themes of Christian nationalism,” Coate said. “It’s usually one of the more progressive churches, but it’s also got a bit of a legacy. Tucker Carlson was an Episcopalian. Throughout the 50s and 60s, if you were rich, white, and Protestant, there was a good chance you were an Episcopalian.”
Coate said some prominent Republican lawmakers attended his parish. But even still, his church leadership were committed to maintaining distance from the culture wars that began bubbling up during the Obama administration. The approach was, according to Coate, “We will be polite, we won’t intentionally misgender people, we are fine with same-sex marriage, as long as it’s not something our parish has to do.”
The “facade”—as Coate described it—of tolerance, seemed to fade when Trump took office. Coate began to detect some deep-seated resentment from parishioners who felt like they’d been strong-armed into acceptance “under the barrel of a cancel culture gun” during the Obama years. Trump gave them permission to be blunt and bigoted.
For a while, Coate and his wife thought they had a responsibility to stay in the church and be a “moderating force” in the congregation.
But in 2021, they left and sought out a new parish in a different part of town. Two sermons in particular finally drove them away. One was about vaccines, and the other bemoaned LGBTQ rights.
“It was clear that we were no longer pretending to be passive witnesses to culture, we are no longer pretending to be withdrawn from culture. We are suddenly going on the attack,” Coate said.
If someone wanted to adorn their home with Christian nationalist regalia, it wouldn’t take long to find some options. Amazon, for example, sells a pro-police “Thin Blue Line” flag that features Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” On Etsy, there’s a T-shirt that features a truck, an eagle, a cross, and an American flag, with the words “Jesus Take the Wheel.” There’s another T-shirt, offered by a custom shirt company, that depicts Jesus in a suit and a Trump-esque red tie, standing before the American flag, and the words “Jesus for President.”
It’s precisely these types of small examples of Christian nationalism that concern Amanda Tyler and her allies with Christians Against Christian Nationalism.
“Christian nationalism leads to idolatry: worship of the nation over worship of god,” she told VICE News. “It confuses religious authority with political authority and leads people to abandon their theological convictions in service of nationalism.”
For Tyler Stooksbury, a 29-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee, the resurgence of Christian nationalism was inevitable, because so many Christians have been conditioned to celebrate their love of America alongside their faith. He grew up in Baptist churches and participated in megachurch worship bands. But over time, Stooksbury contends, the bedrock of “church and state” philosophy has been crumbling.
“I feel like a lot of Christians are very accommodating towards patriotic symbols in churches,” he said.“It’s not an alarming thing for most churchgoers to see an American flag in church. People are just very OK with a casual level of patriotism in the church.”
Tyler said that while churches have to address the most extreme examples of violent Christian nationalism, it’s important to think of the ideology overall as a “far-reaching threat.” And that means stopping the quiet encroachment of Christian nationalist ideas into houses of worship before they become even more normalized.
Christians Against Christian Nationalism offers webinars and other resources to help faith leaders and believers alike think more critically. They have a list of discussion points, like, “How could a group of people ‘fuse’ or ‘merge’ their Christian and American identities?” and are challenged to “give some examples of persons who are good Americans, but not Christian.” They also offer printable leaflets explaining what Christian nationalism is, for churchgoers and leaders to distribute.
Of all the resources they offer online, Tyler, of the Baptist Joint Committee, said the slide that tends to get the most attention shows an altar draped with an American flag and the Christian flag.
“The reason that image generates so much conversation is that it’s so familiar,” she said.
Jan. 6 raised additional concerns for the group about whether it needs to go one step further and develop deradicalization materials for pastors in churches.
“It’s a long-haul project, it’s not something that we will immediately solve overnight,” Tyler said. “It’s really vital to have resources for people to help name and differentiate Christian nationalism in order to dismantle it.”
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