Laura Brown came more than 1,800 kilometers from Gulfport, Mississippi, to attend the ReAwaken America Tour in Manheim, Pennsylvania. She carried a shofar, a musical instrument used in Jewish religious ceremonies. But this was no Jewish event. She raised the long curved horn to her mouth, took a deep breath, and blew the ancient horn to signal a start to the second day of the Christian, mainly white, mainly Republican rally that is the bedrock of the Christian Nationalism movement in the United States.
About 5,000 people filled seats in a sports complex for two days of politically conservative speakers. Most preached a return of Christianity to the country by electing candidates who embrace Christian policies. Others railed against COVID-19 vaccine mandates, challenged the 2020 presidential election results, or defended the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol while promoting books, videos, podcasts and private health insurance. The main draw is retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who was introduced as “America’s General” and treated like a movie star, signing autographs and his book, and introducing prominent speakers.
Flynn was forced to retire from the military in 2014. Three years later, he became national security adviser to President Donald Trump. Then he resigned after 22 days — the shortest term ever for a U.S. national security adviser — and ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, a crime that was pardoned by Trump.
‘Frightened by their own government’
With 43 sold-out rallies, Flynn told VOA what these crowds crave. “People are frightened by their own government,” he said. “They are looking to see what they can do.”
The speakers offer them one main idea: vote. And vote for godly Republicans. A fiery African American preacher took the stage in a blue suit with a white shirt, red tie and pocket scarf. Pastor Mark Burns, touted as “Donald Trump’s Pastor” brought the crowd to its feet as he said, “Are you ready to go to war for the Lord Jesus Christ? Shout ‘yeeeeeahhhhhhh!’ I’m here to declare war on every race-baited Democrat and every evil scheme that comes from the gates of hell.”
On President Joe Biden, “We got to get rid of him right now,” Burns said. “I’m a proud Christian nationalist. … Are there any other Christian nationalists here?” and he got a thunderous affirmative response.
By the time he was off the stage, he came to VOA’s camera soaked with sweat from his emotional, energetic address. “When people say you shouldn’t be preaching religion from your pulpit, that’s ridiculous,” he told us. “The Revolutionary War was led by pastors.”
Taking an oath to preach politics
A tall, soft-spoken white pastor with a full head of white hair took the stage. The Rev. Bill Cook of America’s Black Robe Regiment called all pastors to the front of the arena to take the “Gideon Pledge.” His wife joined him on stage and held a tall board with six elements. No. 2 was a promise to “preach a minimum of one election sermon prior to every election.” No. 4 was an oath to teach that “voting in every election for the most godly candidates is a sacred duty incumbent upon every person professing faith [in] Jesus Christ.”
Parts of the “Gideon Pledge” appear at odds with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution dictating a “separation of church and state.” Beyond that, churches are designated nonprofit groups that are exempt from taxes and are prohibited from engaging in political activity under that exemption.
Stephanie Robbins spent 10 years with the Internal Revenue Service, the agency responsible for collecting federal taxes, and is now with Harmon Curran, a nationally recognized law firm specializing in tax exemption and election activity.
Crossing the line on the pulpits
When VOA shared the Gideon Pledge with Robbins, she said it is going to “cross the line at some point” and explained why the law is in place. “It’s speech that the government has chosen not to subsidize,” said Robbins, since nonprofits already receive special benefits within the tax code. “That’s why it’s important that they don’t talk about it from the pulpit.”
Flynn told VOA he doesn’t interpret the First Amendment that way. “It means freedom of religion, not Christianity or Judaism, it’s freedom of conscience, to have freedom to believe what you want to believe,” he said.
Pastors argue they do not promote specific candidates. But by directing their congregations to vote for the Christian candidate, Robbins says, in some cases, that can identify one candidate.
Cook said, “The notion of separation as it is portrayed today” would have been actively fought by the nation’s founders because “the members of Congress understood that the church had really founded America, and the pastors were the founding fathers, and they would have started another revolution.”
When asked about the exclusion of other religions, Flynn said, “there’s all kinds of faiths out here” but he pointed out that Christianity is the “largest faith in the country.”
Surveys put Christians at about 64% of the U.S. population, but a Pew Research study shows that if current declines continue, Christians could fall below 50% in the next 50 years.
Another Pew study shows 45% of those surveyed think America should be a Christian nation.
But 77% do not think churches should endorse political candidates.
Meantime, a FiveThirtyEight survey shows 58% think the government should enforce the separation of church and state.
Christians against Christians
Within the offices of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, two women sat at a round table, with headphones on, microphones facing them and laptops open. “Welcome to Respecting Religion,” announced Executive Director Amanda Tyler as she began the weekly podcast with General Counsel Holly Hollman. Tyler called Christian nationalism “a virulent and potentially dangerous ideology … regardless of our religious identity,” and pointed to a Flynn quote of “one nation under God, one religion under God” as proof of him calling for a theocracy of one religion that’s enforced by the government. Tyler translated that to mean to “really belong in America, you have to be Christian, you have to be white, you have to espouse certain political views that can lead to danger for certain people because it creates second class citizens.”
Tyler and Hollman created the group “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” because of what they see as ReAwaken America rhetoric motivating people to political violence. The women have organized counter rallies in ReAwaken America tour cities.
A few days prior, a panel discussion at Georgetown University addressed “How White Christian Nationalism Threatens our Democracy.”
The Rev. Michael Curry, the top bishop in the Episcopal Church, told VOA, “In over 40 years as a pastor, as an ordained [pastor], I have never told folk how to vote because that’s not my job.”
So you aren’t tagged as QAnon
The ReAwaken America tour has also been criticized for being a magnet for extreme right-wing groups. When VOA was emailed tickets to attend the Pennsylvania event as media, the tickets said they were for the “Fresh Roasted Coffee Fest & Expo.” When asked about that, a tour official explained “that’s just so computer watchers don’t think you are QAnon.”
QAnon is a loosely organized right-wing political conspiracy group. A podcast popular with QAnon followers gave away tickets to the ReAwaken America event in Pennsylvania.