The first thing I saw as we entered the grounds of the ReAwaken America Tour were dozens of signs plastered across the Pentecostal church property saying, “No Guns, No Knives.”
Not the typical Christian revival welcome, but this was no typical Christian revival.
It was August, and I was in the midst of thousands of far-right faithful who had flocked to Batavia, N.Y., halfway between Buffalo and Rochester, for a two-day event. The headliners were Christian nationalist pastors and former Trump official, Michael Flynn.
The ReAwaken America Tour is currently working its way across America to reawaken Christian nationalism, and it will stop just before midterms in Manheim, Pa., from Oct. 21-22, and feature Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano.
As a Christian pastor who went to Batavia at the invitation of deeply concerned local faith communities, the clerical collar and cross around my neck were my passport into this strange world. I was deeply concerned by what I saw.
“The clerical collar and cross around my neck were my passport into this strange world.”
The ReAwaken America speeches touted antisemitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic beliefs in the name of Christianity. Speeches were rife with apocalyptic and polarizing predictions of God’s vengeance befalling a wide range of opponents, including the founder of the World Economic Forum, President Joe Biden, and New York Attorney General Leticia James, who had written a letter to the tour’s local host, Pastor Paul Doyle, voicing concern that this event could spur violence. In the parking lot, I spotted a bus painted with the words “Patriot Street Fighter,” along with an image of a man in body armor with a bludgeon in his hand and the words “Get in the Fight” written in the red font of horror movies.
Booths outside the tent played to peoples’ appetite for conspiracy. As a mother, I was disturbed by a display selling a children’s book called The Plot Against the King — named “King Donald,” who is trying to “Make the Kingdom Great Again.”
These ReAwaken “revivals” are one of the increasing attempts to mainstream Christian nationalism, a radical political ideology built on the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation and must remain that way. The message is taking hold: 61% of Republicans now support declaring the U.S. a Christian nation.
Christian nationalism is not new. It has been present since our nation’s founding. Its resurgence in recent years is buoyed by politicians like Donald Trump, and business and political allies who seek to consolidate power by manipulating large swaths of mostly white Christians, sowing division and discontent. And violence.
Its recycled conspiracy theories have motivated recent deadly domestic terrorist attacks that targeted Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, African Americans at a bible study in Charleston, S.C., and a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., Latinos shopping in El Paso, Texas, and Sikhs at worship in Oak Creek, Wisc.
I could see how Christian nationalism might appeal to people in real pain, some of whom I met at the ReAwaken America Tour. I spoke with a veteran who had PTSD that had failed all treatments except for spiritual healing, which he was now offering to others. To people who are suffering, traumatized by war, and seeing their community economy collapse — as the Rust Belt area of Rochester has — Christian nationalism could offer a potential solution, in the form of both a community and an ideology to address America’s woes.
So politicians and pastors under the ReAwaken America tent are touring the country, preying on the fear and anger of people — often white — who feel like today’s country is leaving them behind.
Which leads me to Jesus, who also did some touring of his own. He traveled the areas most ravaged by the Roman Empire’s economic policies — not espousing hate, but healing and feeding those displaced by the empire’s taxation policy that built an ever-expanding empire and left the masses indebted and displaced.
As the Christian nationalist movement continues to expand, it is critical for Christians to speak out against this misrepresentation of faith, perhaps by joining the Christians Against Christian Nationalism movement. But we can’t do this work in isolation. We must demonstrate commitment to pluralism by building strong alliances across faith communities.
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In Batavia, I was heartened to stand alongside rabbis and Muslim leaders as I reclaimed the inclusive message of Christianity as embracing human dignity for all people. I joined their counterrally and press conference, standing in front of a billboard that said: “Jesus warned us about Michael Flynn’s ReAwaken America Tour: Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Communities are being intentionally manipulated, divided, and conquered along lines of race, religion, and inequality in Christ’s name. This is not what Jesus stood for.
Should anyone confuse Christianity with Christian nationalism, they need only step foot into an event like ReAwaken America. The vitriol will startle them awake.
The Rev. Jennifer Butler is founder in residence of Faith in Public Life and author of “Who Stole my Bible?: Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny.” She chaired President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. RevJenButler.com @RevJenButler