This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
The American Renewal Project—and its state arm, the North Carolina Renewal Project—provides a pipeline for conservative politicians to reach highly motivated Christian voters and activists on the political right.
The group rejects the notion of a separation between church and state. It argues that churches are at the forefront of a culture war, and pastors should run for office to ensure victory.
On Monday former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker tweeted a photo of himself with fellow North Carolina Republicans U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Lt. Governor Mark Robinson at an American Renewal Project event.
“It’s a great way to start the week speaking at the American Renewal Project luncheon with pastors and faith leaders from western North Carolina,” Walker wrote.
As they head into tough elections, the three men are relying in part on the Renewal Project’s conservative appeal. Walker is seeking the highly coveted U.S. Senate seat vacated by Richard Burr. Cawthorn has already drawn four Republican and seven Democratic challengers in his 2022 bid for re-election to the 11th District seat he won in 2020. Robinson is widely expected to run for governor.
The language and stated goals of The American Renewal Project resound throughout the political language, and in some instances the specific policy proposals, of Walker, Cawthorn and Robinson.
A particular theme to which all three men have returned is that of persecuted Christianity and the need to institute religious teaching and principles into all areas of civic life, particularly public schools, which they say should be reformed according to their religious principles or abandoned by Christian families.
Policy Watch reached out to the offices of Walker, Cawthorn and Robinson this week to ask about their relationships to the American Renewal Project and the political positions of its founders and frequent collaborators. They have not yet responded.
Religion, politics and power
The American Renewal Project was launched by founder David Lane in the 2013-2014 election cycle. Its goal, as stated by Lane, is to “engage the church in a culture war for religious liberty, to restore America to our Judeo-Christian heritage and to re-establish a Christian culture.”
Since its founding, the group has worked tirelessly to recruit conservative Christian religious leaders to be more explicitly political in their messages to churches and run for political office.
The push, as embodied by the “Pastors in Pews” program, has been successful. Walker is a high-profile example of the effectiveness of the strategy, part of a large and well-organized movement on the political right for more than a decade.
A former music minister at Lawndale Baptist Church in Greensboro, Walker was a political unknown in 2014. But he emerged victorious from the bruising Republican primary scrum for the congressional seat vacated by political veteran Howard Coble. In a race that pitted him against established Republican officeholders with greater name recognition, Walker positioned himself as a religiously inspired political outsider with connections in church circles that went beyond traditional conservative strongholds.
In the final GOP run-off for the hotly contested seat, Walker was able to best Phil Berger Jr., then the Rockingham County district attorney and son of powerful state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. With support from deep-pocketed donors and a super PAC, Berger dramatically outraised and outspent Walker. He captured key endorsements and showed more polish in campaign events and debates. But Berger still lost to the newcomer, even in his home county.
A key part of Walker’s campaign: barnstorming appearances at churches and religious gatherings across the state, as well as his network of passionate volunteers, many drawn from his years in conservative religious circles. That support won him the primary and helped him to easily best his Democratic opponent in the General Election.
Walker argued that his religious background and connections allowed him to reach across the political aisle and broaden his appeal. But once he was elected , his rhetoric became less conciliatory. The candidate who had decried the coarseness of state and national politics became the congressman who hurled invective at Bruce Springsteen over the rock star’s opposition to HB 2, which prohibited municipalities for passing anti-discrimination ordinances and required students to use school bathrooms according to the gender the students were assigned at birth.
Walker fervently embraced Donald Trump in his ascent to the presidency, assailing not only the Democratic opposition but even other Republicans as insufficiently conservative and loyal to Trump during his single term in the White House.
Taking it to the next level
Robinson’s and Cawthorn’s political careers have followed a similar arc. Even though neither had held public office, Robinson won a statewide race for lieutenant governor, while Cawthorn captured a congressional seat.
Entering politics in the Trump era, neither candidate felt as compelled as Walker to signal he would embrace bipartisanship and unity. From the outset, Robinson and Cawthorn used combative and often religious rhetoric – echoes of the American Renewal Project – that has incited conflict even with their fellow Republicans.
On the night Cawthorn triumphed in the general election against Democrat Moe Davis, he set the caustic tone for much of his congressional tenure with a three word tweet: “Cry more, lib.”
Appeals to the religious right have long been a strong component of Cawthorn’s political identity. In a dramatic video posted to Twitter this week, Cawthorn called on “strong, God-fearing patriots” and “the American Christian church” to “come out of the shadows.”
“Look back into the Old Testament,” Cawthorn said in a speech captured in the video. “Look at David, look at Daniel, look at Esther. Look at all these people who influenced the governments of their day to uphold Christian principles.”
However, each of the names Cawthorn cited were Jewish, not Christian, religious figures.
At the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition’s recent “Salt & Light Conference,” Cawthorn assured the crowd that the “devil” did not yet have complete dominion over Washington, D.C. “I feel a spiritual battle going on Capitol Hill,” Cawthorn said.
Robinson, like Walker and Cawthorn, was a political unknown with a penchant for outlandish statements and a base of support among Christian conservatives. Robinson rose to political prominence following a full-throated defense of gun rights at a Greensboro City Council meeting in 2018, when the mayor suggested cancelling a gun show at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people.
Video of Robinson’s four-minute speech went viral online, racking up more than 3 million shares on Facebook after Walker posted it. In the speech Robinson vowed to “raise hell like these loonies from the left do,” a rallying cry that carried him from obscurity to Lieutenant Governor.
A “Christian nation”
Robinson has forged an even stronger bond with the American Renewal Project than his predecessor, Dan Forest, who headlined a Charlotte event for the group in 2019. Robinson has been the special guest and keynote speaker at private pastor events for the group across the state throughout 2021, including this week’s event in Asheville with Walker and Cawthorn.
At the “Salt & Light” event, Robinson stated that the United States is and has always been a “Christian nation” and invited those who disagree with that premise to leave the country. “If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your plane, train, or automobile ticket right outta’ here,” he declared.
(Robinson is scheduled to appear at another event October 25 in Statesville, November 1 in Willow Spring and December 13 in Winston-Salem.)
Robinson’s political speeches are often heavily religious, frequently in ways that are divisive even in Christian circles. He has frequently contended that Christians are being persecuted in public schools and public life in general, likened LGBTQ people to alcoholics and gambling addicts, and said they should not be allowed to be pastors or to be married in Christian churches.
Robinson’s distaste for LGBTQ people is a major theme of the work of Pastor Ken Graves’ of Calvary Chapel church in Bangor, Maine. Graves, who appears to be in the front row in a photo of the Asheville event attended by Walker, Cawthorn and Robinson this week, is a frequent speaker at American Renewal Project events.
Graves’ speeches and writings, which often center on “men being men,” rail against the LGBTQ equality movement and encourage Christians to stand up to it.
“When we’re being honest, we are conscious that militant homofascism seeks to take over our land and make it Sodom,” Graves has said.
Forest, Robinson’s predecessor, frequently used religious symbolism and talking points, prompting conservative Christians to support him. But Robinson’s rhetoric, and the level of aggression toward perceived political and cultural enemies, far outstrips Forest’s.
With a wide open race governor’s race in 2024—Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term – many in state GOP circles think Robinson has a strong chance at the GOP nomination.
American Renewal Project founder David Lane has been refining and amplifying his message for more than a decade. It’s a religious vision that resonates with politicians like Walker, Robinson, and Cawthorn, who have built on it as they seek to remake state public policy in some fundamental ways.
“Can you picture what America would look like following a decade-long war – a knock-down drag-out – to return God, prayer and the Bible to the public schools?” Lane asked in the 2012 essay in which he announced his American Renewal Project. “To regain our Christian heritage and re-establish a Christian culture?”
Extending his Biblical war metaphor, Lane called for divine punishment for political opponents.
“The message to our federal representatives and senators?” Lane wrote. “Vote to restore the Bible and prayer in public schools or be sent home. Hanging political scalps on the wall is the only love language politicians can hear.”
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