I’m waiting to wash my hands in a beige-toned ladies’ room in the Southern Evangelical Seminary’s headquarters in Matthews, which is just outside of Charlotte.
A middle-aged woman standing at the sink, sporting a tailored skirt suit and a stiff helmet of hair, is telling another woman her life story: she’s from Missouri, but she moved down to Charlotte for work. She snaps shut the latch on her designer bag.
“So I was down there protesting the city council vote,” she’s saying. “They didn’t listen to us, but they will listen to God.”
“Amen,” says the second woman, gleefully stomping a high-heeled foot and raising her hand in the air.
In North Carolina, bathrooms aren’t just bathrooms anymore. They’re battlegrounds in America’s culture wars, and these womenattendees of a conference hosted last week by the state chapter of the American Pastors Network, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that raises money for Christian ministriesare on the front lines.
The conference, billed as a “roadmap for renewal,” wasn’t explicitly political, but the undertones weren’t difficult to spot. They weren’t even undertones. All the old Moral Majority chestnuts were out on display: abortion is like the Holocaust, gay marriage is unconstitutional, and immigrants are just fine so long as they love Jesus.
And there was this handout, touting “the case for Christian involvement in the culture war”: “Born-again/Evangelical voters were 24 percent of the electorate [in 2012] and while 79 percent voted for Romney, 20 percent voted in defiance or ignorance of clear Biblical teaching of the God whom they profess to follow, voted for Barack Obama, the most anti-Biblical, pro-abortion and pro-gay president in history.”
It’s true that conservative Christian voters have been a powerful electoral force in North Carolina and elsewhere for decades. And while their influence is waning as the nation becomes more diverse and secularPew researchers found that between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78 percent to 71 percentchurch leaders are getting savvier about how to engage self-professed Christian voters who hold conservative views. Part of that strategy includes appealing to their preoccupation with social issues like abortion and gay marriage, their reverence for the founding fathers, and their self-perception as a persecuted subset of the population.
But on a practical level, conservative pastors are researching and mobilizing their congregantsand anyone else they think will be receptive to the cause. Once identified, these people are bombarded with tailored messages on everything from Israel to gun control. And then they’re asked to promise to vote, registered, and eventually taken to the polls.
Faith leaders are also appealing to one another to take political messages to their pulpits, to create homeschooled “disciples” so that their congregants’ childrenunsullied by the public school systemwill perpetuate the Christian worldview, and even run for office themselves.
“If God is calling you to run for office, run for office,” George Barna, who founded a marketing research group that polls people about their beliefs, told the conference’s 150 attendees. “We are in dire straits. That is obvious to me. There are so many things you can do to inform your people. You’re the best alternative to the media.”
With the ever-present backdrop of House Bill 2 lingering over North Carolina, these were culture warriors being called to battle. And for a cool $40the American Pastors Network has an annual revenue of about $2 millionI got an inside look at the religious right’s plan to take America back despite the changing cultural currents.
In sum, it goes like this: the message isn’t the problem; mobilization is. As Barna told the crowd, twelve million Christian voters weren’t registered to vote in 2012. Another twenty-six million stayed home. Barack Obama won by just 3.5 million votes.
So they don’t need to moderate their positions on LGBTQ or abortion rights. They just need to voteand if enough of them do that, they’ll be able to impose their version of America on the rest of us.
Shocked gasps reverberated around the room.
Those inspired women who were with me in the ladies’ had just heard a sermon from Paul Blair, a former offensive tackle for the Chicago Bears, now a pastor and candidate for Oklahoma state Senate. With his symmetrical facial hair, megawatt teeth, and tan, Blair looks like a more buff version of George Michael.
Through a group called Protect Life and Marriage OK, Blair says he is working on a model for Oklahoma to be the first state in the nation to fully outlaw abortion by “redetermining licensing standards” for doctors.
“We will jerk the licenses of doctors who perform abortions,” Blair says to applause. Indeed, the Oklahoma Senate passed a bill last month to do exactly that. And several other states already place onerous requirements on clinicians who perform abortions or require them to have admitting privileges to nearby hospitals. So this is a plan already in motion all over the country.
Blair outlined a second proposal “to launch national resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obgerfell decisionthe one that legalized gay marriage last yearin a magazine interview that was circulating at the conference. The premise is that the federal courts have a “limited scope of jurisdiction,” according to the U.S. Constitution, and that God grants people their rights, not the government. Therefore, if the government violates those God-granted rights, the people have the right to disobey or ignore the government’s laws.
“The definition of marriage is a closed case, because it was defined by the word of God,” Blair tells the audience, to cheering cries of “that’s right,” “hear, hear,” and, of course, “amen.”
Blair is followed by Barna, who trots out ominous statistics about the state of the faith. Barna’s numbers show that while millions of Americans consider themselves born-again, many of them lie and get divorced and think that a person can have an abortion, get gay-married, or be a Muslim and still make it into heaven. This, in his view, does not bode well for the church’s future.
As we take a midmorning break for muffins and orange juice, the woman sitting next to me asks what I think of the presentations so far. She’s in her mid-fifties and is there with her husband. She wears open-toed leather sandals and offers people mints from a tin of mini-Altoids resting on top of her Bible.
“We homeschooled our kids, so a lot of this really resonates with us,” the husband tells me.
I can count on one hand the number of people at the conference who look to be around my age, in their late twenties or early thirties. The rest are decades older, many probably retired. And while the overwhelming majority is white, at least a dozen African-Americans are here as well, including Pastor Leon Threatt, a candidate for North Carolina’s newly drawn Twelfth Congressional District. Speakers make a point of emphasizing racial inclusivity in the road map for the renewal of Christian values.
“We don’t hear a lot about the black founding fathers, like Wentworth Cheswell,” laments David Barton, a shifty-eyed, gray-haired Texas activist with a fox-like face. (Cheswell, who was of mixed race and was listed in the Census as white, is generally regarded as the first person of African descent to hold public office in America; he was elected the town constable in Newmarket, New Hampshire, in 1768.)
Barton is an “expert in historical and constitutional issues,” according to his conference bio. But his expertise is, at best, debatable. In 2012, his book The Jefferson Lies was recalled; his Christian publisher cited numerous errors. Most modern historians consider Barton, a frequent contributor to Glenn Beck’s radio show, a hackthough that’s not the case in this room.
Christianity has spread to 90 percent of the nations in Africa, Barton laments, but Christian values have not.
“We’ve seen the problems in Africa increase recently,” he says, “like AIDS, corruption, abuse of women, and poverty. AIDS is a direct result of sexual misbehavior, because the way you get AIDS nowadays. It’s not from blood transfusions any longer, but from violating God’s standard of sexuality.”
This claima somewhat gentler take on the “AIDS Kills Fags” rhetoric popularized by Westboro Baptist Churchseems to resonate here. People nod and murmur in agreement.
Christian values are on the wane in America too, Barton says, with divorce up among born-again Christians. That, on the other hand, elicits little reaction from the room.
Barton concludes his sermon with a story about a woman from Bentonville, Arkansas, who ran for a seat on the school board when some members “wanted to do the bathrooms thing”to allow students to use the bathroom that comports with their gender identity, as Charlotte wanted to do.
“She said, ‘Oh no you don’t’ and won the school board seat with thirty-five votes,” Barton says. “School boards are a piece of cake. Recruit the right people and put them in these races.”
We break for lunch, which is catered by Chick-fil-Aor, as a pastor says later, “the chicken of Jesus.”
As I’m scanning the space under a massive circus-style tent for a place to sit, two guys in their early fifties, Keith and John, invite me to join them. John slides me a business card from a Christian college in Kannapolis. It indicates that he is a professor of “peribiblical studies.” I’m not entirely sure what that means.
“You must be here because your husband’s a pastor,” Keith says. “Will you be taking this information back to your church?” I mumble something about wanting to strengthen my faith; luckily, I don’t have time to elaborate.
There’s a burst of music, and a twentysomething kid in a shiny gray suit, black-rimmed glasses, and chin-length hair combed to one side is up on a stage at the back of the tent. A giant American flag hangs beside him.
He’s Nathan Kistler, the son of evangelist Dave Kistler, president of the North Carolina chapter of the American Pastors Network. The younger Kistler, who works for a Christian lobbying organization on Capitol Hill, belts out lyrics over what sounds a whole lot like music from a Disney moviespecifically, “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, but with a “choose Jesus” theme. Kistler’s not a bad singer, but the whole performance is awkward. No one else seems as weirded out as I am, though, and they clap politely when he’s finished. For the next song, a matronly woman who sounds like a classically trained opera singer joins Kistler on stage.
Our hunger sated, we gather back in the conference room for the pastors’ final pitches. Throughout the day, we heard from ten different speakers, including Dr. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, and Sam Rohrer, president of the American Pastors Network. I can’t help but notice that all of the speakers are white men.
One of the afternoon speakers, an educator from South Carolina, uses the Bible’s fall-and-redemption narrative to make a case for parochial education; we hear public education equated with child abuse several times and are told how hard it is to come by a real Christian education, since textbooks tend to be secular. A religious liberties lawyer informs the faithful of their rights: pastors can, for example, endorse political candidates personally, as long as they don’t use church resources to do so, and they can speak directly about legislation from the pulpit. A pilot, Steve Scheibner, describes his brush with death as he, by chance, avoided piloting one of the planes that went down on 9/11.
Yet another evangelist, Sammy Tippit, regales us with stories of his missionary work in Romania and Burundi, urging pastors to reach out to and convert immigrants. “God is moving in Iran,” Tippit says. “Thousands of Iranians are being converted. Churches are popping up all over Turkey for refugees. A German pastor recently baptized two hundred Afghans.”
But the discussion on how the Almighty’s political arm can influence the electoral process is the most enlightening.
Gary Frazier, a self-proclaimed expert on Bible prophecy and current events, lays out “Project 1356,” a scheme to get 1.356 million conservatives to vote in eleven battleground states to try to swing the 2016 election away from likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. It’s implicitly clear that the only viable candidate for these folks is Ted Cruz. Frazier and Blair have already endorsed the Texas senator. Land attended a Cruz fund-raiser and has said that Trump is “a scam.”
Mobilizing voters will involve appealing to thousands of conservatives in these states and getting them to pledge to vote. Once they make that promise, Frazier says, they’ll be more likely to head out to the polls.
It’s worked before, Frazier says. In Alaska, for example, the goal was to get six thousand more conservatives to vote in 2014. Fifteen thousand pledged to vote that year, and more than twelve thousand actually did, helping elect Republican Dan Sullivan to the U.S. Senate.
In 2016, for battleground races in North Carolina, Frazier says the goal is to get more than 150,000 conservatives to vote.
But this pitch seems desperate, a tacit acknowledgement that the church’s influence is in precipitous decline.
During a panel discussion before we broke for lunch, a question arose as to how to engage Millennials with the “Biblical worldview,” presumably the one that says it’s OK to discriminate against people simply for being different.
The speakers didn’t have a good answerother than to “really be Christ-like.”
“If you say you are a Christian and therefore you are Christ-like, you are more likely to befriend and have a relationship with those people,” said Barna. “We need to be attractive enough for them to say, ‘That’s really different, I want to know how they do that.’”
“If you mess up once, they’ll lose confidence in your ability to tell the truth,” another panelist added.
The audience giggled raucously, but it sounded nervous and forced. It was unclear whether they were at a loss as to how to respond or at a realization that, for this generation, the religious right has already messed things up beyond repair.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Rewind AmerIca”