PW special report: Religious conservatives showcase close bond with NC Republican leaders

PW special report: Religious conservatives showcase close bond with NC Republican leaders

Gary Miller, field director for the American Renewal Project. (Photo by Joe Killian)

Recent church-based events test IRS rules, court allegations of Christian nationalism  

Gary Miller has a little story he likes to tell about religion and politics.

While serving as pastor at a church years ago, he was frustrated by how long it took to get a building permit. So he ran for city council — and lost by one vote.

“I came back to my people Sunday morning,” Miller told a crowd earlier this month at Cross Assembly church in Raleigh. “And I said, ‘I’d like for everyone who voted for me to please stand’. And those that remained seated, I handed out voter registration cards.”

“I’m not pastor of that church anymore,” he said. “I wouldn’t suggest that you do that.”

The crowd of about 100 at Cross Assembly erupted in laughter.

“But we did get our building built,” Miller said. “And I won the next election.”

The anecdote would be unusual for a Sunday morning sermon. But the event at Cross Assembly wasn’t a Sunday service. Miller, now field director for the American Renewal Project, was addressing pastors at one of the many private church events his group has been holding all across the state and country.

The goal: Recruit conservative evangelical Christians to run for office in order to bring government — local, state and national — in line with their religious principles.

Dr. Michael Bitzer, Catawba College

Though held in churches, the Renewal Project’s recent events more closely resemble GOP political rallies. That includes campaign ads for Republican candidates, explicit endorsements of specific Republicans on the ballot this year, and a special message from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a politician known more for his bare-knuckle brand of conservative politics than his religious convictions.

“It goes back to the Reagan coalition of the modern Republican party,” said Michael Bitzer, professor of history and political science at Catawba College. “Social conservatives got their oats really fed into the Republican dynamic. Republican candidates sought them out, sought to bring in evangelicals.”

The Renewal Project is being embraced by the GOP mainstream that once held it at arm’s length. Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, spoke at two recent Renewal Project events — including the gathering at Cross Assembly in Raleigh.

Whatley was clear about the Renewal Project’s appeal to Republicans in the state.

“You know, half of evangelicals in North Carolina are not even registered to vote,” Whatley told the gathered pastors in the worship hall.

“Think about it,” Whatley said. “You know how to speak in public. You’re great at herding cats. God knows you know how to raise money. You’re perfect candidates!”

Christian citizenship or Christian nationalism?

Many churches once stayed out of politics completely, Bitzer, the Catawba College professor said. At most, pastors distributed literature summing up candidates and their positions with a wink and a nod toward the person everyone knew they preferred. But more overt partisanship — even of the type churches once worried would endanger their tax-exempt status — is becoming more common, he said.

“They’re seeing their power potentially evaporate,” Bitzer said. “They want to hold on to it. And to do so, they need to instill some of their Christian beliefs and values into government policy, going up against the First Amendment and [promoting] the issue of free exercise but [not] the separation of church and state.”

The American Renewal Project, and the candidates it recruits and trains, fiercely reject the notion of a separation between church and state.

“There’s no truth to that,” the group’s founder, David Lane, told the Washington Times of any such separation at the project’s launch in 2014. “The Constitution says the state is to keep out of the church, it doesn’t say the church is to keep out of the state.”

The establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment also prohibits the government from acting in a way that unduly favors one religion over another or gives preference to religion over non-religion — and vice versa.

Lane is frank about encouraging pastors to run for office in the hope they will push the government to prioritize and promote Christianity. The project’s 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.”

Lane made no mention of what that would mean for non-Christian children who attend public schools. Policy Watch reached out to him through the American Renewal Project to ask, but calls and emails weren’t returned.

Extending his religious 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.

“One of these days some nobody – yet conversant and skilled in the Word – will call for religious liberty by reintroducing the Bible, Jesus, the Ten Commandments and honoring God at commencements in the public schools of America,” Lane wrote. “Then we will watch Providence call for ‘punishment executed by angels’ to those who oppose His Word.”

The national group’s state chapter, the North Carolina Renewal Project, has connected with powerful in-state political allies — including former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and his successor, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. The spiritual warfare rhetoric regularly espoused by those two Republican politicians fits well into the Renewal Project’s worldview — including animosity toward the LGBTQ community and calls for Christianity to be central to public life, particularly in schools.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is a frequent featured speaker at Renewal Project events. (Photo: Joe Killian)

Both Forest and Robinson have won popularity with the evangelical church crowds to whom they spoke on behalf of the Renewal Project. A common theme: an America brought low by its racial, cultural and religious diversity and whose only salvation lies in Christian assimilation.

“No other nation, my friends, has ever survived the diversity and multiculturalism that America faces today, because of a lack of assimilation, because of this division, and because of this identity politics,” Forest told a crowd at a 2019 “Celebrate America Service” at the Cornerstone Church in Salisbury. “But no other nation has ever been founded on the principles of Jesus Christ, that begin the redemption and reconciliation through the atoning blood of our savior.”

Robinson was even more explicit last year in a speech to the North Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Salt & Light Conference.”

Those who don’t believe the United States is a Christian nation that should be governed on Biblical principles should leave, Robinson said. That’s a group that includes tens of millions of non-Christian Americans, in addition to Christians who embrace a separation of church and state.

“If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your plane, train or automobile ticket right up out of here,” Robinson said. “You can go to some place that is not a Christian nation.”

Robinson recently returned to that theme during a Sept. 26 speech at Calvary Chapel Lake Norman church in Statesville, condemning those who don’t believe America to be a Christian nation as ignorant of the founders’ intentions.

“Without God there is no United States of America,” Robinson said.

Robinson criticized the “weakness” he said he sees in many Christian churches, calling out megachurch pastors Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes by name. He also lamented that most Christians today don’t have the courage to publicly condemn transgender athletes at sporting events or threaten to forcibly remove books they believe “promote sin to children” from public libraries.

“Christians nowadays don’t want to be right. They don’t want to do God’s will,” Robinson said. “They want to be liked.”

Political experts say calls for Christians to publicly force their religious taboos and doctrines on those who do not share their faith is the definition of Christian nationalism.

That’s a charge to which the leaders of the Renewal Project are sensitive.

“This is an issue of Christian citizenship that we’re talking about,” said Gary Miller, the project’s field director, at the Cross Assembly event. “We’re not talking about Christian nationalism. You’re going to be bullied out of the public square by people who accuse you of Christian nationalism if you simply encourage people to vote. Don’t let them do that to you. This is Christian citizenship.”

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Christian Nationalism and Christian Identity

Christian nationalism’s appeal has been among the subjects examined by polling at South Carolina’s Winthrop University for several years. The university’s latest Southern Focus Survey, which polled 2,275 people in 11 southern states, including North Carolina, posed a series of questions about religion, government and the separation between the two.

The poll found 47% of respondents opposed the idea of the government declaring the U.S. a Christian nation. Just 27% said they would agree with such a declaration, while 26% said they were undecided.

Asked whether the federal government should promote Christian values, 37% said it should, 38% said it shouldn’t, and a quarter said they were undecided.

Forty-nine percent of respondents said the government should enforce a strict separation between church and state. Just 24% disagreed, while 26% said they were undecided.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found self-identified Christians make up 63% of the U.S. population – down from 75% a decade ago.

When asked to self-identify, about three in 10 U.S. adults surveyed said they were atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”

Encouraging people to vote is one thing, state political experts told Policy Watch. Churches across the country and the political spectrum do that.

“Saying that your politics are informed by your religion, that you have a strong religious faith or you are religiously inspired, that’s being a Christian citizen,” said Chris Cooper, professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University and director of the Public Policy Institute.

Dr. Chris Cooper, WCU

“We see churches getting involved in getting out the vote all the time,” Cooper said. “We saw it with ‘Souls to the Polls’ and Raphael Warnock, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, one of the most storied Black churches in America, becoming a Senator from Georgia.”

But the Renewal Project’s rhetoric appears to go well beyond that, Cooper said.

“Saying that we need to have a Christian nation, that our nation should be about Christianity, to promote and enforce Christian values to the exclusion of other religions, that’s the difference,” Cooper said. “That’s Christian nationalism.”

Bending the rules, intentionally

Mark Chaves teaches at Duke University’s Divinity School, specializing in sociology of religion.
In 2020 he co-authored “The Political Mobilization of America’s Congregations,” a study of how churches involve themselves in the political process — and how they’d like to.

Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit churches with tax exempt status from making explicit endorsements of specific candidates, advertising for them, or holding rallies for just one candidate in competitive races.

But some do it anyway, Chaves said — or come as close as they think they can.

“If there are any cases where the IRS is actually going after churches over this, it’s very few,” Chaves said. “It’s pretty low risk at the moment, even if it blatantly violates the tax rules.”

Mark Chaves, Duke University

Part of that, Chaves said, is that some churches — particularly those on the political right — would like the IRS to come after them, which would play into their claims that they face government persecution.

“They would love the attention,” Chaves said.

Still, the number of churches doing outright endorsements appears to be small — just 4% in the national congregation survey that Chaves documented.

“These results probably under-estimate the true prevalence, since we suspect that some congregations and clergy endorsing candidates were not comfortable saying they did so when asked about it,” Chaves wrote in the paper. “Still, it seems that only a small minority of American clergy and congregations have risked IRS sanctions to engage in this sort of explicitly partisan political activity.”

In general, Republican presidents, including former President Donald Trump, have advocated for relaxing or eliminating those tax laws. But there’s an irony in that, Chaves said.

“We found there’s actually a higher percentage of interest in doing endorsements on the left — among churches that identify as leaning liberal and especially Black churches — than on the right,” Chaves said. “The right is just being much more proactive about what they’re doing now.”

Also, Chaves said, there are more total churches that identify as conservative than liberal. Republican party leaders in North Carolina are counting on that as they appear across the state at American Renewal Project events, registering voters and putting their candidates before them.

“There does seem to be an increased politicization of churches and I think that contributes to the polarization we’re seeing in the society, the sorting that we’re seeing in various ways,” Chaves. “People are sorting themselves into churches based on their politics more than before.”

From pulpits to the mainstream?

Fiery religious rhetoric might charge up evangelical Christians and even get them to the polls. But so far it hasn’t led to the political advantages some of the project’s closest allies have sought.

Forest failed to unseat Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, last year.

Two congressmen celebrated by the Renewal Project, Madison Cawthorn and Mark Walker, recently lost GOP primaries to less explicitly religious Republicans.

Robinson had strong ties to Walker since early in Robinson’s political career. But Robinson wound up following the lead of former President Donald Trump and backing Ted Budd in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

As he teases a run for governor in 2024, Robinson has continued to speak at Renewal Project events across the state — including one at which Budd is scheduled to appear on Oct. 24 in Charlotte.

Robinson has also been dogged by criticism of his frequent homophobic and anti-transgender remarks, many of them made from the pulpits of churches across the state. Last year, Robinson faced calls for resignation after telling a church in Seagrove “There’s no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth.”

Robinson later attempted to partially walk back the remarks. He said he was talking about specific books – which he had not mentioned in the speech — and not LGBTQ people in general, whose rights he pledged to protect as lieutenant governor.

But Robinson went further, proclaiming in a speech at a church in Winston-Salem that heterosexuals are superior to LGBTQ people. Same-sex couples can’t conceive children together and do not even serve the God-given purpose of “maggots and cow dung,” Robinson said.

“These [heterosexual] people are superior because they can do something these people can’t do,” he said. “Because that’s the way God created it to be. And I’m tired of this society trying to tell me it’s not so.”

Lane, founder of the America Renewal Project, praised Robinson’s remarks in a video documentary about his group produced by the Washington Post.

“At this point, he’s saying things that need to be said about the culture,” Lane said in the video. “And he said the people who are bringing homosexuality, transgenderism and that kind of filth to public education, that’s going to stop. From the evangelical standpoint and the pro-life Catholic standpoint, that’s music to our ears.”

Winning a GOP primary or a race for a safe Republican seat is clearly possible with that sort of rhetoric. But political experts in the state say it’s less clear whether the conservative churches to whom it appeals can turn a statewide gubernatorial race or a close race for a Senate seat.

“In our data, we don’t see a great silent majority of churches that are looking to get more overtly political,” said Chavez, the Duke sociologist. “But mobilization can make a difference. Maybe they can change that.”