Depending on where you go and who you ask, Holy Scripture can be interpreted and put into practice in myriad ways, all well-intentioned and in keeping with the spirit in which it was written. But there is one unequivocal and universal truth contained in Holy Scripture for the church: Christians are to be about “loving God, self and neighbor.”
Tragically, late last month, proclaimed church leaders and religious zealots descended upon San Diego County, and twisted this scriptural truth for specific political purposes. In speaking to thousands of vulnerable attendees, this group spewed dangerous falsehood after falsehood about COVID-19 and the 2020 election.
In so doing, leaders abused the very name and message of Jesus Christ, and continued to do immense harm to neighbor after neighbor after neighbor.
The event at a church in San Marcos was the latest stop on disgraced, retired General Michael Flynn’s “ReAwaken America Tour,” a nationwide series of megachurch engagements featuring a who’s who of far-right religious extremists, Trump aides, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and other reckless figures. At every stop along the way, the Christian nationalist tour has left in its wake a trail of dangerous disinformation that leads to bigotry, hate, and, at its most extreme, violence.
A staple of these tour stops, Pastor Greg Locke has made a name for himself by peddling QAnon conspiracy theories from his pulpit, and even kicking people out of his church if they wore a mask. More recently, Locke has taken up the latest cause célèbre among the radical far-right — book burning.
While conservatives took up arms against civil rights books about Ruby Bridges and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Locke held a bonfire outside his church in March and called on worshippers to cast their copies of Harry Potter, Twilight, and other children’s books into the fire.
The reality is, nothing could be further from the loving teachings of Jesus Christ than the anti-democracy spectacle that Flynn and Locke brought to San Diego County. While it’s easy to laugh and dismiss much of the blatant nonsense that was spoken from the stage, doing so perpetuates the pernicious strand of deadly disinformation that the tour helps to spread and further foment.
Disregarding these religious extremists’ gatherings and injurious rants allows their particular voice to be the loudest (and often only) voice: inflicting continued harm upon all of our neighbors across the political and faith spectrum.
As a pastor, it’s my job to speak out, call for an end to the harm being done to our neighbors, and provide the truth.
Top Trump confidantes like pillow salesman Mike Lindell and political operative Roger Stone are also frequent guests at stops along the ReAwaken Tour. Like Flynn, these men are among the worst offenders of spreading disinformation about the 2020 election, lying to millions of Americans about the outcome of the election and insisting without evidence that the vote was stolen.
We know what the implications of that are. Many of the ReAwaken America speakers are the very same people who inspired the deadly Jan. 6 terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol. Several of the attackers have even directly named tour leader Flynn in their testimony, saying he was to blame for their participation in the violent insurrection.
Flynn, Stone, Lindell, and even Eric Trump brought that same “Stop the Steal” message to San Diego County with more Christian nationalist rhetoric than ever. They worked to whip supporters into a frenzy, convincing them that holding onto political power is a holy war worth any cost, potentially fomenting more political violence.
Make no mistake: the ReAwaken America Tour, like Christian nationalism, does not speak for Christianity. On stage were not persons of God but a collection of charlatans and cranks whose only goal is to raise money and seize political power at any cost.
Churches across California should stand united against this injustice, not host its violent, immoral message. Churches across California should proclaim loudly and clearly that we are to be about “loving God, self and neighbor.”
Rev. Melinda Teter Dodge is pastor of community and connection at Los Altos United Methodist Church, part of the Being the Church Movement in Long Beach.