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Know the West

As a plague sweeps the land, zealots see a gift from heaven

Extremist pastors are using the COVID-19 pandemic to push their conservative religious ideologies.

When it became clear that the invisible tentacles of the pandemic would spare no one, not even people in remote North Idaho, the leader of one controversial church knew the word of God could pause for nothing.

So Doug Wilson pivoted. Christ Church — a popular Communion of Reformed Evangelical church in liberal Moscow, Idaho — took things outside, in compliance with social distancing restrictions put in place by Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Sunday services looked like drive-in movies: Wilson preaching on a raised wooden platform in a yellowing field to a line of sedans and SUVs and minivans, parishioners honking their hallelujahs.

The church also recorded indoor services and uploaded the videos to its YouTube page, which has over 870 subscribers. In a recording from April 1, Wilson — a bearded 67-year-old, professorial in a sweater vest and necktie — told those watching that they should not seek a return to normal, everyday, pre-COVID-19 life when restrictions lifted, presumably in May. “In mid-May we will be just days away from Pride month. Pride month. A time of LGBTQ celebrations. Now, is that what we mean by back to normal? … Back to Pride month?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to call it ‘dog returning to its vomit’ month? Isn’t that what it is?”

 

For Wilson, this was typical sermon material. The pulpit is where he talks politics, abortion, the need for wives to be subservient to their husbands, his belief that same-sex marriage is a sin and that Christians have a continual duty to repent. His views have long been the subject of heated debate in Moscow — a college town he intends to be the subject of a “spiritual takeover” — and drawn the attention of civil rights activists. In 2004, the Southern Poverty Law Center profiled Wilson after he co-authored a pamphlet on slavery, characterizing it as a “life of plenty” for Black people. (His co-author was Steven Wilkins, the former director of the white nationalist  League of the South.)

“It’s not the job of the preacher to be a firefighter out in the world. We’re supposed to be arsonists.”

Wilson has never backed away from those writings. Rather, he revels in his controversial profile: In one 2018 video, he casually smoked a cigar while sitting on a burning couch. “It’s not the job of the preacher to be a firefighter out in the world,” he said. “We’re supposed to be arsonists.”

Wilson characterized himself to me as “about as conservative as you’re allowed to be,” but his writings in recent months go beyond mainstream conservatism, revealing common extremist talking points. In March, he said President Donald Trump is in a battle with “the deep state.” In April, he called environmentalists a “pagan death cult.”

Wilson wasn’t alone. In the far northwestern corner of Montana, worshippers at Liberty Fellowship in Kalispell were hearing similar conspiracy theories about COVID-19. There, Pastor Chuck Baldwin said the virus was a fear-mongering device dreamed up by the government to declare martial law. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in a blog post titled “Now We Know How Germany Let It Happen.” “We are in the beginning of a war against our liberties that will not subside until the American people decide, AGAIN, that essential liberty is more valuable than temporary safety.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented extremist religious figures across the Northwest with an opportunity. The virus, the shutdown orders and the resulting uncertainty stemming from a chaotic and contradictory federal response became a tool, a call to arms and a moment to push scientific skepticism, anti-government conspiracy theories and apocalyptic Christian Reconstructionist ideas to fearful people looking for answers.

But leaders like Wilson and Baldwin were not coming up with these ideas on their own. They were spouting ideas that have long existed at the edges of the far right, rooted in a decades-old movement seeking to eliminate the separation of church and state and simply hand the reins of America over to Christians with fundamentalist belief systems. In order to understand both pastors’ reactions to the virus and the subsequent shutdown orders, one need look no further than the founder of Christian Reconstructionism — which advocates for a society governed by Biblical law — and an early defining split within a religious-right think tank he founded, the Chalcedon Foundation.

In COVID-19, its followers appear to have seen a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Dan Winters/High Country News

THE CHALCEDON FOUNDATION formed in 1965, the brainchild of Rousas John Rushdoony, a Calvinist philosopher and the founder of Christian Reconstructionism. Sometimes called “dominionism,” it’s the belief  “that Christians, and Christians alone, are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns,” writes Sara Diamond in her 1995 book Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. Critics have called dominionism “Christian Sharia.” Rushdoony openly stated that homosexuality, murder, adultery and a myriad of other things should be punished with the death penalty. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Chalcedon Foundation as an anti-gay group.

Few scholars are as familiar with the life and work of Rushdoony, who died in 2001, as Michael McVicar, a Florida State University professor of religion. In 2015, McVicar authored Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, a book he compiled after the Chalcedon Foundation gave him unfettered access to Rushdoony’s personal papers.

In his book, McVicar writes about a split within the foundation in the mid-1980s between Rushdoony and Gary North, Rushdoony’s son-in-law and protégé. In the late 1970s, after North took his father-in-law’s teachings in a new, more forceful direction, Rushdoony called him a blasphemer and fired him. North was known for his associations with leaders of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, a conservative Christian lobbying group, and, McVicar writes, pushing “the reach of Rushdoony’s ideas into political and grassroots activism, and the farthest-flung edges of the American Right, ranging from the militia movement to the Ron Paul wing of the Libertarian and Republican party.”

While Rushdoony preferred creating Reconstructionist educational programs and emphasizing the family as the center of life, North took a more aggressive approach, believing Reconstruction ideology “could be accelerated during periods of social unrest and economic collapse.” In 1979, North founded the Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas, where he turned his attention to survivalism, stockpiling guns and producing a newsletter called the Remnant Review, filled with conspiracies and survivalist fantasies, including that Y2K would be the end of society. These and other actions earned him the nickname “Scary Gary.”

“Rushdoony also encouraged his followers to buy guns and gold … but for him it was a much more practical, theological exercise: ‘Be a Libertarian Noah,’ ” McVicar explained over the phone this spring. “Gary North is like, ‘Yeah, sure, Libertarian Noah, but shit will hit the fan in your life.’ ”

Chalcedon, now led by Rushdoony’s biological son, Mark Rushdoony, is still active, and North, now in his late 70s, still blogs. So in the early days of the pandemic, McVicar kept his eyes on what Chalcedon and North were saying about stay-at-home orders and calls for a quarantine to see how evangelicals might draw out marching orders. “They seem to be conceding that it’s real, it’s not the ‘plandemic,’ it’s not this ‘Chinese virus’ conspiracy manufactured in a lab,” McVicar said in late April. “They’re taking it very seriously from the standpoint of protecting families and protecting communities.”

A week or two earlier, as reopening protests were popping up around the country — from Idaho to Michigan, New York to California — news had emerged that many of the rallies were planned and paid for by conservative political groups. McVicar told me he could see the influence of both Rushdoony’s strict biblical views and North’s more doomsday ideas everywhere — even on protesters’ signs.

“Every event is an opportunity to reinstate some kind of Christian order if things collapse.”

“One of the things I’ve seen pop up in this ‘liberate your state’ movement are signs that say ‘Quarantine the sick, don’t quarantine the healthy,’” McVicar said, an idea that comes straight from Rushdoony’s teachings. “Rushdoony is explicit in his reading of (the book of) Leviticus that you quarantine the sin. The sin here is the disease. … You don’t quarantine the healthy because if you quarantine the healthy, it leads to community illness. Because the community can’t function.”

And he noticed more aggressive messaging, too, that reminded him more of North. “It’s an opportunity to make sure your guns are locked and loaded, your stockpile of tobacco and booze and gold dollars are ready,” McVicar said. “Every event is an opportunity to reinstate some kind of Christian order if things collapse.”

AS THE QUARANTINE STRETCHED ON, despite low confirmed case numbers in Latah County, Idaho, where Christ Church is located, Wilson began to push back against the governor’s stay-at-home orders. The church opened its K-12 Logos School in early May, and resumed in-person services, replete with hand-sanitizer and space between seats, but no mask requirements.

Wilson began to think state governors should have taken a more biblical approach to quarantine. He believed that by asking everyone to stay at home, officials had overstepped. “The authority that’s granted is the authority of quarantining the sick, but not quarantining the whole population,” he told me in May. “I believe that has been massively counterproductive and has done more damage than if we’d let the coronavirus run. You’re standing on the oxygen hose for countless small businesses, and you’ve got people who need to feed their families.”

When asked how he would respond to observers who say he’s exploiting people’s fear to further his anti-LGBTQ+, anti-women, anti-abortion agenda, Wilson responded frankly.

“Yeah,” he said. “I am.”

But he said he takes issue with the word “exploit.” “If a minister is saying, ‘Jesus and I want you to buy this product of mine that will protect you from the coronavirus,’ that’s exploitation,” he said. “If you say, ‘Look, the country you grew up in is coming apart. It’s coming unstuck. Let me explain to you why that is, and I’m going to tell you for free’ … that’s not exploitation. That’s simply relevance.”

In Montana, Liberty Fellowship’s Chuck Baldwin — who declined a request for a phone interview and would not answer emailed questions — responded to the pandemic the way North’s teachings might suggest. A glance at his history suggests why.

Baldwin, now 68, has worn suits and ties and his hair combed over to the right for at least three decades. And he’s woven his religion with his politics for at least that long, too. In the early 1980s, he served as the Florida director of Falwell’s Moral Majority, and in 2008, he ran for president under the banner of the Constitution Party, which holds that Christianity is the foundation of the U.S.

When Baldwin moved to Kalispell, in Montana’s Flathead Valley, in 2010, he did so in the belief that “God has led us to the conviction that Montana (along with other Mountain states) is going to be the tip of the spear in the freedom fight,” he wrote in a blog post. Once there, he formed Liberty Fellowship, which meets at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell. From the pulpit, Baldwin decries homosexuality, socialism, communism, welfare, Zionism, the “New World Order,” and anything that requires government oversight. He actively pushes churches to revoke their nonprofit status. He’ll officiate weddings, but only if the couple doesn’t ask him to sign a state marriage license. He talks a lot about the Second Amendment, and suggests people swap out their IRAs for gold.

The particular corner of Montana where Baldwin settled was also home to a wide variety of extremist groups who held similar beliefs about the government, guns and God, like the Militia of Montana and Pioneer Little Europe, a group that hoped to establish a whites-only homeland in the state. Not long after his move, Baldwin also began a long tenure as the chaplain for the Oath Keepers militia, which actively pushes an anti-government agenda.

“We know extremists exploit these situations. They use wedge issues to divide communities and, sure enough, that’s where we are right now.”

But by the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 prompted Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to institute statewide stay-at-home orders, Baldwin was irate that the Oath Keepers weren’t anti-government enough. When the militia’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, penned an open letter to state governors urging them to “be proactive” and institute shutdown orders to prevent the spread of the disease, Baldwin tendered his resignation, accusing Rhodes of “resorting to gross fearmongering and hyperbole” and aiding the government in “attacking virtually every constitutionally protected liberty.”

“We know extremists exploit these situations,” said Cherilyn DeVries of Love Lives Here, a Flathead Valley affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network, which formed in the 1980s to combat hate groups in the state. “They use wedge issues to divide communities and, sure enough, that’s where we are right now.”

The most recent divide in Kalispell started when Baldwin invited Annie Bukacek, a Flathead Valley physician, to speak at his church in April. Bukacek, who sits on the boards of both the Flathead County Health Department and the Montana Shooting Sports Association and is the president of the Montana Pro-Life Coalition, stepped to Baldwin’s mic to whoops and cheers from the congregation. She wore a white lab coat and a stethoscope, but no mask. “At a time where telling the truth is considered a threat to national security, we’re very blessed to have a pastor who tells us the truth,” she said.

“Amen!” voices called back.

Bukacek unspooled an argument attacking media reports about COVID-19 as false, and claiming that the legitimacy of death certificates of those who had died from the virus were unreliable, because pre-existing health conditions could have killed them. The video of her speech went viral. With Bukacek at his side, Baldwin reminded people of his core belief: Government entities cannot be trusted.

Days later, a petition emerged to remove Bukacek from her position on the health board; soon, a second petition popped up to keep her.

DeVries said Bukacek, who has run her Hosanna Healthcare practice in the Flathead for years, is someone local people know and trust. “There’s a lot of people who really like her and feel like she’s smart and courageous, and because she’s a doctor, she has additional credibility,” DeVries said. She sees Bukacek’s appearance at Baldwin’s church as a way to recruit new believers during a moment of uncertainty, to push conspiracy theories on them and, as North suggested, more tightly braid a conservative religious ideology with their politics.

“IT’S DISAPPOINTING,” said Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, a progressive nonprofit working to strengthen inclusive democracy. “Here we are in a moment where America actually needs its leaders to be leaders. People are panicked — rightfully so. People are losing jobs and they’re feeling that economic pressure and don’t know what to do, and need help. And what we are finding is that leaders, instead of leading, are exploiting the fear.”

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And that panic, Ward said, causes people to seek answers. Conspiracy theories are everywhere right now, inserting a constant stream of disinformation into social media feeds. President Trump’s rhetoric hasn’t helped; he’s called the virus a “hoax” and “the Chinese virus,” and at one press conference suggested the injection of household cleaning supplies was a treatment worth exploring.

Meanwhile, pastors like Wilson and Baldwin are seizing the moment. Pushing a story that the government manufactured a pandemic in order to seize people’s rights “takes what are pretty standard responses to pandemics and infuses them with an idea of a dark conspiracy,” Ward said. “It works, because what it seems to do is take someone who might be feeling disempowered, and now places (them) in a central role.

“Now (they) become a warrior,” he said. “A fighter of truth.”

To Daryl Johnson, a former lead analyst of domestic terrorism at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, this was simply a case of extremists doing what extremists do best. “I believe that they will seize upon any opportunity to push their goals and agenda, and this pandemic is just the latest thing,” he said.

“I believe that they will seize upon any opportunity to push their goals and agenda, and this pandemic is just the latest thing.”

During the early days of the pandemic, when millions of people were laid off and many more were staying at home, Johnson said religious extremists found a captive audience — which might explain how Baldwin and Bukacek’s video went viral. “When people self-quarantine, they’ve got free time on their hands,” he said. “You’ve got programming that caters to these things, that feeds into it, leads people down the rabbit hole. (Extremists are) basically using this time period to recruit.”

McVicar sees Wilson and others who march on the path paved for them by Rushdoony and North as arsonists ready for society as they know it to burn. So anytime there’s a tragedy — like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or COVID-19 — they’re poised to strike, ready to use fear to further divide people.

“(The) coronavirus is a gold mine,” McVicar said. “This is morbid, but every death here, every nursing home with an outbreak, every local state and municipality that struggles to manage their ICU beds, every governor who looks lost — every single aspect of that looks like the opportunity for Christian men and women to reassert order.”   

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High Country News. She writes from Portland, Oregon. 

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This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.