Right-wing road show promotes Christian nationalism before midterms

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Attendees are prayed over during a worship and prayer time at the ReAwaken America Tour held at the Spooky Nook Sports Complex on Oct. 21, 2022 in Manheim, Pa.

MANHEIM, Pa. – At the end, after former president Trump called in to energize the troops, more than 100 people lined up to be baptized.

Some had driven hours for the two-day ReAwaken America Tour in the leafy Pennsylvania countryside. Some had paid up to $500 for VIP tickets. They were 5,000 strong, celebratory but angry about where the country is headed. They said they believed the 2020 election was stolen, that vaccines kill people and that America – both its moral and civic foundation – is headed for complete collapse.

Now they were waiting to be baptized in a black plastic animal trough, leaving the water soaked and shivering – newly cleansed soldiers in their war for America.

Since April of last year, the ReAwaken America Tour has brought hardline-election deniers, anti-vaccine doctors, self-proclaimed prophets and conspiracy theorists to enthusiastic crowds across the country. The central message is that America’s white, evangelical Christian way of life is under threat from the globalist cabal on the “woke” left.

The traveling carnival of misinformation merges entertainment, politics and theology and makes the existential argument to those attending: The debate is no longer about Republican vs. Democrat, they say, it’s about good vs. evil. And it’s time to pick a side.

Since its inception, the tour has been denounced by mainstream religious leaders because of its extremist views. Its organizers have been forced to move venues twice – in New York and Washington state – due to community concerns. The Anti-Defamation League has targeted it in a report.

This stop at a sports complex in Pennsylvania was the penultimate of the midterm season organizers hope will result in a “red wave” of victory for Republicans.

“We face a battle in our country,” retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser turned election denier, told the crowd. “I mean, Christianity is under attack. Honestly, it feels like everything is under attack.”

For Johanna Grassia, an artist from Philadelphia, her baptism Friday was the culmination of a two-year journey that began during the pandemic when she fell into a deep depression, began following the ReAwaken tour online and left both the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party. She became a Republican the day that Doug Mastriano – the conservative state senator who is Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor – declared his candidacy in January.

“I feel more confident now,” Grassia said as she emerged dripping from the ice-cold water. “My eyes have been opened.”

For two days, the mostly white, middle-aged crowd at the Spooky Nook Sports complex cheered, prayed and danced, listening to speakers like the former president’s son Eric Trump, pillow company owner and election conspiracist Mike Lindell and Simone Gold, an anti-vaccine doctor recently released from jail after pleading guilty to trespassing during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. They blew ram’s horns. They donned sparkly Trump caps and T-shirts proclaiming “Jesus is my King, Trump is my President.”

Nearly every presenter had something to sell – a book (Flynn), a new health program (Gold), immune-boosting vitamins, blankets that promise to ward off radioactive waves, travel-sized vials of anointing oil, a glittery $500 handbag in the shape of a revolver. Roger Stone – Trump’s former adviser, pardoned after his 2019 conviction for witness tampering and lying to Congress – collected money for his legal fees in a trash bag.

In this world, as Lindell put it, elections are now “selections,” fact-checkers are now “fake checkers,” coronavirus is still the “China virus” and Trump is still the rightful president.

“Does anybody in this room not think that we won Pennsylvania?” Eric Trump asked the crowd, eliciting a roar. “It was the biggest fraud.”

No substantive fraud was found in Pennsylvania or any other state in the 2020 election, despite dozens of claims and court suits; Joe Biden won 7 million more votes than Trump. Nonetheless, the younger Trump brought down the house when he dialed up his dad on speaker phone.

“We love you,” the former president told the crowd, his voice echoing through the hall. “We’re going to bring this country back because I think our country has never been in such bad shape as it is now.”

The chant went up: “Trump-Trump-Trump!”

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Eric Trump calls his father former president Donald Trump onstage during the ReAwaken America Tour held at the Spooky Nook Sports Complex on Oct. 21, 2022 in Manheim, Pa.

After Trump’s remarks, two women – a hairstylist, Nancy, 74, and Sandy, 72, a retired saleswoman – said they came to the event out of a desire for community with like-minded people as well as a shared sense of despair over the direction of American society. Both women asked that their last names not be used due to the sensitive subject matter.

Nancy dismissed the state of the nation with an expletive, adding: “And we have a ridiculous president. Because the liberals are in charge right now, and with the courts? Everything is corrupt.”

Both have battled their mainline Protestant churches over church support of the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ clergy, which they say has had a profound impact on their lives, worsening their feelings of alienation and doom. Sandy left her church all together and now watches services of a small Methodist church on Facebook led by two men who teach the Bible without any of that “new culture garbage,” as she put it.

“The whole fabric of society is being taken down,” Sandy said.

Several former Catholics who waited in line for the baptism also described quitting their longtime churches over covid restrictions. “God doesn’t close,” said Linda Lindsey, 50, of Freeland, Pa.

A growing number of Republicans are embracing the ideology of Christian nationalism, which advocates the fusion of American civic life with a particular kind of white, conservative Christianity, according to Samuel Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and the co-author of the book “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) sells T-shirts that proclaim “Proud Christian nationalist.” Trump-endorsed Mastriano – who was seen at the Capitol on Jan. 6 although he says he left before the riot began – has made Christian nationalist ideology a centerpiece of his campaign, although he has rejected the term. At a recent campaign stop for Mastriano in Pittsburgh, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) urged the crowd to “put on the full armor of God” and “take a stand against the left’s schemes.”

The midterm contests, Perry said, are a testing ground of “whether this Christian nationalist rhetoric will work in competitive elections.”

ReAwaken America is the creation of Clay Clark, 41, an energetic Tulsa-area businessman who previously ran a DJ business and a men’s grooming lounge. He rose to prominence in right-wing circles during the early months of the pandemic, when he and others sued Tulsa to revoke the city’s mask mandate. In 2021, he and Flynn partnered to launch their first conference.

Clark was “pretty much a nobody, this small-time entrepreneur in Oklahoma,” who had made a name for himself protesting against covid mandates, said Katie McCarthy, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which issued a report on the movement last year. The first conference was such a success – attracting a “Who’s Who of the far right” – that the founders rebranded it as ReAwaken America and took to the road, she said.

The tour has now gone to 16 cities, been attended by thousands, draws up to 1 million viewers online and has baptized more than 4,000 “patriots for Christ,” Clark said.

Tickets are pay-what-you can. Most spend between $65-$70, Clark says, meaning organizers just “break even” on the event. But he sells books and T-shirts and has his own legal fees to worry about – he was sued for defamation by a former Dominion Voting Systems executive over Clark’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

“My number one goal is to lead people to Jesus,” Clark said. “When you start paying attention you realize: ‘Wow, there is a God and there is Satan, I should probably pick a side. It’s bigger than Republican or Democrat.”

Mainstream faith leaders have banded together to speak out against ReAwaken America, saying its message contradicts the core teachings of Jesus and of the Christian faith. When community uproar recently forced Clark to move a tour stop from Rochester to Batavia N.Y., the Faithful America coalition of religious groups denounced it as a “toxic, two-day parade of right-wing preachers, MAGA celebrities and QAnon conspiracy theorists” spreading misinformation to thousands “in Jesus’s name.”

“They’re stirring up hatred and paranoia by promoting this idea that America has been corrupted by nefarious entities – the left, LGBTQ, science,” McCarthy said. “Then they tell people to stand up and reclaim what has been lost to fight back against these perceived enemies.”

Many speakers in Manheim, including Flynn, called for spiritual warfare, even as they avoided calling directly for physical violence.

“Are you ready to go to war for the Lord Jesus Christ?” Pastor Mark Burns, a South Carolina minister who was a member of Trump’s faith advisory council, thundered from the stage at one point. “It’s time to take our country back.”

“I’m not trying to talk about physical war, physical attacks,” Burns clarified. “Unless you’re trying to take our guns, that’s something I can’t promise.” Then, he added, “I’m joking.”

Clark said that anyone who advocated physical violence would be immediately removed from the stage. But misinformation flowed unimpeded. There were Doomsday prophets, anti-vaccine agitators casting doubt on all childhood vaccines, and a currency expert who predicted that the American monetary system could collapse by Thanksgiving and that Trump would be reinstalled as president by the end of the year.

“I always tell people that come to the event is that I allow the speakers to speak,” Clark said. “I encourage [the listeners] to ask themselves: ‘Is it fact based?’ ‘Is it biblical?'” He takes little responsibility for the river of untruths, saying that some speakers are not for everyone.

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Former Trump national security adviser and retired three-star Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn greets fans during the ReAwaken America Tour held at the Spooky Nook Sports Complex on Oct. 21, 2022 in Manheim, Pa.

For all the trumpet-sounding and talk of spiritual warfare, when Flynn – known as “America’s General” here – took the stage, his marching orders were more prosaic. He asked the crowd to get involved in local elections and predicted a “red wave” of victory for Republican candidates like Mastriano, who was on the bill but was a no-show.

Flynn and his wife, Lori, recently took poll watcher training, he said, part of his “local action” plan to take over the country for Republicans from the ground up. Flynn was also recently elected to Florida’s Sarasota County Republican Executive Committee, along with a member of the extremist group the Proud Boys.

“Right now, we are at a crucible moment in our country,” Flynn said. “The destiny of this country will be decided … in the next couple of days.”