This past weekend, I visited the “mask-free” worship service of Global Vision Bible Church, led by charismatic Trump-apologist, Greg Locke. And I managed to wear a mask, without getting kicked out. In fact, I was invited to stay late to help fold up chairs after the service, which I gladly did. The people were nicer than I anticipated that they would be. But the theology was worse than I could have ever imagined. It is clear that “Christian nationalism” now has its own delta variant.
I had plenty of pushback. Some folks thought it was picking a fight, and reminded me that many of the folks who attend these services come armed and ready for a fight, why encourage them? Others questioned if attending the services would simply legitimize the fringe-group or give them more of a platform or airtime than they deserve. I get the concerns. My mom probably made one of the best challenges to my decision to attend the service, reminding me that Tennessee has snake-handling churches which also have bad, even deadly theology, but I’ve never felt the need to attend one of them. She makes a good point . . . except that the only person whose life is at stake in the snake-handling churches is the one handling the snakes. Not so at Global Vision Bible Church – there are many lives at stake as the church insists on hosting “mask-free” services.
I thought it might be a couple of hundred people, bigger than most of our snake-handling churches but not nearly as big as our megachurches, and I was right about that. The service was held in a big top, old school red and white candy-cane-striped circus tent. I was guided to a parking place by a very friendly man with a security vest on. And I was boxed in, so I wouldn’t be able to leave even if I wanted to.
After much prayer and reflection, I had resolved not to disrupt the service, no matter how bad it got, despite Jesus’s own decision to flip tables in the temple. After all, I’m not Jesus, and while I’m willing to take up my cross, I’m not looking to be a martyr. I did, however, decide to not be subtle with my message (being an evangelical at heart), and I wore a mask with the words “Love Thy Neighbor” on it. I also wore a shirt that said, “Black Lives Matter To God” since one of the many troubling things I’ve heard from Mr. Locke is a total discrediting of Christians concerned about systemic injustice or the residue of slavery and racism. And I wore a large metal cross, made from the barrel of a gun. One of the things I am convinced of is that the cross and the gun offer us two very different versions of power: one says that there is something worth dying for, and the other says there is something worth killing for.
I chose an entrance where I saw a smiling face, a kind greeter welcoming visitors. She welcomed me with the same smile, even with my mask on. But it wasn’t long before two security men, with earpieces in their ears, came to talk to me. They asked me if I had a medical reason for wearing a mask. I said yes, which was honest: I believe we all have a medical reason to wear a mask, which goes back to the great command of Jesus inscribed on my mask itself, “Love Thy Neighbor.” Even after the conversation with the security guards, I got a fist pound and a warm welcome.
As people settled in I couldn’t help but notice the wide array of messages on shirts, hats, tattoos, and bumper stickers. It’s something evangelicals are passionate about, “spreading the word,” and we are well equipped with a multi-million dollar Christian industrial complex to assist us in bearing witness. And hey, I had my message unashamedly displayed on my body, too.
But these were different.
Seated in front of me was a man in a shirt with two guns crossed over each other with the words: “Born to Protect the Second Amendment.” Another hat said “All Aboard the Trump Train.” There were MAGA hats and shirts, and even a MAGA spinoff- “Make America Godly Again.” There were Jesus shirts with Bible verses, patriotic shirts with the stars and stripes, and lots of shirts that blended the two. Despite Greg Locke insisting that he is not tied to either party, I sure didn’t see a Biden shirt in the crowd, only Jesus and Trump. And, I appeared to be the only one with a mask, feeling a little like the kid who was told it was a costume party when it really wasn’t.
As sweat began to drip a little in the summer heat of the circus tent, ushers handed out fans with the words “Fan the flame of revival” on them. Slides scrolled on the screens announcing an “Ironman” event for men and other retreats and upcoming events. One of them is a visit from Christian worship leader Sean Feucht who has embraced the title given him by Rolling Stone magazine: “Jesus Christ Super-spreader,” priding himself off of maskless revival services, even stooping to sell “Superspreader” t-shirts on his website. Sean would be joining Greg for a big tent “American Revival” on August 28th. More on that later . . .
Worship kicked off with songs very familiar to me, what we used to call “contemporary worship” back in the 1990s, with a few classic hymns thrown in like “How Great Thou Art.” The worship leaders were young and hip, one of them had a hat on that said “Edge” which I assumed was a wink at U2 guitarist “The Edge,” but am always cautious when it comes to pop-culture references, as my wife says I am not as hip as I sometimes think I am (she also informed me that “Edge” is also a professional wrestler).
Nothing I’d seen so far was that surprising to me—even the guys who had guns strapped to their hips as they worshipped the “Prince of Peace.” I expected all that.
Here’s what was surprising, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say it, even though it may ruffle a few left-leaning feathers. I understand why people are drawn to Mr. Locke.
He entered the room, giving away hugs and high-fives with an authenticity that shocked me. From the moment he entered the room, he had a down-to-earthiness about him that lasted until the last person left the service. I watched as people showed him photos of their children, as he prayed with grown men in tears, and as he waited in the heat until the last person in line had a chance to talk with him, including me. He genuinely seemed to care for his people, as he said, perhaps unknowingly quoting Pope Francis, he was a shepherd that “smelled like his sheep.”
As Mr. Locke took the stage to the song “Our war cry is praise,” his opening words stirred the crowd: “Protestors ain’t going to stop us. Vandalism’s not gonna stop us. Death threats are not going to stop us.” He started with some in-house stuff before the sermon. Their property had been vandalized on Saturday night, again. Apparently, that happened before, when they had Roger Stone visit as a guest “preacher.”
Among the graffiti messages and property damage, someone wrote: “Your lies cost lives” on the wall and “FU” on the pulpit. And Mr. Locke was livid. For me, it was the latest reminder of how unhelpful tactics like that are, even if I can understand the anger behind them. Hate only fuels the fire of hatred, or in this case, it adds conviction to the idea that there is a persecution of Christians coming “like the world has never seen.” Locke cleverly took the “FU” and spun it on its head saying that now it stands for “Fired Up” and even his biblical mandate to “Forgive You” which he tossed to the cameras as if the culprit were watching. He took back the FU from the one who sprayed it. This was one of the first times I smiled, despite my most determined attempts not to. Good thing I had a mask on.
Still, in his pre-sermon remarks, Mr. Locke built up anticipation as he announced a major decision they were making as a church. They were about to upgrade to an enormous 3000-person tent (massive burst of applause). But parking was an issue, so they were also purchasing all the land in the immediate area – 9 acres which would be used for parking (giving them a total of 16 acres). They were ready to sign the deal for 1 million dollars and had 2 weeks to raise it. This is when I began to realize that this is very different from the snake-handling churches which are a dying denomination (no pun intended). They are dwindling out like an old campfire, but this thing seemed to be taking off like the wildfires out west. And it has the potential to do its own unimaginable damage.
Mr. Locke made it clear that they are not about money or extravagant spending, and I believe him on that one. After all, they don’t even have a building, only a tent. He told the endearing story of an event that he just spoke at that took up a “love offering” of $10,000 for him – which he committed to donate to the church as the first offering gift of the morning. I found myself smiling again as he gave a little jab to the televangelists and the millionaire pastors with their Lear jets – as he mentioned his rented house and joked about his “1992 Bubba Truck.” As he described his philosophy on honorariums for speaking, I found it uncomfortably similar to my own: he doesn’t have a price and seems to believe that there is something wrong with charging a bunch of money to preach about a man who tells us to give it all away. As if that were not enough, he celebrated a Bishop from India who was visiting and happened to be sitting in front of me. He had the Bishop, who had founded 10 churches in India, stand, and Greg announced that he felt God compelling him to tithe from the 1 million they were raising for the parking lot. They would be giving $100,000 to the Bishop. He said it with what seemed to be genuine tears in his eyes.
But then came the sermon.
It began in Exodus, with the story of God rescuing the Hebrew slaves from their bondage to Pharaoh – Exodus 14. I’m very familiar with this iconic story, which has inspired so many enslaved and oppressed people over the centuries. But it was uncomfortable to hear it in the context of an audience that is 99% white, and who seem convinced that they are victims of an oppressive empire, persecuted by the federal government under the leadership of a Pharaoh named Biden.
Several times he mentioned running Joe Biden and the “Demon-crats” out of the revival tent if they showed up. And I believed him, though not convinced they’d make it out alive. Just as God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, Locke continued, so God continues to harden hearts. Of course, he named names: Biden, Pelosi. “Cuomo is out! Newsome is next!” he shouted with a kick of the leg.
Multiple times, Mr. Locke claimed that the election was stolen and that Trump won. In his words, “That doesn’t make me a terrorist, that makes me a Truther.”
Immediately after saying, “The Left hates the Church,” he unconvincingly assured everyone that he is not partisan: “Republicans and Democrats are two heads of the same snake–My loyalty is to Jesus.” He went even further to placate those who might be concerned that his presence at Trump rallies or the Jan. 6 insurrection crossed a line and politicized Christianity. “I ain’t never got up at a political rally and preached about Donald Trump. I preach about Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. He’s the sweetest name I know.” The place exploded. And my head was spinning.
This is where I begin to identify a few distinctive ways this “delta variant” of “Christian” nationalism diverged from its predecessors. Let’s call it “the new American revival” since that’s the language many of them use. The incongruities they are attempting to hold together, like opposing magnets, are impossible to reconcile. I’ll name three of them.
First, the new American revival insists that it is not partisan but that it is “all about Jesus,” even as they simultaneously say that Democrats are demonic and Trump is God’s messenger.
That’s the first thing that hit me as very different from most previous iterations of the “religious right.” They were unashamedly in bed with the GOP. And most of them didn’t even deny their partisanship, despite the glaring contradictions between the values of Jesus and those of Trump. I think back to Jerry Falwell, Jr. in 2018 where a reporter pressed Falwell to reconcile his fidelity to Jesus and to Trump. This was his response: “I don’t look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.”
The new American Revival genuinely seems to be delusional or in denial about its partisan bias.
I went to Greg’s service fully prepared for a Trump rally, which it was. But I was not prepared for it to simultaneously be a Jesus rally. I remember watching Trump speak a few years ago at Falwell’s university, one of the largest evangelical schools in the country, hardly even mentioning the name of Jesus as he made his infamous reference to “two Corinthians.” In the recent past, it is not unusual to hear Trump-evangelicals speak at churches without even mentioning the name of Jesus a single time. I noted one 12-minute sermon by Trump-evangelist Mark Burns where he mentions Trump’s name 20 times without once uttering the name of Jesus.
Not so with this new American revival. They seem to be convinced that their love for Jesus can easily be merged with right-wing politics and conspiracy theories, though it is noteworthy that the text of the Sermon did not come from the Gospels. At one point Mr. Locke even mentioned “the red letters” of the Gospel, referring to the words of Jesus often highlighted in red, for which the movement I am a part of is named, “Red Letter Christians.” This is what makes this delta variant even more confusing and dangerous than its predecessors.
For years, my friends and I have insisted that mixing Christian faith with a political party is like mixing ice cream with cow manure – it doesn’t do much damage to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream. In fact, I co-authored an entire book entitled Jesus for President on this very theme. More recently, it seems clear to most people that Jesus and Trump are like opposing magnets – you can’t hold them together, no matter how hard you try. I’m still convinced of that. But this new delta variant of “Christian” nationalism, led by folks like Greg Locke and Sean Feucht, sure hinges on the hope that opposites attract.
The problem is every mention of Jesus seems to be by name only, turning Jesus into a mascot rather than a model for life. Or to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “Just as God created us in his image, we decided to return the favor.” That’s how you end up with a version of Jesus that prefers an AR-15 over a cross.
It becomes nearly impossible to actually reconcile the teaching of Jesus with the policies and rhetoric of Trump-defenders. It’s hard to obey Christ’s command to love our enemies, and simultaneously prepare to kill them, despite having crosses and guns in the same big tent revival. And it’s hard to imagine any version of faith that centers the great commandment of “love thy neighbor as thyself” that does not translate into wearing a mask in a pandemic to protect the most vulnerable among us. This is also what makes this new “delta variant” much more dangerous than its original form of “Christian” nationalism.
Greg jumped from Scripture to politics without missing a beat. “It’s amazing how accurate the Bible is for where we are living at this very second.”
He shouted it out: “Let my people go. Let my people go.” That seemed to be a familiar war cry for Greg – “they” are coming for us, but God will deliver us just like God delivered the Hebrew people. God will deliver us from communism. And from the liberal agenda. “There is a book called Exodus because they found the exit sign and they got out,” he said. And so can we.
Bridging the centuries from Exodus to 2021 required some theological gymnastics, but the parallels he made were not the least bit subtle. Mr. Locke pointed out that God led the Israelites to a specific place where they were to camp (through a “stuttering prophet with nothing more than a hickory stick”), and then he boldly claimed the tent and hill God had called them to in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. This would be their refuge.
The obvious stretch was seeing things like mask mandates as religious persecution, but America’s idolatry of individual rights over the common good has made fertile ground to see any inconvenience as persecution. I’ve often thought, Wouldn’t it be great if churches were the last places to reopen because of how obsessed we are with loving our neighbors and protecting the most vulnerable? While masks were not an issue in the Bible, loving your neighbor and protecting the vulnerable is one of the Bible’s most consistent themes.
Pastor Greg sees it pretty differently. Referring to the Israelites in Exodus who considered going back to Egypt, Greg made it clear, “They would rather die as slaves than live as free people. I can promise you one thing – I’m gonna die free before I ever die a slave to the government.”
Here’s where I saw the second distinguishing mark of this new delta variant of “Christian” nationalism: faith over fear. They say they are all about celebrating “FAITH over FEAR” – as the words on the banner in front of Global Vision proclaimed in all caps –and yet it is fueled by apocalyptic end-times theology and is convinced there’s imminent persecution coming “like the world has never seen” and mask mandates are just the beginning. Multiple times, Mr. Locke mentioned that what has begun as a lockdown of public worship services during the pandemic is just a foretaste of what is yet to come. We are getting ready to see is not a lockdown but a “shut down.” The government is going to try to shut down the church. On Twitter, Greg put it plainly: “We have a 1st Amendment right to worship. If that’s impeded upon, we will invoke our 2nd Amendment right and meet you at the door. We will not be bullied. To be clear, that’s a fact not a threat.” Hence the guns.
Greg certainly set himself up to walk in the lineage of Moses leading them out of the empire with “nothing more than a hickory stick.” He put it like this: “I have a choice as a shepherd. I can protect the sheep. Or I can open the gate to the wolves and let them all go to the slaughter. I can warn you, and protect you, and love you, and sometimes have to shear you, or I can put my stick down and let the wolves devour you and take your kids.”
The irony is hard to miss though. Choosing faith over fear means refusing to wear a mask because God will protect you, but you still need a gun. And I don’t need to speculate about whether people had guns in the service last Sunday, I saw them (they were hard to miss).
Just as Trump and Jesus feel like clear opposing forces, like magnets that push against each other, so are the forces of love and fear.
As a committed Christian, I am convinced that “Perfect love casts out fear,” as Scripture promises. We have a choice, as individuals and as a country, between love and fear. When fear motivates us, as is happening on so many policy issues like guns and immigration, we do really terrible things. And any theology that is fueled by fear rather than love is bound to be toxic.
The compelling force at work in this new American revival seems to be that “they are coming for us.” It is not a coincidence that this new “delta variant” of nationalistic theology comes on the back of the first Black President, a racial justice awakening in the Black Lives Matter movement and the changing demographics of Congress and of our country in general. Some folks like Tucker Carlson are less subtle about their fears of immigrants replacing “us.” Or as the Unite the Right marchers in Charlottesville said, “Jews will not replace us.” There is a white fear, white fragility, and white nostalgia that is the underlying force behind much of the current theology, and policies; but that fear gets covered up by a militant, masculine battle call.
Many will say it’s all about freedom, but it’s really about power. And on the back of one of the greatest racial awakenings since the 1960s, equality can feel like persecution to those who have been privileged to hold the power. Many of those who say, “Make American Great Again” are really saying “Make America White Again.” White evangelicals are losing power, and that is what Donald Trump promised to change, and in many ways delivered on. It is also what the devil tempted Jesus with: “all the power of the world.” As much as many folks will insist that they are choosing faith over fear, perhaps the real choice is between fear and love. Perfect love casts out fear. As I listen to American revivalists, I hear a lot about fear but not as much about love, at least not the love I see embodied in Jesus and displayed on the cross, a love so powerful that it would rather die than kill.
Finally, the last distinctive contradiction I recognized as I attended Global Vision and as I look at the new American revival, is this: they love America, but hate the government. With the not-so-subtle parallel of Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites, Greg made it clear that the government forces, the helicopters, and the tanks, are coming for the Church. “Huge soldiers, trained military assassins” were sent to destroy the people of God by the “wicked governmental leader,” Pharaoh (or Biden). And now they are coming for us.
Just as Pharaoh had chariots and horses pursuing the escaping slaves, the federal government has tanks and helicopters, and they are coming for the church. In the words of Greg Locke, “They are going to attack the church this year like never before – not lockdown but complete shutdown; Wake the crap up. They are gonna shut down churches in this country. . . It’s not going to be lockdowns, it’s going to be lock-ups . . . They will roll helicopters and tanks up into this parking lot.” He went on to talk about a new initiative of Homeland Security to track domestic terrorists like the people responsible for the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6.
Mr. Locke not only denied the insurrection, as many extreme right-wing conspiracy theorists do, he also defended it. According to Mr. Locke, January 6 was “not an insurrection.” He goes on, “I was there. I am not ashamed that I was there. I’m not apologizing that I was there.” And he is surprised that Homeland Security is monitoring domestic terrorism and white supremacist religious extremism.
This too is a divergence from much conservative evangelicalism which often quotes Romans 13 to say that all authority is established by God and needs to be respected. In many ways, it has been used to give a blank check to the government. Jeff Sessions used it to justify putting kids in cages on the border, and Trump-apologist Robert Jeffress used it to say that Trump had God-ordained authority to use any amount of violence he wants to, including nuclear weapons. But this new “delta variant” is more suspicious of government, perhaps that’s just because of who’s in the White House right now. There is little talk about submitting to the authorities and a whole lot of talk about going to jail and refusing to comply with federal mask orders.
Let me pause just to say that I am a firm believer in the rich tradition of civil disobedience. As St. Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” It is as much our duty to disobey the bad laws as it is to obey the good ones. Our country has been shaped by civil disobedience, from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad. “If a law is unjust,” Thomas Jefferson said, “a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”
And people of faith in particular have a rich history of going to jail for Jesus. The Bible is a subversive book, after all, filled with folks who confronted the powers that be. Yes, Moses told Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace for defying royal orders. Daniel ignored the orders of King Darius and was tossed into a den of lions. The early Christians were called “enemies of the state” by the Romans, and many followers of Jesus, accused of “defying Caesar’s decrees,” were jailed and martyred. Jesus himself was executed by the state.
So Christians at their best have always had a precarious relationship with power. I stand in the great tradition of holy troublemakers like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Daniel Berrigan, Rosa Parks, Franz Jägerstätter, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, all of whom broke bad laws.
I’m no stranger to handcuffs myself. I’m proud to say that I lost track of my arrests somewhere after 20. Along with dozens of my Christian friends, I have gone to jail for defying anti-homeless laws, calling our legislators to take action on gun violence, challenging current immigration policies, standing against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, putting our bodies in the way of executions. Every time we go to jail, as the legend John Lewis used to say, “We smile in our mugshots because we know that we are on the right side of history.”
One of our most effective arguments in court has been that we are simply exercising our religious freedom. We’ve argued that feeding the homeless, providing sanctuary for refugees, and putting water in the desert for immigrants are all essential acts of our faith. And we have won in court, over and over.
I believe in religious freedom, and I’m committed to continuing to defy the government policies that violate my faith. But the quarantine restrictions are not among them.
The role of the governing authorities is to protect people, and in the case of quarantine restrictions, that is exactly what our government is trying to do. When the policies of our government are destructive of life, we should defy them. When the policies of our government are protecting life, we should respect them.
As for the First Amendment, James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” once said: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty.” One person’s freedom can encroach on another person’s right to live. Mask mandates are not about religious freedom. They are about neighborly love. More important than the First Amendment, as important as it is, is the Great Commandment, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
I’m all about the good trouble and revolutionary love. One of the things I cling to from my evangelical upbringing is a willingness to protest the things that are wrong (after all half, the word Protestant is “protest” and our history is filled with it). So at face value, I love Greg’s fire: “We don’t escape this without some jail time, without some fines, without some bruises and scars. We are not going back to Egypt. We are going forward. When they put us in jail, we’ll go forward. When they sue us, we go forward . . . ” But then, as all good things can be distorted by the devil who is always a liar, it starts to sound like the Bundy militia in Oregon, especially as he begins to point back to the text in Exodus: “When all hell breaks loose, and it will, there will be a place of refuge right here under this tent. Right here.” Just as God protected the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army, so God will protect the faithful remnant of the Church from the American government.
He ended the sermon, with an awkward pivot to praise America–a reminder that this is certainly a version of American nationalism, but it’s not your grandparent’s version. The new revivalists love a romantic, mythical idea of “America” but are fully prepared to confront the police or the national guard like we saw on January 6. That’s what makes this version of “patriotism” so peculiar, as we remember the Capitol police beaten bloody with the American flag in hand.
“The whole world is counting on America right now. Because when America falls, we are the last bastion of freedom and capitalism. Our friends all around the world are counting on America to stand and fight for what God gave us because the government gave me none of it. God gave me all of it.”
I know many folks will discount this new American revival as something we should not pay much attention to, like a snake-handling church in West Virginia. But I’m convinced that this militarized “delta variant” of Christian nationalism is one of the most dangerous threats both to democracy and to orthodox Christianity. It is not just a fringe movement, it is a new American revival and there are thousands of people who are fanning the flames of this revival.
Some will say that Mr. Locke is just a performer in a circus tent. To that I offer Greg’s own response to NPR when he was asked if he sometimes gets caught up and carried away in the moment, saying things he didn’t mean to say. His response: “I don’t get caught up in the moment. What I say creates the moment.” He knows what he is doing.
I am convinced that this new American revival has the potential to create many more “moments” like January 6. Let us never forget that people lost their lives that day. And they were not just Trump flags at the Capitol as blood was shed – they were also Jesus flags and Confederate flags. And when the insurrectionists took over the Capitol and stood in the Senate chamber, this is the prayer they prayed, led by the QAnon shaman with the Viking horns:
“Thank you Heavenly Father for gracing us with this opportunity… [removes horns]… to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights. Thank you Heavenly Father for being the inspiration needed to the police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation not theirs, that we will not allow America, the American way, the United States of America – to go down. Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent creator God for filling this chamber with your white light and love, your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and that love Christ. Thank you… for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you, in Christ’s holy name we pray.” Amen.
Sitting there last Sunday morning, I thought to myself with a heavy heart, the QAnon Shaman’s prayer on January 6 could serve as the liturgy of the new American Revival. But it is a dangerous liturgy, a deadly theology, a blasphemous distortion of Christian faith. And it is a danger to our democracy.
When I met Greg after the service, he was very kind, even as he told me that he recognized me. I confessed to him that I am very disturbed by many of the things he says. In the Spirit of Matthew 18, where Jesus says that if our brother or sister is missing the mark, we are to talk directly with them – that is why I came to the service. I made sure he knew that I have no allegiance to either party – I did not endorse Trump or Biden. I’ve thrown all my chips in with Jesus. It is my love for Jesus that causes me to be so concerned about what is happening under the big red and white tent there. He grabbed me and gave me a hug. I gave him my cell phone number and told him I’d like to talk and to pray.