An anti-Trump evangelical pastor is on a mission to convert the former U.S. president’s most faithful church followers

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Caleb Campbell, a pastor at Desert Springs Bible Church, has attended several Turning Point USA events over the past year.Joe Rondon/The Republic/Reuters

You might think of Donald Trump’s most loyal followers as radicals or patriots, constitutional standard-bearers or confused masses. Caleb Campbell likes to think of them as sheep that have gone astray. He has made it his job to take them back.


Mr. Campbell is pastor of Desert Springs Bible Church in Phoenix. But for much of the last year he has been an undercover man of the cloth, using his pastoral credentials to gain entry into the sanctuaries where faith has been instilled in the former president.

It has given him a privileged vantage point on the new methods being employed as a proxy for politics among some of Mr Trump’s most fervent supporters, who have sought to expand support among clergy and laity alike. demanded.

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Mr. Campbell was introduced to Trump’s meeting at a church, Fellow Christians suggested she attend what he described as a revival program organized by the Phoenix-based conservative group Turning Point.

“I was absolutely horrified and horrified,” Mr. Campbell recalled. He was in a familiar environment: people gathered inside a church singing Christian worship music with prayers and collections of money.

But the person who took him home was not revered. It was Charlie Kirk, a college dropout who became a major conservative disseminator and pivotal figure in spreading and sustaining the new American wave of populist conservatism. He would “talk like a clergyman,” Mr. Campbell recalled.

This includes bringing the Bible to the stage. Mr. Kirk regularly refers to the book of Jeremiah, where verse 29 says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” Mr. Kirk, however, replaces “want” with “demand,” a notion that becomes the basis for him to argue, Mr. Campbell said, “why we have to demand our gun rights and school choice.” have to demand”.

“The text of the Bible certainly has nothing to do with gun rights and school choice,” Mr. Campbell said. “This is ancient Israel in Babylonian captivity.”

Mr. Kirk founded Turning Point USA and TPUSA Faith in 2021, which organized some of the events Mr. Campbell attended. Mr. Kirk calls the separation of church and state a lie, “the church founded this country” and today, “has to rise up in every capacity.” The ambition of the TPUSA Faith is to gather and organize religious leaders, providing them with the resources to “energize their congregations to fight for free people, free markets, free speech, and limited government.”

Mr. Campbell became restless on hearing that message. “What was shocking to me was that people in the room were raising their hands and saying, ‘Amen. Hallelujah.’ He was having a religious experience.

In the year that followed, Mr. Campbell spent more than 1,000 hours immersing himself in that world, watching videos, reading literature, attending a Biblical citizenship class and visiting an upscale resort with 500 clergy, his tab an undisclosed sum. covered by the donor.

He liked what he heard, such as the emphasis on patriotism and honorable service, hard work, and love of neighbor.

He also saw that those principles were being subverted so that this way of life was under threat – whether by ethnic minorities or liberal elites.

“They are afraid that some outsider is going to take over and end their lives. It is the erasing part that is the greatest danger,” he said. He understood Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” call as an “appeal for ethnic protection” under the guise of defending a Christian nation.

In a statement, TPUSA Faith spokesman Andrew Colvett said the organization “condemns political violence. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible and disappointing.”

“The truth is that Jesus himself was an outsider, and all people, regardless of race or background, are very welcome to be part of what TPUSA is building the faith,” Mr. Colvett said. Mr. Kirk said, he cited Bible verses “instructive for modern Christians to be active participants in the welfare of their cities and homes.”

American religious leaders have advocated conservative political activity for decades through the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, and the Christian Coalition.

What sets the new brand of Christian nationalists apart, Mr Campbell said, is the tone and tone. “This is a mean, vulgar grab for power with violent rhetoric,” he said. He grew up a Christian conservative, though he rebelled against his upbringing by becoming a high school neo-Nazi skinhead. “I am aware of what it means to be inculcated with violent behavior,” he said.

Across America, moderate Republicans have fought against electoral denialism and culture war politics within their own party.

“There’s always a danger when you mix politics and policy with prayer,” said Cathy Petsas, a leader of the Arizona Republican Party.

Ms Petsas was the party’s chair in a legislative district that featured icons of modern conservatism including Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor and John McCain. After Mr. Trump disputed his 2020 defeat in Arizona, he began to see a large number of America First followers seeking to become a precinct committee member, a local party official. She met 132 of them for coffee. Roughly half believed Mr Trump was denied victory because of election rigging.

Those conversations often felt like a psychological intervention. “You’ve got all this confusion going on,” she said.

A practicing Orthodox Christian, Ms Petsas was appalled by people praying at party meetings “where they refer to the left as monstrous leftists. It is unconscionable to me, that they are doing this for their political advantage”. Let’s usurp religion.”

Mr. Campbell’s initial efforts to push back were not popular with his white, evangelical and suburban parishioners. His congregation dwindled from 800 people to 300. He began writing a book about engaging the “mission field” of the new religious orthodoxy – and attracting new congregants whom he described as “frustrated if not disgusted by the amalgamation of nationalism and Christianity”. Huh. ,

He has devised a tool kit for winning back souls from the Trump Church. He begins by establishing personal beliefs, without which people resist questioning their own beliefs. He encourages people to fast from media for two weeks. And he invites them to sit at a table with other people who hold different views to discuss hot-button issues like immigration.

They say that there is no use in debating facts and figures. It is better to understand the fear and anger that feed personal beliefs.

It is slow and intense work, but those who have accepted their intervention have expressed relief at the emergence. “People say, ‘I’m not as anxious. My blood pressure is obviously down. My heart rate is slower.'”

However, mending broken relationships with the enthusiasm of the new authority has proved difficult. None of the people Mr. Campbell has worked with would agree to talk. Detractors have called Mr Campbell a fascist, a Marxist and a “leader with a Luciferian sense of fear”.

But Mr Campbell says he is motivated to counter what he sees as a false doctrine of power, which acknowledges political and religious state-building. Such an idea is not new to Christendom, he said, pointing to Rome under Constantine and Charlemagne.

“It is a perpetual heresy,” he said. “It’s just sprinkled with red, white, and blue. It tastes like apple pie.


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