On Tuesday, December 15, disgraced former Houston Police captain Mark Anthony Aguirre was charged with aggravated assault for running an air conditioner repairman off the road and holding him at gunpoint, actions he took as part of a broader conspiratorial effort to “expose” imaginary “voter fraud” in Harris County, Texas. Having spied on the man for days prior to making his move, Aguirre, a private investigator who was forced to resign from the force in 2002 for excessively aggressive policing, claimed to believe that his target was a voter fraud “mastermind” whose truck would be full of hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots. Unsurprisingly, the number of ballots found in the truck, fraudulent or otherwise, was precisely zero.
If you’re like me, when this story broke, the detail that most stood out to you was that an entity known as the Liberty Center for God and Country paid Aguirre $266,400 as part of its vigilante “investigation” into non-existent election irregularities. We wanted to know who pours that kind of money into conspiratorial efforts that are very likely to escalate into violence, or, to put it more bluntly, what sort of person is willing and able to lavishly fund paranoid ideologues who predictably prove to be capable of domestic Christian terrorism? Because that’s really the only appropriate way to describe Aguirre’s actions.
Asked about the Liberty Center, Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney, Director of Strategic Response for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the author of a recent book debunking Christian nationalist claims about American history said, “I had not heard of the Liberty Center for God and Country until this incident, but its mission statement is a textbook example of Christian nationalism. It’s full of the Christian nationalist lies and fabrications that are so central to the Christian nationalist identity.” That statement reads in part, “We believe in restoring our nation’s Godly [sic] heritage” and “Civil law must be derived from God’s law found in the Ten Commandments, and its purpose is to provide society with order and a foundation for our freedom.”
Like Seidel, I had never previously heard of the Liberty Center for God and Country, which is registered as a not-for-profit corporation. The two men behind it are very public, however, and well known not only in Houston, where they live and work, but to GOP politicians and donors nationally. One of them is Jared Woodfill, a lawyer who became the youngest ever chair of the Harris County GOP in 2002, a role in which he remained until 2014. In 2015, Woodfill spearheaded the “Campaign for Houston,” a successful drive to overturn a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance by stirring up transphobic panic over bathrooms.
As a lawyer, Woodfill also represents Steven F. Hotze, a right-wing radio host and wealthy and locally powerful Republican activist and donor whose efforts to oppose LGBTQ rights date back to the 1980s, and who in July of this year called on Texas Governor Greg Abbott to order the National Guard to “shoot to kill” at Black Lives Matter protesters. A post on the Liberty Center for God and Country’s website attributed to Hotze claims that “President Trump has requested that every registered voter send him a handwritten letter, through the post office [sic], that demands a full election audit of all 50 states” and calls on its readers to do so.
Meanwhile, the center’s Facebook page hosts photos of an absolutely bonkers letter to Trump from Hotze himself, which identifies Hotze as CEO of the Liberty Center for God and Country and reads in part: “The Democrat Communists are thieves who had an organized fraud scheme to steal the election from the American Patriots” [sic]. It also states, “Please find enclosed a letter to the members of the U.S. SupCrt [sic]. Please give it to them.” As Seidel explains, “that shows how entitled… the Christian nationalist mindset is. They view this Supreme Court with Amy Barrett as theirs, not as arbiters of justice, but as working for them.”
Hotze, who seems to be the author of all the content posted on the Liberty Center for God and Country’s website, is known for filing numerous lawsuits on behalf of far right causes, including a recent challenge to a Texas mask ordinance meant to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, about which Hotze claims, the “deep state could have been the ones that orchestrated this whole viral problem with the virus.” A QAnon believer, Hotze has also claimed that Covid-19 “could have been weaponized by China” and has repeatedly dismissed the seriousness of the coronavirus.
But here’s the kicker. Hotze is a credentialed medical doctor, though one who’s widely regarded by the medical establishment as not credible. Through his Hotze Health and Wellness Center, Hotze Vitamins, and his media appearances, Hotze pushes dubious supplements and quack cures such as colloidal silver. In fact, even Trump’s FDA lists Hotze as a purveyor of fraudulent coronavirus treatments. Hotze is also a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which, despite the official-sounding name, is a political group of medical quacks with ties to the John Birch Society, and which retains Phyllis Schlafly’s son Andrew as its general counsel.
Reached for comment, Dr. Marsha Pierce, an assistant professor of pharmacology at Midwestern University, said, “As an MD, Dr. Hotze denies accepted evidence-based practices on a wide range of topics, from his false claims about ‘natural’ hormones having fewer impurities than synthetic ones, which is the opposite of what laboratory analyses find, to his outrageous claims addressing Covid-19 and mask wearing. Simply put, Dr. Hotze’s dangerous claims fall outside of mainstream scientific and medical consensus.”
Hotze would appear to be a true believer in the conspiratorial causes he backs, and he and Woodfill have both suggested the charges against Aguirre are politically motivated. And, while Hotze’s refusal or inability to keep the quiet parts of the radicalized GOP’s ideology quiet occasionally results in denunciations from powerful politicians like Texas Senator John Cornyn, Hotze, who has donated to Cornyn’s campaign and appears in an anti-ACA video with the senator, clearly wields influence in the GOP.
If there’s one lesson to be drawn from all this, it’s not just that the openly conspiratorial and violent “fringe” is never far from the center in the Republican Party. It’s more important to note that we ignore or dismiss the “fringes” of American Christianity and conservatism at our peril—and that of American democracy. If men like Woodfill and Hotze can be so publicly casual about dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on a phony “investigation” that led to terrorism, it’s likely because they believe they will face no consequences for the promotion and funding of conspiratorial efforts that fuel violence. Unfortunately, they’re probably correct in that assessment.