How a Powerful ‘Ex-Gay’ Pastor is Chasing the Latino Vote

Latinos for Trump image from VOA News/Wikimedia Commons.

At a mini-mall Starbucks in southern San Diego, I’m staring into my coffee and wondering whether coming here was such a good idea. I have written about the most emotionally fraught chapters of Jim Domen’s life in a column for the New York Times. I did it not to invade his privacy but because by his own account those intimate details are part of what define him as the public figure that he is. Still, as I take in the glow of the late-afternoon California sun reflecting off the Home Depot across the parking lot, I’m on edge. Did I get him right? Will he be angry? Two months ago, he retweeted @realDonaldTrump’s claim that the “FAKE NEWS media”—including the “failing @nytimes”—is “the enemy of the American People!”

A black sedan pulls up and Jim Domen pops out of the back seat sporting a broad smile. He is exquisitely attired in an upscale plaid shirt with a coordinating plaid tie and well-cut navy vest. Every article of clothing trumpets red, white, and blue. Even his socks are Stars-and-Stripes. Trim and athletic, with his short blond hair curled at the top, he radiates a kind of kinetic energy.

“Wow, you look fantastic!” I say. Then I catch myself. I wonder if I’m building some assumption about his sexuality into the way that I am speaking to him. Domen has built a whole new identity and career out of the idea that he is “ex-gay.” I worry that he’ll take offense. But he immediately puts me at ease.

“Thank you for that incredible article!” he exclaims. “I am so blessed by your piece.” He asks for a hug and invites me to dinner, adding that his wife is eager to meet me. In an instant I feel the warmth and charisma that has made Domen a leader in conservative Christian circles in this part of the state.

“Sometimes the Latino pastors call me Jefe,” he laughs, then shakes his head modestly. “But I say, ‘No, please don’t call me that. Because only Jesus is Lord.’”

Domen’s story is an irresistible one for anyone interested in understanding the Christian nationalist movement. A “former homosexual,” as he calls himself, who organizes dozens of events every year that encourage pastors throughout the state of California to engage in local and national politics, his issues are the issues of the movement. But the part of the story that many outside observers don’t get—and the main reason I’m back in Southern California—has to do with those Latino pastors.

The Christian nationalist movement is frequently characterized as a white movement. And for some of the white people in the rank and file of the movement, it is indeed implicitly a white movement. For them, it surely is part of a vision that involves recovering a nation that was once, supposedly, both Christian and white. Furthermore, the movement drives support for a political party that has made race-based gerrymandering and voter suppression a strategic imperative—and for a political candidate who appeals to the racism of many supporters.

But the leaders of the movement can read the demographic future just as well as you or I can. Many of them understand very well that the electoral future of their movement is not ethnically homogenous. They can also see, as some members of majority-white American congregations cannot, that some of the fastest-growing varieties of evangelicalism in America are in the charismatic and Pentecostal vein, and these are explicitly multiracial movements. A number of the more farsighted leaders are therefore making a conscious effort to include and empower nonwhite individuals and groups. At the very least, they are doing what they can to collect their votes.

Jim Domen is one such leader. A California pastor and the founder of a group called Church United, he has built his voter-outreach machine around the idea of racial inclusiveness. Like Watchmen On the Wall, Family Research Council’s pastors network, Church United holds gatherings in which the organization is introduced to pastors across the state. The aim is to get them to engage with political leaders and persuade their congregations to vote their “biblical” values. A substantial number of Church United gatherings are conducted in the Spanish language, and the organization has spawned at least one affiliate, Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego, whose members minister to largely Spanish-speaking audiences.

It wasn’t always this way, of course, and it isn’t going to change overnight. Many of the southern white evangelical groups that remain entrenched in the national leadership of the religious right hail from a tradition that long maintained that separation of the races is central to the Bible’s plan. In the 1959 case Loving v. Virginia, for example, Judge Leon M. Bazile spoke for many of his fellow Bible believers when he argued that God “did not intend for the races to mix.” Yet while the movement’s demands for purity are as intense as ever, they understand that the sorting of the pure and impure now answers to different rules. This gives activists like Domen an opening—not only for redemption, but for a path to political power.

Jim Domen’s remarkable ability to step outside of himself, to shed an earlier personality like an old skin then hold it up to his own contempt—this, too, has ample precedent in a tradition that loves nothing more than tales of souls redeemed for their opposites. His irrepressible drive to share his beliefs, to convert others so that he may believe in himself, is equally characteristic of a religion that is, after all, built to proselytize. But in recent years, at least, the most familiar aspect of the life that Domen has carved out for himself is the strangest one: namely, the way in which his religious, sexual, and personal concerns are inseparable from his politics.

“God wired me for government and church,” he tells me. As Domen fills me in on the details of his life story, he invites me to a pastors’ event that evening, and I promise to meet him there.

Perched on a knoll in a southern section of San Diego, the Ocean View Church is a sturdy, attractive complex decorated in soothing shades of green and blue. From the back of the property, behind the youth chapel, you can catch a distant glimpse of the Pacific. When I arrive at 6:00 p.m., families are gathered around the alfresco buffet, filling paper plates and bowls with fruit salad, ceviche, and ham and roast beef sandwiches. There are a few Anglos in the crowd, but most of the attendees are Latino, and they chat quietly in small groups as they enjoy the evening breezes. The women are dressed in modest yet stylish fashions. The men, most of them pastors, are wearing guayaberas or sport jackets. The conversations around me are all in Spanish.

The event is cohosted by Church United and its affiliated organization, Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego.

A pastor who is among the small number of Anglos at the gathering explains that breaking the news to congregants about the “biblically correct” way to vote can be a delicate business. “They came up in tears and said, ‘I was born in this political party and I’ve always voted in this political party. But now I understand I have to vote on issues.’ Or: ‘My husband has always told me who to vote for. But, before God, I can’t vote for a candidate who believes in abortion.’”

As I head inside for the main event, an usher wearing a crisp black pant-suit greets me. “¿Es pastora?”—Are you a pastor?—she asks. “No,” I respond in Spanish, “I am a guest of Jim Domen.” Her face lights up and she guides me to what I gather is a place of honor in the auditorium. I settle into my seat, eager to witness the work that has made Domen a fast-rising star of the movement.

This essay is adapted from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Christian Nationalism (Bloomsbury, 2020).