In a Disturbing Trend, Far-Right Candidates are Getting Crucial Support from Militia Groups and Churches

Doug Mastriano, PA gubernatorial candidate who's been attending campaign events “with a non-professional, armed security team” consisting of members of Lifegate evangelical church. Image: YouTube/Providence Magazine

How many local churches are providing direct electoral support to far-right-wing Christian candidates for political office? How many of these churches have members who participated in the January 6, 2021 insurrection, radicalized in part by their pastors’ extreme preaching? How many have members who are prepared to commit further political violence? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but what we do know about the ties between some Christian nationalist churches, far-right political candidates, and members of white supremacist and “patriot” militia groups is enough to underscore the importance of the question. While there’s been significant media coverage of individual cases of close ties between candidates, militia groups, and churches lately, the broader pattern deserves more scrutiny.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about charismatic evangelical Sean Feucht bringing one of his anti-vax, anti-mask “Let Us Worship” concerts to my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, which is often a flashpoint for clashes between anti-fascist protestors and fascist groups, including the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. In my commentary I drew particular attention to Feucht’s enthusiastic recruiting of the far-right street brawlers who plague the Pacific Northwest to form a private security team for his event. One of his tweets at the time, featuring a photo of Feucht and his security team, read:

THANK YOU to our security team (half pictured) tonight in Portland 🇺🇸💪🏽

These are all ex-military, ex-police, private security & most importantly LOVERS OF JESUS & freedom. 

If you mess with them or our 1st amendment right to worship God – you’ll meet Jesus one way or another.

I was reminded of this the other day as I read a new report on Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. According to LancasterOnline, the Christian nationalist, Trump-backed candidate has been attending campaign events “with a non-professional, armed security team” consisting of members of Lifegate, an evangelical church “whose leaders have spoken openly about electing Christians to office to advance biblical principles in government.” The report adds that one member of Mastriano’s private security entourage is Scott Nagle, “who until recently was listed as a regional leader for the Oath Keepers, a militia group founded in 2009.”

Along similar lines, in the immediate aftermath of January 6, I reported on the involvement of Illinois Representative Mary Miller and her husband, Illinois State Representative Chris Miller, with Oakland Christian Church, whose website lists him as an elder. As for Mary Miller, her profile states, “In her spare time, Mary teaches Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.” When I wrote about the Millers, she was being widely criticized for declaring, at a pro-Trump rally the day before the insurrection, that “Hitler was right” about the importance of indoctrinating youth. Meanwhile, Chris Miller was under scrutiny for displaying the logo of the anti-government Three Percenter movement on his truck, which was seen parked at the insurrection. (He later disavowed any knowledge of the movement and claimed he’d just been given the sticker and told it was “patriotic”).

Just before attendees of the January 6 rally stormed the Capitol, Chris Miller stated, “We’re in a great cultural war to see which worldview will survive,” using language immediately recognizable to anyone who has lived evangelicalism as that of presuppositionalist apologetics—a particularly militant rhetorical and pseudo-intellectual approach to the defense of the faith. In the same video clip, he calls Democrats “terrorists.” 

Back here in the Pacific Northwest, far-right politicians have been known to organize in churches. For example, in December 2019, Candlelight Christian Fellowship, an evangelical church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, hosted an event featuring Idaho State Representative Heather Scott promoting an extreme state abortion ban that would have made both those who have abortions and those who perform them legally liable for murder. The church then helped those in attendance send out letters in support of the bill to state legislators. 

And then there’s former Washington State Representative Matt Shea, who wrote a manifesto called “Biblical Basis for War” that argued it was God’s will for Christians to “kill all males” who support abortion, same-sex marriage, “idolatry,” “communism,” or otherwise refuse to “obey Biblical law.” Apparently that didn’t warrant expulsion from his party; it was only in 2019, after a domestic terrorism investigation over his involvement with the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, that he was finally expelled from the State House Republican Caucus. 

Since that time, Shea has become the senior pastor at a Spokane, Washington-based church called On Fire Ministries. This past June two sons of On Fire church members were among the 31 members of a white supremacist group called Patriot Front arrested as they prepared to violently riot at a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. 

While Shea disavows Patriot Front over its explicit racism, he’s been supportive of the far-right Christian group called The Church at Planned Parenthood—though he eventually had a falling out with its founder—which organizes disruptive anti-abortion protests in cities including Spokane and Salem, Oregon. The group is reportedly planning to step up operations in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which means many people in need of abortions who reside in states with draconian bans will be traveling to states like Oregon and Washington. The Church at Planned Parenthood’s events have been known to use Proud Boys for “security,” predictably resulting in violent clashes. Meanwhile, The Church at Planned Parenthood’s founder, Pastor Ken Peters, has founded a network of brick-and-mortar churches known as Patriot Church; he presides over the campus in Knoxville, Tennessee.

That state is also the home of Pastor Greg Locke, a far-right firebrand who fellow pro-Trump Pastor Mark Burns—a failed candidate himself—reportedly tried to convince to run for office. After January 6, Locke threatened, “You ain’t seen insurrection yet.” His megachurch, Global Vision Bible Church, reaches not only those who attend in person, but also reportedly over 100,000 viewers who watch Sunday services as they stream on Facebook Live. Locke and his church influence massive audiences via various social media platforms, even after Locke was banned from Twitter for spreading Covid disinformation. One of those platforms is the far-right-wing platform Gab, where Locke has over 13,000 followers.

Gab is a hotbed of rank antisemitism—a fact that, to bring us full circle, recently caused a scandal for Doug Mastriano, whose campaign paid the company $5000 for “consulting services” and who’s been praised by the site’s overtly anti-Jewish CEO, Andrew Torba. The Tree of Life Synagogue shooter was, not coincidentally, a Gab user. Under pressure, Mastriano eventually cut ties with Gab, but as a Christian nationalist gubernatorial candidate, he remains a threat to democracy.

The point in adducing these examples and tracing their connections is not that most individual evangelical churches have direct ties to groups like the Proud Boys or that they provide direct support for prominent state or national politicians (neither is the case, though most predominantly white evangelical churches undoubtedly at least harbor and enable some degree of Christian nationalist and conspiratorial attitudes among their members). The point is, rather, to emphasize a troubling pattern. 

The nexus between right-wing social media, far-right candidates, explicitly Christian nationalist churches (along with individual Christian leaders), and street-brawling fascists is a toxic mix from which more political violence will undoubtedly emerge in the weeks and months ahead. While documenting individual cases is important, as news cycles move on, they may end up as mere flashes in the pan in public consciousness. We need to see the forest here as opposed to individual trees. 

Every aspect of this church-politician-militia nexus needs to be monitored, and we need to work toward dismantling Christian privilege so that evangelical and similarly right-wing churches can no longer fly under the radar as significant sites of radicalization. Evangelical churches, private schools, homeschooling, and colleges are among the most frequent sources of Christian nationalist and dominionist teaching, laying much of the (pseudo-)intellectual foundation for both the passage of theocratic laws and street-level, vigilante enforcement of theocratic imperatives, no matter how much “respectable” evangelicals may distance themselves from Christian nationalism and insist that they do not support vigilante tactics.

The January 6 insurrection was a grassroots, Christian nationalist event supported and carried out by the Republican Party’s white Christian base—an anti-pluralist, anti-democratic base unmoved by facts and devoted to false conspiracy theories, including The Big Lie—that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. As both influential evangelicals like Sean Feucht and candidates like Doug Mastriano embrace informal security from fascist thugs, and white Christians increasingly accept that violence may be necessary to impose their will on the United States, the crisis of democracy we face comes into ever sharper relief.