An Indicted Faith
As former President Donald Trump got photographed for a mugshot in the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday (Aug. 24), hundreds of people gathered in Las Vegas, Nevada, to sing praise songs and cheer for preachers predicting Trump will win next year’s election. This “Pastors for Trump” event was held as the kickoff to the latest iteration of the ReAwaken America Tour (or RAT for short), a traveling variety show of Christian Nationalism, anti-vaccine rhetoric, QAnon conspiracies, and MAGA politics.
Even as Trump surrendered to authorities after being indicted for trying to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election, the RAT congregation kept the MAGA faith. For them, the indictments of Trump — now totaling 91 charges in four cases — merely served as proof that Satan was using “the deep state” to attack God’s “chosen” leader.
The main force behind the RAT tour that’s made 21 stops since 2021 is Michael Flynn. A retired Army lieutenant general, he briefly served as Trump’s National Security Advisor before resigning because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with a Russian government official. Later in 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty in the Mueller investigation to a felony count of making false statements to the FBI, but he received a pardon from Trump. Now, he’s a lead evangelist preaching the second coming of Trump. And for Flynn, the arrest of Trump somehow just proved the righteousness of Trump and the RAT crusade.
As the Pastors for Trump event kicked off, Flynn noted that Trump’s arrest was happening. Flynn claimed it proved the nation was “already in the abyss” and that Trump was being persecuted.
“But the greater the persecution, the greater the promotion,” Flynn added.
Flynn returned to the stage a little later to show Trump’s tweet with his fresh mugshot. In a rant full of cursing, Flynn insisted that this was actually a good sign for their movement to return Trump to the White House. As Flynn showed off the photo of Trump having surrendered to authorities, he insisted that Trump and the MAGA movement “will never break, we will never surrender.”
As the applause and cheering demonstrated, the thousands who trekked to the desert for the three-day RAT event can’t be shaken from supporting Trump. Many of them stayed in the nearby Trump International Hotel, wore MAGA hats or Trump shirts, and chanted for Trump during the event. They keep coming to hear Flynn call for “one nation under God and one religion under God,” urge pastors to preach more about the U.S. Constitution than the Bible, denounce anyone who disagrees with Christian Nationalism as an “atheist,” and even claim their opponents are soulless. Flynn was joined in Las Vegas by speakers like Donald Trump Jr., political trickster Roger Stone, and controversial comedian Roseanne Barr. These political rants are mixed in with partisan sermons, worship songs, times for prayer and healing, and even a baptism service.
As Flynn defended the freshly-indicted Trump this weekend, he wasn’t an anomaly in, as the prophet Isaiah put it, calling evil “good” and good “evil.” Nor was he the only one at the RAT event to insist the mugshot was actually a good sign. So this issue of A Public Witness takes you down the rabbit hole of the latest RAT event to consider what it means when Bible verses, Christian songs, and holy sacraments are exploited to justify a mad view of the world.
Preaching to the Choir
Rev. Jackson Lahmeyer, the founder of Pastors for Trump, kicked off Thursday’s event by calling it “a very sad and interesting day in our nation’s history with the arrest of President Trump.” A regular RAT preacher who unsuccessfully primaried Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford last year, Lahmeyer also sparked headlines by offering “religious exemption” forms for people to challenge a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Now, he’s trying to mobilize pastors to campaign for the thrice-married ex-president indicted for trying to overturn an election, mishandling classified documents, and falsifying business documents to cover up that he paid women for sex. During Thursday’s gathering, Lahmeyer called the RAT events “the greatest thing this side of heaven.”
Rev. John Bennett, an Assemblies of God pastor in Oklahoma, denounced what he saw as evil attacks on Trump. A former chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party and a former state Republican lawmaker, Bennett previously sparked controversies for Islamophobic comments and for comparing COVID-19 vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. But at the Pastors for Trump event, he focused his over-the-top rhetoric on defending the righteousness of the only ex-president with more indictments than wives.
“The ungodly are attacking President Trump for trying to protect us. They’re attacking our freedom,” said Bennett after apparently not yet reading the charges against Trump. “We’ve got to realize that we’re in a spiritual battle. And it’s time to put on the full armor of God and get outside the four walls of the safety of your church and stand and fight for righteousness.”
Thus, Bennett said pastors and other Christians must pray for Trump. He add that God “is using men and women like you for such a time as this.”
“Father, we lift up President Trump, and we ask that you surround him with your protection, your love, your grace, your mercy, and your justice be done,” Bennett prayed. “Lord, expose those that are committing evil and turn their schemes against them as they attack President Trump, his family, and ‘we the people.’”
Bennett also praised Flynn for leading the charge to defend Trump even amid “persecution and prosecution by a crooked Justice Department.”
“General Flynn, you remind me of Elijah. And just like Elijah on Mount Carmel who was surrounded by the enemy, Elijah called out fire from heaven and the Lord showed up on that day. And Elijah said, ‘We will see this day whose God is the real God.’ And our God is Jesus Christ and he will show up and bring fire, Holy Ghost fire from heaven and wipe out all these bad, crooked, evil things going on on the Earth today,’” Bennett added.
Self-proclaimed “prophet” Julie Green, a regular at RAT events, also addressed what she saw as the persecution of Trump.
“One of the things that the Lord kept bringing up to me is: you need to pray for my son, you need to pray for Trump. And all of a sudden when I see the mugshot back there, not only do we have to pray for the healing of this country because right now we’re in an American revolutionary war, but we’re also in a civil war,” she said.
“Right now we are under the greatest attack we have ever been in,” she added. “And when I saw that picture of the rightful president and I saw the persecution, well I will tell you what brings persecution, God is going to bring promotion. And so what we are going to do is we’re going to stand on the behalf of our president, we’re going to stand for the healing and that God is going to keep moving it up. Because everything that Satan means for harm, God is going to turn it around.”
She then prayed for “the rightful president” and asked God to use the mugshot to motivate people to support him.
The claims of Trump’s persecution and the attempts to spin his mugshot as a positive sign continued during the RAT event on Friday and Saturday after the Pastors for Trump session. For instance, Donald Trump Jr. blasted “corrupt prosecutors and a corrupt DOJ” as he complained that “the stuff that’s going on in America today is the stuff of communist Russia or communist China.”
“I think the mugshot was like maybe the greatest thing ever,” Junior claimed. “That’ll go down as one of the most iconic photographs in the history of the United States of America.”
Similarly, Lara Trump (wife of Eric) also claimed the mugshot was actually good news for her father-in-law’s return to the White House. She insisted all the indictments and “that mugshot” will instead “backfire” on the Democrats. Like her brother-in-law, she bragged about the photo: “That mugshot is the most famous mugshot in the history of the world.” And she believes it’ll be a good kind of famous because she sees God on the side of her family.
“We know the one in charge up above. And I can tell you that I believe that he has his hand now on Donald Trump, that no weapon formed against him shall prosper, that yea though he walk through the valley of the shadow of death he will fear no evil because God is with him and God is a part of this race,” she added. “It is good versus evil, and the good will win.”
Roger Stone, who was convicted on seven felony counts in the Mueller investigation but was then pardoned by Trump, also insisted that Trump did nothing wrong. But this character witness for Trump insisted the indictments are just proof the former president is just being persecuted by political and spiritual opponents.
Spreading the Word
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump infamously declared, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Some days that doesn’t seem like hyperbole.
It’s not merely that his loyal followers still back him when something bad happens; it’s that they refuse to even accept that he can stumble or mess up. Every victory is praised as proof of his genius while every loss is spun as persecution and also actually just a step toward greatness. This can be seen in the rhetoric of pillow-hugger and RAT regular Mike Lindell as he continues to peddle lies about the 2020 election being stolen. He explains away every setback in proving this by continuing to claim he’s just about to blow the whole thing open. And he even now says it was good that the 2020 election was stolen because otherwise they wouldn’t know how big the problem of the “deep state” really was.
With a mindset like that, Trump can literally do no wrong. Every act is explained as a positive, strategic, and even divine move. Even getting indicted. Repeatedly. Even a mugshot is reframed as an angelic glamor shot. And if it doesn’t look like it’s positive, the “prophets” just say that God works in mysterious ways.
This means it’s nearly impossible to explain to people in this group how Trump is problematic, unethical, dangerous, or unchristian. If they refuse to acknowledge Trump can do anything wrong, then they will never admit the emperor has no clothes.
Such a cult of personality undermines basic biblical teachings about morality, human sinfulness, and idolatry. And that’s why many Christians continue to warn about the false prophets of the RAT tour.
“To see just how disingenuous MAGA leaders really are in their abuse of faith, look no further than ‘Pastors for Trump,’” Rev. Nathan Empsall, an Episcopal priest who leads the advocacy group Faithful America, told me. “A typical ‘prayer’ call from this ReAwaken America spinoff features only a couple minutes of actual prayer, with more pro-Trump politicians speaking than pastors — the exact opposite of what you’d expect from an authentically faithful event.”
“Their only goal is to seize power no matter what it costs them — or what it costs democracy and Christianity,” Empsall added. “The good news is most Christians see right through it.”
I’m not as optimistic about how many people in the pews and even the pulpits are seeing through all this. But either way, churches are being targeted for this political effort to redefine good.
As the Pastors for Trump founder said, they are mobilizing pastors to join the campaign. And during the event on Thursday, Flynn complained that too many pastors won’t say “vote for Trump” since they’re afraid that because of “the ‘Johnson Amendment’ they’ll get in trouble.” But, he quickly added, “Every pastor, if they’re not standing up there talking about this country, 14 months, 15 months from now, they’re not going to have a church to stand up in.” Similarly, Lara Trump called on churches to engage in “ballot harvesting” where it’s allowed, which is a controversial practice of collecting absentee or mail-in ballots and turning them in for voters. It’s a practice that the congressional campaign of a Baptist minister in North Carolina used to commit election fraud in 2018.
As the 2024 campaign heats up, this should be a warning to us all to be careful about the efforts to exploit our houses of worship. The people celebrating that their chosen candidate was indicted for attempted election fraud want to bring that message to a sanctuary near you.
As a public witness,
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