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Vulgarly Reawakening America

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Juicy Ecumenism, a blog sponsored by The Institute on Religion & Democracy.

Cornerstone Church in San Antonio is being roundly denounced on social media because it hosted an event this week in which the sanctuary crowd chants “Let’s Go Brandon!,” a euphemism for f—k the President.  Retired General Michael Flynn also declared at the event that America should have “one religion under God” and “we should have one church under God.”

These events occurred not during worship at Cornerstone Church but during a Thursday-Friday conference there for the “Reawaken America Tour,” which specializes in conspiracy and grievance advocacy. Flynn seems to be the organizing name behind the event. It’s unclear whether Cornerstone officially hosted the conference or only rented space. The church is unlikely to have provided space to an event of which it disapproved. But the church apparently has not yet offered any public explanation. Cornerstone’s longtime senior pastor is prominent Christian Zionist Jack Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel.

Denunciations of the video clips have deplored the Christian Nationalism of the conference and its host church. Perhaps a better term for it is populist nativist folk religion. Several clergy are involved with the “Reawaken America Tour,” but the tour does not seem to claim to be Christian per se.

Critics have focused on Flynn’s “one religion” as backing for a state church or overturning religious freedom in America. Flynn’s relatively brief remarks are rather rambling and almost incoherent. It’s doubtful he had any clear theological and political message other than a very esoteric view of God and country. To ascribe his comments to civil religion, which is a venerated tradition, or describe them as Christian Nationalism is to credit more content and purpose than likely deserved.

As to the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant, it syncs with the rally tour’s chief theme of resentment and rage. Obviously chanting an obscene epithet is inappropriate in a church, and should be inappropriate for Christians or decent people anywhere. A sanctuary should be a place for prayerful intercession, not curses.

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Critics have denounced the rally at Cornerstone Church as uniquely idolatrous and horrific. Many if not most comments have assumed or implied the rally was a church gathering. Some even assumed Pastor John Hagee was leading the vulgar chant. Actually it seems to be tour organizer Clay Clark, a self-identified entrepreneur podcaster. It remains to be seen to what extent the church is responsible. Did the church merely rent its space to the rally as to any other group? Given the politics and history of Cornerstone, presumably it has some connection to the Reawaken America Tour or at least was picked because it was deemed supportive. The upcoming Dallas and Phoenix rallies also are meeting in churches. An Oregon rally will be at a civic center.

Cornerstone and its pastor John Hagee will need to disassociate themselves from The Reawaken America Tour and its vulgarity in their sanctuary. Meanwhile, some online critics are demanding the church’s tax exempt status be removed, as though this event were uniquely deplorable.

Across 30 years I’ve personally attended many extremist leftwing political events directly hosted by churches and denominations. There’s nothing exceptional about unwise and intemperate religious sponsored political conferences and rallies. The Reawaken America Tour seems to have filled the sanctuary with many hundreds and perhaps several thousand people, so it attracted more than any of the leftist church events I’ve ever attended. The rightist folk religion to which this rally appealed has a wider popular appeal and more significant political implications than its leftist equivalent, so it gets much more attention. The Christian Nationalism ascribed to it is widely attributed to American Evangelicalism. Flynn comes from a Roman Catholic background. The churches hosting this tour, and the clergy speaking at it, are nondenominational. Arguably they are disconnected from historic Protestant teachings about political theology.

Politically-themed rallies in or hosted by churches, even if temperate, are generally a bad idea and confuse perceptions about the church’s chief mission, which is Gospel proclamation. Clergy themselves should be reluctant in any venue to attach themselves to overtly political causes. Temporal politics is chiefly the vocation of lay people.

But the clergy and the institutional church do have important roles in fostering temperance, wisdom, moderation, prudence and civility in Christian political witness. All Christians who speak and act politically do so as mere mortals with sinful self-serving impulses and finite wisdom and knowledge. Christians should be slow to ascribe evil intent to opponents and quick to reflect on their own motivations.

Whatever its association with the Reawaken America Tour, hopefully Cornerstone Church will focus on truly reawakening America through Gospel proclamation and not through echoing or hosting vulgar political bromides.

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Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.

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