Onward Christian Soldiers: Inside a Religious Right Conference Aimed at Taking America Back | News Feature | Indy Week

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Onward Christian Soldiers: Inside a Religious Right Conference Aimed at Taking America Back

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I'm waiting to wash my hands in a beige-toned ladies' room in the Southern Evangelical Seminary's headquarters in Matthews, which is just outside of Charlotte.

A middle-aged woman standing at the sink, sporting a tailored skirt suit and a stiff helmet of hair, is telling another woman her life story: she's from Missouri, but she moved down to Charlotte for work. She snaps shut the latch on her designer bag.

"So I was down there protesting the city council vote," she's saying. "They didn't listen to us, but they will listen to God."

"Amen," says the second woman, gleefully stomping a high-heeled foot and raising her hand in the air.

In North Carolina, bathrooms aren't just bathrooms anymore. They're battlegrounds in America's culture wars, and these women—attendees of a conference hosted last week by the state chapter of the American Pastors Network, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that raises money for Christian ministries—are on the front lines.

The conference, billed as a "roadmap for renewal," wasn't explicitly political, but the undertones weren't difficult to spot. They weren't even undertones. All the old Moral Majority chestnuts were out on display: abortion is like the Holocaust, gay marriage is unconstitutional, and immigrants are just fine so long as they love Jesus.

And there was this handout, touting "the case for Christian involvement in the culture war": "Born-again/Evangelical voters were 24 percent of the electorate [in 2012] and while 79 percent voted for Romney, 20 percent voted in defiance or ignorance of clear Biblical teaching of the God whom they profess to follow, voted for Barack Obama, the most anti-Biblical, pro-abortion and pro-gay president in history."

It's true that conservative Christian voters have been a powerful electoral force in North Carolina and elsewhere for decades. And while their influence is waning as the nation becomes more diverse and secular—Pew researchers found that between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78 percent to 71 percent—church leaders are getting savvier about how to engage self-professed Christian voters who hold conservative views. Part of that strategy includes appealing to their preoccupation with social issues like abortion and gay marriage, their reverence for the founding fathers, and their self-perception as a persecuted subset of the population.

But on a practical level, conservative pastors are researching and mobilizing their congregants—and anyone else they think will be receptive to the cause. Once identified, these people are bombarded with tailored messages on everything from Israel to gun control. And then they're asked to promise to vote, registered, and eventually taken to the polls.

Faith leaders are also appealing to one another to take political messages to their pulpits, to create homeschooled "disciples" so that their congregants' children—unsullied by the public school system—will perpetuate the Christian worldview, and even run for office themselves.

"If God is calling you to run for office, run for office," George Barna, who founded a marketing research group that polls people about their beliefs, told the conference's 150 attendees. "We are in dire straits. That is obvious to me. There are so many things you can do to inform your people. You're the best alternative to the media."

With the ever-present backdrop of House Bill 2 lingering over North Carolina, these were culture warriors being called to battle. And for a cool $40—the American Pastors Network has an annual revenue of about $2 million—I got an inside look at the religious right's plan to take America back despite the changing cultural currents.

In sum, it goes like this: the message isn't the problem; mobilization is. As Barna told the crowd, twelve million Christian voters weren't registered to vote in 2012. Another twenty-six million stayed home. Barack Obama won by just 3.5 million votes.

So they don't need to moderate their positions on LGBTQ or abortion rights. They just need to vote—and if enough of them do that, they'll be able to impose their version of America on the rest of us.

Shocked gasps reverberated around the room.

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