Pastor Chik Chikeles stood in front of the altar last month wearing a black T-shirt with the words "Democratic Platform 1. Murder Unborn Children 2. Molest the Survivors. Proverbs 24:11."
"Democrat platform is??" Chikeles asked the faithful in the pews of Calvary Chapel of St. Paul. Then he proclaimed the message on his shirt, citing the Proverbs verse that obligates believers to rescue those being led away to death or destruction.
So began a Bible lesson accompanied by rhetoric reflecting growing stridency among a segment of Christians convinced that the nation's Christian heritage is under siege and must be restored, that the government has overreached its authority, even that the presidential election was stolen.
Often referred to as Christian nationalists, adherents range from those in the pews who simply embrace those beliefs, to faith leaders who espouse conspiratorial views amplified by a network of clergy, media, think tanks and politicians.
Such voices have long been part of the religious landscape. But the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was stormed by some insurrectionists with banners proclaiming "Jesus Saves," Christian flags and crosses, has put a new spotlight on the movement and its ramifications.
"While not everyone is hard-line, these beliefs are accepted by millions of Americans," said Andrew Whitehead, a Purdue University religion researcher and co-author of "Taking America Back for God. Christian Nationalism in the United States."
Its reach in Minnesota is unclear, but certain ideas are commonly expressed in some conservative churches. At the same time, a growing number of Christian leaders in Minnesota and nationally are organizing and warning followers of the ideology's dangers.
Politics and policy are among the weapons of Christians who espouse conspiratorial beliefs. So are words. In his Jan. 14 Bible study video posted online, Chikeles assails not only the Democratic "platform,'' but COVID-19 restrictions, government and Facebook censorship, and what he considered bogus reports about the Capitol mob.
"If anything, they [rioters] were in this nation's capitol for a half-hour to an hour, and then left," Chikeles claimed. "And they cleaned the place up," even though video shows otherwise.
Chikeles, who did not respond to requests for comment, never mentions support for violence in his remarks.
But the Rev. Darryl Knappen, in a video blog posted days after militants stormed the Capitol, told followers at Cornerstone Church in Alexandria, Minn., to be ready to "arm up" and join citizens' militias "to protect our freedoms" from groups such as "antifa" and Black Lives Matter. He urged then-President Donald Trump to declare martial law.
"The enemies against our country today are vast and wide, including the deep state … including Marxists and communists who want to see our country destroyed," said Knappen. "They are in opposition to our freedoms of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom to bear arms against tyranny …."
Such conspiracy theories are no longer limited to fringe groups. Nearly half of the 1,007 Protestant clergy surveyed last fall by Nashville-based LifeWay Research, a nationwide evangelical research firm, said they "frequently hear church members repeating conspiracy theories about what's happening in their country."
That doesn't surprise the Rev. Angela Denker, a Minnesota pastor who traveled across the country to understand Trump's hold on evangelicals for her book, "Red State Christians." She said she also hears it across southern Minnesota, where she leads Grace Lutheran Church in Brownton.
"I've heard that the [COVID-19] vaccine puts a chip inside of you, that Hunter Biden is part of a pedophilia conspiracy among Democratic leaders," said Denker.
Who are they?
Christian nationalism can be defined as "a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems … that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life,'' according to Whitehead and co-author Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma.
The movement is biggest in the South and Midwest, stronger in rural than urban America, they found. Key beliefs include political conservatism, the inerrancy of the Bible and that the nation is on the "brink of moral decay."
These views are commonly held by evangelical Christians to varying degrees. What sets ardent Christian nationalists apart is belief that God created the United States as a Christian nation, that U.S. laws must reflect their version of Christian values and that government has no right to interfere with their "religious liberties."
Leaders of some Minnesota churches have similar, if not exact, ideologies, including many of those who sued Gov. Tim Walz for imposing COVID-19 mask and worship mandates, such as Calvary Chapel and Cornerstone Church. They are not storming the Capitol, but instead take their battle to social media and congregational preaching.
Their Facebook pages and podcasts refer to "cultural Marxism," "globalists" taking over America, scary COVID vaccine reactions and religious liberty they claim is being destroyed by the Biden administration.
"Why not fight for what we believe?" one supporter wrote on Cornerstone Church's Facebook page. "It's my RIGHT to believe. Why should I let someone take it? If you came home and someone was cleaning your house out or kidnapping your child would you just stand there and watch?"
Since the Capitol siege, some church leaders have scrubbed their media, such as Knappen, whose "arm up" video was removed last month. Others found that Facebook scrubbed it for them, including the Rev. Dale Witherington, director of the Minnesota Legislative Prayer Caucus, which supports lawmakers working to preserve the "nation's Judeo Christian heritage and religious liberties."
He posted: "This is being censored because it helps demonstrate that Antifa and its ilk were behind the Capitol riots, not Trump supporters," Witherington posted Jan. 23. He went on to urge people: "Watch it. If you can get through the FB Gestapo."
Witherington is a well-known advocate for issues such as restrictions on abortion, LGBTQ rights, taxes and big government. He is a frequent speaker at civic and church events in the state.
Faith leaders, he said, have the duty to speak out. "America's problems are the result of the failure of the church to do its job in raising up righteous people who are qualified to govern according to the principles given by God," said Witherington in an e-mail.
There is no line between church and state, he maintained in an online video. "That is not in the Constitution. Our nation was founded to glorify God and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ," he told an interviewer.
'Corruption' of Christianity
Concerned about the "dangers of such political ideologies," a group called Christians Against Christian Nationalism was launched in 2019 by leaders from more than a dozen denominations. More than 19,000 people — 1,000 in the past month — have since signed its online statement condemning the movement as "a threat to both our religious communities and our democracy."
Bishop Jon Anderson, of the southwest Minnesota synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is among the more than 600 Minnesotans who have signed the statement. He said he understands the movement's pull on rural America, where many people "are patriotic, love their country, work hard" but feel their way of life is ending.
He sees the divisions it creates in families, in church communities, calling it a "corruption'' of Christianity.
"You can have a stance where you both love your country and embrace [the differences] of others," he said.
The Rev. Mark Kopka of Paynesville, Minn., also signed the statement. He said he once held Christian nationalist beliefs, reinforced by a bubble of conservative Christian radio stations and his circle of friends. His parents, who fled Nazi Germany, disapproved, never forgetting Christian complicity in the nationalist fervor of the Nazi regime.
"You watch people praying at a cross before they go into the Capitol, and it's very disturbing," Kopka said. "They have co-opted the faith to further their agenda, an agenda that has nothing to do with the Jesus in the gospels."
Kopka believes many adherents haven't "thought deeply" about the implications. He hopes the storming of the Capitol will be a wake-up call about the potential dangers.
"Hopefully this [national attention] will continue," Kopka said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511