[Roger] Williams described the true church as a magnificent garden, unsullied and pure, resonant of Eden. The world he described as “the Wilderness,” a word with personal resonance for him. Then he used for the first time a phrase he would use again, a phrase that although not commonly attributed to him has echoed through American history. “[W]hen they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world,” he warned, “God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse.”
He was saying that mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. … — John M. Berry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, Jan. 2012.

A profile of a fire-eating Tennessee pastor in the Washington Post reads like a parody — or an April Fools’ Day joke — and it’s hardly typical of white evangelical churches. But it came out March 31, so it’s not an April Fools’ Day exercise. Plus it’s by an award-winning reporter with solid credentials, and it points up what you get when you mix politics with religion.

As Roger Williams well knew 375 years ago, you get politics.

I’ve blogged about this before, including just before the 2020 election when then-President Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. And no doubt I’ll blog about it again. In the meantime, I liked this quote from Williams’ biographer John M. Barry so much, I put it at the head of my post in October 2020. And it’s worth quoting it here again:

As far as I can tell, we iare n danger of blurring the line between church and state in America. And Annie Gowen’s story in yesterday’s Washington Post touches on another side of the problem, far away from rarified atmosphere of the Supreme Court.

Gowen, who covered Mohdi’s extreme Hindu nationalist movement as Washington Post bureau chief in India and a mass shooting by white nationalist inspired by ex-President Trump back in America, this time profiles charismatic pastor (and outspoken Trump supporter) Greg Locke of Mount Juliet, off I-40 east of Nashville. Her nut graf:

To those unfamiliar with charismatic worship style, the scene might be easily dismissed or mocked. Yet Locke, 45, head of the Global Vision Bible Church, boasts millions of followers, many of them online, gaining national attention during the coronavirus crisis when he kept his church open and defied the mask mandates of the “fake pandemic.”

But to his critics, he is spreading a dangerous message of hate that is taking root in someconservative churches. His rising prominence also comes as many mainstream faith leaders and experts on extremism grow increasingly concerned about the spread of White Christian nationalism, the belief that patriotism and love of America are explicitly intertwined with White evangelical Christianity.

Locke is an “ambassador” of a movement where he and other pastors around the country appear at rallies and tent revivals preaching Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims that the election was stolen as a new holy war, according to Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization dedicated to religious freedom.

“If someone is convinced that God has preordained an election result for a messiah-like candidate and is told over and over that the election was stolen, that erodes trust in elections and democracy,” Tyler said.

Locke, in an interview, was defiant that he is not a Christian nationalist, but he makes no apologies for bringing politics into the pulpit. He was on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and has continued to preach the falsehood that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Thee’s a lot more detail. Including a bonfire into which Harry Potter books, among others, were tossed by Locke’s parishioners … and this snippet, which relates directly to the intersection of church and state that worries me (and worried Roger Williams).

Samuel Perry, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and an author of the forthcoming book “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy,” said he was not surprised to see Locke veer into portraying what’s happening in America in apocalyptic terms as a grand battle between the forces of good and evil.

“Greg Locke has tapped into what is currently selling within that group at the moment, angry White evangelicals responding to talk of persecution, talk of political chaos and the need to rise up, get organized and be militant,” Perry said. “That’s what’s working, so he’s going to give that message.”

Locke rejects the label of Christian nationalist saying, “I don’t want a theocracy. I love America, but I also love Jesus. I don’t think that makes me a Christian nationalist.” But, he said, he does believe politics has a place in church.

“I think we’re in the mess we are in because cowardly pastors won’t talk” about politics, which has “100 percent got a place in the church. Jesus was very political, John the Baptist, every preacher in the Bible was extraordinarily political,” he said.

***

Annie Gowen, according to her profile on the WaPo website, is the Midwest correspondent for The Post’s national desk, and she has extensive experience reporting on the intersection of religion and politics as he Post’s India bureau chief, she covered India, other South Asian nations and Myanmar. She twice won the Daniel Pearl Award for reporting on South Asia, for coverage of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India in 2019 and the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2018.

Works Cited

Annie Gowen, “A Jan. 6 pastor divides his Tennessee community with increasingly extremist views,” Washington Post, March 31, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/03/31/tennessee-pastor-extremist-politics/.

John M. Berry, “God, Government and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” Smithsonian, Jan. 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/god-government-and-roger-williams-big-idea-6291280/.

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