The Man Behind Shurtleff v. City of Boston - Word&Way

The Man Behind Shurtleff v. City of Boston

Looking to tell the world that Joe Biden is not your president? Camp Constitution has a lapel button for you!

Although lots of groups sell trinkets to fund their work, it seems scandalous for a group dedicated to teaching about “the genius of our United States Constitution” to undermine our constitutional system. But how much harm could this organization that few have heard of actually cause?

Only the U.S. Supreme Court can answer that question.

That’s because Camp Constitution is at the center of a case the justices will hear next week. The controversy is not about the group’s beliefs about the 2020 election. Instead, the issue is whether the City of Boston should be required to promote sectarian religious beliefs.

The conflict arose when Boston refused to fly the Christian flag outside City Hall for an event Camp Constitution was holding. In the past, other flags were raised alongside the U.S. flag and the Massachusetts flag, but Boston denied Camp Constitution’s request over concerns it would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and send an exclusive sectarian message. Claiming a violation of its free speech rights, the organization sued.

Boston City Hall with the U.S., Massachusetts, and Boston flags. (Creative Commons)

Despite the circumstances and legal issues of the case drawing significant attention, the man at the center of this First Amendment storm is garnering little notice. Yet, the views of Harold “Hal” Shurtleff, who co-founded and leads Camp Constitution, should not be ignored. The plaintiff makes a case for a rather “unique” version of what constitutes both Christianity and America.

“I thought that Christians — and I mean the Bible-believing Christians, not the Christians that I say [are] ‘apostate Christians’ — in Boston need to have a little bigger hand in things,” Shurtleff told us yesterday (Jan. 11). “So, that’s why I thought it would be nice to fly the Christian flag on the ‘public access flagpole’ to commemorate Constitution Day.”

In this edition of A Public Witness, we introduce you to the man behind Shurtleff v. City of Boston ahead of oral arguments next Tuesday (Jan. 18). Through an unparalleled review of his decades-long advocacy career and an exclusive interview, we look at the man whose case could upend two centuries of U.S. church-state relations.

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New World Order

In 2013, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that sought to block implementation of a non-binding United Nations plan to promote sustainable development. Nixon’s fellow Democrat, House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, compared it to regulating “space aliens.” Proponents argued it would “protect private property rights.”

The action steps from the UN’s “Agenda 21” in 1992 encouraged countries to protect fragile environments and biodiversity. Yet, in the early 2010s, state legislatures in Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, and elsewhere pushed bills to block this suggested list of ways to help our planet. How did this document signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush spark so much controversy?

The lawmakers put forth bills copied from one written by Shurtleff, then serving as a field director for the John Birch Society.

Originally founded on an agenda that included fighting both communism and racial desegregation in American society, JBS has spent decades promoting conspiracy theories related to the power of political and economic elites. Labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “extreme anti-government” group, the organization has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years that includes closer alignment with some GOP public officials. Indeed, with its constant paranoia and suspicion of foreigners, journalists note strong similarities between “Bircherism” and “Trumpism.”

Screengrab of Harold Shurtleff speaking at a 1998 John Birch Society event on “eco-fraud.”

According to JBS, the UN guidance would lead to a tyrannical, eco-friendly, one-world government. It was weird stuff, at least until the conspiracies of the last couple years came around. As Charles P. Pierce wrote for Esquire in 2012 after attending a talk by Shurtleff, it’s standard JBS fare.

“For all their elaborate and fascinating conspiracy-spinning, they’re as dull as dishwater. The digressions are endless, the connections evanescent,” Pierce explained. “[Shurtleff] also later described Mexican immigration to this country as ‘another kind of environmental disaster.’ Sooner or later, the old demons come peeking out from behind the sheets.”

Shurtleff’s time with JBS ended in 2016 after 26 years. He left JBS to focus on Camp Constitution, which JBS had sponsored. But he continues to praise JBS and share its materials.

“The John Birch Society was way ahead of its time. They were exposing the Deep State long before it became fashionable. I am of the opinion that if it hadn’t been for the efforts of the Society, we would have lost our liberty years ago,” Shurtleff said in 2019.

He added that Camp Constitution continues that conspiratorial work.

“We have classes on the Deep State, exposing the New World Order, getting out of the United Nations, the global warming hoax, and I would say few camp attendees accept the official story of 9/11,” he explained about Camp Constitution. “I happened to be in the air when it happened and actually flew out of the same terminal at Boston’s Logan Airport as some of the hijackers.”

Who would have guessed you could learn all these “truths” at a camp focused on a document written in 1787?

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New Age for Conspiracies

In 2019, Boston found itself home to a contentious “Straight Pride Parade” that sparked global headlines. The parade was created by a group calling itself “Super Happy Fun America.” SHFA not only held its parade but even unsuccessfully attempted to get their “straight pride” flag flown by City Hall after Shurtleff’s failure with the Christian flag. It’s why Shurtleff, who is part of SHFA’s leadership, bragged about being the “spiritual founder” of the group.

The group has also led protests — with a Christian flag waving between Trump flags and “straight pride” flags — against state COVID public health measures. And the online store for the group includes shirts celebrating Kyle Rittenhouse as a “hero” who “did nothing wrong.” The Boston Globe documented White Supremacist symbols at SHFA events and ties to far-right provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Proud Boys founder Enrique Tarrio.

But over the last year, SHFA has pushed the cause of Jan. 6 insurrectionists after two of its own were arrested. Federal prosecutors filed charges against SHFA Vice President Mark Sahady and Suzanne Ianni after they were photographed inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. The group chartered six buses to transport about 300 people to D.C. that day. On SHFA’s website, Shurtleff’s still pictured as part of the leadership along with Sahady and Ianni — and he appeared in a Washington Post article about the case against the two.

In July, Shurtleff appeared at a fundraiser — billed as “Refounding Fathers Festival” — for Ianni and Sahady. He has also devoted several episodes of the Camp Constitution podcast to praising and promoting SHFA, and SHFA leaders continue to speak at Camp Constitution.

SHFA’s website details the group’s “plan to save America,” which includes a need to “re-establish traditional values” since “Judeo-Christian values are under siege.” The site also includes a fundraiser for the two indicted “patriotic Americans,” collecting money on a “Christian” fundraising platform popular among Jan. 6 insurrectionists. And while Ianni was carrying a “straight pride” flag on Jan. 6, others stormed the Capitol with the same banner Shurtleff wants Boston to fly.

Insurrectionists outside the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. (Lev Radin/Sipa USA via AP)

Shurtleff’s support of his fellow SHFA members isn’t an anomaly. For several years, he’s spoken at a local annual “Flag Day Second Amendment Rally.” In 2017, he appeared alongside controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and Stewart Rhodes of the far-right militia Oath Keepers.

Shurtleff’s also preached the gospel of a rigged election and other conspiracies on the Camp Constitution’s podcast that he hosts. He spent the first episode after the Jan. 6 insurrection pushing more conspiracy theories about the events of that day and the election itself. Joining him on the program was a Camp Constitution teacher who gave his firsthand account of Jan. 6 as they both argued the violence in the Capitol was a “false flag” operation not actually led by real Trump supporters.

Similarly, the first episode after the 2020 election, released on Nov. 10, focused on claiming the election had been riddled with “fraud.” Shurtleff argued that in even blue states like Massachusetts there was fraud to oust Trump. In the conversation, he and his guest — a writer for JBS’s magazine — predicted Trump would still prevail and then the left would respond with violence.

As Shurtleff told us, he thinks it’s “very important to point out” what he thinks happened in the 2020 election. He added, “Election integrity is so important, and I think it’s safe to say that there was lots of election illegalities.”

“The same thing with January 6. I had a number of friends that were down there. Two got arrested,” he added before suggesting that “agent provocateurs” were to blame for the violence. “The notion that there was some sort of planned insurrection led by Donald Trump is just totally absurd. I think it’s important to point that out.”

“I think that most people in our orbit, our circle have already concluded something was vitally wrong with the election of 2020,” he added. “But it’s been certified and there’s not much, there’s nothing you can do about it until 2024.”

Screengrab as Hal Shurtleff talks with InfoWars host David Knight in 2017.

Shurtleff also pushes conspiracies about the 2020 election, Jan. 6, and COVID on the Camp Constitution website. Here’s a sampling of some of the organization’s recent posts mixed in with announcements about upcoming events:

  • Jan. 9, 2022: critiquing recently-deceased Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a non-Christian.
  • Jan. 6, 2022: arguing the insurrection wasn’t led by Trump supporters but was instead “a Soros-funded false flag act to distract attention from massive election fraud and a stolen election.” The post also suggests that in the aftermath multiple police officers didn’t die by suicide but instead were killed as part of the conspiracy cover-up.
  • Dec. 8, 2021: advertising a recent Camp Constitution event that included sessions like “Know Your Constitution” and “Exposing CRT-Crazy Racist Trash.”
  • Nov. 6, 2021: arguing that the COVID vaccines don’t work and actually kill people (claims they pushed earlier with a JBS webinar).
  • Aug. 9, 2021: recapping a lecture at annual Camp Constitution family camp attacking the “1619 Project.”
  • July 13, 2021: noting Camp Constitution continues the work Shurtleff did JBS in fighting the UN’s environmental “Agenda 21.”
  • Nov. 11, 2020: claiming “the Deep State” was responsible for “election fraud.”
  • June 12, 2020: calling Black Lives Matter “a new religious cult” (one of many posts attacking BLM).

And while Camp Constitution’s website and social media include lots of these conspiracies, Shurtleff’s Facebook goes even further as he shares his own take on issues and posts from fake news sites like “The Epoch Times.” On Facebook, he pushed the conspiracy that the Feds were actually behind the Jan. 6 violence and claimed that Trump won the 2020 election. On the COVID front, he criticized wearing masks, urged people not to get vaccinated for “Covid 1984,” attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, referred to COVID as the “China virus,” and claimed in classic JBS fashion that this will all lead to communism.

He also attacked public schools, suggested “the Deep State” promotes homosexuality as a form of “population control,” posted about the alleged 2020 plots of “Reds in America,” criticized critical race theory because “overall White people especially in the United States are the least racist and most generous people in the world,” defended Confederate statues and the Confederate battle flag as a Christian symbol, and argued Black Lives Matter killed more Blacks than the KKK. His Facebook page was locked by the social media company for most of January — and several of his posts over the past couple years are covered with a note from Facebook that the link shared has been deemed “false information” by independent fact-checkers.

When asked about his advocacy against COVID public health measures, Shurtleff insisted “these mandates are clear violations of the Constitution.” He complained that Massachusetts had COVID measures that impacted churches but not “liquor stores and abortion mills.” But he also directed his ire at churches that obeyed.

“Sadly, a lot of pastors are more than happy to go along with it. And that’s a real tragedy,” he said. “It looked like a lot of pastors are very comfortable with their little Zooms and their Skypes and not, you know, not reaching out to be there in a time of need.”

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Making the Past Serve the Present

Ahead of next week’s oral arguments Shurtleff told us he’s “very optimistic that they will rule in our favor,” which could “set a precedent not just about flags” but also on issues like “Bible classes” in public schools and “Christians using public facilities.” That result, he added, is why he thinks “God’s hand is in this.” Such a ruling would match his reading of the Constitution and U.S. history.

Underlying many of these conspiracy theories and political claims is Shurtleff’s Christian Nationalism. On the Camp Constitution podcast, Shurtleff complained that people say the U.S.’s founders were deists, and he insisted the Constitution was “a Christian-based document.” Camp Constitution, which is billed as being held “in defense of God & America,” encourages people to donate so they can teach the next generation that “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Classes in 2021 included “America’s Godly Heritage,” “The Biblical Basis for the US Constitution,” and “Guns, God’s Word, and the Constitution.”

“I think it’s important for this generation and the next generation to have an understanding of the roots of our nation, that it was founded primarily by Christians,” Shurtleff told us. “You cannot teach our nation’s history without its Christian roots.”

And while he acknowledged that the country wasn’t “set up as a church,” he emphasized that “even in the early years of our country under the U.S. Constitution there were state churches.” That was true of Massachusetts, where he would again like a government to fly the Christian flag.

To him, this case is limited to a free speech claim without concerns about church-state establishment. He perceives the government as censoring Christian beliefs. To many faith and civil rights groups, this is about protecting the religious liberty of all citizens by avoiding official endorsement of sectarian beliefs.

Frank Lambert, a former NFL player turned academic historian, wrote about amateur Christian “historians” creating a “usable past” to “reflect and validate their cause.” By selectively reading their present agenda into history, they craft mythical narratives to advance their ideological goals. Shurtleff and Camp Constitution clearly fit this mold.

Of course, holding these beliefs do not take away their constitutional free speech rights. But everyone — from citizens to the justices hearing the case — should understand the legal remedy they seek is about more than flying a flag outside of Boston’s City Hall or a claim to free speech. The goal of this case is to enshrine into law their understanding of the Constitution, formed around a mythic “Christian” version of the past they’ve developed and propagated. Their version of our nation’s foundational document allows the government to privilege the religious views of some in ways that deny the equality of all.

Furthermore, the usable past they articulate around America’s identity attempts to define both what it means to be a citizen and to be a follower of Jesus. Based on what we know about Shurtleff’s own views, he excludes lots of Americans from equal participation in democratic life and lots of Christians from the Body of Christ. It seems to be more evidence that the Christian flag is becoming a lost cause.

When it comes to understanding both the Constitution and what it means to proclaim Jesus as Lord, Harold Shurtleff should not be our standard-bearer.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood