Charlie’s No Angel - Word&Way

Charlie’s No Angel

Charlie Kirk wants to save America. It’s literally in the name of the latest effort by the political activist: the “Saving America Tour.” And the religious connotation isn’t coincidental. The logo includes a large cross and the events are held in churches. Like the second one on Sunday night (April 3) at Grace Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

Like any evangelist on the revival circuit, the man who led Students for Trump preaches against a litany of societal evils: Disney, the “fraud” in the 2020 presidential election, COVID health measures, going to college, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, unisex bathrooms, and “wokeism.” He criticizes churches that have been “infiltrated” by Critical Race Theory or aren’t speaking out against transgendered persons.

So, Kirk outlines his gospel that will “save” the nation. And it’s a message that stands strong against CRT and the need of a community to repair the damage from past sins. As he attacked education that notes historical wrongs that make “you feel guilty and ashamed,” Kirk explained his theology.

“Any organization that makes you feel guilty after the speech is over should be abolished,” he declared Sunday night. “Christianity’s the opposite of making you feel guilty. After a good sermon, you feel free, you feel redeemed. Only Satan makes you feel guilty. Jesus doesn’t make you feel guilty.”

While pushing Trumpian ideas, he tosses in a hodgepodge of ahistorical claims about the U.S.’s past and some biblical references to prove God is pro-freedom (like claiming we need a government based on passages in Kings and Leviticus). Apparently, Kirk hasn’t yet read Jesus’s “woes” in Matthew 23 that definitely were designed to make the religious elites feel guilty. But as he mixes partisan politics with a Joel Olsteen-esque feel-good gospel, Kirk is packing megachurches.

Screengrab as Charlie Kirk (right) speak at Grace Church in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 3, 2022.

Despite these crowds and his large following online, Kirk’s latest project is receiving little media attention. The lack of scrutiny allows his dangerous Christian Nationalism to pass as biblical ethics in church after church.

So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we introduce you to an influential political activist seeking converts to his partisan gospel. Then we visit Kirk’s event at Grace Church to warn about the problematic ideology he’s presenting as a biblical message.

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The Calling of Charlie Kirk

One word to describe Charlie Kirk’s rise is “meteoric.” Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, he is now one of the most influential members of the Trump movement and its effort to redefine contemporary conservatism in the former president’s image. Another apt label would be “unmerited.” Like many Hollywood celebrities, Kirk is famous for being famous. His access to Trump and wealthy GOP donors begets influence that begets access in a seemingly never-ending circle.

Kirk’s story is one of entrepreneurship and charisma. It began in suburban Chicago where the high school version of Kirk caught the eye of a conservative activist named Bill Montgomery at a 2012 event focused on youth participation in government. After hearing Kirk speak, Montgomery sought to dissuade him from going to college. Instead, he told Kirk that “you need to start an organization to reach out to young people with your message.”

True to the latest church tour’s name, Kirk on Sunday described his life’s mission as trying “to save America and save western civilization.” To accomplish that, he added, he launched Turning Point USA where “the Lord really had his hand on this organization.”

Fueled by the financial support of prominent GOP donors like the late Foster Friess and notable conservative foundations, the group initially emphasized free market and small government principles on college campuses. As the Republican Party shifted with Trump’s rise, so did Turning Point USA’s focus. It became energized by the same cultural flashpoints and grievances of the MAGA crowd. And its donor network became increasingly intertwined with the former president’s, while allegations arose about illegal coordination between his organization and Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Alongside that partisan shift, Kirk’s comments and activities have grown increasingly controversial. He irresponsibly peddled in voter fraud conspiracy theories before the 2020 election and then prominently worked to cast doubt on the outcome after Trump’s loss. He has denied the basic science of climate change and promoted vaccine resistance during the pandemic. He even designed a recent speaking tour to highlight his racially-incendiary views.

But perhaps the greatest institutional expression of Kirk’s persona existed on the campus of Liberty University. There the activist without a college degree joined forces with Jerry Falwell Jr. to launch a “think tank” named after them both: The Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. In an announcement rife with Christian Nationalistic tones, the stated purpose of the endeavor was “renewing and defending God-given freedoms in America and restoring Judeo-Christian-based principles in our national policies, institutions, and culture.”

Charlie Kirk (left) and Jerry Falwell Jr. in a promotional photo for the Falkirk Center at Liberty University.

Despite the mission remaining unaccomplished, Kirk and Liberty parted ways just over a year into the project. The Falkirk Center predictably became a flashpoint, including from students and alums, for its partisan agenda, propagandistic activities, and lack of academic rigor.

Christian historian John Fea noted in a piece for Religion News Service that the excesses of the Falkirk Center represented those of its parent institution. Its creation, character, and conduct reflected “systemic sins that have plagued the university from its founding.”

Of course, Kirk’s separation from Liberty followed in the wake of Falwell Jr.’s own scandal-related dismissal. In a stunning interview about his implosion, the Christian Right scion portrayed both his famous father and himself as insincere in their convictions. His wife, Becki, described the couple as “put[ting] on an act” in order to keep up the appearances required for securing their hold on power and maintaining their privileged place within conservative American Christianity.

It is easy to see Kirk’s reflection in the mirror of Falwell’s confessions. An unmoored, immature man unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight and then doing whatever is needed to bolster his image and influence. Thus, Liberty University jettisoning Kirk was more the beginning than the end of his foray into religion and politics. He christened his new project — which is really just a continuation of the old one, but with less restrictions and more control — “Turning Point Faith.”

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Worshiping Politics

Before Kirk came on stage Sunday night, a music leader urged the crowd to join in “worshiping Jesus, exalting his name, declaring his kingship over this city, over this nation.” They sang “All Hail King Jesus” and “Glory and Dominion.” Then Wes Martin, lead pastor at Grace Church, introduced the main attraction.

“Really looking forward to hearing from Charlie and all that is in his heart and what he’s seeing around the nation. And just believing that the Lord is going to help us. He’s going to really help us and strengthen us to be a witness in this unique hour that we find ourselves alive in,” Martin said. “It is by no mistake that we are all alive here and where God has put us in such a time as this.”

We reached out to Grace Church about why they hosted Kirk for the event and if they agreed with Kirk’s theology that he espoused during the talk.

“We would not be so bold as to say we agree or disagree with Charlie Kirk’s theology without knowing far more of it. But what we can boldly say is that we believe the Bible is inerrant and unchanging,” a pastoral staffer told us in a statement from Grace Church. “The mantra of ‘wall of separation’ has been echoed so loudly for so long with so little challenge that our position will seem like blasphemy to some. But we ourselves will echo the words of Peter and John: ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.’”

After a prayer by Martin during Sunday night’s service, Kirk came on stage to a standing ovation as Martin encouraged them: “Come on, we need to thank the Lord for this guy.” The two then sat down to spend the next hour-and-a-half as Martin interviewed Kirk. Martin started it by telling Kirk, “We thank God for you, that the Lord has put his hand on you and raised you up.”

With that blessing, Kirk laid out his case for why Christians should seek to lead in the political arena. The story, as with any Christian Nationalistic argument, starts with a myth about the U.S.’s founding. Kirk argued the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and “exceptional from the beginning.” He said during the earlier event at Fervent Church in Colorado Springs on March 29 that “this country was founded on Christian biblical principles, founded by Christians.”

“It was the Church that was the reason why America was founded in the first place,” he claimed in St. Louis. “The Constitution is a divinely-inspired document that espouses biblical principles of consent of the governed, separation of powers, and the independent judiciary.”

Screengrab of Charlie Kirk (right) speaking at Fervent Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on March 29, 2022.

But now Kirk sees Christians as under attack … in the United States. He believes partisan engagement is more necessary because “the freight train’s coming” as Christians are facing persecution under the U.S.’s “regime.” He added, “If you feel like you’re losing your civilization or losing your country, you’re right.” But since “we know what’s happening here” and “it’s coming very quickly,” he insisted we need “courageous and passionate Christians proclaiming truth.”

If Christians “remain silent on the issues of patriotism and civic engagement,” he added, “then we’re all going to have to open prison ministries, everybody, because we’ll be sharing the gospel from somewhere that is not as nice as this room right now. That’s not an exaggeration.”

Thus, Kirk criticized the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. He derided the concept since that phrase isn’t found in the Constitution (although neither is the phrase “religious liberty,” so we guess he’s against that too). He added that church-state separation is “unconstitutional, immoral, and, I believe, a tactic of the enemy to try to keep the Church submissive.”

Martin, the church’s pastor, expressed his excitement about the “great” timing as Kirk was speaking on Sunday night just ahead of local elections on Tuesday. Last month, the church came under fire locally for violating the political campaign activity ban (also known as the “Johnson amendment”) after using church resources to endorse school board candidates. Martin alluded to that criticism later in the event as he again urged people to vote on Tuesday.

Kirk similarly praised pastors who endorse candidates from the pulpit during Sunday services in violation of the IRS’s political campaign activity ban for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofits. Kirk then got his history wrong about why the IRS prohibition exists, saying that then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson introduced it “to try to shut up a pastor he didn’t like in Houston, Texas, for the sole purpose of trying to make the church uninterested and not involved in this.”

Let’s put this simply: Kirk is bearing false witness (in a church sanctuary). There were actually two tax-exempt nonprofits that opposed Johnson before he proposed this bipartisan amendment. But they weren’t churches or even religious, but instead were political groups advancing the red scare agenda of McCarthyism.

Kirk urged churches to be willing to lose their tax-exempt status to endorse partisan candidates since that “momentary, earthly penalty” is “worth pursuing righteousness” (for as Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for endorsing candidates”). And Kirk argued during the event at Fervent Church in Colorado Springs that pastors who won’t engage in such politics should “get out of the pastor business.”

“Are you preserving a business model, or are you trying to pursue righteousness?” he said in St. Louis. “Every church board needs to pray on that and fast on that and reflect on that. But understand, the spirit of fear is not what Jesus has given us.”

And just in case people didn’t know what he meant as he said Christians need to speak out about politics, he announced Sunday he will support Trump for president in 2024 if the former president runs again like Kirk anticipates. And after falsely claiming the 2020 election was fraudulent and casting doubts on President Joe Biden’s win, Kirk added, “The Church should be involved, in my opinion, in restoring the integrity of how we put people in power.”

“It’s time for you to pray and fast and do more,” he added. “The Lord is going to honor that. The Lord is not going to forsake his people when they stand with courage for righteousness. Now is the time to rise. … We are going to win, everybody, and the bad guys are going to lose.”

Turning Point USA did not respond to our request for comment.

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False Righteousness

“Watch out for false prophets,” Jesus warned his followers. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.”

Jesus sounded the alarm that some people will seek to pull his followers away from the path of discipleship. They will claim to be righteous and wise, and will pretend to be compassionate and other-minded. But secretly, they are serving only themselves. The problem is identifying them, especially given how charismatic and persuasive they might seem.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright summarized the analogy Jesus used in this way: “Look at the life of the person who is offering you advice. Think of it like a tree. Can you see healthy, tasty fruit on this tree? Can you see other people being generally nourished by it? Or is it, in fact, producing a crop of lies, immorality, and greed?”’

Screengrab as the crowd at Grace Church in St. Louis, Missouri, applauds Charlie Kirk on April 3, 2022.

Charlie Kirk is traveling to churches across America with a starkly partisan message. This isn’t about faith. This is just a spiritual gloss on what Kirk and his political organization have already been about.

“Turning Point USA has been known for attacking professors and universities for teaching things they consider to be off limits,” Anthea Butler, chair of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Religious Studies and author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, told us.

“What the new church iteration of Turning Point USA is doing is a similar type of activity to what the Christian Coalition did to organize politically in churches in the 1990s and early 2000s,” she added. “What you can be sure Turning Point USA is doing by branding their ‘Saving America Tour’ alongside Donald Trump is creating a coherent message designed to bring evangelical voters out in 2022 and to contest elections that don’t go their way in 2022.”

With this clearly partisan agenda, churches that host Kirk as he tries to “save” America join him in conflating the Christian gospel with the agenda of one party (really, one former president). This reduces transcendent truth to mere political handmaid. Kirk’s invitation is not to abundant life but to cultural warfare. In fact, as he makes clear, heeding his call involves violating the law in ways that place the community in harm’s way. Any church that loses its tax-exempt status risks serious membership and financial repercussions.

Moreover, we’ve documented here how Kirk’s jeremiads are filled with half-truths, indefensible denials, and downright lies. Rather than believing the “truth shall set you free,” his hope is that conspiracies and sophistry will succeed in pulling the wool over his audience’s eyes. As to greed? Well, Kirk’s drawing a handsome salary from his Turning Point empire and encouraging his followers to “Buy merch[andise]. Save America.”

Huckster. Snake oil salesman. Charlatan. These are all apt labels for Kirk and his pseudoscience, pretend knowledge, and false gospel. But we’ll be old-fashioned and stick with the Bible: he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s one that Jesus warned us about who arrives in our churches falsely claiming to speak a word from the Lord.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood