When Worship Goes Wrong - Word&Way

When Worship Goes Wrong

Christian musician and political activist Sean Feucht wants people to join him on Sept. 11 for a time of worship at the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool. It’s not unusual for people to gather for prayer, reflection, and even music on that date as we recall the terrorist attacks two decades ago. But Feucht’s event has a little different branding.

“Pray for America. Pray for President Trump.”

That’s how Feucht’s group Hold the Line titled the Sept. 11 event set for next month. After invoking 2 Chronicles 7:14, they issued an invitation: “Join us on September 11th in front of the Capitol in DC to pray for Trump, pray for our country, and pray for God’s divine intervention.”

Left: Hold the Line image promoting the Sept. 11 event. Right: Sean Feucht performing at a Turning Point USA event on Dec. 19, 2021, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

In a video announcing the event, Feucht said “intercessors” need to “rise up” because things are “insane” as seen by inflation, “the sexualization of our children,” the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, and since “the levels of corruption are absolutely unprecedented.” And his group is encouraging people to join in 30 days of prayer leading up to the event, with daily scriptural passages as prompts.

So, for the anniversary of a major attack on the U.S., a musician who peddled false claims about the 2020 election will hold an event urging divine intervention and prayer to support not the current president but one who has a disgraceful history of dishonoring 9/11 and who encouraged a deadly insurrection right there at the Capitol complex that was also a target of terrorists 21 years ago. Grotesque doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It might be tempting to just ignore this as a fringe event. But Feucht is a significant player in the current political activism of the Christian right, appearing on stage with politicians like U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Eric Trump, and Doug Mastriano — and in the White House with Trump. And Feucht has a large following with more than 460,000 followers on Facebook and a film hitting theaters late next month.

So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we take you backstage to meet the most influential Christian musician in the world of conservative political activism. Then we rewind to rehear Trump’s problematic relationship with 9/11 before considering the sour note of this mixture of worship and profane politics.

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Trumpian Music Man

With long, curly blonde hair and a beard, the guitar-strumming Feucht looks like a stereotypical California surfer or megachurch youth pastor. He graduated from Oral Roberts University, a Pentecostal school in Oklahoma founded by a man who claimed to raise the dead and locked himself in the school’s prayer tower begging people to give millions so God wouldn’t kill him. After ORU, Feucht became a worship leader for Bethel Church, a charismatic megachurch in California, and joined the church’s music label.

After years of singing and leading worship, he decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives to challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. John Garamendi. Announcing his candidacy in 2019 during a “Rally for America,” he declared that “it’s time we stopped complaining and fight back.”

A little over five months later, Feucht’s candidacy ended in a defeat. In California’s nonpartisan primary system, the top two candidates continue to the general election. Coming in a distant third place, he garnered only 13.5% of the vote and fewer than half as many votes as the other Republican challenging Garamendi. But along the way he built up a political following far beyond that district.

Shortly after Feucht started his campaign, Trump found himself facing his first impeachment (the one prompted by Trump’s attempt to get a personal political favor done by shaking down the Ukrainian president — the same guy now leading Ukraine to stand up to the aggression of Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin). As the vote in the House of Representatives neared, Feucht joined about 50 other Christian worship leaders to pray for the embattled president in the Oval Office (mostly from the U.S., but the group also included Brian Houston, who later stepped down amid controversies from leading Hillsong Church in Australia).

“We just laid our hands on him and prayed for him. It was like a real intense, hardcore prayer. It was so wild,” Feucht told Fox News after the meeting. “I could not believe he invited us in. That he carved out time to meet with us.”

As he posted videos of the group singing songs, he wrote on social media, “We were invited by this administration to worship inside the White House today. Let this sound give you great hope for America!” He added the hashtag #OneNationUnderGod.

Trump’s main religious advisor, prosperity gospel preacher Paula White-Cain, organized the meeting. In the White House photo of the group crammed around Trump, a few immediately behind the president have their hands on his back while one arm can be seen reaching out from the side and touching the president’s arm. It’s Feucht’s.

Worship leaders pose for a photo with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Dec. 6, 2019. (Tia Dufour/Public Domain)

After that White House event and his failed candidacy, Feucht found a new political cause: fighting COVID-19 health measures. Upset at lockdowns and mass gathering restrictions designed to save lives, Feucht started a concert series under the banner “Let Us Worship.” He particularly targeted cities with large Black Lives Matters protests after the killing of George Floyd, which he framed as proof the cities needed Jesus.

The concerts were often controversial, leading to a Rolling Stone profile titled “Jesus Christ, Superspreader?” When Feucht couldn’t initially get a permit in Seattle, Washington, he relabeled his concert a “worship protest.” In other cities, he pushed ahead and performed without a permit. Health officials in several cities criticized his concerts for endangering lives in that time before vaccinations.

The COVID-restriction protest strategy worked. His ministry’s revenue surged from less than $300,000 in 2019 to more than $5.3 million in 2020. Feucht bought two new homes worth a total of more than $2 million. Politics proved good business.

Feucht is now a regular on the Christian right circuit, performing at ReAwaken America Tour events with Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom conference alongside potential 2024 presidential candidatesevents of Turning Point USA led by Charlie Kirk, and the primary election night rally with Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. At these events, Feucht often frames worship in militaristic terms.

“If you look throughout scripture, you’ll see many times where God will call the worshipers to go ahead of the army. And I feel like even tonight what we’re doing, worship goes ahead and prepares the way,” Feucht said between songs at Mastriano’s victory rally.

“I was standing outside the Capitol in D.C. today just thinking, ‘These guys think they’re in control,’” he added before offering an almost cartoonish laugh. “The government is on his shoulders.”

Republican presidential hopefuls make pilgrimages to speak from the stage of his concerts, including Josh Hawley and Ron DeSantis — and Trump via video during Feucht’s 9/11 event in D.C. last year. And Feucht welcomes them and other prominent conservative figures onto his podcast, like Sen. Rick Scott, Reps. Lauren Boebert and Jim Jordan, Ted Nugent, and Eric Metaxas (not quite the guestlist for Dangerous Dogma as we’re more likely to critique those figures than fête them).

And even though he lost his congressional bid, Feucht still ended up with a place in D.C. Earlier this year, he purchased a house near the Supreme Court and Capitol as a base for his D.C. advocacy. He calls it “Camp Elah,” named after the valley where David killed Goliath. And he’s often in D.C. as he posts photos and videos of himself praying inside the Capitol or singing on the Capitol steps as members of Congress show up or singing outside the U.S. Supreme Court like after the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Through it all, a charismatic worship leader and failed congressional candidate has built a political following that cannot be ignored. And at the center of his attention is Trump, as Feucht repeatedly treks to visit the former president. But Feucht did not respond to our request for comment about his upcoming Sept. 11 event.

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Trump’s Sordid History with 9/11

Setting aside Feucht’s political agenda, there’s another reason to be baffled by this event. When it comes to 9/11, Trump’s past statements and actions hardly reflect the solemnity required by what transpired on that fateful day in 2001.

Shortly after the planes struck the World Trade Center, Trump appeared by phone on a local TV station to talk about the unfolding carnage. However, his comments to WWOR quickly transformed into a self-centered boast after an anchor inquired about damage to one of Trump’s buildings, known as 40 Wall Street, near the Twin Towers.

“40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan,” Trump inaccurately replied, “and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest — and then, when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second tallest. And now it’s the tallest.”

After entering the 2016 GOP primary, Trump used 9/11 not to brag about his real estate holdings but as a weapon to undercut one of his opponents, Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor regularly cited the record of his brother, George W. Bush, on terrorism and national security. Trump would have none of it, directly blaming the former president for the attack.

“His brother could have made some mistakes with respect to the actual hit because they did know it was coming and George Tenet, the head of the CIA, told them it was coming,” Trump told CNN in an assertion that Politifact judged as false. “So, they did have advanced notice and they didn’t really work on it.”

Trump returned to that line of attack in a February 2016 primary debate.

“The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign. Remember that,” he pointedly said to Bush. “The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe.”

Fast forward to the 20th anniversary of the attacks in 2021. While President Joe Biden and other previous occupants of the Oval Office attended commemorations in New York City and Pennsylvania, Trump declined to participate. Instead, Trump provided commentary at a Florida boxing match for, in his own words, an “obscene” amount of money. He also sent in video remarks to one of Feucht’s “Let us Worship” events and appeared via video at a Unification Church event in South Korea.

Screengrab as former President Donald Trump spoke to a Unification Church event on Sept. 11, 2021.

Even more recently, Trump caused a stir when he told ESPN that “nobody has gotten to the bottom 9/11, unfortunately.” He cynically offered the misleading and conspiratorial statement when asked about protests, including a TV ad, by families of 9/11 victims who opposed his hosting of a new golf tour backed by Saudi Arabia at his New Jersey course.

Prior to becoming president, Trump sharply critiqued the Saudis for what happened on 9/11. His tone shifted once in the White House, with the Saudi government regularly praising Trump as his administration ignored their brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and continued to ship the Saudis arms over the objection of Congress. Now as he hosted their golf tournament, he noted, “They’ve been very generous.”

From outlandish and unverified statements about being at Ground Zero to bragging about his building size in the wake of the disaster to using tragedy as a weapon for attacking opponents to choosing profits over public leadership, Trump has repeatedly used 9/11 for his own personal gain. The former president’s need to repent of these sins warrants our prayers, but that doesn’t seem to be what Feucht is planning at his worship service next month.

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The Heart of Worship

Based on the histories of Feucht and Trump, Christians are right to be skeptical of, or even outraged by, what will likely transpire on Sept. 11. Idols will be worshiped. Lies will be repeated. Violent imagery utilized. All of it offered with a veneer of Christian faith.

While strong critiques are necessary, the effectiveness of those denouncements depend on understanding what Feucht is seeking to accomplish. As worship scholar Adam Perez explained for Religion News Service, Feucht reflects a tradition where “praise and worship manifests God’s presence.” Music is the tool used for accomplishing this goal.

That may not seem controversial but, as they say, the devil is in the details. For those espousing Christian Nationalism and who see America as a new Israel, public worship operates in the contemporary United States as it did in biblical Israel. Offering praise facilitates God’s blessing of the nation. As Perez noted, those gathered at Feucht’s events “believe praise and worship releases God’s power in the spiritual and physical realms.”

This dynamic of praise, manifestation, and blessing make place an important factor. It’s no accident that Feucht visits sites of racial protests and seats of government power.

“These sites are important to Feucht because to him they reveal a spiritual disturbance (not to mention the media attention already focused there),” explained Perez. “Feucht’s gatherings gain a double-valence concerning who the spiritual enemies are: both governmental leaders who would place restrictions on church gatherings and those protesting racism and police brutality. For Feucht and his ilk, praise and worship is the weapon for defeating those spiritual/political enemies just as it was for ancient Israel.”

This framework illuminates what to expect in September. Returning to the scene of the Capitol insurrection (a spiritual disturbance) to pray for “President Trump,” who is perceived as a righteous leader unfairly displaced by an illegitimate successor, those coming to D.C. are not gathering to humbly bow their heads in prayer. They are returning to the crime scene in the hopes of calling down God’s blessing on a nation in need of restoration, perhaps even believing their petitions will reverse history.

Sean Feucht (right) prays with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri during a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25, 2020. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

“This kind of Christian Nationalism is entirely at odds with the gospel of Jesus, who told us right from the beginning that he was going to be good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and the oppressed — and that he would be bad news for people who longed to clutch at power and safety and affluence at the expense of their neighbor,” Christian writer D.L. Mayfield argued in 2020 in response to what she experienced at a Feucht protest concert in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Despite the popularity of Feucht’s ministry among a narrow group of Christians, his efforts ultimately harm the Church’s larger witness. As Mayfield warned: “I think the long-term consequences of White evangelicals longing to secure their own power and influence will ultimately backfire spectacularly — we already see people leaving the church in droves, and I expect that number to multiply.”

Quaker spiritual writer Richard Foster described prayer as the key that allows Christians to access the heart of God. Sean Feucht is coming to D.C. not because he’s after God’s heart but because he has his own partisan agenda. He sees praise and prayer as the key to accomplishing his goals. We’ll be praying for his repentance because what he’s offering his followers clearly isn’t Christian.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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