S4, Ep. 22: Inside the ReAwaken America tour

Amanda visited the ReAwaken America tour to see firsthand how leaders are manipulating a crowd by conflating religious authority with political authority.

May 18, 2023

Christian nationalism is on full display at stops of the ReAwaken America tour – conferences that fuse Christian language and symbols with conspiracy theories and election denials. Amanda went inside the most recent one at a Trump property in Miami, and she shares her experiences in this podcast – from assembly-line baptisms to the reaction of the crowd as speakers moved seamlessly from religious worship songs to calls for political violence. 

Segment 1 (starting at 00:48): The Christian nationalism of the ReAwaken America tour

Amanda and Holly discussed the ReAwaken America tour in episode 5 of season 4: Christian nationalism and the midterm elections

Amanda and Holly mention this article about the ReAwaken Tour in The New York Times by Michelle Goldberg: Whose Version of Christian Nationalism Will Win in 2024?

Amanda wrote a response to Michael Flynn’s call for “one religion” in 2021, published by Baptist News Global: If you’re paying attention to Christian nationalism, you won’t be shocked by Michael Flynn’s call for ‘one religion under God’

Segment 2 (starting at 05:29): The Pastors for Trump event

Amanda and Holly mentioned this article on the Pastors for Trump group by Peter Stone for The Guardian: Pro-Trump pastors rebuked for ‘overt embrace of white Christian nationalism’

During this segment, we played a clip of Pastor John Bennett speaking during the Pastors for Trump event in Miami.

Segment 3 (starting at 15:34): ReAwaken America, baptisms, and our counter-witness

Amanda and Holly mentioned Brian Kaylor’s reporting on the ReAwaken America tour. You can see his twitter thread with clips from Miami and read his latest piece in the A Public Witness newsletter, which is part of the Word&Way network: Michael Flynn’s Soup for the Soulless

For more about Baptism and different ways Christian denominations approach it, check out this story from 2001 by the PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

BJC and Faithful America created electronic billboards that were on trucks and a boat in Miami. See the video of the billboards in this post on the @EndChristianNationailsm Instagram account.

Visit ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org to explore the resources provided by the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign, including a statement anyone who identifies as a Christian can sign.

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC


Transcript: Season 4, Episode 22: Inside the ReAwaken America tour(some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)

Segment 1: The Christian nationalism of the ReAwaken America tour (starting at 00:48)

AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. Today we’re going to talk about a very specific part of the Christian nationalism movement that we had the opportunity to see firsthand last week in Miami. As regular listeners of this podcast know, BJC’s eight decades of working for religious freedom for all has provided us with a strong background to fight Christian nationalism in its many forms.

More recently, we’ve been working alongside others who recognize that Christian nationalism is not just bad history, bad law, bad theology, but in some of its manifestations, a very real threat to our democracy. Those concerns, of course, led to the organization of the Christians Against Christian Nationalism movement, and that campaign has been a vehicle for us to explore and better understand Christian nationalism and to work to dismantle it.

Today’s conversation is going to focus on the ReAwaken America tour, which we talked about in episode 5 of this season. That is this big Christian nationalism “roadshow,” as it’s often called now, where we discussed how this event — these series of events — are exploiting people’s understanding of our country and really fanning the flames of Christian nationalism.

We can put in our show notes that earlier episode, as well as a really good article that The New York Times published this week by Michelle Goldberg, reporting on the ReAwaken America tour’s recent stop in Miami. And today we’re going to talk about that in depth, because you, Amanda, went down to Miami to see it firsthand.

AMANDA: I did, I did.

HOLLY: Well, I appreciated that Michelle Goldberg, as she reported on it, also had interviewed you and put a couple of your thoughts there at the end of her article, and I thought today I would sort of interview you to understand what you saw and hear some of your reflections on it.

And I think the first question people might have, given that we reported on this insane kind of event of the ReAwaken tour: Why would we want to get any closer?

AMANDA: Yeah. We’ve been tracking the tour on its many stops, really now since ‑‑ November 2021 was when it first caught my attention, because that’s when Michael Flynn at that stop said, “We’re one nation under God … we should have one religion.” That really troubling line caught my attention.

So since then, we’ve been tracking the tour. And on several stops, we’ve partnered with our friends at Faithful America to help train people to provide a counter-witness to Christian nationalism, to show that Christians are concerned about what’s happening on the ReAwaken America tour and to have a different perspective, a different witness.

HOLLY: That’s right. That reminds me of some earlier stories that this tour is an ongoing problem, and many people have probably seen it in the news, depending on where they live. If it’s come to a town near you, maybe you’ve seen it in the local news, but maybe not understood that this was a continuing event, city to city, and we certainly appreciate that working with our partners, Christians Against Christian Nationalism has at least had some presence in the cities where this roadshow has appeared.

AMANDA: Yeah. And a lot of that media coverage has been from local media wherever the tour has stopped. But what was different about this particular stop of the tour, it was at a Trump property in Miami, and so we thought that it might attract more national media. And so it was an opportunity not just to organize local pastors but also for national leaders to organize a bigger counter-witness to the tour itself.

And so that was what prompted me and our communications director Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons to travel to Miami, both to organize the counter-witness, but also to go inside the tour events and to get a better feel. If I’m going to be there, I thought, well, this is a good learning opportunity for me to have a better sense of what the tour is all about.

HOLLY: Yeah. I mean, that’s a totally different perspective ‑‑ right? ‑‑ to go inside an event and to sit alongside all these other people who, you know, paid to be there, who went there — I assume, not like you, to learn what this is all about, but because they are on board with what this tour is promoting. So I’m happy that you got to see this up close, to sort of test your understanding of what’s going on in this part of the Christian nationalism movement.


Segment 2: The Pastors for Trump event (starting at 05:29)

HOLLY: Well, we’ve spoken a little bit about this, Amanda. I know you were down there for a couple of days, and there were different events. But the first thing I wanted to hear your thoughts on was this gathering of Pastors for Trump.

We had learned that there was such an organization coming together, because you had recently done an interview for The Guardian, and that explains some of the nature of this new group, Pastors for Trump. But then you wanted to be in the room to see exactly what that was about.

AMANDA: So Pastors for Trump is a newly formed organization, and it’s organized as a 501(c)(4), and unlike 501(c)(3)s that are charitable nonprofits, donations to 501(c)(4)s are not tax deductible, and also 501(c)(4)s, unlike (c)(3)s, can actually intervene in campaigns for candidates for public office. So they don’t have the same restrictions on campaign involvement that 501(c)(3)s do.

HOLLY: So this is a group specifically organized to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump for president.

AMANDA: That’s right. And Peter Stone of The Guardian did a great piece we’ll link in show notes, some really great reporting. Jackson Lahmeyer, who was himself a candidate for office in Oklahoma and is a pastor in Oklahoma, is the person who has organized Pastors for Trump, and he’s quoted at length in The Guardian piece by Peter Stone. He was also present at this event and organized this event, which is the first ever in-person gathering of Pastors for Trump.

HOLLY: Well, you were there at that first ever event ‑‑

AMANDA: In on the ground floor.

HOLLY: And I think just to step back just for a minute, you know, we’re all familiar with the way that Donald Trump courted evangelicals in his campaign, the way that he used religious talk in a way that was different from other candidates. We often saw the misuse of religion distorting Christianity and distorting tax law. It was pretty common in the Trump candidacy.

And I think you said in that Peter Stone article that this Pastors for Trump was sort of the next level ‑‑ right? ‑‑ kind of amping up this idea of merging religious actors specifically, just for the purpose of electing Trump.

AMANDA: Yeah. Trump has tried to capitalize on the leadership of pastors for his own political purposes for years, and now these pastors are saying, Sure, we’re in for you, and we’ll organize a 501(c)(4) for you, and we don’t really care what impact it has on our ministry. I think that they see their ministry as trying to elect Trump as president. I think that’s their goal.

HOLLY: All right. Well, I’m hoping that’s a small crowd, but tell me what you saw.

AMANDA: Well, it was a smallish room at the Trump property, so this was a pre-event. Guthrie and I had gotten tickets, and this was — I guess — included in our ticket, but there was no one at the door taking tickets. It was kind of an all-comer . There was no sense of security. The one rule we had about going to this entire event was not to wear a mask, that if we wore a mask, we would be thrown out.

HOLLY: That was not your rule, Amanda.

AMANDA: No, no. This is Pastors for Trump’s rule and the ReAwaken America tour. That was the only thing that could ‑‑

HOLLY: That they made very clear.

AMANDA: Yeah. That’s the only thing we could not bring into the event. So we showed up without our masks and went into an incredibly crowded room, full of people who had not been vaccinated and — was probably violating a lot of fire hazards to be in this packed room. I will say I did not think most of the people in the room were pastors.

HOLLY: Yeah. I was wondering.

AMANDA: So it started with ‑‑ or at least when we walked in the room, they were having a song, a praise and worship song, and that was something that was very moving to a lot of people in the room. And I will say there was nothing about that song that was overtly political. That could have been a song in any kind of worship service that probably many of the people there attend every week. Right?

But then it quickly went into more of a political organizing event. There were rally-type speeches, but also calls for fundraising. They need to raise donations in order to run ads or whatever 501(c)(4) activities this Pastors for Trump is going to do, so there were repeated calls to make donations and to do them in a lot of different ways.

And Michael Flynn was there, and he made a long speech, and he also was going to be one of the main speakers for the conference. There were some people who were making some prophecies about Trump being reelected.

HOLLY: It sounds like it was a real mix, even though organized as, you know, sort of a religious pre-show and pastors event. You said Michael Flynn was there, and you said ‑‑ you told me before Roger Stone was there.


HOLLY: So kind of the big leaders that are obviously not religious leaders in the movement. But they were mixed in then with these other speakers who were pastors.

AMANDA: That’s right. And there were at least three pastors there from the state of Oklahoma, so Oklahoma was very well-represented on the stage. And one of those pastors, John Bennett, made a speech in which he made some very explicit calls for violence and political violence and exhorting the crowd, which I found incredibly troubling and really irresponsible and dangerous.

And it wasn’t just the calls that he made but the response from the crowd. So we’re going to play a clip here so you can hear both of those things from this Pastors for Trump event.

PASTOR BENNETT: (audio clip) We’re at a time and place where evil’s called good and good is called evil. We’re at a time and place where God is rising up an army of faithful believers.


CROWD: (audio clip) (Crowd cheering.)


PASTOR BENNETT: (audio clip) And make no mistake about it, we are here for such a time as this, and I’m excited about that, and so should you.


CROWD: (audio clip) (Crowd cheering.)


PASTOR BENNETT: (audio clip) Did you ever hear that Christian song, When ‑‑ it goes something to the effect of, “Lord, my enemies have me surrounded but you have my enemies surrounded.” That’s where we’re at today.


You know, what, in military terms, as General Flynn can understand, we had a famous military general one time, he said ‑‑ one of his Marines came up to him and said, Sir, we’re surrounded. He said, That simplifies things; now we can shoot in every direction.


CROWD: (audio clip) (General laughter and cheering.)


PASTOR BENNETT: (audio clip) You should be proud to be in God’s army. We are God’s army, and God is raising up some Davids, some Daniels, some Moses, and some Elijahs for such a time as this. We need more Elijahs on Mount Carmel that brings down the Holy Ghost Spirit of fire down upon the enemies that we face today, because we can and we will win this fight in the name of Jesus.


CROWD: (audio clip) (Crowd cheering.)

HOLLY: Well, that was disturbing.

I understand that it’s important for us to share this information and this segment of Christian nationalism, particularly because it involves some kind of power players who are very close to Donald Trump and whom he recently has said would be part of his new administration.

But, you know, it’s really hard to hear that. We understand the variety of the ways that religion’s expressed in our society and in different churches. And fortunately, it sounds nothing like any of the Christian churches that I have been a part of and that so many people that I know have been a part of and that reflect so much of the way Christianity operates in our country.

That’s a really disturbing expression of, you know, biblical language used for personal political motives and doing so, you know, with an underlying threat of violence. What did you see in the room? How were other people responding around you? We could hear some of them.

AMANDA: Well, I felt like they were answering what this religious leader ‑‑ it’s hard to say that ‑‑ was asking them to do. You know, I feel for them ‑‑ I’ve been asked before, you know, How much of this is really a religious cause? How much of this is a political cause? And I’ve said, you know, I think it’s more of a political cause, using religious language for its aims.

And I still think that’s true for the leaders. But for the people in the room, I think it’s a religious cause, but I think it’s a religion of Trump and for Trump. You know, it’s become so merged, it’s become ‑‑ so much a part of what their spiritual calling is has become this political calling that it really is a religious cause, so when people ‑‑ we heard their responses, but there were also raised hands and “thank you, Jesus,” and “I’m here for you, Jesus,” and, you know, all of these things that this is ‑‑ this is what they think they’re supposed to be doing.

We had a conversation, Holly, I’ll say for our listeners before we came on, you know, should we really play this. And this is fringe. This is extreme. But I think it’s important for people to understand that this is the kind of language that’s happening in these rooms and that they’re organizing in a way that is effective, violently effective ‑‑ right? ‑‑ but is effective and that people are galvanizing around this cause, and I think it’s important that we, in the broader culture, are understanding that and are working to provide both a counter-witness but also to be aware ‑‑

HOLLY: Uh‑huh.

AMANDA: — of how urgent the threat really is.


Segment 3: ReAwaken America, baptisms, and our counter-witness (starting at 15:34)

HOLLY: Well, that was the pre-conference event, so I know everyone’s eager to understand what happened at the event itself. So you showed up the next day ‑‑ right? ‑‑ for a full day of activities.

AMANDA: I did. I did not stay for the full two-day event. The entire event is a full two days of programming with just speaker after speaker after speaker, with praise and worship music mixed in and sermons mixed in, and prayer mixed in. So it’s ‑‑ the Christian nationalism is thoroughly woven throughout the entire event.

I will refer listeners to Brian Kaylor at Word&Way and writings that he’s done for his newsletter A Public Witness. Brian is a better person than I am — is able to sit and listen through all of these speeches. I could only take so much, but he’s doing a real public service and did some great reporting on what he heard, so we’ll link to his work in the notes to this podcast.

But it was just a steady stream of misinformation and lies about COVID vaccines, about the election, sometimes sowing mistrust in American currency. It was really bizarre. It was a lot of misinformation and saying that you can’t trust anything that you’re not hearing within these four walls ‑‑


AMANDA: — that saying ‑‑ “mainstream media” was repeated a lot, like, “The mainstream media will tell you” ‑‑ something I learned here is that they include Fox News in mainstream media, so with the firing of Tucker Carlson, now Fox News is not a trusted news source anymore. And so you can only get your news from the people at this conference.

Michael Flynn called it a master class, saying you’re getting a two-day master class, and it’s your responsibility to share all this information with people when you go home, so really creating this self-contained media environment that allows all this misinformation and disinformation to spread.

HOLLY: So were you in like one big ballroom the whole time, and it was just a list of speakers coming on, one after the other? Or did you break into small groups or anything, or what was it like?

AMANDA: Well, the program was all in one big ballroom. There was VIP seating at the front. We were not VIPs, so we sat towards the back, but there were the big screens, so you could see the speakers more closely. And then they would have different websites on the bottom of the screen to go for this information you’re not going to hear anywhere else — because it’s not true. And they would just come up, one after the other.

Clay Clark, who’s one of the organizers of the tour, he was acting kind of as the emcee for a lot of it, and ‑‑ which struck me as ‑‑ his cadence was almost like an auctioneer. You know, it was just like this very fast, rapid-fire. You had to really ‑‑ kind of caught off guard, you missed half of it. But there was a lot of repetition. I think that this is very much what all the other tour events are like. It’s just the same information that they repeat over and over.

HOLLY: So it’s really the branding of this ReAwaken America tour. It’s a branding of this kind of self-contained event with its people that they’re hoping to show up in different cities, that, I guess, then becomes part of the “elect Trump” machinery. Would that be fair to say?

AMANDA: I think that’s right. And there’s also a marketing component to this, so all of these people are also selling things and selling their consulting services, and those were being promoted from the stage and asking people to go show up in different places.

And then there was — as in a lot of other conferences — there was an area out front where you could buy different things as well.

HOLLY: I had not seen a lot of reporting on this event before you went down there, and then the reporting that I did see that made the news was the fact that some people were going to be at this event, were going to speak at the event. I think there were two prominent speakers who are known to espouse antisemitic views and promote antisemitic activity that were sort of outed.

They were going to be at this tour, and then once, I guess, some people found out what they were doing, what they were saying, they were disinvited, and they weren’t going to be there anymore, although as I heard it reported, while they were kicked off the agenda, they were not kicked off the website. It’s unclear to what extent the ReAwaken America tour actually was distancing themselves from these speakers.

AMANDA: Right. I think that whole example shows there’s even so far that the ReAwaken America tour won’t go, or they felt like it was hurting their branding to have this negative attention by having these speakers. But they did not take the antisemitism out of the event.

I heard several speakers repeating antisemitic tropes from the stage, so the sentiments that were going to be spoken by these most extreme figures were still there. And I think the takeaway is we should not think that just because they disinvited two speakers, it was not an extreme event. This was extremism.

HOLLY: Yeah. It sounds like a really strange conglomeration of a bunch of different interests, a really confusing couple of days of roadshow, as I said, a Christian nationalism roadshow.

AMANDA: Yeah. And there was also an attempt ‑‑ and this was, I think, one of the most disturbing parts, apart from the calls for political violence — which I think is the most disturbing. But second was the way that they used baptism, the symbolism of baptism, to bring people into the fold of the ReAwaken America tour.

So ‑‑ and this is not the first time they’ve done this, but at all these tour events, there’s a time for baptism, and here it was set up on the porch outside, right outside the ballroom, and there was an inflatable kiddie pool filled with water, and a very long line of people, waiting to be baptized.

HOLLY: For me, of course, when you say, baptism, I think of a holy event that happens within church communities to symbolize an acceptance and being part of Christian community, and there’s a lot of different ways we could talk about baptism. But this has been part of the agenda, to hold baptisms in this tour.

AMANDA: It is, and ‑‑ it has been, and I’ve seen the reporting, and I was confused in some ways, Holly, because sometimes when people would talk about the baptisms, they’d focus on the full immersion and this idea, oh, these people fully go under the water and then come back up. And you and I are Baptists.

HOLLY: We know that’s not as weird as people might think.

AMANDA: In fact, we’ve both done it.

HOLLY: That’s right.

You know, people get baptized with christening or sprinkling at infancy in some traditions, at the dedication of babies. It’s known as baptism. But also, yes, we come from the Baptist tradition that has a practice of going under the water and back up, and it has a very specific meaning in our Christian tradition.

AMANDA: Yeah. And for Baptists ‑‑ you know, this is kind of the larger conversation we have often in our podcast conversations. This was part of our historical religious liberty tradition, that in some of the established colonies, Baptists were persecuted for doing this full-immersion baptism.

So all that to say, I thought, are people just weirded out by the idea of full-immersion baptism.

HOLLY: Uh‑huh.

AMANDA: But, no.

In this case, this was not like any full-immersion baptism I’d ever seen. For one thing, there was no relationship there between the people who were in the line and the people who were doing the baptism. There was no sense that a decision had been made.

That’s part of what I think about in baptism, that you have made a decision to dedicate your life to Jesus and that you are dying to your old way of life, and you’re being raised to walk in the newness of life, and that’s part of the liturgy that’s said. There was no liturgy here.

They weren’t saying anything to the people who were being baptized. They were just going down and coming up, and then the next one. It was an assembly line. And so it just was like, what exactly are you being baptized into? And many of the people were wearing whatever they had worn to the tour itself, and so they had ReAwaken America tour T-shirts. I saw someone get baptized in a QAnon T-shirt and Trump T-shirts.

So whatever it was, it wasn’t the kind of Christian religious service that you and I are familiar with or that many of our listeners would be familiar with, but it was using this ‑‑

HOLLY: Symbolism.

AMANDA: — sacred symbolism of baptism for this political   cause. And I tweeted about what I saw with these baptisms on the porch, and we’ll link to that post in the show notes.

HOLLY: Well, Amanda, thank you for painting that picture for us. But I think people would like to hear about how you showed up on behalf of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, and so many people who are eager to not only call out all of this bad behavior but to present a better witness, a better witness for Christianity, a better witness for America, and to be seen. So tell us about what Christians Against Christian Nationalism did down in Miami this week.

AMANDA: Our main purpose for being in Miami was not to go to the tour, although that had some important learnings, but was to provide this alternative witness of what it means to be a Christian in the public square and what our responsibility is. And here it is to speak out against Christian nationalism and call it out for the gross distortion of the teachings of Jesus that it is.

And so Christians Against Christian Nationalism worked with Faithful America and with other national and local faith leaders and held a press conference during the day on Friday, so at the same time the tour events were going on, we had an event at a nearby Episcopal church.

And we had these mobile billboards that were parked temporarily behind us to provide a backdrop at the press conference — which was livestreamed and which a number of members of the media did cover. And then those mobile billboards drove around the area of Miami, close to where the event was being held, so that people who were around that area could see our counter-witness.

HOLLY: What I noticed when you put that on Twitter so that you could see that Christians Against Christian Nationalism signage and show that there are other people down in Miami being clear that they disagreed with what was going on in that tour, I saw such an outpouring of positive responses. Just so many people are like, Yes, I need to see this; I want to hear this; thanks for your work, and, you know, more people need to join this cause and make their voices heard. So I know that just seeing that was powerful for a lot of people in the area and around the country.

AMANDA: Yeah. And we did something fun that was Miami-flavored: In addition to the mobile billboards, we also had a boat that sailed around the Miami River and that had a rotating screen that had a lot of different messages. We also were able to show the logos of a number of different national faith organizations that were endorsing this effort.

And so we’re so grateful for all of the partners who helped share our witness, and we posted — of course — on social media, and as you note, Holly, we had a huge outpouring of support for what we were doing. So some people might wonder about, well, you know, how effective is this advertising. Well, our audience is not the people who were at the tour. Our audience is everyone else. Our audience is to say, This does not stand for all Christianity, and in fact, someone added up all of the people represented by the logos alone. That was three million. Right? But that’s just the people who were actively involved through their organizations in what we were doing. But I really believe we were speaking out for many more millions of Christians who are horrified by what’s happening at the ReAwaken America tour and are grateful to see that we’re organizing a strong response.

And, of course, our organizing is not just a press conference. It’s not just advertising, but it’s the work that we’re doing day in, day out at BJC and at Christians Against Christian Nationalism and also all these other organizations are doing. So there’s a broad, diverse network and coalition of groups and individuals who care deeply about our faith and our democracy and are committed to dismantling Christian nationalism.

HOLLY: Well, thank you, Amanda. Thank you for being there and for reporting on this. And you are exactly right that the work of Christians Against Christian Nationalism is going to go on. It’s multifaceted. And hopefully your time down there and the presence of the campaign there will make more people go to the site, explore Christians Against Christian Nationalism as a very important resource for conversations in your community.

Maybe it will inspire some listeners to really add to the numbers, to just show that we’re the majority — not these people, but we’re the majority of Christians who support our democracy, who support our faith freedom nation, and who are willing to do the work to really protect democracy, and we’ll continue to fight Christian nationalism and to report on the different ways that our listeners can join us.

That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. For more details on what we discussed, including links to the articles and resources we mentioned, check out our show notes.

AMANDA: If you enjoyed today’s show, share this program with others on social media and tag us. We’re on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube @BJContheHill, and you can follow me on Twitter @AmandaTylerBJC.

HOLLY: As always, you can email both of us by writing to [email protected].

AMANDA: Thank you for supporting this program. You can visit our show notes for a link to donate to support this podcast, and for more episodes, you can see a full list of shows, including transcripts, by visiting RespectingReligion.org.

HOLLY: We encourage you to take a moment to find out more about BJC and how we’ve been working for faith freedom for all since 1936. Visit our website at BJConline.org for a look at what we do and some of our latest projects.

AMANDA: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.