SILER CITY — About 30 people attended a pastors conference sponsored by the NC Faith and Freedom Coalition held last Wednesday to focus on “threats to our religious freedom today.”
The group of mostly local pastors gathered to commemorate the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protections.
“We’re looking to be able to offer this program throughout North Carolina, but we didn’t really have it quite ready yet,” Jim Quick, grassroots director at NC Faith and Freedom, told the News + Record. “This really was a grassroots, individuals in Chatham County wanting to do this event, and we had some content that kind of fit what they were asking for.”
The coalition is a self-described “nonpartisan organization that supports Biblical principles” working to “connect people of faith to the political process.” Its “Salt and Light Conference” in September featured panels and speeches by many prominent conservatives, including Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn.
Discussion during Wednesday’s event mentioned threats to Christianity, including the fear of retribution for posting beliefs or Bible verses online or on social media platforms, or being unable to pray at work or school.
Though the event was billed around the theme of religious freedom, it primarily focused on the importance of organizing evangelical Christians to vote in officials who will advocate for “biblical principles.” Those principles aren’t explicitly listed on the coalition’s website, but the website lists "our issues" as being pro-life and pro ("traditional") marriage, as well as promoting religious liberty, criminal justice reform, school choice and combating human trafficking.
“We believe that we should be in the public square, holding our faith and upholding our values everywhere,” Quick said at Wednesday’s event. “That doesn’t mean that we’re disrespectful to others, it doesn’t mean that we don’t listen to others. But we are bold, and we are predictable in our faith.”
He encouraged those present to make sure they were registered to vote, adding that the coalition had registration forms on hand for anyone not already registered.
“It’s so important for you as a principled person to be able to be practicing these things in the public square,” he said.
The First Amendment contains two provisions concerning religion: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Free Exercise clause protects citizens’ right to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not greatly conflict with “public morals” or a “compelling” governmental interest. The Establishment clause prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion and upholds the separation of church and state.
While last Wednesday’s event focused on religious freedoms, a former NC Faith and Freedom event included comments by Robinson, who was elected Lt. Gov. in 2020, saying that the U.S. is and has always been a “Christian nation” and inviting those who disagreed to leave the country.
“If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your plane, train, or automobile ticket right up out of here,” he told attendees at the coalition’s September “Salt & Light” event. “You can go to some place that’s not a Christian nation.”
Robinson’s political speeches are often include religious themes, and frequently assert that Christians are being persecuted in public schools and culture generally. His guest sermons at churches across the state have also included disparaging comments against LGBTQ people. Though controversial, his views are generally accepted by conservative evangelicals, including the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and uncriticized by fellow Republican lawmakers.
Quick said the coalition generally disagrees with the idea that people who aren’t Christians should leave the country.
“I can’t talk to why the Lt. Gov. — what his viewpoint is and those comments, I was not there,” Quick told the News + Record regarding Robinson’s comments at an American Renewal Project luncheon. “So I would tend to say they were probably taken out of context, but I’ve not watched the whole video — so I don’t know why he made that comment.”
After the News + Record clarified that Robinson made the comments in question at the coalition’s “Salt & Light” conference and read the quote, Quick said his response was the same.
“You know, that’s his viewpoint. I think there’s certainly lots of historical data that says many of the people that came to America were a people of Christian faith when they came here,” he said. “Where I probably would disagree with the Lt. Gov. is probably telling people to get out of our state — that’s not just something that we advocate for, because again, we’re trying to educate voters on the issues and engage them to be more civically minded.
“So that’s just not something that we would say,” Quick said.
Four of the speakers at the Chatham event on Wednesday — Natalya Androsova and Elena Gatt, Nick Fugh and Pastor Antonio Llega from Siler City — immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s and ‘90s from Russia, China and Cuba, respectively, leaving behind socialist and communist governments. They spoke about the lack of food, medical care and religious freedom in their home countries, and they suggested that communism and socialism were already present in the U.S.
“It’s an astonishing, astonishing piece of law and a part of our Constitution that many of us just take for granted because we were born here, and our families have lived here their whole lives,” Quick said of the First Amendment. “And so we wanted to mark the anniversary of the ratification to allow others that have not lived here all their lives to talk about what it really is like to live in other parts of the world that don’t have those freedoms.”
The event’s speakers blamed, without giving specifics, young people and liberal thought for the arrival of socialism and communism in America, and emphasized the importance of control over education to stand against brainwashing. No one directly mentioned Critical Race Theory, or the Republican-led education anti-CRT bills introduced throughout the country and in N.C., but GOP legislators have frequently used similar talking points to advocate for changes in how students learn about race and history in school.
Speakers didn’t give a definition of communism or socialism at the event, or specific examples of how the political ideologies are present in the country and creating threats to religious freedom.
Quick said many evangelicals were upset when churches were forced to close at the beginning of the pandemic.
(In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, every state issued guidelines or orders limiting social gatherings, which originally included places of worship. By the end of April 2020, only 10 states prevented in-person religious gatherings in any form, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, with most other states including exemptions for religious gatherings to balance religious freedom concerns with safe social distancing practices. A federal judge’s May 2020 ruling led to N.C. places of worship being exempted from pandemic restrictions.)
“The other thing that’s problematic in our society from our viewpoint is our culture is identifying things that may be taboo, or things that we shouldn’t talk about,” Quick said. “And we’re trying to, as a culture, apply that to what can and cannot be talked about at the pulpit.”
Quick said “elements of socialism,” including the concept of equity, “has crept into the Democratic platform.”
Coalition’s Ambassador Paul Brintley spoke briefly at the event about how liberals leverage racism to justify policies like welfare. Brintley was one of two Black pastors present and gave all the pastors present a copy of his book, “Black Lies Matter Too.” The 147-page book is listed at $24.99 on Amazon.com.
Brintley also encouraged those present to support the Coalition by bringing similar events to their churches or bible studies, or by becoming a donor and part of the coalition’s “Inner Circle.” The six donor levels range from $35 per year to $10,000.
The ideas promoted at Wednesday’s event are popular among many evangelicals and according to Quick, organizations like NC Faith and Freedom are organizing to increase voter turnout regarding such issues in upcoming elections.
“In Faith and Freedom we’re not looking for a theocracy in our nation. We’re looking for men and women of God to be called to whatever position to use their values, use their God-given talents wherever it might be,” Quick said at the event. “We go across the state to be able to help people understand who is running for office and where they sit on those positions under the situation of salt and light, and we also advocate for Christian perspectives and values with anyone that’s in elected office.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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