Trump rallies, replete with prayer and passionate crowds, are said to have a tendency to turn into something resembling an evangelical Christian church service.
But at Phoenix’s Dream City Church, it’s the other way around.
One evening in May, hundreds gathered at the megachurch to attend “Freedom Night in America,” organized by Dream City’s leaders and the conservative activist group Turning Point USA. Around those buzzing about the entryway were draped innumerable variations on the U.S. flag, from traditional red, white and blue to monochrome black-and-white versions blazoned with the word “freedom.” Hats read simply “45” — for Donald Trump, the 45th U.S. president — and shirts carried the slogan, “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.”
Inside, the service was heavy on praise and worship music, much of it led by a singer in an “Uncanceled” shirt. At the altar call, Brad Baker, one of Dream City’s pastors, told the crowd he dreamed of a U.S. “built on the principles of God.”
“We’re believing that God is going to turn Arizona into a Christian state, and we will be known as a Christian state around the world,” Baker said.
The main event, however, was a pulpit talk by Charlie Kirk, the 29-year-old founder of Turning Point USA.
Events like Dream City’s “Freedom Night” are becoming more regular at evangelical megachurches. A few weeks earlier, Kirk appeared at Awaken Church in San Marcos, Calif., where he listed the founding of the U.S. alongside Christ’s resurrection in a litany of the “most important events in history.” A few weeks before that, he spoke at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, where he chastised Christians who have “gone along” with the “environmental agenda” because of “bad theology.”
His speeches satisfy the evangelical mingling of right-wing politics and Christian ministry, but TPUSA is also pitching a turn toward the culture war and what critics say is Christian nationalism as a way to fill the pews.
Pastors who associate with TPUSA often describe their embrace of Kirk’s style of activism as a spiritual cause, a protest against liberalism. But at TPUSA’s Faith Pastors Summit in San Diego last summer, passionate opposition to “wokeism” — a term pastors use to describe an array of liberal campaigns for racial justice and LGBTQ rights — was reframed as a church-growth strategy.
In a panel discussion, Tim Thompson, a California pastor who made headlines after he was detained while protesting pandemic restrictions in May 2020, testified that since clashes with school boards over what he calls “the indoctrination of our children,” he has seen “500%” growth at his church.
Other TPUSA partners have merged anti-liberal rhetoric with political defiance. Freedom Life Church in Christiana, Pa., has hosted multiple TPUSA-branded events, including a “Worldview Weekend” in April. During the gathering, senior pastor Sam Masteller asked local school board candidates to join him on stage, then urged the audience to support them — a move he suggested defied the IRS rule prohibiting churches from endorsing candidates.
TPUSA supporter Rob McCoy, pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks in California, has cozied up to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has described herself as a Christian nationalist. In an interview with the congresswoman last August, McCoy grew visibly emotional as he lauded Greene, asking God to make her president and declaring that “God is a nationalist.”
The effect of Dream City’s now monthly TPUSA events is felt at nearby churches such as Desert Springs Bible Church, where Caleb Campbell serves as pastor. At the beginning of the pandemic, Campbell said, his church drew around 700 people on a Sunday. But when Desert Springs suspended in-person worship and Campbell began preaching about racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, people began leaving.
Some of his congregants ended up at Dream City. By the time the church opened up again, attendance dipped as low as 100.
But Campbell came to believe that what TPUSA pastors see as church growth may actually be realignment, with Dream City seeing losses as well as gains. Campbell has begun to prioritize ministry to spiritual refugees from Dream City, founding a group called Disarming Leviathan and reimagining himself as a “missionary to Christian nationalists.” Desert Springs recently pushed past 300 on a Sunday.
“A lot of the folks who are at Desert Springs now, for one reason or another, felt like they were no longer welcome inside the evangelical church in Phoenix,” Campbell said, noting some of his newcomers were Dream City expats.