For Christian nationalists, Eastern Washington is the promised land

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward appeared at an event linked to Matt Shea and religious extremists who have made inroads in the Inland Northwest.

A photo illustration of the evangelical Christian singer Sean Feucht ontage in Olympia.

Sean Feucht onstage near the state capitol in Olympia on July 28. (Aaron Hedge/Valerie Osier for RANGE Media)

This story was originally published by RANGE Media and is republished here with permission.

Every rock show needs an opener to juice the crowd.

On a late-July evening at the Washington Capitol Grounds in Olympia, it was Treasa Sabo setting the stage for celebrity Christian worship pastor Sean Feucht. But rather than play music, Sabo, striding confidently across the stage, led the revelers crowded around Tivoli Fountain in prayer. 

“We welllllcome you, Holy Spirit!” called out Sabo, a pastor at Olympia’s Woodland Church. Sabo invited the Holy Spirit to enter the Capitol. 

She commanded the crowd to pray. They did. She spoke in tongues. Some in the audience joined her. Two large speaker arrays projected Sabo’s unknown language more than three football fields across the Capitol campus.

Thousands of hands reached toward the sky. Some of those hands held shofars – an ancient instrument made from an animal horn. A Jewish ritual object used worldwide, it carries religious and state symbolism in both historic and contemporary Israel. The shofar was blown to announce the Sabbath and key holidays, and Hebrew warriors blew it during the siege of the walled city of Jericho in the Book of Joshua. Today it is still used during the swearing-in ceremony for the Israeli President

In the U.S., the shofar has become a symbol of political resistance for some evangelical Christians, and was blown by rioters in the January 6 storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The use of the shofar by evangelicals is controversial and considered cultural appropriation.

A screen to the side of the stage lit up with an advertisement for Feucht’s efforts. Styled like a trailer for a Michael Bay film, it juxtaposed riot scenes in cities with flash cuts of Feucht standing up to government COVID-19 restrictions on the Golden Gate Bridge and close-ups of people rising from baptisteries – pools of water into which sinners are plunged in an act of surrender to God’s will, emerging born-again. 

The bass dropped and shook the worshipers’ guts. The mood steadily intensified. Ambient music filled the campus, and a few dozen pastors came onstage. Matt Shea, the former Spokane Valley state representative and pastor of Spokane’s On Fire Ministries, stood in the group’s center. 

Jay Koopman, a pastor of Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, Calif., wearing a tie-dye T-shirt of red, white and blue, emceed. “How many of you guys believe that Jesus Christ is on the throne in the state of Washington?” Koopman questioned the crowd. 

They cheered. They believed. Shea threw his arms up.

Koopman, a good friend of Feucht’s who regularly opens for his events, yelled into the microphone, leaning forward over the stage, and pointed his fingers at the crowd as he referenced the capitol.

“I believe today that angels are gonna ascend and descend in that building, that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” he said, gesturing toward the halls of the legislature. “We’re not here to wrestle against flesh and blood. We’re here to destroy darkness, powers and principalities.” 

Then Koopman said, “On the count of three, we’re gonna let out the loudest war cry that’s gonna wake up everybody in this state.”

He counted one … two … three … and the crowd of about 6,000 whooped.

Feucht joined the stage in mustard-colored pants, a jean jacket, sunglasses and a trucker cap. His blond locks spilled from the hat over his shoulders. He spoke about the importance that Christians maintain a “joyful” spirit of resistance against secular government despite an always-looming adversary, which on this night took the form of about 15 protesters from the Satanist House of Heretics gathered in the distance under a tree.

“Tonight,” Feucht said, “we’re laughing at the pathetic attempts of the Enemy to stop an unstoppable kingdom.”

Matt Shea and Sean Feucht lay hands in prayer on Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward on Aug. 20, 2023 at the Podium. (Courtesy of Joseph Peterson)

Kingdom to the Capitol

This was the 22nd stop on the 2023-2024 Kingdom to the Capitol (K2C) tour. K2C is one star in Feucht’s constellation of national Christian movements, and the Olympia date was organized in part by several Christian activists and pastors from Spokane, who then took the tour to Salem and Boise. Among those organizers were Spokane-area locals Caleb Collier and Gavan Spies, acting as representatives of Turning Point USA Faith – a relatively new offshoot of the conservative organization.

On Aug. 20, those same activists brought Feucht to Spokane for a Let Us Worship event, part of a different Feucht praise tour that began as a protest of COVID restrictions, but which has since morphed into a general-purpose anti-government protest that asserts: “Politicians and social media giants have engaged in unchartered [sic] abuses of religious liberty, silencing the faithful, banning our voices, and outright attacking our God-given right to declare His goodness.”

During the event, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who is running for reelection, took to the stage with other local political candidates to receive prayers and an endorsement from Shea. 

Other candidates who joined Woodward onstage included Earl Moore, Spokane City Council candidate for District 3, and Spokane Valley City Council candidate Jessica Yaeger. Natalie Poulson, who unsuccessfully ran for the Washington State Legislature in 2022, also joined.

Four years ago, Woodward had denounced what she called Shea’s “divisive and extreme rhetoric and ideology,” but onstage, they struck a chord of reconciliation, with Shea putting his hand on Woodward's shoulder as he prayed.

While Woodward declined to answer RANGE's requests for comment about her participation, her campaign released a statement the following day that mischaracterized the nature of the pre-planned event and claimed Shea “chose to politicize a gathering of thousands of citizens who joined together yesterday to pray for fire victims and first responders.” Later that same day Woodward released another statement that she did not seek nor accept Shea’s support: “I am opposed to his political views as they are a threat to our democracy, and I regret my public appearance with him.”

Moore told RANGE that she had attended the event as a “prayer warrior,” and declined further comment.

The unstoppable kingdom Feucht was talking about on stage in Olympia is the same one Shea advocates for frequently on his Inland Northwest broadcast Patriot Radio – and is the focus of the Christian nationalist movement.

Christian nationalism has simmered in the American psyche for decades, but in the last 15 years it has boiled over with increasing frequency into the public square, energized by growing resistance to cultural liberalism. Keystone events like the election of the nation’s first Black president, the presidency of Donald Trump and pandemic shutdowns have fueled the growing movement. Though many Christian nationalists see that phrase as derogatory, some embrace it and agree its definition is apt: They want the Christian God in control of government.

The Inland Northwest has long been a nexus of movements across the extreme right, from the militia movement to white nationalism to sects of Christian identitarianism in many forms and flavors. 

For some Christian nationalists, the Inland Northwest is even more than a nexus. It is the promised land. A place for believers to gather and eventually rule, whether the ultimate name for that holy country is the Unstoppable Kingdom, the State of Liberty or the American Redoubt.

The movement’s growth has been so significant that Christian nationalism has moved from a supporting actor on the broad right to a star of the show, with large national rightwing organizations like Turning Point USA making a concerted effort to attract the faithful to a brand that had previously focused on college-campus culture wars.

When TPUSA Faith went looking for leaders of its Northwest region, it didn’t look to a leader of a massive west-side prosperity gospel megachurch. Instead, it looked toward the Redoubt and found Collier, an ally of Matt Shea, and Spies, the TPUSA Faith Senior Strategic Manager, who was an adjunct instructor of communication studies at Eastern Washington University from 2020 until January of this year. Both Collier and Spies are veterans of the Marine Corps.

‘The entire earth would be Christian’

Christian nationalism has many different shades, but a core idea is that Christians should be making laws on behalf of their God, and that’s what Feucht says he wants. Some aspirants go even further, imagining a Christian polity spanning the entire globe. One of those more ambitious theorists hails from the Inland Northwest. 

In a June sermon, Shea presented a flow chart to convert the entire world, starting with new Christians who would “disciple” 12 people, like Jesus did.

“You realize, if this model was ever actually followed, the earth – the entire earth – would be Christian in less than 20 years,” the pastor told his congregation, displaying the chart on a projector.

In some ways, the movement reflects the Seven Mountain Mandate, which states Christians must take over and pull seven social realms toward Jesus: education, religion, family, business, government and military, arts and entertainment, and media. They say in a national network of podcasts, think tanks and activist organizations that they won’t stop until they achieve their kingdom.

“We want God to be in control of everything,” Feucht declared at an Oklahoma church in April. “We want believers to be the ones writing the laws.”

None of this is to say that the Christian nationalists have been rigidly pious in their quest for political power. People like Shea and Feucht have shrugged off Trump’s decidedly un-Christlike behavior – three marriages, a bevy of sexual-assault accusations, a habit of stiffing contractors – toward the larger goal of collapsing the church/state partition. Without scores of believers like them, the real estate mogul may never have been elected. 

And while Trump is an imperfect vessel, the success of this alliance in advancing the core goals of Christian nationalists is hard to overstate: States that fund private schools are now required to also fund religious schools. Gay people cannot be sure they’ll be served by businesses in the secular marketplace. 2SLGBTQIA+ and Black history books are banned over Christian and nationalist grievances. Conservative lawmakers across the country are working to ban everything from healthcare for trans people to drag queen story hours. Roe v. Wade has been overturned, a federal abortion ban is under discussion, and more than 20 states have codified abortion bans or severe restrictions.

Not all Christians

Across the street from the Olympia K2C event sat the quiet United Churches of Olympia, whose website states: “The United Churches makes explicit the welcome of LGBTQIA+ folks and we are committed to advocating for transgender, gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities in the church and society.”

Though surveys have shown more than 60% of Christians believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation and believe it should be one, a robust landscape of churches in the Pacific Northwest embrace the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

That landscape is evident in a letter signed by dozens of regional faith leaders to Washington, Oregon and Idaho state legislators just before the Olympia event. The letter, organized by Kate Bitz, a Spokane-based program manager for the Western States Center, encouraged lawmakers to oppose the K2C events.

The letter reads in part: “[Feucht’s] organizational partner on this 50-state tour, Turning Point USA Faith, recently hosted a pastors’ summit where speakers declared that LGBTQ+-inclusive Christian denominations are ‘going in an evil direction,’ and repeatedly referenced Matthew 18 to suggest that LGBTQ+ people and their allies deserve death. We reject these attempts to cloak bigotry in religious language, and we ask you to do the same.”

Bitz suggested that members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community can practice their faith and that resources exist for them in the Pacific Northwest.

“If people want to push back against this, it is incredibly important to understand that there are a lot of faith leaders who have a very different idea of what it means to have a faith voice in government,” Bitz told RANGE. “This particular group is pushing a disturbingly narrow vision of who belongs in our communities, who belongs in our government and who deserves civil rights in our country.”

The pastor gets political, the politician becomes a pastor

Feucht, who Rolling Stone last year dubbed a “holy troller,” hails from Montana and is a former worship pastor at Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. He left the ministry to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in California’s 3rd Congressional District in 2020, but lost in the primary with  14% of the vote. Feucht, 40, is a missionary and musician who used his talents to bring the message of salvation to places like Afghanistan. Since his political loss, which in his memoirs he described as devastating, Feucht has fused his Christian faith and political beliefs into a comprehensive ideology. 

As Feucht was doing that, Shea was leaving elected office without rejecting politics, by trading a legislative seat for a pastor’s pulpit.

Shea was expelled from the Washington State Republican caucus after an independent investigation concluded he had engaged in domestic terrorism for his presence at the Bunkerville standoff in southern Nevada in 2014; a standoff in Priest River, Idaho in 2015; and the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016.

Rather than run for reelection to a seat he would have almost certainly won again, Shea became a pastor for the Covenant Christian Church in Spokane. He resigned less than one year later to found his own movement, On Fire Ministries and Kingdom Christian Academy, a church and school where he mingles his interpretations of Scripture with specific instructions for how his fellow believers might make an impact on local elections.

Conservative political movements looking for an infusion of zeal have wielded the power of faith for centuries. The ideology that fueled the violent reaction against the French Revolution wasn’t just the idea that France should be ruled by a king, but that the king’s position at the head of the French nation was ordained by the Catholic, Christian God.  

In the U.S., political conservatism has had a long and fruitful partnership with Christian conservatism, from the John Birch Society to the Moral Majority. But building political power for conservatives who are Christian is not the same as remaking America as an expressly Christian state. So for many it is a jarring escalation, in the era of Trump, to hear far-right lawmakers like Representative Lauren Boebert directly attacking the separation of church and state. (“The church is supposed to direct the government,” she told a Colorado congregation last year.)

But if we truly  have reached a tipping point, it didn’t happen overnight. 

Historian Kevin Kruse, in his 2015 book One Nation Under God, traces the origins of this moment back to the 1930s, when large American corporations, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, paid preachers to attack the New Deal from the pulpit as “pagan statism.” Kruse also notes that while adding “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and making “In God We Trust.” the national motto in 1958 was messaged as a direct assault on the Soviet state, it was also an attack on the New Deal state.

And so, although it feels like a bracing new chapter in the history of American conservatism that Shea – the legislator who became a pastor – and Feucht – the pastor who wraps politics in a coat of charismatic revival – have found a confluence in Christian Nationalism, it’s a confluence perhaps better thought of as a new verse in a century-old hymn.

The pandemic turning point

Enter Turning Point USA.

Founded in 2012 by an 18-year-old Charlie Kirk, TPUSA initially championed capitalism on college campuses around the country. They published a watchlist of professors TPUSA deemed “radical leftists,” but mostly stayed out of religion. As Trump came to power and all shades of the authoritarian Right marched openly in the streets, that cause began to feel somewhat vanilla in the conservative zeitgeist. 

For a time, white nationalist figures tried to influence TPUSA in an overtly racist direction. According to the rhetoric professor Matthew Boedy (who is named on TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist), Kirk resisted this pull but embraced a harder line on immigration. Kirk has also called George Floyd, a Black man murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020, a “scumbag,” said critical race theory is racist and, in a defense of ousted prime-time Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, appeared to endorse the notion that white people are victims of a slow genocide. That idea, known as the great replacement theory, has fueled a spate of horrific violence, including mass shootings targeting minorities.

Eventually, TPUSA found a less overtly racist path toward nationalism: Christianity. Kirk had always identified as a Christian, but TPUSA’s college organizing literature skirted social issues Christian nationalists obsess over, stating: “We also focus strictly on economic issues (no talk about abortion, gay marriage, etc.).”

Locally, Shea and Collier have demonstrated the power of framing conservative and libertarian politics within the context of claiming America as a Christian nation through their network of podcasts, social media activity and mobilization of local churches. Less than a month after COVID ground life in America to a halt in March 2020, Shea made national headlines by characterizing the disease as an anti-American plot orchestrated by the Marxist Chinese Communist Party. Shea declared subsequent restrictions an unconstitutional limitation of freedom and a direct attack on the faithful. 

By May, Shea was headlining the Reopen Spokane protests, which were framed as a straightforward protest by suffering (and non-ideological) small business owners. While Feucht was a well-known figure in right-wing circles as a former pastor at the ultra-conservative Bethel Church, it was his pandemic-era festivals fusing praise with protest, embodied by the Let Us Worship tour, that gave him a national profile. (Rolling Stone derisively called him Jesus Christ Superspreader, a label Feucht embraced by producing a documentary titled Superspreader and selling $30 black T-shirts displaying the word.)

Even after most COVID restrictions ended, Let Us Worship has continued under a banner of Christian victimhood, saying the government is out to punish Christians not for violating laws, but for simply practicing their faith. 

“After the COVID restrictions he was supposedly protesting were lifted, he has proceeded to spend the past year capitalizing on anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments by railing against Pride month,” Bitz said. “He has even embraced the exclusionary label of Christian nationalist and made a lot of claims that people with his personal narrow view of Christian theology should make all the laws in the United States.”

And while Kirk had dabbled in a faith-based crossover as early as 2019 through a partnership with Jerry Falwell Jr. (whose father founded the Moral Majority), it wasn’t until August 2020 that he launched TPUSA Faith, began touring shutdown-flouting churches and truly embraced Christianity as a vector for achieving power. TPUSA Faith’s partnership with K2C has solidified that transformation and brought together two massive brands and promotional machines.

Rather than a white ethnostate, conservatives could advocate a biblical state instead; it would appeal to a more diverse range of people and open doors to communities that white nationalism might have slammed. But Bitz pointed out that Feucht, despite insisting he carries a loving and inclusive message, has used the security services of the Proud Boys, which the Anti-Defamation League calls “a right-wing extremist group with a violent agenda,” at one of his events, including a Portland Let Us Worship stop that devolved into a violent brawl between factions after the worship concert. Bitz also noted Shea’s years-long string of brushes with anti-government violence.

“[Feucht’s activism] is not that much different than what we in the Inland Northwest know from Matt Shea’s long history of promoting political violence against our communities,” she said. “It is worrying to see Feucht link up with Shea mostly because he does not shy away from working with groups like the Proud Boys, including specific members of that group who have engaged in violence.”

After that Portland worship event, Feucht appeared to threaten the life of anyone who interfered with his security personnel, tweeting: “If you mess with them or our 1st amendment right to worship God – you’ll meet Jesus one way or another.”

Local organizers 

As it has grown, TPUSA Faith has engaged in a nationwide hiring spree of conservative organizers, including Collier and Spies.

TPUSA Faith says on its website, “We’re on a mission to engage, equip, and empower Christians to change the trajectory of our nation.” Its Faith Resources page offers a smorgasbord of materials, including faith kits and a School Board Watchlist (SBWL), which is TPUSA’s original Professor Watchlist repurposed to accommodate the new right-wing passion for tracking “school board leadership that supports anti-American, radical, hateful, immoral, and racist teachings in their districts, such as Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, sexual/gender ideology, and more.”

“We believe churches should shape culture,” Collier said in an interview this week after handing business cards to several men at The Gathering House, a Christian coffee shop in Garland.

His daily work for TPUSA Faith requires him to introduce local ministries to the organization’s free educational materials and use them to engage their congregations in civic activity.

“I go into a lot of churches,” Collier said, “and encourage them to not necessarily get political, but to address moral issues from the pulpit.”

Some pastors are uncomfortable being too political with their congregations – which could, among other things, jeopardize their tax-exempt status – so Collier said he reframes many social issues as moral rather than political.

“The way I oftentimes word it for a pastor is: ‘Is transgenderism a political issue or a moral issue?” Collier said. “And, what does the word of God say about that?”

Collier, who was careful to say he was speaking as an individual and not as a TPUSA Faith spokesperson, said that in his version of a Christian society, gay marriage would not be sanctioned by the state because the state would not be involved in any marriage. (As a federal 501c3 nonprofit, TPUSA has restrictions similar to churches’ on overt partisan speech and lobbying.) He noted individual churches could choose to officiate gay unions in a “free market of the church” where couples could shop for a ministry that catered to their needs.

“Marriage is not a state issue,” Collier said. “Marriage is a church issue.”

Placing decision-making on same-sex marriage with individual faith communities jives with Collier’s libertarian streak (libertarianism generally seeks to limit the power of governments to dictate individual behavior), but that streak goes only so far: The webpage for Collier’s podcast recently shared a meme-ified Bible verse implying LGBTQ+ pastors should be executed, and Collier said the state should outlaw abortion even for pregnancies that involve rape or incest.

“The state has the authority to punish a rapist,” he told RANGE at the Meeting House, “But the child is innocent.” 

He compared abortion and transgender acceptance to the Holocaust, and cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who helped found the underground Confessing Church, which resisted Hitler during World War II. Collier said the American church needs to oppose abortion and “transgenderism” as “moral issues” in the same way Bonhoeffer pressured the German church to oppose genocide.

“He knew that mass-murdering thousands and thousands of Jewish people was wrong, and the church had to take a stand against it,” Collier said. “It’s the same way that we view abortion. When you look at transgenderism, God said that He created male and female in His image.”

‘C’mon, let’s take it together’

In Olympia, Feucht fed the crowd some political meat before leading them in worship. “I am honored to lead you in worship tonight as the No. 1 COVID violator in the state of Washington,” he said, referring to an insult he said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had slung at him.

Feucht and the crowd then sang and danced for about 45 minutes.

As the sun sank behind the trees, the music diminished again to ambience, and volunteers, including Collier, passed out tiny plastic cups of grape juice and white wafers, like sacred Lunchables.

Feucht said communion is one of the most powerful tools of spiritual warfare. “We’re gonna take communion together, and we’re gonna plead the blood of Jesus over this state,” Feucht said. 

He said that God spoke to him when he started K2C, saying: “‘Sean, you’re not going to fight this battle the same way. As you go capitol to capitol, you’re gonna win the battle on your knees in prayer and taking communion.’”

“So what I’m gonna do right now is get on my knees, and you’re welcome to join me if you want.” 

There was a long, electric pause. People lifted their sacraments. Many knelt.

Feucht then addressed his enemies: “And by the way, these antagonists, Satanists, crazy people, they got nothing on the blood of Jesus, man. They’re funny. You … can’t unbaptize, you can’t un-anything of what God did 2,000 years ago.”

“C’mon let’s take it together,” Feucht said. They drank the blood and ate the body, and the ritual was complete.

This story was originally published by RANGE Media on Aug. 18. It has been updated with permission to reflect what happened at the Aug. 20 Let Us Worship event, and Woodward’s follow up comments. Sign up for RANGE Media’s free newsletter to get news and tools to make the Inland Northwest a better place right in your inbox.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Aaron Hedge

Aaron Hedge, originally from Colorado, earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University in June 2023. His writing explores environmental issues and the relationship between humans and animals. He grew up in a Christian home and wants to write more about end times theology.