It’s the first Sunday of Pride month and reactionary pastor Hank Kunneman of Lord of Hosts Church in Omaha, Nebraska is preaching the Word. His audience is comprised of a couple hundred faithful in person and an online audience of what the church says is “60,000 connections.” I’ve tuned in after reading Jeff Sharlet’s new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, which describes the author’s visit to the church.
Pastor Hank: “There’s a sexual revolution that’s coming in reverse! Pride comes before what now?” The congregation: “A fall!” Stoking the fires, the pastor and his congregation together imagine the gays in their Pride-month orgies, wanton women and their abortion doctors, Planned Parenthood workers distributing the pill, high school counselors passing out condoms, high school students checking out teen queer romance books in the school library. And they imagine—or “delight in” as the King James Bible might put it—their eventual downfall.
After he attended a service at Lord of Hosts, Sharlet, a Jewish man frail of heart, stood in the parking lot talking to women who had just come out of the church and were happy to discuss their faith in Jesus Christ. But then the hired guns of Pastor Hank Kunneman—full body armor, extra magazines, thin blue line American flag t-shirts—came out and put an end to the interview. They winked and nodded and promised not to harm him—as long as he did just what they asked.
Lord of Hosts was the last church on the tour Sharlet took for the book through what you might call “Ashli Babbit country.” Babbit, the conspiracy theorist and insurrectionist shot while trying to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election, has become a martyr for one of the United States’ two major political parties. In The Undertow, Sharlet, who has spent more than two decades writing about Evangelical fundamentalism across the country, sets out to understand why the paranoid, violent mindset that gripped Babbit has become so widespread.
But the book doesn’t start out as a chronicle of a Christo-fascist American revolution. The first hundred pages, in fact, are filled with Sharlet’s reporting from before Trump’s first campaign rally, a time when Sharlet still resisted using the word “fascist” to refer to America’s Far Right. The early essays in the book consist of reporting from the 2010s, including an interview of Harry Belafonte, the singer and unsung civil-rights legend, and reportage from an Occupy encampment, a men’s-rights convention, and even Florida’s Vous Church, whose pastor famously married Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. But these seemingly disconnected stories eventually lead Sharlet to fascism, the martyrdom of Ashli Babbit, and churches like Lord of Hosts.
There is much revolutionary upheaval right now in Babbit country, but even I, who have spent most my life there, did not expect this marriage between guns and religion. It’s not only in strip-mall church parking lots but in the church sanctuary, too. Hired guns, loyal to a given pastor, stand at the back of churches across the country like some vision straight out of John Milton’s revolutionary times: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” By these pastors’ reckoning, Jesus—the ultimate buckler and shield of my Evangelical Christian youth—is no longer enough protection for his bride the church. Jesus’ protection must be buttressed with guns.