You can think of Donald Trump’s most faithful adherents as bigots or patriots, constitutional standard-bearers or deluded masses. Caleb Campbell likes to think of them as sheep that have gone astray. He has made it his job to lead them back.
Mr. Campbell is a pastor at Desert Springs Bible Church in Phoenix. But for much of the last year he has been an undercover man of the cloth, using his pastoral credentials to gain entry to the sanctuaries where faith in the former president has been cultivated.
It has given him a privileged vantage point on the new ways religion is being employed as a proxy for politics among some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters, who have sought to expand support among pastors and parishioners alike.
Mr. Campbell’s introduction to the congregation of Trump came in a church, after fellow Christians suggested he attend what was described as a revival event organized by Turning Point, a Phoenix-based conservative group.
“I was absolutely terrified and horrified,” Mr. Campbell recalled. He was in a familiar environment: people gathered inside a church singing Christian worship music, with a prayer and a collection of money.
But the person delivering the homily was not a reverend. It was Charlie Kirk, a college dropout who has become a prominent conservative broadcaster and pivotal figure in spreading and sustaining the new US wave of populist conservatism. He talks “like a pastor would talk,” Mr. Campbell recalled.
That includes bringing the Bible to the pulpit. Mr. Kirk regularly refers to the Book of Jeremiah, where the 29th verse says, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” Mr. Kirk, however, replaces “seek” with “demand,” a notion that becomes the basis for him to argue, Mr. Campbell said, for a proclamation of “why we’ve got to demand our gun rights and demand school choice.”
That biblical text “definitely has nothing to do with gun rights and school choice,” Mr. Campbell said. “This is ancient Israel in Babylonian captivity.”
Mr. Kirk established Turning Point USA and, in 2021, TPUSA Faith, which organized some of the events Mr. Campbell attended. Mr. Kirk calls the separation of church and state a lie, saying “the church founded this country” and, today, “has to rise up in every capacity.” TPUSA Faith’s ambition is to gather and organize religious leaders, providing them with resources “to activate their congregations to fight for free people, free markets, free speech and limited government.”
Listening to that message left Mr. Campbell unsettled. “What was shocking to me was the people in the room raising their hands and saying, ‘Amen. Hallelujah.’ They were having a religious experience.”
Over the year that followed, Mr. Campbell spent more than 1,000 hours immersing himself in that world, watching videos, reading the literature, attending a biblical citizenship class and going to an upscale resort with 500 pastors, their tabs covered by an unknown donor.
Much of what he heard he liked, such as the emphasis on patriotism and honorable service, hard work and love of neighbor.
He also saw those principles twisted to inculcate fear that this way of life is under threat – whether by ethnic minorities or liberal elites.
“They’re afraid the outsider is going to take over and eliminate their life. It’s the erasure part that is the greatest threat,” he said. He came to understand Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” as “an appeal to ethnic preservation,” in the guise of defending a Christian nation.
In a statement, Andrew Kolvet, a TPUSA Faith spokesman, said the organization “condemns political violence. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible and disappointing.”
“The truth is Jesus himself was an outsider, and all people, regardless of race or background, are very welcome to be a part of what TPUSA Faith is building,” Mr. Kolvet said. Mr. Kirk, he said, cites Bible verses “instructive for modern Christians to be active participants in the welfare of their cities and homes.”
American religious leaders have advocated conservative political activity for decades, through the religious right, the moral majority and the Christian coalition.
What distinguishes the new brand of Christian nationalists, Mr. Campbell said, is tenor and tone. “This is a mean-spirited, vulgar grab for power with violent rhetoric,” he said. He grew up a Christian conservative, although he rebelled against his upbringing by becoming a high school neo-Nazi skinhead. “I’m familiar with what it means to be enculturated toward violent behavior,” he said.
Across the US, moderate Republicans have struggled within their own party against election denialism and culture war politics.
“It’s always a danger when you conflate politics and policy with prayer,” said Kathy Petsas, a leader in the Arizona Republican Party.
Ms. Petsas was party chair in a legislative district that produced icons of modern conservatism, including Barry Goldwater, Sandra Day O’Connor and John McCain. After mr. Trump disputed his 2020 loss in Arizona, she began to see large numbers of America First adherents seeking to become precinct committee members, a local party functionary. She met 132 of them for coffee. Roughly half believed Mr. Trump had been denied victory by election fraud.
Those conversations often felt like a psychological intervention. “You had all this delusion going on,” she said.
A practicing Orthodox Christian, Ms. Petsas was taken back by people voicing prayers at party meetings “where they refer to the left as the demonic left. It’s unconscionable to me, that they usurp religion for their own political gain.”
Mr. Campbell’s initial efforts to push back were not popular with his white, evangelical and suburban parishioners. His congregation shrank from 800 people to 300. He began to write a book about engaging the “mission field” of new religious conservatism – and began to attract new congregants, whom he describes as “disheartened if not disgusted by the amalgamation of nationalism and Christianity .”
He has fashioned a tool kit for winning back the souls from the Trump church. He begins by establishing personal trust, without which people tend to resist questioning their own beliefs. He encourages people to fast from media for two weeks. And he invites them to sit at a table with others who hold different views to discuss hot-button issues such as immigration.
Debating facts and figures is of little use, he says. Better to understand the fears and angers that feed personal beliefs.
It’s slow and intensive work, but those who have accepted his intervention have expressed relief at emerging. “People say, ‘I’m not as anxious. My blood pressure is markedly down. My heart rate is slower.’”
It has proven difficult, however, to overcome relationships ruptured by the fervour of the new right. None of the people Mr. Campbell has worked with would agree to speak with The Globe and Mail. Detractors have called Mr. Campbell a fascist, a Marxist and “a leader with a Luciferian spirit of fear.”
But Mr. Campbell says he is driven to counteract what he sees as a false doctrine of power, one that conflates political and religious kingdom-building. Such an idea is not new to Christendom, he said, pointing to Rome under Constantine and Charlemagne.
“It’s a perpetual heresy,” he said. “This one just sprinkled with red, white and blue. This one tastes like apple pie.”