By MICHELLE R. SMITH and RICHARD LARDNER
BATAVIA, N.Y. (AP) — By the time the red, white and blue-colored microphone had been switched off, the crowd of 3,000 had listened to hours of invective and grievance.
“We’re under warfare,” one speaker told them. Another said she would “take a bullet for my nation,” while a third insisted, “They hate you because they hate Jesus.” Attendees were told now is the time to “put on the whole armor of God.” Then retired three-star Army general Michael Flynn, the tour’s biggest draw, invited people to be baptized.
Scores of people walked out of the speakers’ tent to three large metal tubs filled with water. While praise music played in the background, one conference-goer after another stepped in. Pastors then lowered them under the surface, welcoming them into their movement in the name of Jesus Christ. One woman wore a T-shirt that read “Army of God.”
Flynn warned the crowd that they were in the midst of a “spiritual war” and a “political war” and urged people to get involved.
ReAwaken America was launched by Flynn, a former White House national security adviser, and Oklahoma entrepreneur Clay Clark a few months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol failed to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Attendees and speakers still insist — against all evidence and dozens of court rulings — that Donald Trump rightfully won.
Since early last year, the ReAwaken America Tour has carried its message of a country under siege to tens of thousands of people in 15 cities and towns. The tour serves as a traveling roadshow and recruiting tool for an ascendant Christian nationalist movement that’s wrapped itself in God, patriotism and politics and has grown in power and influence inside the Republican Party.
In the version of America laid out at the ReAwaken tour, Christianity should be at the center of American life and institutions. Instead, it’s under attack, and attendees need to fight to restore the nation’s Christian roots. It’s a message repeated over and over at ReAwaken — one that upends the constitutional ideal of a pluralist democracy. But it’s a message that is taking hold.
A poll by the University of Maryland conducted in May found that 61% of Republicans support declaring the U.S. to be a Christian nation.
“Christian nationalism really undermines and attacks foundational values in American democracy. And that is a promise of religious freedoms for all,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, which advocates for religious freedom.
She said the ReAwaken cause is “a partisan political cause, and the cause here is to spread misinformation, to perpetuate the big lie and to have a different result next time in the next election.”
This story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” that includes the upcoming documentary “Michael Flynn’s Holy War,” premiering Oct. 18 on PBS and online.
ReAwaken acts as a petri dish for Christian nationalism and pushes the idea that there’s a battle underway between good and evil forces. Those who are considered evil include government officials and Democrats.
It’s “a pep rally on spiritual steroids.” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University in Michigan, who studies evangelicalism.
ReAwaken often appears in churches with speakers addressing attendees from the pulpit. The Batavia show was staged on the grounds of a church, after faith and community leaders in nearby Rochester told organizers they weren’t welcome.
Inside a revival tent set up outside, people sat in white folding chairs packed so tightly the rows between were nearly impassable. From the stage, speakers stirred up fear and hatred. Immigrants are rushing over the border “to take your place,” one said. Homosexuals and pedophiles are classified in the same category: sinful people who don’t honor God. Life-saving vaccines are creating “a damn genocide.” “The enemy wants to muzzle you,” another speaker warned. “He wants to shut your mouth.”
Clark, the Tour’s principal organizer and emcee, opened the Batavia show bellowing: “Good morning, New York! And good morning, New York Attorney General Letitia James!” The greeting was a reference to a letter James’ sent to Flynn and Clark warning them against violent or unlawful conduct.
“I want you to look around and you’ll see a group of people that love this country dearly,” he said. “At this Reawaken America Tour, Jesus is King (and) President Donald J. Trump is our president.”
The AP and Frontline bought tickets for the Batavia event after Clark invited “Frontline” to attend one of the tour’s shows. Reporters spent two days listening to speakers and observing the events from inside. On the second day, security escorted a “Frontline” reporter from the grounds because, he was told, Flynn believed he intended to cover the event unfavorably. When an AP reporter began interviewing people attending the event at the end of the second day, she was also reported to security.
While smaller in scale, the ReAwaken shows are similar in tone to the rallies Trump holds. Grievance and contempt for government institutions are regular themes. ReAwaken speakers have included Trump’s sons, Eric and Don Jr., Trump confidant Roger Stone, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has spread anti-vaccine misinformation.
For a tour stop scheduled later this month in Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is listed as a speaker.
In Batavia, Greg Locke, a Tennessee pastor, and Eric Trump declared in back-to-back remarks that the FBI’s court-authorized search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for classified records showed how the U.S. government has been weaponized against its citizens.
“Third world Gestapo stuff,” said Eric Trump. After he finished speaking, a group gathered to pray over him.
Other speakers promoted bizarre theories. One claimed President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 because he threatened to expose a plot to enslave every man, woman and child in the U.S. Another said a Hebrew prophet foretold 2,500 years ago the exact date the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, taking away the constitutional right to abortion.
There were frequent personal attacks on Democrats, with no remark apparently off limits. Clark questioned the gender of former first lady Michelle Obama. Locke called Democrats “baby-butchering mongrels.”
The volatile combination of politics, Christianity and conspiracy theory pushed at the ReAwaken tour could eventually tip into political violence, several political and religious scholars told AP.
Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, has done numerous surveys measuring Christian nationalist ideology. In an August 2021 survey, about half of white Americans who most strongly identified with Christian nationalism said they believe things are getting so bad that “real patriots” may have to resort to violence.
“I think all of us believe that America is on the verge of ending,” Clark told AP.
Flynn is a constant presence at ReAwaken America events. He is painted as a martyr on the far right — the retired general who paid a price for working for Trump. That status has made him the Tour’s star attraction. Offstage, people flock to Flynn to take photos, trade trinkets or tell him how much it means to them that he is there. He hops onstage frequently to speak or even bang a gong to welcome Eric Trump.
An AP/Frontline investigation published last month reported that Flynn has used public appearances to energize voters, political endorsements to build alliances, and a network of nonprofit groups — one of which has projected spending $50 million — to advance his movement.
The irony of Flynn’s aura as a populist warrior is glaring. He was the ultimate Washington insider before being fired by Trump in February 2017 for lying about contacts he had with Russians. Now, Flynn leads a crusade against the same government establishment that employed him for years and which gave him access to many of its deepest secrets.
“So now, he’s a spiritual general,” said Anthea Butler, a scholar of American religion and politics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Butler said that the way Flynn and ReAwaken join Christian nationalism to the idea of spiritual warfare is dangerous because it suggests there are “demonic” people in government, and Christians need to act to save the country. “If people are talking about spiritual warfare and are talking about taking up arms and stuff, then I think you should be very worried,” she said. Flynn’s battlefield experience, she added, enhances his credibility.
Who exactly the United States needs to be saved from is displayed on a huge monitor on the ReAwaken America stage. The show’s villains include former President Barack Obama and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, but the principal foe at the center of the monitor is less familiar. He’s an 84-year-old German economist and engineer named Klaus Schwab, who heads the World Economic Forum, a global think tank in Switzerland, that holds an annual gathering of the world’s business and political elites in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss ways of building a better future.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Schwab unveiled an initiative called The Great Reset that envisioned sweeping changes to how societies and economies work. Even though Schwab and The World Economic Forum have no policymaking power, ReAwaken America participants see his plan, which spoke of “greater government interference” and a “green economy,” as an assault on America’s foundations.
The other side of the giant monitor has photos of ReAwaken heroes: regulars including Flynn, Locke, MyPillow CEO and 2020 election denier Mike Lindell, and three doctors who became famous for their anti-vaccine views.
Katherine Stewart, author of “The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism,” attended a March 2022 ReAwaken America show at a church in San Marcos, California. She said it was like entering a “parallel messaging universe.”
“The leaders of the ReAwaken America tour are really driving people into a fact-free echo chamber,” Stewart said. “They have been persuaded and manipulated into believing they’re doing what’s right for their country. But all of their good intentions are being harnessed in service of an agenda that’s dividing our country as never before and, frankly, leading to the potential destruction of our democracy. “
The politics, anger and prayer were interspersed with a good dose of commerce and fundraising.
Ticket prices ran as high as $500 for VIP seating or $250 for general admission, though tickets were only sold by phone and sales agents were eager to bargain. An AP reporter bought two tickets to the Batavia show for less than $100. A retiree said he paid more than $700 on admission for two — one VIP ticket for himself plus a donation of $250 for a general admission ticket for someone who couldn’t afford it.
Trump ally Roger Stone asked for donations to his legal defense fund. A naturopath promoted her organic health and beauty line. The stage backdrop even carried ads for a company that buys and sells gold and silver and bills itself as “General Flynn’s Gold Buyer of Choice.”
In booths inside and outside the church, buyers could pick up a $3,300 vibrating platform that could purportedly ease back pain and increase sexual function, a $259 blanket sold to shield the user from 5G, and a “power pendant” that supposedly helps people absorb “the natural living frequencies to empower your body, mind and spirit.”
Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., manned his father’s merchandise booth, where autographed copies of Flynn’s 2017 book, “The Field of Fight,” sold for $60.
Du Mez, who is writing a book on the overlap of consumerism and Christian identity, said such events are orchestrated to extract money from participants. They are invited to participate in the movement by pulling out their credit cards.
“The skeptical take is this is a scam. That’s not how it feels to the people who are giving their money,” she said. “People give it happily.”
Such events, she said, are “identity building and sustaining,” giving people a sense of belonging.
Speakers affirmed the message that inside the tent, they are all part of a community. One told attendees that they should “go ahead and take the hit” if they have to split with their loved ones over their views. At the ReAwaken tour, they were repeatedly assured, they are welcome and their beliefs will be validated.
Amanda Grace, a self-described prophetic minister, told the crowd that many of their loved ones “are still under the control of the rulers of the darkness of this world.”
“This is war, and you have to have a different mindset for that,” Grace said. “You pray for your family, you pray for your friends, you love them. But you have to understand that these rulers are after you. They’re out to destroy you and your line, and everything you’re going to birth forth through your line for the Kingdom of God.”
So when Flynn and others invited the crowd to be baptized at the end of the day, scores joined in to pray and participate.
A woman wearing a T-shirt that read “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president” said she was being baptized for a third time because she wanted to speak in tongues, a gift that had just been described by a ReAwaken speaker as “the artillery bomb of the enemy.”
Past the baptismal troughs, people were invited to a circle for prayers. Pastors laid hands on them and cast demons out, while people wearing American flag shirts and QAnon hats, crowded around.
“You are free!” one pastor declared. “You are free! You are free!”
Meanwhile, Michael Flynn, accompanied by private security guards, got into his SUV and drove away.
Lardner reported from Washington. Associated Press photographer Carolyn Kaster, AP news researchers Randy Herschaft and Rhonda Shafner and “Frontline” producer Richard Rowley contributed to this report.
To reach AP’s investigations team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.