In North Idaho, religious and secular activists work to fight Christian nationalism

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (RNS) — Last month, dozens of activists packed into a small room in the Post Falls library for a board meeting of the Community Library Network. Some came to defend the library, but video of the meeting suggests most were there to condemn administrators for allowing children access to what they insisted were “pornographic” books.

As at other protests, part of a nationwide conservative movement targeting public libraries, speakers at the meeting in Post Falls repeatedly intermingled their three-minute speeches with appeals to Christian faith, and to the Bible as the ultimate moral arbiter. One critic scolded the board for promoting content that affirms LGBTQ people instead of other books “such as the Bible, such as Christian things, such as American things, such as patriotic things.”

When Josiah Mannion, a local photographer and activist representing the newly formed Community Library Network Alliance, rose to speak in defense of the library, he cast his objections in terms of Christian nationalism.

“Those leading this attack on the libraries, both locally and nationally, can be directly linked to patriarchal white Christian nationalism,” Mannion began.

Suddenly, the room erupted into insults, with one person shouting “Shut the f— up!” A board member repeatedly implored the crowd to let Mannion speak. As others followed him to support the librarians, the detractors didn’t settle down, sparking heated exchanges throughout the meeting. At some point, police were called.

Afterward, Mannion said he should have expected the outburst, but admitted, “I didn’t see it coming.” 

But Alicia Abbott, a pro-democracy activist in Idaho and longtime critic of Christian nationalism, wasn’t surprised. “This is quite the common occurrence,” Abbott told Religion News Service in a message this week. “I have been given the gavel and heckled several times myself for using terms like Christian nationalism or asking questions of accountability in both local public comment and state public testimony.”

Episcopal Bishop Gretchen Rehberg. Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane

Episcopal Bishop Gretchen Rehberg. Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane

Devotees of far-right politics have flocked to this part of Idaho and the surrounding states for decades, and for as long they have met resistance — including from faith leaders. Among the broad constellation of activists, elected officials and everyday locals pushing back is Episcopal Bishop Gretchen Rehberg, whose Diocese of Spokane stretches from eastern Washington across much of North Idaho and into western Montana. Recalling her childhood in Moscow, Idaho, Rehberg told RNS she remembers locals speaking out as extremists — particularly white nationalists — attempted to establish enclaves in the past.

But recent years have seen a renewed influx of Christian nationalism to the area, particularly among some fleeing liberal politics in California and other blue states. The latest groundswell has unsettled Rehberg, in part because she sees modern Christian nationalism as overlapping with older forms of white nationalism.

“I’ve been very concerned at what I see as the very deliberate, intentional recruitment of folks into North Idaho that support a white nationalism, Christian nationalism viewpoint,” she said. 

Things came to a head last September, when news broke that the ReAwaken America tour, a traveling roadshow featuring self-declared Christian nationalists and prominent members of former President Donald Trump’s inner circle, was planning an event in Post Falls. As the date neared, Rehberg published a scathing editorial in a local newspaper.

“Christian nationalism is heresy for Christians and dangerous rhetoric for all Americans,” Rehberg wrote. “To state that is not a denial of Christianity, or a denigration of patriotism, rather the call to a proper relationship between church and state.”

Rehberg teamed up with Faithful America, a national activist group, to stage a “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” protest the same day as the Reawaken America event. She was joined by a slate of faith leaders from across the region.

“I stand in opposition to the use of the gospel for political gain,” the Rev. Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, a Presbyterian leader, told the crowd during the event.

A lake near Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, in early Feb. 2023. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

A lake near Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, in early February 2023. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

In Rehberg’s hometown of Moscow, Pastor Doug Wilson, a well-known purveyor of Christian nationalism who has helped found two churches in the area, as well as a K-12 school and a college, has talked about making Moscow “a Christian town.” With a public university campus and a tradition of independent thinkers, Moscow seems unlikely to fulfill Wilson’s vision. And some of the pastor’s biggest detractors are fellow Christians: Local Episcopal leaders, Rehberg said, have had “significant conversations” with other mainline Christian leaders about how to be an “alternative voice.”

When members of Wilson’s church ran for local office, Rehberg said, the priest then leading Moscow’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church alerted her followers on Facebook (although, Rehberg said, she stopped short of telling people whom to vote for). “We need to be publicly saying, ‘Pay attention, folks,’” Rehberg said.

In Coeur d’Alene, Republican Mayor Jim Hammond has tried to muster his own response to Christian nationalists and their allies. He has met with Rehberg after being impressed by her activism, and last spring he attempted to assemble local pastors, hoping they would urge their congregations “to turn away from this incivility.”

The effort failed, Hammond said, in part because he discovered some faith leaders were the ones spreading forms of Christian nationalism in the first place.

Coeur D’Alene’s Mayor Jim Hammond. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Coeur D’Alene’s Mayor Jim Hammond. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

“That was an extremely naive solution to the problem,” he said, adding that, as a Catholic, he was particularly unnerved by forms of anti-Catholicism espoused by some religious voices. “There are churches out there that are, in my view, part of the problem.”

Hammond is worried Christian nationalism could imperil both his party and the community he serves: Being associated with extremism in a resort town, he said, “will really hurt your economy.” Other mayors and county officials in the region have reached out to brainstorm ways to counter it, but a solution remains elusive.

“They’re just as concerned and frustrated,” he said.

All of those fighting the Christian nationalist surge are hoping to tip the scales by appealing to both liberals as well as conservatives unsettled by the state Republican Party’s rightward shift. But even as demographic data indicates a massive influx of people moving into Idaho, many of whom appear to lean conservative, Abbott said she personally knows people who have left because of violent threats or because of policies they view as anti-LGBTQ.

“It is a very conservative population moving in, and a very frightened population moving out,” she said.

But the activists hold out hope that the imbalance will eventually unite North Idaho and the surrounding region against the Christian nationalists.

“As the extremists get louder,” Rehberg said, “my hope, my prayer, is that the rest of us will become more concerned, start to speak up, start to educate ourselves, push back and say, ‘This is not who we are.’”

(This story was was reported with support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.)

Bessie Venters

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