Conservative churches encounter extremist elements in their ranks

     A Lutheran church in Michigan
    (source: Jakebelder, Wikimedia Commons).

Recent controversy within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) over the influence of a small far-right contingent within its ranks suggests that conservative congregations and denominations may face pressures from such extremist elements as well as from the more liberal wings of church and society. The conflict came into full view on Ash Wednesday, when the First Lutheran Church in Knoxville, Tenn., called the police on a parishioner who was attempting to attend services. The parishioner, Corey Mahler, is a white nationalist who has sought to move the congregation in the direction of his cause. He was ejected from church grounds for causing what his pastor called “harm and division to the body of Christ,” but the confrontation was set in motion a day earlier, when LCMS president Matthew Harrison posted a letter denouncing agitators “propagating radical and unchristian ‘alt-right’ views” and advocating the “destruction of the church’s leadership”; he called for their excommunication, insisting that LCMS churches “categorically reject the horrible and racist teachings of the so-called ‘alt-right’,” and that the punishment for those who refuse to renounce its ideology “must be excommunication,” according to reporting from Rolling Stone magazine (March 3).

Tim Dickinson writes that the denomination’s upholding of “traditional” values has made LCMS vulnerable to infestation by reactionaries who believe the Bible justifies their hate. “The church’s struggle is increasingly common in our extremist age: How do you stop a conservative space from becoming a fascist one?” The LCMS’s faceoff against the “alt-right” came in the wake of a mid-February report by Machaira Action, a new anti-fascist group, that detailed Mahler’s role in the rise of Lutheran fascism—or what it dubs “Lutefash.” Mahler is an unabashed white-Christian nationalist, with ties to Jason Kessler of Unite the Right, which organized the racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Mahler was scheduled to be a speaker at the short-lived Unite the Right II. He insists that he’s at his core a monarchist and that the fascism he promotes is just “the off ramp from democracy back to traditional government,” but he also admitted believing that God’s will is that America be a white ethnostate. He has built clout within the ultra-conservative wing of the LCMS, running the synod’s Book of Concord website to reach what he calls “faithful pastors,” while envisioning “cleaning house” of the church’s current leadership and leading an “influx of hardline young men” into LCMS congregations. He claims to have personally recruited “dozens,” although ultraconservative groups have condemned him.

The Machaira Action report says that the far right is attracted to fundamentalist Lutheranism, in part “because of Martin Luther’s own vehement antisemitism.” Mahler writes of Lutheranism as “the ancestral faith of my Volk” and insists LCMS has been in decline since it “gave up its explicitly German character.” Dickinson writes that the church has been grappling with Mahler’s influence for months, with three pastors issuing a 2022 complaint letter to the leader of the Knoxville church that Mahler attended. Since then Mahler and his followers “continued to wield significant clout in the broader LCMS—including waging a successful campaign to stymie an update to the church’s statements of doctrine that Mahler & Co. lambasted as too ‘woke.’” The attempted incursion of far-right proponents into conservative churches could also be observed last year, when the headmaster of a classical Christian school in Louisiana who co-hosted a popular Christian podcast was found to be spreading white-supremacist and antisemitic views under a pseudonym. The headmaster and podcaster, Thomas Achord, who was fired from his position, admitted to “wanting to use Classical Christian Education as a Trojan horse for white nationalism,” according to the Dreher Archives blog (November 28).