Wearing a blue America First cap, 19-year-old Max White stood among a dozen protesters, softly mouthing the Hail Mary prayers over and over: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
Around White flew the flags of right-wing extremist groups, including the American Nationalist Initiative and the New Columbia Movement, carried by men who looked to be in their 20s, strapped with rosaries or assault rifles or both. On a cloudless January day in Dallas, they faced off against a group of nearly 100 community members who showed up to support the drag show performance that White and his peers were protesting.
“I started going to these events last year, starting with the Pride event in Oak Lawn. … I was like, ‘If these people are going to go and protest this kind of stuff, just perverse sexual stuff for kids, I’m going,’” he said.
Since he was 16, White has been following young white-supremacist agitator Nick Fuentes and groups like Protect Texas Kids, which has been targeting drag shows in North Texas, including the one that day in Dallas. The organization was founded and is directed by recent college graduate Kelly Neidert, who achieved notoriety by calling for transgender people to be criminalized and Pride event participants to be “rounded up” while she was the chapter chair of the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) at the University of North Texas in Denton. Now she is using the activism skills she learned from YCT to lead other young conservatives like White, a freshman political science major who hopes to become a lawyer one day.
“You have all these groups that are weaponizing young people in ways that we really haven’t seen before,” conservative political consultant Micah Bock told a group of teenagers and younger children to thunderous applause at last fall’s Texas Youth Summit. As he spoke, young girls at the front of the crowd took notes with their pom-pom pens bobbing.
It’s all part of a nationwide effort by multiple well-funded groups, many of which originated or are based in Texas, to mobilize young people, mainly Christian youth, to engage in right-wing politics. These groups and their leaders are part of a roll-call of Christian nationalist power players who defend the January 6 riots, promote hate speech, and aim to build their economic and political power by instilling Christian and constitutional “originalism” in the public sphere. To achieve their goals, they are increasingly defending the use of violence, particularly anti-LGBTQ+ violence, which has shot up in frequency since the start of 2022.
What’s more, the leaders of the movement are set on convincing young people, starting even before high school, that they are the underdogs in this fight—the under-funded rebels fighting a rich, powerful leftist establishment–and that what they’re engaged in is a holy war for America’s soul.
The movement is meeting opposition from more progressive Christian leaders.
“What I think they really are concerned about is their loss of a privileged place in terms of influence and power. I think Christian nationalism is being used as a tool to maintain and to galvanize that power,” said Fort Worth Pastor Michael Mills, an outspoken critic of that movement.
“It feels a little bit like a form of indoctrination [in which] these poisonous ideas are passed from one generation to the next,” he said. “If there are no checks on that, it’s almost like, [as] each generation gets older, they get more and more dangerous, in a sense. And that’s the scary part.”
At the Texas Youth Summit, podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey had called on her audience of about 500, some as young as elementary-school age, to stand up “for God and freedom” and against “the evil people who hate our country and Constitution.” They shouldn’t be afraid of being alienated for their beliefs, she said.
“You absolutely are a threat to secular progressivism. You are a threat to abortion,” she said. Today’s Christians in the United States “are simply carrying the torch that Christians have carried for thousands of years” by fighting evil, she said, to a standing ovation.
Klein Oak High School student Meredith Carrasco, 17, said she felt more emboldened to post political messages on social media after listening to Stuckey and other speakers at the Texas Youth Summit.
“The main lesson is you can’t be afraid, like the way we see a lot of conservatives are. … We don’t speak up and we kind of just let everyone walk all over us,” Carrasco said.
Another YCT alumnus who’s been in the news is Kelly’s brother, Jake Neidert, who had previously posted on social media: “You want to force kids to see drag shows, I want to ‘drag’ you to the town square to be publicly executed for grooming kids.” His efforts caught the attention of Texas state Representative Tony Tinderholt, who recently hired Jake as his new legislative director.
YCT now has 24 chapters across Texas, many of them formed in the past year, according to former Sam Houston State University chapter chair Johnny Uribe. His YCT chapter and others, Uribe said, receive funding from national right-wing youth groups like Turning Point USA (TPUSA) and the Leadership Institute to train young right-wing activists on how to take up the gauntlet for conservative causes.
For students who sign up online to join Turning Point USA, the organization offers “activism kits” that include not only handbooks and posters but also buttons that read: “All guns matter,” “9mm beats 9-11,” “Stay Strapped,” and “Yeah, Rights”—with a target as the dot of the “i” and an assault rifle slashing through the rest of the word. The group’s website claims it has more than 3,000 chapters on school campuses, including more than 100 in Texas.
Turning Point also offers students training to expose teachers and professors with “radical and anti-American agendas.” Chapters that recruit more students earn “Patriot Points,” which can then be cashed in for things like AirPods or sneakers—or be put toward airfare to go meet the group’s executive director and founder, Charlie Kirk, the man who recently called for an “amazing patriot” to bail out the attacker of Paul Pelosi, husband of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A day before the January 6 riots, Kirk tweeted that two of his organizations—Trump Students and Turning Point Action—were sending more than 80 buses full of young people to “fight for the president.”
In January, the Texas Observer reported on how students of the University of Texas at Arlington chapter of TPUSA were promoting transphobic and homophobic ideas, as well as ideas about the racist “great replacement theory” on the chapter’s Discord chatroom.
Kirk created TPUSA in 2012 as a conservative youth organization to promote free market capitalism and limited government. But in recent years, the organization has increasingly espoused Christian nationalism, the belief that the U.S. government was founded on and should be governed by Biblical principles. Kirk publicly promoted Christian nationalism with radio and TV host Jack Hibbs, pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills in California. Hibbs has defended the January 6 riots as a consequence of “eject[ing] God from the courts and from the schools.” After that, Kirk jumped on the religious education bandwagon, creating the Turning Point Academy to offer a “Christian, classical, conservative, church-based” curriculum designed “to glorify God and preserve the founding principles of the United States.”
Another organization the Texas Youth Summit promoted is Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), part of a network of conservative think tanks including those in the Koch network. YAF has been around since 1960, but its program called Standing Up for Faith and Freedom was organized only about two years ago to train Catholic school students to advance right-wing politics on campus.
In 2016, college chapters of the Austin-based Young Americans for Liberty (YAL ) hosted alt-right former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot Tour,” during which he told audiences, “I don’t know whether they [sexual assault victims] want men to rape more simply to have something to complain about.” The group provides legal representation for students who challenge campus hate speech bans, free speech zones, or gun-free zones in the name of “restoring the right to non-lethal self-defense on campus and to our notorious fight for Free Speech.”
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), whose research has been used by humanitarian agencies and the United Nations, reports that acts of anti-LGBTQ+ political violence tripled from 2021 to 2022 and anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations have more than doubled in the same period.
Despite the growing violence and the reported growth in the number of student chapters and members of right-wing youth groups, their efforts haven’t appreciably affected the Texas youth vote. Here, voters aged 18 to 29 made up 15 percent of the total vote during the 2022 midterms—a larger share than the national average of 12 percent. But the percentage of Texas youths voting for conservative candidates has dropped. In 2014, 49 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Governor Greg Abbott. In 2018, that number decreased to 36 percent and then 33 percent this past election.
As Christian nationalists have become more vocal and aggressive in recruiting young people, religious opposition to their efforts has grown.
In 2019, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) formed the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign after a series of violent attacks, including the one at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were carried out in the name of Christian nationalism. BJC’s recent report details the Christian nationalist rhetoric and symbols rioters used during the January 6 insurrection.
Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), BJC maintains what Executive Director Amanda Tyler calls the historic Baptist principle of separation between church and state. Since the 1980s, the SBC has turned toward a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and toward Christian nationalism. Its increasingly incendiary rhetoric on race and gender since the convention’s embrace of Trump in 2016 has caused many Black and female Baptists to split with the SBC.
BJC has organized nearly 30,000 faith leaders across the country to endorse the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. More than 2,000 faith leaders from Texas have signed the Christians Against Christian Nationalism Statement, and many are speaking out.
“We can’t have Christian nationalism and religious freedom at the same time. … Christian nationalism is not only incompatible with religious freedom but it is in combat with it. I think Christian nationalism is the single biggest threat to religious freedom in America today,” Tyler said.
BJC has also created resources for faith leaders to confront Christian nationalist thinking among their members.
Mills, the pastor at Agape Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said faith leaders need to be more vigilant in addressing Christian nationalist thinking among their congregations. “If some kind of Christian nationalist ideology kind of rears its head, even just in passing, you know, I do feel some responsibility to name it and to call it out and say, ‘Actually, that’s not really what we’re about,’” Mills said.
Southern Baptist ministers and other conservative Texas church leaders have helped give the state one of the highest Christian nationalism “scores” in the country, according to the Baylor Religion Survey, which measures the degree of Christian nationalist beliefs among respondents across the nation. From firebrand First Baptist Church Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress to David Barton, leader of Project Blitz and founder of Wallbuilders, Texas Southern Baptists have actively challenged the boundaries of the Johnson Amendment, the tax law that prohibits religious organizations from endorsing political candidates.
Steve Riggle, pastor of the nondenominational Grace Woodlands Church that hosted last year’s Texas Youth Summit, is an executive member of the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, which claims to represent 1,000 Texan pastors and whose “AMERICA Plan” encourages them to distribute election guides, register congregants to vote, and discuss political issues from the pulpit. The organization has campaigned to repeal the federal marriage equality act. In 2015, the council led the opposition that succeeded in killing the proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by municipal and private entities.
Since Trump, the Christian nationalist movement is “in many ways, more upfront than before, even [more than] during the Bush administration in the 2000s,” said Andrew Whitehead, author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.
Lance Aksamit, 35, grew up in a Christian nationalist family and church but has since repudiated those beliefs. He narrates his experience growing up as a young Christian nationalist in the early 2000s in his forthcoming book, Youth Group: Coming of age in the church of Christian Nationalism. Aksamit agrees that right-wing youth organizations are now more aggressively promoting Christian nationalism, particularly the Christian nationalist dominionist ideology. The dominionist Seven Mountain Mandate posits that Christianity should dictate all aspects of society, from family, religion, and education to media, entertainment, business, and government. In a 2020 speech, Kirk suggested that Trump was a dominionist. “Finally, we have a president that understands the seven mountains of cultural influence,” the Turning Point leader said.
Aksamit said some churches are now openly pushing Christian nationalist ideology on younger and younger kids.
“The more that they can immerse these kids in it at a very young age, the more they can get them to accept the simple tenets of Christian evangelicalism … then they have huge amounts of these kids who have already been inundated with these ideas. So they don’t have to recruit them.” Such groups, he said, offer free events with “music and bright lights” and time away from parents—“the same things they used to [attract] all of us when I was a kid.”
At the youth summit, Woodlands High School student Tino Russell said he has become convinced that the main problem for right-wing organizations is a lack of money. He referred to Christian nationalists as “the poor side” of the debate.
The left has “all these huge corporations with millions of dollars. So they pretty much can do anything,” Russell said.
One particular national organization is part of the DNA of many groups involved in the right-wing children’s crusade. Leaders of Turning Point USA, Leadership Institute, Young Americans for Freedom, Students for Life, and funders of the Texas Youth Summit all belong to the Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive group of right-wing elites who have driven conservative politics from behind the scenes. That group’s membership rolls, as revealed by the investigative journalism project Documented and the Southern Poverty Law Center, include or have included TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk; Leadership Institute founder and president Morton Blackwell; former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, now president of the Young America’s Foundation; and Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins.
Another CNP member is Chris Wilson, former advisor to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and a founder of WPA Intelligence and Patriot Mobile. The last is a “Christian cell phone company” that has been bankrolling activities ranging from the Texas Youth Summit to the placement of “In God We Trust” posters in Texas schools and the campaigns of right-wing candidates for Texas school board races.
Either directly or through CNP’s network, these youth organizations have been funded by CNP-affiliated foundations. Those include the Charles Koch Foundation and the Koch-funded DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. According to 2020 tax records, DonorsTrust contributed more than $3 million to Christian nationalist youth groups. The Prince Foundation, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, and the National Christian Foundation are also major contributors to the CNP and have contributed to these youth organizations.
Back at the Texas Youth Summit, the young audience rose to applaud as Stuckey concluded her speech with a vision of what Christian youth, involved in right-wing politics, could accomplish for the nation.
“One day there will be no more politics … or elections,” she said, “because every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Aksamit said people who are recruited to Christian nationalism as youngsters may not be able to free themselves from it until they get out in the world. It didn’t happen for him, he said, until he left his hometown, traveled, and was challenged by differing viewpoints.
“I had very much connected American exceptionalism with my religious identity. Those two things came hand in hand,” he said. When he started traveling, his experiences made those ideas crumble like a house of cards: “Once it started cracking, it just had no choice but to crumble.”