In the ballroom of a Washington, D.C., hotel last Friday night, hundreds of people swayed and raised their hands to catchy contemporary Christian music.
There’s nothing that our God can’t do
There’s not a mountain that He can’t move.
The frontman, a worship leader at a Florida church with flashy eyewear, tan blazer and silver chain, fired up the crowd at the Pray Vote Stand Summit. His team was the opening act for a night of presidential candidates—the headliner, Donald Trump—and one preacher who exhorted believers to get their “hands dirty” and vote, and challenge “woke” teachers and school boards.
A symphony of coughing and nose-blowing had also become the gathering’s unofficial soundtrack. Even Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s wife Erin, praised for her role in overturning Roe v. Wade, had a coughing fit on stage. With a recent spike in COVID cases across the country, I said a silent prayer: God, please spare me the latest variant.
No one wore masks, not least the reporters and researchers trying to blend into the scenery. “I wore a mask on the subway this a.m.,” one of them quipped, “but wearing it here would be the equivalent of me dancing down the aisle in a rainbow sundress.”
“Trump is their warrior.”
And rainbows, the weekend’s speakers made clear, were decidedly a symbol of the demonic forces pushing the LGBTQ agenda.
Earlier in the day, Messianic Jewish rabbi Jonathan Cahn said a “Pagan morality” was taking over America, with ancient entities promoting “everything from transhumanism from nature worship, to woke-ism,” filling the void after God was booted from schools. The sign of one goddess who “blurs the lines of man and woman,” he said, was the rainbow.
“That is why the rainbow is saturating our culture, replacing the cross, a sign of Western civilization. She is transitioning the culture…”
Hundreds of social conservatives flocked to the summit from as far as Hawaii, and at least one couple flew in from Canada. Some were members of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, a California megachurch that’s pushing school boards to pass trans “outing” policies, and came in the name of parental rights. Many discussed wanting to stop gender-affirming care for minors, calling it “the sterilization of children.” They held fast to the belief that they were warriors in what speakers frequently called a “spiritual battle.”
Hosted by the Family Research Council (FRC), this annual rally of the religious right brought speeches from GOP rivals Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Vivek Ramaswamy. And hours of lectures focused on bringing Christ back into public schools, dehumanizing transgender people, and ending abortion nationally. Panelists so often derided “Marxists” and “leftists” that anyone watching could start a drinking game.
Tony Perkins, FRC’s president and the event’s emcee, warned of an “unholy trinity” within the Biden Administration: abortion, “the perversion of the minds of children with the LGBTQ,” and climate. “That is everything they are focused on to the detriment of the American family,” said Perkins, who looks like a long lost cousin of actor Bryan Cranston.
The faith adviser to Trump addressed the audience as “SAGE Cons,” or spiritually active governance engaged conservatives. “We’re here to talk about voting to engage for the purpose of transforming the world around us,” Perkins said from the podium, “and we make no apologies about it. Yes, we want to take our values into the public square.”
“Everyone else’s values is welcome,” he continued. “We’re taking our values, and yes, we want to influence and transform the culture… You can malign us, you can mock us, you can even cancel us, and you can even criminalize us, but we’re not going anywhere.”
Throughout the summit, massive video screens played short clips of transgender U.S. assistant secretary for health Rachel Levine wishing people a happy Pride Month, a U.S. Navy training video on misgendering fellow sailors, and President Biden’s 2023 state of the union remarks, which promised his veto of any national abortion ban and promoted the Equality Act to ensure trans youth “can live with safety and dignity.”
“This is why we pray, vote, and stand,” Perkins said after each one.
Everyone chanted this mantra in unison.
Family Research Council’s track record of anti-gay propaganda, lobbying against protections for LGBTQ people, promotion of conversion therapy, and its leaders’ ties to the insurrection and support of Trump’s election fraud lies are well documented.
Critics often point to its directors’ pasts, too, highlighting that Perkins spoke before the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens in 2001 and bought a mailing list from KKK leader David Duke while working for a 1996 Senate campaign. (Perkins, who joined FRC in 2003, denies knowing Duke was connected to the company providing the list.)
In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated FRC an anti-LGBTQ hate group, though FRC bristles at the label. Last year, it was revealed that the Christian think tank—funded by billionaires like the Prince family and reporting revenues of $24 million—had successfully petitioned the IRS to be reclassified from a charity to an “association of churches,” a maneuver that exempts financial disclosures and helps avoid audits.
FRC’s annual conclave at the Omni Shoreham hotel (formerly known as the Values Voter Summit) has long been a platform for presidential candidates and others espousing extremist rhetoric. This year’s contenders, as in years past, focused on the idea of Christians being persecuted. “We see weaponized government going after parents who are taking—going to a school-board meeting, or faith leaders who are engaging in pro-life activism,” DeSantis said.
The Florida governor vowed, if elected, to immediately fund private religious schools, “create divisions of conscience and religious freedom” in the Department of Education or other federal agencies, and ensure government documents only list two genders. “We cannot fly the white flag of surrender into the face of the hostile forces that are doing everything they can to upend our way of life,” he said.
Ramaswamy catered to the audience by decrying the “cult of racial wokeism” and “gender ideology,” calling affirmative action “a cancer on our national soul,” and proclaiming that being “a faith-based conservative,” married with children in a heterosexual relationship, is actually “countercultural.” At one point a heckler seemed to target him for his Hindu faith, shouting, “Who is your God?”
But Trump was the main attraction, with fans leaping to their feet as he emerged to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and stood nodding and smiling upon them.
“One year from now, each of you will vote in the most important election of your lifetimes,” Trump said.
“This election will decide whether America will be ruled by Marxists, fascists, communist tyrants who want to smash the Judeo-Christian heritage, or whether America will be saved by God-fearing, freedom-loving patriots like all of the people in this room.”
Facing four indictments, Trump rehashed his false claims of a “rigged” 2020 election. “Every time the radical-left Democrats, Marxists, communists, and fascists indict me, I consider it a great badge of honor,” Trump said, “because I am being indicted for you.”
While event organizers played relaxing string music toward the end of his remarks—creating the surreal effect of a right-wing meditation tape—Trump called Biden “totally corrupt” and “cognitively impaired” before apparently suffering his own mental lapse. “We would be in World War II very quickly if we’re going to be relying on this man, and far more devastating than any war,” Trump said.
Trump went on to win Pray Vote Stand’s straw poll at nearly 64 percent. DeSantis, slipping in national polls, snagged just 27 percent but led in the vice president category.
All weekend, Trump was toasted as the president who paved the way for the end of Roe v. Wade.
Peter Montgomery, Research Director for People For the American Way, told The Daily Beast that evangelicals believe that America is in a “spiritual war” and that “the 2024 election is part of that spiritual battle between good and evil.”
“Trump is their warrior,” said Montgomery, who has studied the religious right for more than 20 years and also attended Pray Vote Stand this year. In 2016, he wrote a piece for Right Wing Watch detailing why pastors were lining up behind such a flawed character; one reason is that they believed Trump was chosen by God to clean house in D.C.
“They believe liberals are set on the destruction of Christianity, and the destruction of freedom in America, so they don’t want somebody who’s gonna be polite,” Montgomery said, adding that Christian voters want someone “who is willing to bust heads.”
“A lot of people discount the religious right part of the right wing,” he added. “But I think it’s really important to understand the worldview, because one of the things the religious right offers to people is a chance to play a part in a really big story: America was anointed by God as a special place, and we were blessed as long as we honor that. And now, these evil forces, the Marxists, the communists, the gays, the feminists, they’ve turned us away from God.”
“It’s a really powerful motivator to think your involvement in politics, your running for school board, is part of this titanic battle that’s taking place on earth and in the heavens, between the forces of evil and the forces of good.”
Attendees prayed for such divine intervention on a prayer bus Thursday night.
To kick off Pray Vote Stand, the summit arranged two open-air trolleys for dozens of intercessors to pray for America’s leaders from about 6 to 9 p.m. They visited the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, and World War II and Lincoln memorials.
“This is the last dance for this nation.”
Outside Biden’s presidential home, a Midwest pastor asked the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of White House staff, from the cleaners to the Secret Service. “What the leadership is doing right now completely goes against you and your Word,” he said, adding, “We pray you remove them from their positions and put righteous people in.”
At a candidate training workshop that afternoon, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s former campaign manager Aamon Ross shared that the mission of his “nonpartisan” company, Kingdom in Politics, was to put 100,000 believers in office in 10 years.
Attendees, who paid $15, would learn the workshop was only the digest of a full training program that Ross said usually costs $2,000—but that he was now offering for $497.
“We need leaders with Biblical worldviews excelling, okay,” Ross said. “How does thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven, if we’re not the ones bringing it?”
At a 7 a.m. breakfast with quiche and coffee, former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Jody Hice, a onetime MAGA congressman and election denier from Georgia, sought donations for FRC’s lobbying arm. Their goal: To raise $4 million for congressional candidates.
“You and I are being marginalized, politically, spiritually, through cancel culture, through a host of different ways,” Hice told the room on Friday. As head of FRC Action, Hice was soliciting funds for a super PAC and cautioned that “weaponized government” would be coming for not only FRC but “us as conservative, Bible-believing Christians.”
Bachmann said the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and “the LGBTQ organizations seem to have unlimited money.” Now chair of FRC’s board, Bachmann added in her Midwestern accent, “We don’t think we need to have unlimited money—but we gotta have some!”
The 2024 election, she said, might be evangelicals’ “last chance” to save the nation. She steered guests to a donation slip on their seats that sought anywhere from $50 to $10,000. “Write the highest, best amount that you can, but ask the Holy Spirit what you should do, and we trust him. That’s what we do. We asked him, ‘Lord, what is your plan?’” Bachmann said, before leading a prayer and telling God, “We dedicate this entire conference to you.”
“Voting is no longer enough.”
The meal preceded a long day of plenary sessions, where Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and wife regurgitated exaggerated claims that an Antifa mob threatened their D.C. home. Hawley was just one speaker who addressed the topic of “masculinity.”
According to Hawley, “liberals” have dismissed fathers and the two-parent family, so conservatives must “call a generation of men” to get married and have kids, and “invest your life in something more than you.”
Former college swimmer Riley Gaines—whose tie with trans athlete Lia Thomas inspired her to trade dental school for a budding career in anti-transgender punditry—also preached about masculinity, cracked a blonde joke, and repeatedly misgendered Rachel Levine, the openly transgender HHS official.
The University of Kentucky grad detailed her 2022 race against UPenn’s Thomas, whose photo flashed on screen, and of being traumatized by sharing a locker room “inches away from the six-foot-four, 22-year-old male fully intact.”
“As a Christian myself, I know why this is happening. It’s entirely spiritual warfare… It’s moral versus evil,” said Gaines, whose nails were symbolically painted pink on one hand and blue on the other. “We need men to be willing to fulfill their biblical role which is to protect and provide,” the Gen Z-er continued, later adding, “Parents, as you’re defending your daughters, teach your sons masculinity. Teach them to be strong men.”
The war on everything LGBTQ continued that afternoon, with a “Strategies for Saving America’s Schools and School Children” panel featuring firebrand Oklahoma schools superintendent Ryan Walters. A moderator opened by asking Walters about a “pedophile principal” in his state. The official wasn’t named but appears to be an elementary school administrator with a drag-queen alter ego and dismissed child pornography charges from two decades ago.
Walters, who routinely acts more culture-war conspiracy theorist than public official, answered, “This is Joe Biden’s war on our kids, on our schools, on our faith, on our country. And what we see here is a clear attack to push radical gender ideology in the classroom, destroy American history and take all rights away from parents.”
“But we are leading the country in how we’re fighting back on this,” Walters added. “We have a drag queen principal of one of our schools, who has now hired another drag queen … Well, I’m demanding that that individual be fired. No drag queen should be running a school anywhere in this country, especially in Oklahoma.”
“It’s a really powerful motivator to think your involvement in politics, your running for school board, is part of this titanic battle that’s taking place on earth and in the heavens.”
Walters was seated with Quisha King, a Florida Moms for Liberty activist, and Sonja Shaw, president of California’s Chino Valley Unified school board, which recently banned pride flags and passed a “parental notification” policy. The latter measure, now facing a lawsuit from the state’s attorney general, requires teachers to alert families if their children identify as trans. LGBTQ allies have called the policy a danger and direct attack on trans kids.
During the panel, Walters boasted of enacting “school choice” in the state and approving “the first religious charter school in the country in Oklahoma.”
He then proclaimed the separation of church and state a “radical myth.”
“The Supreme Court has been wrong,” Walters said. “There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. It doesn’t exist. So we will bring God back to schools and prayer back in schools in Oklahoma.”
That night, pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills—where Shaw and two of her fellow board members go to church—landed a prime speaking slot before Trump. As The Daily Beast reported, Hibbs’ teachings include the claim that slave owners weren’t bad guys, comparing public school teachers to child molesters, and calling “transgenderism” an “anti-God, anti-Christ plan of none other than Satan himself.”
“Christ is coming and I hope it’s tonight. But if he doesn’t come back, then we want to vote for the right people and get involved,” said Hibbs, who is a friend of FRC president Perkins and whose Real Life Network media platform was a summit sponsor. In the Pray Vote Stand goodie bag, attendees received his Countdown: All Eyes on God’s Ultimate Endgame pocketbook, which in the first few pages addresses extraterrestrials. “I don’t believe in visitors from other planets,” he wrote. “I believe in visitors from hell. They’re called demons.”
“Get involved in your school board. Find out what’s going on in your PTA. And boy, I tell you in California, we finally figured it out after all these decades. Local, local. School boards, mayoral runs, city council campaigns, the county board of supervisors. Get involved.”
“If you don’t like who’s running, you run,” Hibbs said.
“Amen!” a woman shouted.
“We need to start challenging our school teachers that are teaching woke craziness,” he continued. “Do what we have to do back in California, is create a detox program.” While Hibbs didn’t elaborate on the “program,” he seemed to allude to his church’s Christian “Released Time” program, where students can leave class for one-hour Bible lessons.
The kids, Hibbs told the crowd, “have the ability to leave public school and after public school, they can come to our church, and they can be detoxed. We have to pull junk out of them, and we have to put truth into them.
“The church has got to lead the way. Pastors have got to stand on the wall, blow the trumpet, and warn the people. This is the last dance for this nation.”
The fearmongering didn’t end with the next day’s packed schedule.
The documentary trailer had dark, suspenseful music fit for a horror flick and began with a young child discussing “special surgery” to get “girl parts.” On camera, a mom said her child’s preschool sent out a letter announcing her 4-year-old son was now identifying as a girl named Rosa. “They would just look at me and listen and say, ‘Helen, you should really learn to accept this and celebrate it.’ And I’m like, ‘Celebrate what? Celebrate that my child is going to be put on hormones, and his penis will never grow, and he’ll never have a normal sex life…?’”
The film, Dead Name, delved into the experiences of three families whose children medically transitioned. It was removed from Vimeo for violating terms related to discriminatory or hateful content, but hailed in conservative corners of the Internet.
Viewers in the hotel ballroom, where chairs were crammed in rows, watched the clip as part of the Saturday panel “When the Gender Battle Hits Home.”
The repeated messaging at the summit was that young people wouldn’t be transgender without “indoctrination” from schools and social media. Even in the exhibitors hall, a group called Screen Strong handed out “Go Play Outside” stickers and its representative suggested too much time on social media could spawn gender dysphoria. Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization, handed out “Woman: An adult human female” stickers alongside its anti-socialism pamphlets.
On stage, Amy Atterbery, the mother of a transgender child, shared, “My daughter was a happy child” who “at age 14 she announced that she was a boy” and ran away from home two years later.
“I had no idea that the gender identity indoctrination that had been going on in school had impacted her,” said Atterbery, who added that she’s estranged from her child. “I had no idea that she was visiting websites that were further indoctrinating her into what I refer to as the trans cult.” Atterbery openly discussed opposing her child’s transition. “Adults in authority validated her false belief that she was a boy,” she said.
Atterbery said that her child underwent transition surgery at age 17 but the mom only found out through social media. She cried as she described being in the waiting room when her child later got a phalloplasty and called her care team “butchers disguised as doctors.”
Still, major medical groups including the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, state that gender-affirming care for youth can be medically necessary, if not life saving. But experts say that minors undergoing surgery is rare; instead treatment typically includes social transitioning and puberty blockers.
At least 22 states have passed laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for youth. In May, the AP reported that the copycat legislation “sprang not from grassroots or constituent demand, but from the pens of a handful of conservative interest groups” and named the Family Research Council as a promoter of the bills.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, singled out a related organization, the Family Policy Alliance, in its first-ever state of emergency issued in June. The report focused on anti-trans bills proposing bans on transgender bathroom use, participation in team sports, and medical care.
Family Policy Alliance—the lobbying arm of the right-wing Christian behemoth Focus on the Family, of which FRC is a spinoff—held a breakout session on its coordinated effort to push anti-trans legislation across statehouses.
Autumn Leva, FPA’s senior vice president of strategy, told the room that “the threat to children’s minds and things they’re being exposed to in curriculum or on social media” has been “growing like it never has before.”
“Now there’s new threats, of course, threats to their very bodies, people who want to literally remove healthy body parts and transition them and tell them they were born in the wrong body and an increasing threat to take away their parents, who are of course their greatest protectors,” Leva said. “That’s what we’re here to talk about.”
Leva interviewed the heads of two lobbying groups, Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation and Todd Gathje of the Family Foundation of Virginia, about their victories. She also plugged her group’s “Help Not Harm” initiative and 2017 bill prohibiting transgender healthcare for children, which she said didn’t get any traction until an Arkansas representative passed it in 2021 with “heavy help” from FRC.
“We need to be like the passengers on that plane because our country is being hijacked.”
She asked Laszloffy about a “transgender identifying legislator from your state who caused a lot of problems,” referring to Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr. Laszloffy misgendered Zephyr, claiming, “His sole purpose for getting elected was to push this agenda.”
In April, seven protesters were arrested in the state House for demonstrating against Republicans who denied Zephyr the right to speak against an anti-trans bill.
Laszloffy claimed Zephyr “brought a bunch of people from the LGBT crowd into the chambers” but “SWAT teams” were waiting for them. “We knew they were going to be there and so did law enforcement, because they had people placed in those organizations,” Laszloffy said.
“We swung for the fences,” Laszloffy said, adding, “You can’t do puberty blockers, you can’t do cross sex hormones, and you can’t do surgeries. Wait till you’re 18. But we also made it illegal for any counseling or any surgeries or anything that would help a child go down that path.”
“We made it illegal in every single government or publicly-owned building, so that would reach down into the schools and told school counselors that you can’t talk about them and transition a child on school property or using school resources.”
The foundation also pushed a state ban on drag queen story hours, a law that a federal judge has placed on hold. “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt there are no little kids out there begging to be told a story by a drag queen, yet for some strange reason suddenly drag queens are begging to tell stories to little kids. Why?”
“Grooming!” a woman in the audience said.
Other breakout sessions included “Your Role in Identifying Our Next Supreme Court Justices,” which underscored AFA Action’s “dream” candidates under a future GOP president, and “The 2024 Election Map” with representatives for Ballotpedia and the American Principles Project, which was behind anti-transgender campaign ads in the midterms. (AFA Action is an affiliate of the American Family Association, an anti-gay “hate group.”)
Hibbs’ political group, Real Impact, gave a tutorial on ballot harvesting during which executive director Gina Gleason suggested that people leave “progressive” churches for ones with pastors plugging pro-life and “traditional family” candidates.
Gleason described how her church collects mail-in ballots, creates voter guides, and puts out political action alerts. “I’m sure you follow California, and it is as ridiculous as it sounds on the news,” she continued, before referring to legislation “that will literally allow the state to take your child 12 years and older from you without asking your permission or giving you knowledge that this has happened.”
While Gleason didn’t name the law, her ministry has been fighting Assembly Bill 665, calling it “state-sanctioned kidnapping.” Opponents have falsely claimed the bill, which amends a law allowing children 12 and older to receive mental health care without parental consent, allows the government to remove kids from their parents’ custody.
“We as the body of Christ try to stand up and make a difference because I’m sure that every one of us get up and vote every election,” Gleason said. “But I’m going to tell you something: Voting is no longer enough. If we are going to change our country, we all have to do more.”
On Saturday night, FRC celebrated its 40th anniversary with a black-tie gala that included a big band (Bachmann declared, “I love that music, I want to dance so bad!”), video interview with founder James Dobson, and prayers for Mark Meadows.
A tuxedo-clad Perkins called his friend and former Trump chief of staff—charged with racketeering in Georgia’s 2020 election interference case—“a true American patriot” who has “done so much for this country.” In return, Meadows teared up and hailed Perkins as someone “who is willing to speak truth to power.”
But the congratulatory feast, where supporters dined on a salad with raspberries and Camembert cheese, filet mignon, and toffee cheesecake, also held urgency.
Gary Bauer, a former head of FRC who served under the Reagan administration and Republican presidential candidate in 2000, told the room the country is “at the edge of a cliff, with irreconcilable differences.”
“It just keeps coming at us. How did it come to this?” an incredulous Bauer said. “A nation founded on the idea that liberty comes from God, that only a virtuous people can remain free, and now we’re actually having a national debate on whether it’s a good idea to have men dressed as women read books to our children?”
Bauer said his Marine father, nicknamed Spike, “was well known for having an anger management problem.” The crowd laughed and clapped at his next line: “If I came home from the second or third grade and told Spike that a man dressed in a dress read me a book today in the third grade, Spike would be in jail with all those January 6 folks!”
He argued “the left” is “trying to build a socialist Neo Marxist secular nation to replace what we have.”
“They want to disarm us. They want to indoctrinate our children and if we follow them, it will be national suicide. When societies go down this path of demonic Paganism it always ends with the butchering of children.”
Bauer also compared their political battle to the passengers who fought back on Flight 93, the plane overtaken by al-Qaeda on Sept. 11 that was headed for D.C. but crashed in a Pennsylvania field. “We need to be like the passengers on that plane because our country is being hijacked. We need to vote. We need to take a stand. We need to fight back.”
The next morning, a few people lingered in the Omni’s lobby before and after the final worship service. One of them was a middle-aged California woman who attends Calvary Chapel and said that she often feels “in a sea of a lot of evil and there’s not a lot of people who think like me or want to stand with me.” The conference galvanized her into forming alliances.
“This is about activating ourselves and activating people around us,” she said, naming parental rights as her top concern. “And the time is now. It’s not tomorrow. It was yesterday.”
Meanwhile, a man told us he flew in from Michigan with his daughters, a promise to his late wife who worked for FRC’s office.
Asked what he took away from the weekend, the 73-year-old said, “I couldn’t believe the struggle between good and evil. The antithesis that we do not deal with flesh and blood. We deal with the demonic forces that are out there.”
“We need to get this election right,” he added. “If we don’t get it right this time, we’re going down the rabbit hole.”