For months, far right Christian nationalists have been spearheading the anti-vaxx movement. At Bards Fest, a largely Christian gathering held in late August at the POWERplex, a drive-in movie theater and events space in St. Louis, Greg Locke, a goateed pastor of Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, was getting his swerve on.  According to Religion News Service’s Jack Jenkins, Locke, “had been regaling the audience — ‘patriots,’ he called them — with stories of defying state health recommendations by holding mask-less, in-person worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny is another rising star on the Christian nationalist anti-vaccine landscape. Most infamous for remarks she made claiming that the COVID vaccine turns people magnetic, Tenpenny also spoke at Bards Fest.  “How many stories are in the Bible about (Jesus) healing leprosy? Leprosy back in the day, when Jesus was alive, was an incurable deadly disease,” she said. “Don’t you think he might be able to take care of you in COVID, too?”

For Christian nationalists, opposition to taking a coronavirus vaccine boils down to a toxic stew of politics and religion. Politically speaking, getting vaccinated appears to mean betraying Trumpism and giving in to government mandates. On the religious front, many believe that Jesus will provide protection, and if he doesn’t, then it was meant to be.

Anti-vaxxers, grifters, hustlers and evangelical social media influencers are capitalizing on these beliefs.

At a July church service, Greg Locke told worshippers not to “believe this delta variant nonsense.” “If they go through round two and you start showing up all these masks and all this nonsense, I’ll ask you to leave. I will ask you to leave. I am not playing these Democrat games up in this church. If you want to social distance, go to First Baptist Church, but don’t come to this one.” In August, he told congregants not to get vaccinated.  

At Bards Fest, Locke encouraged … indeed demanded … that these “patriots” get off the sidelines and get involved politically in their hometowns (https://religionnews.com/2021/09/14/twitter-bids-farewell-to-greg-locke-pro-trump-and-anti-vaxxer-tennessee-pastor-with-permanent-ban/). “Stir your school board meeting up for the glory of God. Run for office. Do something. Go let some churches know in town they need to open up and quit playing the coward. Make some Facebook videos until they de-platform you. Don’t just go to conferences and enjoy people — save the nation.”

Twitter apparently has banned Locke. “Twitter just permanently suspended my account. Welcome to America,” Greg Locke said in a Facebook message posted Tuesday afternoon (Sept. 14).

Bards Fest, organized by podcaster and vocal QAnon devotee Scott Kesterson, was billed as “a re-awakening of GOD’s glory as the foundation of our great Nation” and the “greatest spiritual revival in human history,” Jenkins reported.  

The St. Louis gathering had a pretty broad reach, as livestreaming across alternative digital platforms, “making Bards Fest a broad platform for a peculiar, rapidly emerging variant of Christian nationalism being spread by pastors and anti-vaccine influencers: one that mixes assertions the United States was founded as a Christian nation with conspiracy theories derived from the QAnon movement and a conviction that government efforts to curb COVID-19 are oppressive — and an opportunity to further a religious cause,” Jenkins noted.

According to June polling by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core, 13% of Americans said they would not get vaccinated; white evangelicals made up the largest religious chunk, representing 28%.

Locke’s call for taking over school boards coincided with Steve Bannon’s recent call to take over local Republican Party operations. It also harkens back to Ralph Reed’s call for stealth candidates to take over local government positions in the 1980s and 1990s.

In mid-September, RNS’ Jenkins reported (https://religionnews.com/2021/09/14/the-gospel-of-sherri-tenpenny-covid-19-misinformation-and-christian-nationalism/) that testifying before Ohio state legislators, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny claimed that COVID-19 vaccines could “magnetize” people’s bodies, or, alternatively, allow them to “interface” with cellphone towers. “They can put a key on their forehead and it sticks.”

“For those of you who say you are Christians, what will your life review look like at the end of your life?” Tenpenny asked the lawmakers. “Will the Lord say to you: ‘You coerced people into being injected with this gene-modification technology that irreversibly disrupts your chromosomes?’”

According to Jenkins, “Tenpenny is a veteran anti-vaccine activist, but her expanded reach since the pandemic began has landed her on the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s ‘Disinformation Dozen’ list (https://252f2edd-1c8b-49f5-9bb2-cb57bb47e4ba.filesusr.com/ugd/f4d9b9_b7cedc0553604720b7137f8663366ee5.pdf), a group that researchers deemed responsible for 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.”

Tenpenny is also a savvy businesswoman. She, along with Dave Daubenmire — a former high school football coach who was once sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for allegedly leading his team in prayer and distributing Scripture to players – hope to raise $100 million “to create ‘Christian training centers’ that will equip their trainees to protest businesses that have donated to Black Lives Matter activists and support those who ‘speak out against this global government tyranny’,” Jenkins reported.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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