BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (AP) — If you’re Christian in Bluefield — and most everyone is, in this small city tucked into the Appalachian Mountains — you have your choice.
You can follow Pastor Doyle Bradford of Father’s House International Church, who has forcefully backed Donald Trump — doubting Trump’s defeat in November and joining some congregants at the Jan. 6 “Save America” rally that degenerated into the Capitol riot.
Or you can go less than 3 miles away next to the rail yard, to Faith Center Church, where Pastor Frederick Brown regards Bradford as a brother — but says he’s seriously mistaken. Or you can venture up East River Mountain to Crossroads Church, where Pastor Travis Lowe eschews Bradford’s fiery political rhetoric, seeking paths to Christian unity.
The three churches have much in common. All of them condemn the desecration of the Capitol and pray for a way to find common ground. But they diverge on a central issue:
What is the role of evangelical Christianity in America’s divisive politics?
Bradford and his flock defend his actions as expressions of freedom of speech and religious freedom, and say they should be allowed to voice their views against what they feel is an assault on democracy and Christian values. But his fellow pastors fear that fiery rhetoric and baseless claims made online and from the pulpit could stoke more tensions, rancor and divisiveness.
Though AP VoteCast found that about 8 in 10 evangelical voters supported Donald Trump in November — and though broadly, they have backed the political efforts of church leaders — they are not monolithic.
As is evident in this Appalachian town of just more than 10,000.
Long before he followed his pastoral calling, Doyle Bradford dug for coal underground — a traditional vocation in Bluefield, where folks proudly recall how rock extracted from the surrounding hills powered ships in the two world wars and helped build the skylines of cities across America.
Joe Biden carried parts of Bluefield itself, small splotches of blue in the sea of red that is West Virginia. But Mercer County gave more than three-quarters of its votes to Trump, and Bradford and his pronouncements are very much in line with that.
“For those of you who are surprised at my attending (the Washington rally), we have 2 choices,” he wrote on Facebook, “I stand with the platform that most closely aligns with my faith and values. Those do not include the murder of babies in the womb, and not knowing which bathroom one should use and banning pronouns.”
He said he did not participate in or even see the violence Jan. 6. On Facebook, he said he believed it was a “planned response from non Trump supporters.” He claimed there was “plenty of evidence of fraud” in the presidential election — though there is no evidence that that is the case — and called on people to “wake up” because “America is at stake.”
In an interview, Bradford fiercely defended his actions and denied he was part of a larger movement toward Christian nationalism, described by a coalition gathered by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty as an ideology that “demands Christianity be privileged by the state and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian.”
“I consider myself a Christian who loves America, but what we’ve got going on in the Earth today is, if a Christian does love America, they’re automatically called nationalist,” Bradford said.
“I do not believe that America is any greater in the eyes of God than any other country. But as a minister of the Gospel, I do not want to be shut out of the public arena. I do have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and it is my personal belief that America is going in a direction that will cause great harm to America.”
At Faith Center Church, Frederick Brown does not deny Bradford’s right to speak, but he does question the wisdom and even the godliness of some of the things he’s said.
Brown wants other religious leaders to return to “real Christianity” instead of getting wrapped up in the political arena. Although he respects Bradford as a “tremendous teacher” who loves God, he criticized some of his comments.
“With all love and due respect to my brother, I just feel that he has been completely out of order. I believe that he has said things publicly that just were not biblical,” he said.
“I’ve watched him declare that the wrath of God was coming upon people that did not vote for Trump, and the wrath of God was coming on the people that rigged the election. All of these things, from my perspective, that is totally contrary to what we teach and what we preach in Christendom.”
During a recent Sunday service — the first in-person one since November, due to the pandemic — Brown thanked the mostly Black congregation for its support after he contracted the coronavirus along with his wife and 17-month-old twins. Then he asked them to put politics aside and trust God.
“I don’t know about you all,” he said, “but I’ve been through 11 presidents, and I have survived them all.”
In a town where another church marquee read, “Don’t look to the White House. Look to heaven,” Brown’s message reverberated.
“I’m ready for this political jockeying to be over with,” said congregant Jonathan Jessup. “You know, I’m sick of it because the only thing it’s doing is causing more division.”
At Crossroads Church, Travis Lowe has struggled with his own inclination to preserve Christian unity at all costs. He supported Black Lives Matter protests, but was reproached by a friend because his comments were divisive. He resolved to rein in his political speech.
In a post on Medium, he recounted how he struggled to remain silent as “pastors and prophets began to publicly take sides in the U.S. election. I was silent as scriptures were used to demonize political enemies. I was silent as the language of violence flowed from the mouths of `people of peace.'”