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As Christian Nationalism Rises, Progressive Pastors in North Texas Fight to Keep the Faith

Across the country, many conservatives have adopted the 'Christian nationalist' label.
Across the country, many conservatives have adopted the 'Christian nationalist' label. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Keri Lynn Lucas swears the story is true.

While driving one day, a vision came to the pastor: She would start a support group for LGBTQ teens in Collin County, a conservative enclave that desperately needed such a group. She didn’t yet know the details, let alone how to navigate the politics of North Texas, but she trusted the vision. It was, in her words, “something worth doing.” She called a friend to ask for help with the group.

“Oh my God,” the friend said. “That’s my dream job.”

Lucas says it’s her calling to help other people “figure out how they can serve God’s kingdom.”

“It gives me life,” she says. So, it was the perfect setup: With her friend’s help, Lucas, a veteran pastor in the Methodist church, would counsel LGBTQ teens as they face trials such as coming out to their parents. Lucas would handle the logistics and theological conversations, and her friend would help love and support the kids.

But there’s a catch. Lucas has been leading the support group for over a year, and while some members of her congregation chip in with financial support, her church doesn’t know. “I am the community organizer,” she says. “That's the way I see it. And I happen to be a pastor.”

Amid the decline in church attendance, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the rise of Christian nationalism, faith leaders like Lucas are doing what they can to care for their congregants and wrest control of the common narrative that “Christian” is synonymous with “conservative.” These leaders believe theology can be a source of healing and comfort, but they want to meet people — particularly kids — where they are.

“Young people see no place for themselves in what they've been told God blesses,” says Pepa Paniagua, the founding pastor and executive director of kin•dom community. “If they are not white and they are not cisgender and they are not upper-middle class or affluent, if they're not the things American Christianity has lifted up and said are blessed, then where do they find hope?”

Thus, the work these pastors do often takes them far outside the literal confines of the church and the traditional boundaries of a pastoral role. It also involves the occasional private meeting or event. “We’re very private about what we do, and that’s for the sake of the kids,” says Paniagua. “There was a camp on the Today Show that does similar work, and someone asked me why we don't do that. I said it's because we're not in a state where it's safe to do.”

kin•dom community is inspired by Ada María Isasi-Díaz, a dissident theologian The New York Times says “spoke for those she considered the neglected spiritual core of the church’s membership: Hispanic women like herself.” The community’s signature event is a camp open to LGBTQIA+ youth ages 12 to 17. All religions are welcome, and all faith activities are opt-in only. Campers zipline, do archery, play music and are reminded that they are loved for who they are.

“We are proud of the work we do,” Paniagua adds, “and [we] rely on a lot of word of mouth to get the word out about the work we do. But we are keenly aware that the world, especially Texas, is not a safe place for the LBGTQIA+ community. So, we take extra care to do what we can to make sure we don't unintentionally put people in danger.”

"Young people see no place for themselves in what they've been told God blesses." – Pepa Paniagua, kin•dom community

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Paniagua, her campers and the folks who help her lead kin•dom have yet to be physically endangered at the camp itself, but they’ve witnessed enough hateful activity — some of it under the banner of Christianity — to know they should prepare for the worst.

They’ve seen armed protesters and far-right Proud Boys at Pride parades, and they’ve experienced their fair share of hate speech too. As Paniagua says, “being a queer woman in this state is not easy, and it doesn't feel safe. This work is made even more complicated when my own personhood has been legislated against, and there is a real chance I am breaking the law by offering gender-affirming care when I tell people they're safe.” Therefore, each event they throw is accompanied by ample security plans and protocols, and some events have included personnel hired specifically to keep Paniagua's campers safe.

Their work is also still evolving. The first camp happened this past summer, and in the future, Paniagua says she may include a queer Bible study — a conversation wherein she and her campers redefine “parts of the Bible that have been used for harm.” This is a common theme espoused by the Texas faith leaders interviewed for this story. The way the Bible has been taught has been a significant instrument of harm, they say, so to undo that harm, they must go to the source.

That was the driver behind “Bible Bullshit,” the discussion group launched by Macie Liptoi last year. From Sodom and Gomorrah to every weaponized quote and passage in between, the group tackled and untangled a different part of the Bible each week. “The whole idea was to take the bullshit out of the Bible,” Liptoi told the Observer. “The Bible is sacred to me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t question it.”

Liptoi recently left the Dallas church where she started these discussions, and her work continues in Collin County. As a pastor at First United Methodist Church in McKinney, the unabashed progressive makes progress where she can. For instance, at an annual North Texas conference for Methodist leaders, Liptoi helped pass a resolution that declares gender-affirming care is not child abuse.

"We're trying to make people feel embraced without making people mad." – Macie Liptoi

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Much of the time, though, the work of progressive faith leaders happens behind closed doors. "I see progressive Christians as people who are doing work that isn't necessarily demonstrative,” she says. “When I look at the progressive Christians I know, I see people hosting anonymous groups for queer youth that allow them to come to church without being outed. You don't see that work. It's in the background; it doesn't get explosive and it's not dramatic.”

Liptoi’s mentor is one such leader, a pastor who, in Liptoi’s word, “is not someone you would look at and identify with radicalism.” She says, “I joke with him, 'You're playing the long game, but it's effective.’”

But is the long game inherently flawed because, by nature, it takes a while? The pastors themselves grapple with that question, even as they bristle at the notion that progressive Christians and conservative Christians are locked in a bitter conflict: The point of faith and the church is to offer guidance and love, they say, not gain political territory. Still, they expressed some degree of concern that the public at large is losing faith in Christianity because of its ties to conservatism. The data backs them up: Recent Pew Research Center numbers show Christians made up 90% of the U.S. population 50 years ago. Now, that figure is down to roughly 64%.

"I do worry about losing ground,” says Josh Esparza, a pastor who recently moved from a Dallas church to one in Allen. “I'm not sure the church as it exists today is going to exist 20 or 30 years from now."

**
Fox News and QAnon have a 24/7 hold on many churchgoers, while most pastors see their flock only for a couple hours once a week. This isn’t a new problem, but the tacit imprimatur of Donald Trump has helped public supporters of Christian Nationalism ascend to power in Washington.

Take, for instance, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who recently said, “I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.”

Or consider Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who called the separation of church and state “a myth.”

But these are only the loudest examples. There are also signs that Christian nationalism — the belief that America is a Christian nation blessed by God and the government should keep it that way — is gaining more of a foothold in everyday life. Researchers and authors Allyson F. Shortle, Eric L. McDaniel and Irfan Nooruddin recently discovered that strong adherents to this idea of “American religious exceptionalism” stayed stable between 2008 and 2018, while “moderate support” climbed from 26% in 2008 to around 50% by 2018. The biggest change in this time period was a decrease in strong opposition. In other words, there is a diminishing number of Americans who oppose the idea that their country is blessed by God and should remain a “Christian nation.”

This decrease in strong opposition has fueled a growing divide among progressive faith leaders: Some people want to leave the church as we knew it in the past, and others still believe the church can be a source of good. Often, faith leaders like Josh Esparza are caught in the middle, with likeminded liberals on one side and more conservative parishioners on the other. And the middle can be a lonely place. "It does definitely feel like an island out here,” he tells the Observer. “It often feels like I'm the person trying to push too far, and sometimes I question if I'm even pushing far enough."

Esparza previously worked at Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space, a church in East Dallas that is intentional about building a trans-inclusive community. Yet, not all parishioners lined up neatly behind Esparza’s politics.

In March 2021, shortly after Robert Aaron Long gunned down six Asian women at Atlanta spas as part of his effort to supposedly eliminate “temptation,” Esparza sent an email to his congregants. “We need to be mindful of [our] biases and repent for the things we’re saying,” he wrote. “We need to continue to push for gun legislation. We as people of faith are called to be something more.”

He also called the Atlanta shooting what it was: racial violence. Esparza, 29 at the time, received plenty of positive feedback for his note. But more than a year later, one response sticks with him. It was an email from a man who had given him “a hard time for many years,” Esparza says.

“He replied and said I’m ‘just trying to make it political, and that it wasn’t race-motivated,’” Esparza says. “So, I spent the afternoon citing articles and podcasts and Chinese news sources, and I attached resources about the model minority idea.”

The man eventually “came around,” Esparza says, and saw his pastor’s point of view. They ended the conversation on good terms. On its surface, this interaction probably doesn’t sound especially dramatic. But it's emblematic of a tightrope that progressive faith leaders (at least those who work in churches) are constantly walking.

The mere act of walking this tightrope is also a constant source of irritation for progressives who think churches cater too much to the conservatives and so-called moderates who are not fully on board with the idea of a progressive faith. In Liptoi’s words, "We're trying to make people feel embraced without making people mad."

"One thing I see over and over again is people feel like the church is shirking its duty to stand up for the least of these,” she adds. "The church is super stellar at acts of mercy: reading programs and clothing drives and angel trees at Christmas and food banks. We are good at meeting needs. But we have not done the best job at doing works of justice. We have not done a good job at looking at the roots of poverty and treating those problems. When we hand someone a bag of food on a Saturday morning, we have not done a good job of asking why they need that bag."

That's why “underground work” has to happen, Liptoi says, including anonymous groups for queer youth. Yet, for some, there’s an uncomfortable reason the work is happening with a veil of privacy or secrecy.

"Part of the reason this 'underground work' is happening in secret is the fear of big donors,” Liptoi says. “Churches are coming out of two years of COVID and trying to retain staff and trying to maintain budgets, so it is not a foolish thing to be fearful of that. There are senior pastors out there who this would all fall on them, and there are a lot of people who have resigned their pastoral credentials. If we are going to make change in this country, we can't be intransigent. We have to take risks."

**

Keri Lynn Lucas, a friend of Liptoi’s, does precisely that.

An Odessa, Texas, native, Lucas says she grew up “as Southern and ‘throw-some-dirt-on-it’” as anyone else. And like Esparza, she spends a lot of time thinking about and navigating the tension inherent in being a progressive pastor in North Texas. She also refuses to be boxed in by either label. "One of the jokes I make is 'I'm not progressive enough for progressives, and I'm not Christian enough for Christians.' People like me and Macie are like, 'Hold on, you can be both.'"

It might be her West Texas upbringing, or it might be her recognition of her own conservative past ("The things that I would've said about queer people I cringe at now,” she says. “Things like 'Hate the sin, not the sinner.'”) Whatever the case, Lucas doesn’t want to write off conservatives; she is not, she says, “a burn-it-down progressive Christian.” She explains, "Because I've had such a dramatic journey, I don't see conservative Christianity as a place where people will be for all time."

Still, she knows as well as anyone that the gulf between progressives and conservatives is likely as wide as ever, and she isn’t keen to cede territory on matters of social justice and equity. The way she sees it, conservative Christians think there’s not enough Jesus in the world because abortion exists, while she thinks there’s not enough Jesus in the world because Black people are being killed for existing.

"My job is to love these kids.” – Keri Lynn Lucas

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Lucas is starting a Doctorate of Ministry program at Duke University; as part of the program, she will study leadership and build a trauma-informed framework for pastoral care. While she hopes to eventually pass off her LGBTQ youth support group to a queer pastor, she also looks forward to using what she learns at Duke to further support the kids.

It’s a calling the younger Lucas might not have expected, a calling that goes far beyond the title of “pastor.” She says, “My job is to love these kids.”

It’s a job that’s urgent too. Lucas can rattle off stats from The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, with the same ease as quoting scripture. Forty-five percent of LGBTQ young people have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, she points out, and study after study has arrived at the same conclusion: LGBTQ youth who are part of a supportive community report higher rates of well-being and lower rates of suicide attempts.

So, her work continues. "These are awesome kids who have every reason not to trust me,” she says. “You want the real story, it's the grace of these kids who look at a cis straight pastor and want to see me once a month. That’s the real story.”
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Tyler Hicks was born in Austin, but he grew up in Dallas. He typically claims one or the other, depending on which is most convenient. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Truthout, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Contact: Tyler Hicks

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