Two days after a gunman killed 26 people at a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in late 2017, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida posted a photo on Instagram of a sign on the church doors.
“WARNING,” it read, on red background. “Welcome to the River at Tampa Bay Church - right of admission reserved - this is private property. Please know this is not a gun free zone - we are heavily armed - any attempt will be dealt with deadly force - yes we are a church and we will protect our people.” - The Pastors
I went to The River at Tampa Bay in early March 2018, a few weeks after shootings in Parkland on the other side of Florida. I wanted to understand the Christian Right’s embrace of guns, and what these weapons had to do with God.
The signs, I learned, were a bit of an overstatement. The night I went to The River, Associate Pastor Allen Hawes said he wasn’t actually carrying a gun while he preached.
“I have a permit though,” he said. “We aren’t waiting for there to be a scary first time it happens.”
Unspoken, hanging in the air between us, was the fact that things were already scary. That he was scared, and that I was scared, and that God seemed far, far away.
If you can manage to look past the sign that tells you its pastors are heavily armed — and doing so is next to impossible — The River feels like your run-of-the-mill American megachurch. It pops up out of nowhere on a meandering Tampa road, north of Brandon on the way to Plant City, far inland from the glittering hotels and beaches of Tampa Bay and Clearwater. This is Republican Florida, much different even from the glitz and glamour of Trump’s Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago. This is a place where people fish regularly and put gun racks on their pick-ups; a place that has much more in common with Alabama than say, Miami.
I am visiting for the Sunday night youth service, and this week is a big occasion. I’m told there might be a fire and many baptisms. Nearly 3,000 people like The River’s Student Ministries Facebook page. Hundreds of them will be here tonight.
As the students show up, many seem self-consciously cool — megachurch hipster Christian chic. They mill around, some gazing at Senior Pastor Howard Browne’s latest offering in the church library, which is conspicuously absent of Bibles, devotionals, or theological books. Browne’s latest work, featured prominently, is a riff on conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly’s “killing” series. Pastor Browne titled his book Killing Uncle Sam: The Demise of the United States of America, and on the cover is a bloodied American flag with a sword stuck in it, an image of the U.S. Constitution in the background.
Browne has spread some wild theories recently. In an October 2017 sermon, he suggested that human sacrifice and cannibalism had been “going on for years” in Hollywood. Three months earlier, he claimed insider knowledge of a planned attack on Trump, known about at the highest levels of government.
As the teens stream in to worship, I am struck by the ways they mirror their counterparts in Parkland. They are white and black and brown and Latino and Asian. They are of mixed race. They are confident and connected, sending Snaps as worship began, taking selfies. Chatting, hugging old friends. Talking about school and college and rent. They seem like any other young people you might meet, at any other church in America.
The worship team, too, is diverse — black and white singers in t-shirts and skinny jeans, singing praise music, live-streamed from the church’s website to the world. In front of me, a young interracial couple hold hands as they sing about God’s grace in their lives. It's the the future of young Christian America.
Pastor Hawes began to preach, in a mocking, acerbic tone.
“Grace, grace, grace. Graaaaaccceee,” he said, imitating churches he deemed insufficiently righteous. “I believe in grace, but I also believe in holiness. Scripture tells us we are to be light in a wicked generation.”
I’m reminded that at the root of much of the Christian Right’s antipathy to gun control is a sense of fear — a sense that they are the final guardians of God’s will for America, that they are being overrun by something they see as from the devil.
On cue, it’s time to talk about homosexuality and gender identity.
“You don’t have to look in the mirror to know what gender you are,” Pastor Hawes said. “Two men cannot procreate, and it’s a spiritual law to create and propagate.”
I see young people pulling out their iPhones. Some are taking notes. Others stare in rapt attention. What Hawes is saying goes against everything we have heard about this generation. But here they are, young and on fire for fundamentalist Christianity and all the rigidity it implies.
These are Trump’s young people.
Pastor Hawes has moved on to talking about marriage, dating, and #MeToo. He suggests there is no need to talk about consent or compatibility. Instead, women are but an outlet to be “plugged into.”
“If you’re a boy, and she’s a girl, you’re compatible,” he said. “You don’t have to think about it. If you don’t understand, go plug a cord into the wall. That’s how it works.”
The pastor said those who “misunderstand” relationships annoy him: “You’re an idiot, and you’re gonna go to hell.”
We enter hour three of the worship service and Pastor Hawes is still on a roll. Tonight is a “burn” night, where attendees will write whatever they want to remove from their life, whatever sin is weighing on them, and then bring it outside to a massive bonfire to be burned.
I’ve done things like this before, as have many American Christians. I’ve never done it quite in the way The River does.
A huge line of people is wrapping around the back of the room, waiting to walk forward and outside to toss their papers into the flames. After three hours of Pastor Hawes’ emotional, fear-charged preaching, there’s an air of “anything could happen,” and his fundamentalist preaching ignites the fervor in the air. I stay in my seat in the back, writing notes on my phone, wondering if I am missing something important, feeling a palpable absence of God and the fear that settles in its place.
I’m startled by a hand on my shoulder.
A white man in his 50s, in an ill-fitting shirt and shorts, is behind me.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
Jeff Duncan, of Kennesaw, Ga., stands out in this young, hipster-ish crowd. I tell him I’m writing a book about Christian Trump voters, and this particular chapter is about guns. He tells me he’s from Kennesaw, Ga., where in 1982, gun ownership was legally mandated for all heads of households — except for those who couldn’t afford guns, couldn’t use guns, couldn’t legally own guns, or didn’t want to own guns. As it happens, Duncan was in violation of Kennesaw’s law.
“I don’t have a gun,” he said. “I was mostly protected by the angels. I took martial arts when I was younger, and I’ve gotten by with that.”
I wonder what it’s like to live in a world where these are the skills you have to “get by” with. I'd soon learn more.
As Jeff and I have been talking, Pastor Hawes has been walking through the line and pushing people on the head. They subsequently fall backward onto the ground, intermittently yelling unintelligibly — what Pentecostals call being baptized in the Spirit, or speaking in tongues. It’s a scene much more common in global Christianity than in the United States. But the lines of faith are constantly being redrawn, and this isn’t Billy Graham’s revival — it is something altogether different, with a Trumpian flair for the dramatic and the financial.
“He’s not supposed to push them down,” Duncan said. “He tried to (push me down) last week. I didn’t let him. ...Some of these pastors, they aren’t doing the right thing."
Jeff Duncan is somewhat of a Pentecostal veteran. He loves Benny Hinn, and says he used to be in Deliverance Ministry, a group that uses spiritual power to affect physical healing. But tonight, everyone is slain in the Spirit.
There is scriptural precedent for speaking in tongues and miraculous physical healing, though the Apostle Paul suggests that such language also requires interpretation.
Tonight there are no interpreters — only a strange sound emitting from all around the room. It is an unremitting, demented laughter, coming from people lying on the ground, laughing without ceasing for minutes on end. This is laughter unique to Senior Pastor Howard-Browne.
The crowd begins to thin out as people make their way to the bonfire in the back, and others come forward for baptism. There is no real official end to the service, no closing hymn — just a semi-quiet in the worship space, still broken by hahahahahahah.
I pick my way through the remaining laughers, being careful not to step on anyone, and walk around a group of 20-somethings, who would look at home on the University of South Florida campus nearby, now back on their smartphones.
Pastor Hawes is standing outside. Gone is the fiery faith healer and preacher, and he is once again just a guy you might nod at in the sports bar after work, ordering wings and a beer.
He tells me he was going to go to the Naval Academy, then went to Georgia, and says he’s a history professor now.
“I grew up Catholic. Heathen, but Catholic,” Hawes said. “Then I got saved.”
He downplayed the signs, saying Pastor Howard-Browne has had death threats.
“We aren’t messing around,” he said. “We aren’t looking for trouble. We do everything through the law. You notice we have a sheriff’s deputy here.”
I had noticed that. I maintained frequent eye contact with him throughout the more intense moments of the service, hoping I could run in his direction if things got out of hand.
My curiosity about the church is old news for them. The River at Tampa Bay was inundated by reporters after the Sutherland Springs shooting — the Washington Post and several Florida outlets covered their sign, but Hawes only mentions Fox and Friends.
“I told them the same thing,” he said. “Jesus would say if you don’t have a sword, go get one. But he also blamed Peter for cutting off Malchus’ ear. The issue is not a gun, but a heart.”
It’s the first mention I’ve heard this evening of something resembling love. Later, I think that I should have pressed Hawes on this point, asking in what instance exactly Jesus would have wanted to use a gun himself; in what instance did Jesus hasten any death except his own. But in the moment we are standing outside a raging bonfire, and it’s almost midnight.
I feel a certain kinship to Hawes. Our children are the same age; he has girls, and I have boys. He tells me that he has been a youth pastor at The River for 12 years.
“We’ve put 10,000 kids through our ministries,” he said. “Our kids don’t even talk about guns. They want their friends to know about eternity.”
And there it is again: the fear factor. The necessity of an ultimate fear, of eternity and judgment and hell, that subjugates Christians at the feet of places like The River. Who wouldn’t want to defend the right to a glorious eternity? Who wouldn’t fight to defend that salvation, wouldn’t carry a gun if that’s what they were told was necessary?
The Christian idea of grace, maligned in Hawes’ sermon, is that we aren’t called to earn or to defend our salvation — that we are called to gratitude for life, rather than to fear of death. But grace is unsatisfying in a winner-takes-all world. Winning means nothing if there are no losers — and so our victory is subjugated to fear and zero-sum games.
“We need to protect our people,” Hawes said, again, then turned back to the flames.