BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (AP) — If you’re Christian in Bluefield — and most everyone is, in this small city tucked into the Blue Ridge 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 religion, and say they should be allowed to speak 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, their viewpoints 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 tunneled for coal — 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 America’s skylines.
Joe Biden carried parts of Bluefield 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.
“I stand with the platform that most closely aligns with my faith and values,” he wrote on Facebook. “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 on Jan. 6. On Facebook, he said he believed it was a “planned response from non Trump supporters” and claimed there was “plenty of evidence of fraud” in the presidential election — though there is no evidence of that.
In an interview, Bradford fiercely defended his actions and denied being part of a larger movement toward Christian nationalism.
“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. … 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 said Bradford said he respects his fellow pastor as a “tremendous teacher” who loves God, but some of what Bradford is saying runs “contrary to what we teach and what we preach in Christendom.”
“I’ve watched him declare that the wrath of God was coming upon people that did not vote for Trump,” Brown said, “and the wrath of God was coming on the people that rigged the election.”
During a recent Sunday service — the first in-person one since November, due to the pandemic — Brown asked his mostly Black congregation to put politics aside and trust God. The message hit home.
“I’m ready for this political jockeying to be over with,” congregant Jonathan Jessup said. “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 resolved to rein in his political speech to avoid divisiveness.
In a post on Medium, he recounted how he remained 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.’”
He recalled Bradford posted on Facebook after the first presidential debate that leaders in the church had supported Trump for years for not being a politician but were now backpedaling because he was not acting like one: “If you said he was the leader God chose, own it.”
After Jan. 6, Lowe finally spoke out: “I can no longer risk having blood on my hands for the sake of unity.”
“I struggle to see the way that people can wave a banner of Christianity and still employ the language of violence,” he said.
Bradford takes pride in the diversity of his congregation, which includes white, Black and Latino members. His flock defend their pastor and say his church has transformed their lives through acceptance and love.
That does not mean that they are happy with the violence at the Capitol, or that they are certain their faith offers clear instruction on how they should act politically.
“My biggest prayer is just that, God, that we would see the truth … and that this country would come together in unity,” said 21-year-old Kara Sandy, a congregant and junior at Bluefield State College.
Congregant Brenda Gross teared up when she was asked about the shirtless, fur-hatted “QAnon Shaman” who led a prayer at the Senate chamber thanking God “for allowing the United States of America to be reborn.”
“I don’t know what prayer he prayed, but our Jesus was meek and mild. … He wasn’t representing the Jesus that I know and love,” Gross said.
Her husband attended the Washington rally with Bradford. Gross said she both stands by her pastor and prays for Biden, though she worries about coal jobs and the president’s support for abortion rights.
Gina Brooks, who leads the children’s ministry at Bradford’s church, agreed that the Capitol melee was a sorry spectacle: “It’s sad, it’s really disheartening to see people take on the name Christian and they’re not.”
But she said she shared his concerns for the nation’s direction and backed his decision to demonstrate. Lately Bradford’s Facebook posts have been less strident, focusing on unity and humility.
“The end result is what the Lord’s will is, and if the Lord’s will is this, then so be it,” Brooks said. “But it doesn’t mean that we stop interceding in the spirit.”
Associated Press writer Elana Schor in Washington contributed to this report.
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