ReAwaken America Tour to mix far-right politics, religion in Batavia this weekend
At the ReAwaken America Tour’s stop in Virginia Beach last month, emcee Clay Clark opened the event by asking a raucous crowd two questions.
“Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you out there agree that Jesus is King? How many of you believe that President Donald J. Trump is the president?” he said amid chants of “U.S.A.” from the audience.
That mix of religion, politics and conspiracy theories is what Western New Yorkers can likely expect during the tour’s stop at Cornerstone Church in Batavia Friday and Saturday.
Originally scheduled to be held in Rochester, the controversial, far-right roadshow has been denounced by area activists, faith leaders and even New York’s top law enforcement official.
Critics argue the event, which spreads misinformation on COVID-19 and the 2020 election, is harmful to public health and democracy, and could even lead to racial violence. Yet local conservatives, and the pastor hosting the event, say their perspective deserves space to be heard.
What is ReAwaken America?
The ReAwaken America Tour has visited 13 cities across 11 states over the last 16 months.
It’s organized by Clark, an Oklahoma-based podcaster who’s being sued over his election claims by a former Dominion Voting executive, and Michael Flynn, the ex-Trump administration national security advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russia.
WBFO reached out to Clark and his Thrive Time Show podcast for comment, but did not hear back.
The events feature both fringe figures in Trump world and more prominent ones. Trump advisor Roger Stone, MyPillow CEO and election denier Mike Lindell, and even the former president's son, Eric, are slated to speak at the Batavia stop.
The events most prominently discuss conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 and the 2020 election. The general theory pushed is that a Satanic cabal led by founder of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab is rigging elections, and fabricated the pandemic to force dangerous vaccines on the world population.
The tour’s marketing pits the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset,” a post-COVID economic initiative, against far-right figures’ push for a “Great Awakening” of the American public.
The theories are fairly similar to ones put forth in the ever-evolving QAnon movement, said University at Buffalo associate professor of political science professor Jacob Neiheisel.
“There's something for everyone. If your focus area is one part of the conspiracy theory, you can buy into that and then call yourself a fellow traveler or QAnon believer. You don't have to buy everything,” Neiheisel said. “It's sort of the ala carte conspiracy theory.”
Still, religion, and Christianity specifically, seem to be the most core theme of the tour. Speakers often argue the U.S. is a Christian nation.
“This nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles,” said pro-Trump pastor Mark Burns during the tour’s stop in Texas last year. “This nation was founded on the fact that Jesus is the Messiah.”
Neiheisel, who studies the Christian right, said the event fits into the label of Christian nationalism, the belief that the U.S. government should take active steps to remain a Christian state.
“There might be some debate about whether that's absolutely appropriate here, but it's this merger of faith and politics,” he said.
As for how the tour makes money, ReAwaken America does not list ticket prices. Instead, its website instructs attendees to request to be contacted by a customer service representative. Attendees can then “name [their] price,” according to Clark.
The tour also sells merchandise, like t-shirts criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci, and promotes Clark’s legal defense fund and “business school,” as well as Lindell’s MyPillow products.
Concern that event will cause ‘racial violence’
This weekend’s event was to be held at the Rochester Main Street Armory, until the venue backed out last month following public backlash and indie pop-rock band Japanese Breakfast canceling their September show there.
Now, Batavia-area activists, as well asfaith leaders, are raising concerns about the event coming to their town.
“The ReAwaken America tour is not what represents Batavia,” said Gregory Lebens-Higgins, a member of Genesee County Democratic Socialists of America, which has been protesting against the tour.
In addition to undermining public health and democracy, the event could put religious and ethnic minorities, as well as LGBTQ people, in danger, Lebens-Higgins said. He noted that Burns, one of the tour’s speakers, has called for parents and teachers who talk to children about LGBTQ issues to be executed for treason; Burns is not slated to speak at the Batavia event, according to the tour’s itinerary.
“We must directly acknowledge what the ReAwaken America Tour represents, which is fascism. American fascists view white, Christian, heterosexual men as the rightful owners of the country,” Lebens-Higgins said. “Those that do not meet this narrow definition of true Americans are a threat.”
New York State Attorney General Letitia James appears to share those concerns. She sent a letter to Clark and Flynn Aug. 3, warning their event could spur “racially motivated violence.” It notes speakers on the tour often allude to the Great Replacement theory that’s been linked to the May 14 racist mass shooting at a Tops Market in Buffalo.
State Civil Rights Law empowers the attorney general to investigate acts of violence and threats based on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, the letter read, adding that any person who violates this statute can be held liable for $5,000 for each violation.
“You are therefore instructed to take all necessary steps to ensure that the event complies fully with the requirements of New York’s civil rights laws and all other applicable state and federal statutes,” James wrote. “Your cooperation in ensuring a peaceful and law-abiding event will be greatly appreciated.”
In response, Clark posted a videofrom Cornerstone Church Thursday saying he had reserved a front-row seat for James.
“We haven’t heard back, but we invited her and we'll see if she wants to participate,” he said.
Genesee County DSA, which was started earlier this year and has about 15 to 20 members, is planning a “teach-in” event at Batavia’s Austin Park on Saturday. The group is advising parents to exercise caution if bringing children to the event, noting “safety concerns.”
Lebens-Higgins said there are concernsthe ReAwaken America event will attract white supremacists and other extremist groups, like the Proud Boys, who have a Rochester chapter. WBFO reportedin June that Western New York is home to several far-right, anti-government groups on a Southern Poverty Law Center watchlist.
Lebens-Higgins said ReAwaken America organizers likely chose Batavia because “it felt like a safe location.” Trump won Genesee County in 2020 with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
However, Lebens-Higgins said Batavia is diverse and has a fairly large LGBTQ population.
“We know that we will have to continue working to provide a community that accepts all the individuals that live here, and to show the surrounding communities of Buffalo and Rochester that this isn't just some backwards, rural, conservative, hateful town,” he said.
Church undeterred by criticism
Paul Doyle, pastor of Cornerstone Church, said he’s met with concerned citizens and community leaders, and done over 20 media interviews regarding the ReAwaken America event.
“And I have not found anything to validate their concerns,” he said.
Doyle said he hasn’t heard of any issues at previous ReAwaken America stops, and so will move forward with hosting under a large tent at his nondenominational church’s 20-acre property.
Doyle said he was approached by Clark shortly after the Main Street Armory pulled out of hosting the event. However, he said there will be “no exchange of money” between Cornerstone and ReAwaken America.
Cornerstone Church is a tax-exempt 501c3, under the corporate name New Hope Ministries. Tax law prohibits such churches from engaging in political campaign activity, although there’s plenty of gray area and the IRS rarely enforces it.
“Even though I'm a pastor, I'm still an American citizen, and so is my congregation,” Doyle said, “and if they want to challenge my 501c3 status, then they can do that, but I don't think it's going to happen.”
Doyle said he won’t tolerate violence or racism at the event, and that local law enforcement will be present. He added the church will have ample parking, food trucks, refreshments and restrooms.
Overall, he said he and his church support the message of ReAwaken America.
“We’re Christians, I see a lot of conservative, Christian voices. And I knew a number of them and I liked what they're doing,” he said. “I just believe their voices should be heard. I was concerned that these types of events are being canceled.”
Nancie Orticelli, the leader of one of Western New York’s anti-government groups, the Constitutional Coalition of New York State, said she is unable to attend herself, but that conservatives in the area are excited about the event.
Many of them don’t feel represented in a liberal state like New York, Orticelli said, and so the ReAwaken America event will likely galvanize them to get involved in politics.
“It gets people involved instead of just taking the abuse from the government for so long,” she said.
To Orticelli, ReAwaken America promotes “faith, family and freedom.”
“I know I'm not a white supremacist, and I believe in those things,” she said. “I would think that that is a country-wide belief in America that our faith, our family, and our freedoms are key and essential to liberty in the United States.”
ReAwaken America says it will sell 3,500 tickets for the event. As of early Friday morning, its website said tickets were still available.