KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At the Patriot Church on the outskirts of the city, politics and religion mix freely under a flag-painted roof.
“This nation was founded on predominantly Christian values by predominantly Christian people. We just want to keep that in play,” Pastor Ken Peters told “MTP Reports.”
Peters doesn’t consider politics a private matter. He voted for President Donald Trump last year, and he wanted every member of his congregation to know it and to do the same. He then marched on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
To Peters and many other pastors like him, the stakes are high. Many in the white evangelical community feel under siege from a socially liberal mainstream culture increasingly out of step with their beliefs.
“They can’t stand Christian culture,” Peters said. “Why? Because we believe marriage is between a man and a woman. We believe that there are only two genders. We believe that life in the womb is actually human life, and they’re murdering human life for money.”
The beliefs are increasingly hard to separate from partisan politics. White evangelicals have long been described as the foot soldiers of the Republican Party, and that held true last year, when exit polls found that close to 8 in 10 voted Republican in the presidential contest.
It’s all fueling a growing Christian nationalist movement that links love of God to love of country and often a very specific vision of what that country should look like.
On paper, Trump stands against everything they decry. He’s a brash New Yorker, known for his big ego, multiple marriages, serial dishonesty, crude language and even appeals to violence. He famously paid to cover up allegations of an affair with a pornographic film actress.
But Peters and others see Trump as a bulwark against liberalism who has delivered victories on issues they care about. Among them: abortion, religious liberty and support for Israel. For many, that has gone from tolerating Trump as perhaps a necessary evil to actively celebrating him.
“I think President Trump is a miracle,” Peters said. “I think God picked Donald Trump, an imperfect vessel, to be the champion of his people.”
Not everyone feels that way, however, which has led to painful arguments.
Within the movement, some religious leaders are concerned that Trump’s politics and personal behavior are impossible to separate.
Russell Moore recently stepped down as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, after years of conflicts with other evangelical leaders over his criticism of Trump and concerns that religion and politics had grown too close.
In January, he published a detailed essay decrying Trump’s role in the Capitol riot and warning Christians that “if you can defend this, you can defend anything.”
“Once evangelical Christianity is defined not by the gospel but by some sort of cultural or political movement, we’re in a really dangerous place,” Moore said in an interview.
“Evangelical Christianity is meant to be the good news of Jesus Christ, and handing that over to a political agenda, no matter what the political agenda, is a bad idea,” he said.
The conflict is playing out church by church. Across town in Knoxville, Pastor Phil Nordstrom’s Life Church approaches politics very differently from its neighbors at the Patriot Church.
While Nordstrom describes himself as “personally pretty conservative,” he has sought to keep overt partisanship out of the pews. That means avoiding what he calls “culture wars from the pulpit” and focusing on a message of inclusion.
“I think that our association with political extremism has especially turned off a younger generation toward evangelicalism,” Nordstrom said.
Members expressed similar reservations at a church study group.
“We’re Christians because we follow Christ and not because we’re Americans,” said Chris Irwin, a congregant at Life Church. “Our faith isn’t in the political system.”
But Peters and the Patriot Church have a different view.
“Some of the evangelical church, I think, is soft,” he said. “I think they’re cowardly and they’re trying to ride the fence between the left and the right.”
Anne Thompson and Sarah Dean reported from Knoxville. Benjy Sarlin reported from Washington.
To learn more about the political discussion among white evangelicals, check out this week’s episode of “MTP Reports” on Peacock.
Anne Thompson is NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent.
Benjy Sarlin is policy editor for NBC News.