Hate in America: What a Tangled Web Our Leaders Weave

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Hate, racism, neo-Nazism, xenophobia, and white supremacy have significantly increased in our country the last few years. Sadly, they were all unleashed in Charlottesville, VA on August 12th and 13th, when white-nationalist staged a rally they called "Unite the Right", which culminated into a violent and volatile situation that took the life of Heather Heyer and physically injured many others. While the emotional toll is highest in the Charlottesville, VA area, it has rippled across the entire country. 

As Americans, most of us have been aware of the undercurrent of these extremist ideologies but they have seemed to be shunned into the dark corners of society where they belong and not allowed to come out into the light for decades. What changed? What gave the group that marched through Charlottesville with faces uncovered, confederate flags waving, carrying Tiki Torches, chanting, "Jews will not replace us" and "blood and soil" the courage to do so? Why are they so emboldened at this point in time? The answer is complicated but one worth finding.

There is a tightly interwoven web of hate that has invaded our churches, communities and government insidiously for years. This includes our very own city and state, Rapid City, SD. It is largely led by far-right, evangelical church leaders in communities across the country. These leaders work with other conservative groups that also work with extremist groups. These groups tend to target one or a few segments of the country's population that they view as the “other.” They promote that the “other” is some kind of threat to the America. Specifically, Christian American values and culture. From their powerful pulpits as religious leaders they use their interpretation of the Bible to lead their followers down the path of fear and mistrust of their chosen “others.”

We need to go back in our history some to find the start of this growing network. Family Research Council (FHA) opened its doors in 1983. The organization grew exponentially in the 1990s thanks to donations form various donors including the DeVos and Prince families. Yes, the same family that our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, comes from [1]. The organization works to stymie equal civil rights for LGBTQ+ communities, opposes all abortions, embryonic stem-cell research, gambling and pornography. It advocates for abstinence-only sex education programs, intelligent design being taught in public schools, and making married people wishing to divorce wait a year and receive marital counseling before a divorce is granted. Although, that can be waived if domestic violence is involved.  The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) did identify FRC, and its president, Tony Perkins as an anti-LGBTQ extremist group [2,3].

FRC has a smaller group within it called Watchmen on the Wall (WOTW). WOTW is FRC's ministry to pastors. This organization recruits Christian pastors from churches across the country and provides them with information supporting the ideas from the FRC and how they can effectively preach this information to their congregations. They do this with the goal of using these pastors to get laws passed in our communities, state, and federal governments to align with the Biblical laws they choose to follow [4].

There is another group that works closely with FRC and WOTW. This group is ACT for America. ACT is an acronym for American Congress for Truth. The organization was founded 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel (aka Brigitte Tudor). On its website the group describes itself as, “The NRA for national security.” Their website gives information about state and federal laws the organization has helped pass. In its policy section is a statement about ACT for America's anti-discrimination and no violence policies.

What the website does not tell the visitor is that ACT for America is the largest anti-Islam organization in the country [5]. ACT for America is actively involved in spreading misinformation and fear concerning Muslim people and Islam. They partner with various other groups and speakers who twist the Islamic teachings of the Qur'an so that they are technically factual but paint all Muslims to be radical Islamic terrorist or otherwise wanting jihad with America. SPLC classifies ACT for America as an anti-Islam group. As recently as 8-18-17, SPLC sent out an article expressing concern for planned ACT for America rallies across the country scheduled for September 9, 2017 [6].  The founder boasts of her access to the White House [7].  Gabriel also held a fund raising event for her organization at Trump's Washington D.C. hotel  [8].

ACT for America has partnered with John Guandolo's organization Understanding the Threat: Strategic and Operational Training and Consulting on the Threat of the Global Islamic Movement (UTT). The primary demographic he chooses to provide his services to are local and state leadership as well as law enforcement, however, his events are open to the public and he does purposefully engage evangelical pastors directly. You can find information about the organization [9, 10, 11].

In the first six months of this year there were three anti-Islam events held in Rapid City. ACT for America had a hand in all of them. The History of Islam with guest speaker William Federer was held at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel on April 29, 2017. Understanding The Threat was at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on June 15, 2017 and the film Faithkeepers at the Elks Theater on June 21, 2017.

One may wonder what the local connection is. Family Heritage Alliance is a Rapid City based organization that opened its doors in 2010. They have co-sponsored all of the events that ACT for America helped bring to Rapid City. They describe themselves as, “a family and conservative values advocacy group focused on promoting and defending faith, family, and freedom.” In a video on its website they describe their idea of family, “not as society would define it but as God has,” and freedom as, “not freedom to do as we please, but the freedom to pursue our God unhindered and render to him the worship that he alone is due,” [12]. A scroll down the home page shows articles promoting events with ACT for America and Understanding the Threat that the organization co-sponsored [13, 14, 15]. 

Islamophobia is not the only issue that Family Heritage Alliance works to promote. They also oppose same-sex marriage [16], equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, and a woman's right to choose. They are involved with all three of South Dakota's members of congress [17].

Another common sponsor in all of these events is BigHorn Canyon Community Church. They co-sponsored all of the events noted above. BigHorn Canyon Community Church is located in Rapid City. The pastor is Scott Craig. Mr. Craig currently serves on the board of directors for, Family Heritage Alliance. He was also the South Dakota Representative of district 33 from January 2013 to December 2016 [18].  Mr. Craig met with, then candidate Trump, in June 2016 [19] and is part of Watchmen on the Wall [20].

Also associated with BigHorn Canyon Community Church is Amy Willson. She is an administrative assistant at the church and states that she is very active with Family Heritage Alliance and is the president of the Rapid City ACT for America chapter [21]. Amy works closely with Scott Craig and WOTW, as her name appears frequently in the links provided when discussing Scott Craig or Watchmen on the Wall SD.

Also of note, is First Assembly Church in Rapid City. The pastor of the church, Craig Moore [22], is noted to have attended the Watchmen on the Wall briefing in Washington D.C. from May 23-26, 2017, along with a total of 13 South Dakota church leaders [23]. The church also co-sponsored the events at the Ramkota and Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. Additionally, the church was the location for an event called “Rise of the Watchmen” on February 17, 2017 [24]. We believe this was one of the first gatherings of WOTW South Dakota.  As seen in the link there were other sponsors for this event. Five of them are not mentioned in this article because they do not appear to have sponsored any other events discussed in this article.

The Pennington County Republican Party also sponsored the ACT for America event, Understanding the Threat. When members of Indivisible Rapid City visited the GOP office to ask why, they were greeted by a hostile woman who kicked them out without really answering any questions. Details of the visit were posted in Indivisible Rapid City's Facebook page. The Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) did pick up the Pennington County GOP support of the event and put out a statement asking them to withdraw their support [25]. The South Dakota Democratic Party also put out a statement concerning the issue [26].

On the Watchmen on the Wall, SD Facebook account is a picture [27] of all three South Dakota members of congress standing with Ed Randazzo from Family Heritage Alliance and another gentleman. The picture was taken on May 24, 2017 in Washington D.C. during the Watchmen on the Wall briefing.

Neither Senator Thune or Representative Noem have responded publicly or in written statements on why they were photographed with this group. Senator Thune's office has not responded to inquiries about this at all. Staff at Rep. Noem's office did say, in a phone call with this author that, “There is a lot of daylight between how you view the group (WOTW) and how she views the group.” Rep. Noem is not concerned about her association with FHA as she frequents appears on their website [28, 29, 30]. 

Senator Rounds was asked about this picture at his “coffee and conversation” in Deadwood, SD on August 17, 2017. An Indivisible Rapid City member asked him if he supports the group Watchmen on the Wall. His initial response was, “I never heard of the group.” He even went so far as to ask, “Has anyone ever heard of them?” After being pressed further he said, “I can tell you that if Senator Thune, Kristi Noem and I were all together and if you for one second that we're gonna stand with a hate group, I can't even try to convince you otherwise. I have no idea where it comes from. Do you have any idea where they made this picture up at?” One of the Indivisible Rapid City leaders told him that the photo was taken on May 24, 2017 in Washington D. C. A man in the audience, Dale, started to explain that the group was associated with Family Heritage Alliance and then changed it to Family Research Council. He stated that the group, WOTW, was specifically not the same group as the one associated with Tony Perkins and Family Research Council. To this Senator Rounds stated, “I have no problem with having my picture taken with members of the Family Research Council,” [31] 

The idea that WOTW is separate from Tony Perkins or Family Research Council is demonstrably false. Simply look at the advertisement cited above [24] and note the emblem in the upper left corner, Watchmen on the Wall/FRC. In the upper right corner is the emblem for Watchmen on the Wall/South Dakota.

WOTW South Dakota has also promoted the presentations from John Guandolo's Understanding the Threat organization by posting a link to an UTT article on their Facebook account with this caption, “Sheriffs and Pastors are the most important people in this war. We will attain victory when sheriff’s and their deputies understand the threat and aggressively go after it. Law Enforcement can only do this if the citizens also understand the threat. Pastors are the key to ensuring that happens, so they must speak truth in love to open the eyes of the American people,” [32].

We know that John Guandolo and his organization UTT has been able to engage at least two churches in helping to spread his message. What we don't know is if he has had any success in getting his message to the Rapid City Police Department or the Pennington County Sheriff's Department. Two of Indivisible Rapid City's leaders were invited by a concerned Rapid City citizen and Indivisible Rapid City member, to a meeting with Captain Corey Brubakken to discuss our questions about the Sheriff's Office support of the UTT event. We met with Captain Brubakken and he told us that the Pennington County Sheriff's Office was not participating in or promoting the UTT event to its officers. We have no reason to not take him at his word.

All the information presented here demonstrates how seven separate organizations with extensive overlap in membership, have woven a complicated web of misinformation and fear mongering in order to push their agendas of religious beliefs and islamophobia in just one state, South Dakota. Four of the seven organizations are nation-wide. It took extensive research and about five months to compile the information and to connect the dots between all the people and organizations involved. It is beyond the scope of this article to even consider the nation-wide web this represents.

For the most part, these tangled webs are not challenged because of the perceived high level of support garnered from community leaders. The organizations intentionally target community leaders in churches, political parties, law enforcement, congress and even the presidency, to give credence to their agendas. It is easy to persuade Americans into believing that it is acceptable to hate “the other” when the information comes from these positions of authority. Once it is acceptable in every level of our community leadership, from churches to the presidency, it is not surprising that a tragedy like Charlottesville took place.

Indivisible Rapid City has protested the three anti-Islam events in Rapid City this year. Press releases were sent out for each protest. The local news media covered each of the events.  All the coverage calls out ACT for America and some call out the Pennington County Republican's where applicable. KOTA's coverage also mentions Family Heritage Alliance and its Director of Political Operations who declined to be interviewed. That same story also cites, "two local churches," but does not name them or their leaders [33, 34, 35, 36].  Who wants to take on churches and elected officials? This is exactly how this has been going on for years without anyone noticing. Charlottesville is the result of letting the activities of these groups go unnoticed and unchecked. Indivisible Rapid City will continue to work to shed light onto these groups and demand that elected officials be accountable for their dealings with them.

ADDENDUM 9/10/17: The last paragraph has been corrected to include media mentions of Pennington County GOP, Family Heritage Alliance, and "two local churches". We apoligize for the oversight.



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