The city of Spokane, Washington sits at the eastern edge of the state—a mountain range and a cultural world away from the Pacific coast. It looks eastward to Idaho and Montana, and south to Eastern Oregon, where far-right secessionist movements have been organizing for years. Secessionist ideas, while still not quite popular, have gone mainstream enough that even a senior Republican, then-State Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) had floated the idea of breaking off Eastern Washington to form a 51st state called “Liberty.”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Shea and Patriot movement allies had been quietly also planning to seize control of the region after the outbreak of a civil war, and the fall of the U.S. government—installing Shea as a regional governmental leader. The justification for this was to institute unspecified “constitutional changes” and to “sanctify to Jesus Christ” [sic].
Many leaders of the Christian Right aren’t household names. But some of them, working in the shadows just beyond the national limelight, provide glimpses into potential religious conflict in the U.S. These include Shea and Apostle Tim Taylor of Kingdom League International in Washington State, whose stories have converged in remarkable ways. Both are retired military combat officers who have emerged as non-denominational religious leaders, bringing a certain operational potential to the growing militarization of theocratic religious visions of the Christian Right.
Shea, 47, who served in the state’s House of Representatives from 2009 until this year, has navigated the tumultuous far-right factions of the West for more than 15 years. These include the up-and-coming New Apostolic Reformation, extreme elements of the anti-abortion movement, and religiously-animated parts of the Patriot movement.
He’s a former officer in the Army and the National Guard, who served in Bosnia and Iraq and has a remarkable post-military resume that established his credentials as a leader in both the Christian Right and the Patriot movement. He was a cofounder of the state political affiliate of Focus on the Family as well as founder of the Spokane chapter of the anti-Muslim group, ACT for America.
In 2017 Shea was elected chair of the Republican Caucus. A year later, he became the founding chairman of the Washington Legislative Prayer Caucus, which is part of a national network of state legislative prayer caucuses whose legislative agenda is called Project Blitz.
First reported by Religion Dispatches in 2018, Project Blitz publishes a manual of Christian Right model bills for members of the prayer caucuses. The bills range from requiring public schools to post In God We Trust displays to allowing religious exemptions for adoption and foster care agencies opposed to serving LGBTQ people. (Shea was listed as chair until 2019 when the sponsoring national organization, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF) scrubbed their site of references to Project Blitz in the face of intense public scrutiny. The erasure included the names of the chairs and members of the prayer caucuses.)
Although CPCF is not as well known as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, it’s led by former eight-term member of Congress, Randy Forbes (R-VA) and boasts, as Congressional Advisors, 22 sitting U.S. Senators and Members of Congress.
Shea may be best known for his involvement in planning and helping coordinate the dramatic 2016 seizure and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed rightwing activists. For this, he was characterized as a domestic terrorist in a well-documented December 2019 investigation commissioned by the state House of Representatives. “Shea is an active and influential leader of the Patriot Movement in the US,” the investigation concluded, who “presents a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence.”
Prior to the Malheur occupation, Shea was actively engaged in forging relationships between law enforcement and the Patriot Movement. In May of 2013, Shea spoke at a founding meeting of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) along with prominent Patriot and far-right leaders including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers (one of the groups responsible for planning the Capitol Insurrection); Bill Norton of the Tea Party Patriots; Larry Pratt, the founder of Gun Owners of America; and Joe Wolverton of The John Birch Society. The following year, he signed a CSPOA resolution vowing to not enforce federal gun restrictions under the Obama administration.
Following the December 2019 House report, Shea was expelled from the GOP Caucus he had once chaired, although by no means did this put an end to his political activism.
While Shea didn’t file for reelection in 2020, in May of that year, it was announced that he would become the pastor of the non-denominational Covenant Church in Spokane. Since then, his predecessor, Rev. Ken Peters, has launched a small start-up network of “Patriot Churches.” These are intended to operate without the benefits—or indeed the restrictions—of a 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status.
Apostolic Prayer Councils
Shea’s fellow patriot Tim Taylor is an Apostle of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). A seldom reported-on movement of Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicalism that’s playing a growing role in American politics. NAR holds to a comprehensive theonomic vision, popularly described as Seven Mountains Dominionism, which calls for believers to take control over seven leading aspects of society: family, government, religion, education, media, arts and entertainment, and business. (The metaphor is sometimes used interchangeably with spheres, pillars, and gates.) Most, but not all, hold to this view, and there’s room for differences because the movement seeks unity over doctrinal conformity.
NAR rejects such contemporary denominational offices as popes and presidents, and recognizes those prescribed in the New Testament book of Ephesians: apostle, prophet, teacher, evangelist, and pastor—what they call “the five-fold ministry.”
Some well-known Christian Right figures in the NAR camp include Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, Apostle Paula White; Texas-based Christian Right strategist David Barton; Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference; and Lt. Gen. William Boykin, (ret.) Executive Vice President of the Family Research Council.
Taylor’s Kingdom League International website declares, “We are a covenantal alliance of leaders, ministers, churches, ministries and networks collaborating together to mobilize the Church as the army of the Lord.” He further explains, “Our alliance is composed of leaders representing each of the seven spheres of society and the five-fold ministry.”
Apostle Taylor envisions and seeks to form “apostolic prayer councils” over the Seven Mountains. He wrote that in February 2019, he had met with members of the Washington Legislative Prayer Caucus over dinner at Daniel’s Prayer Ministry, a block from the state capitol in Olympia. The Ministry is led by Elizabeth Sorenson who also serves as the State Director of the Prayer Caucus.
They agreed to form an “apostolic/strategic council” for the mountain of state government. “Last night we made history,” Taylor declared. Indeed, while such councils exist in some cities and towns around the country, this may be the first such state organization. He described the role of the Apostolic Council in a video, “made just for those who’re part of the Washington State Prayer Caucus.” It closes with a screen shot of Prayer Caucus Chairman Shea taken from the Prayer Caucus website.
Originally they planned to notify their network of prayer warriors with legislative prayer alerts via an app. But since the app hasn’t worked, Taylor publishes a list of the legislation they want people to support or oppose, including talking points on everything from abortion to education to diversity training for public employees.
When War is not a Metaphor
Shea and Taylor aren’t celebrity religious leaders whose every utterance is noted by the media. And as tempting as it might be to think of them as too fringy to be consequential, they may be better thought of as leaders in a growing movement that’s not only greater than the sum of its parts—but one that has grown in both its capacity for and its intentions towards insurrectionary violence.
It’s taken generations of theological change and political development for this evolving movement to get this far. And they’re aware that there will be many battles won and lost in the course of the war—a war that, to their strategic advantage, many people remain unaware has been long underway—and that it’s not just about culture.
Apostle Taylor, who served in Desert Storm and then retired as a Commander in the Naval Reserve in 2006, uses military terms to describe the end-times war with evil. In his 2008 book Operation Rolling Thunder (which was endorsed by leading Apostles, including NAR founder C. Peter Wagner) Taylor insisted, “throughout this book, you will find references to the army, war, battles, etc… However, scripture is clear… that our war is not with flesh and blood. Our fight is with spiritual armies of wickedness in heavenly places.”
But perhaps Taylor doth protest too much.
“I liked Matt right away,” Taylor wrote in 2013, referring to Shea. “He is an army officer, a combat veteran, an attorney and a Christian. “I remember the oath I took to defend the constitution [sic] of these United States and from watching him over the last three years, I’d say he remembered that oath too.”
Taylor and fellow NAR Apostles have established elaborate prayer networks to pray for government officials and to mobilize for their preferred policies and electoral engagements. But there can be an edge to their vision and their strategy of “spiritual warfare” via prayer to combat demons—an edge that could lead to physical confrontation in the political and cultural battles of our time.
For example, there was certainly no question about what Matt Shea had in mind when he authored his 2016 manifesto on the Biblical Basis for War, which reads like a to-do list for religious civil war. The investigators reported that Shea’s “spiritual advisors,” Barry and Anne Byrd of Marble Community Fellowship, joined fellow Patriots at the secret strategy meeting where Shea presented his manifesto, “that offered his view of God’s authorization for war.” Shea’s manifesto, according to the report, “advocated killing all males who did not yield to stopping all abortions, supported same sex marriage, and did not obey Biblical law. He also asserted that ‘Assassination to remove tyrants is just, and is not murder.’” (Emphasis in the original). Shea also distributed a blueprint for rebuilding after the fall of the US Government.
Jason Wilson of The Guardian reported that Marble Community Fellowship has “a compound on the Columbia River, not far from the Canadian border. It believes in rule by their interpretations of biblical law.” There, they seek to train “young men in ‘biblical warfare’ that includes how to use knives, pistols and rifles.” The program is called “Team Rugged.”
One aspect of Shea’s plan that was not discussed in the report or subsequent press coverage about the 2016 Biblical Basis for War was his cryptic call for the formation of “prayer councils” to determine whether God is calling them to war. Shea’s plan was exposed and prominently covered in the Washington state media in 2018. Apostle Taylor nevertheless worked with then-Prayer Caucus Chairman Shea to initiate a state prayer council in Washington in February 2019.
In May, Taylor reported that the Washington State Apostolic Council prayed for government officials at all levels, but “the Government Mountain” prayed, “LORD if they are not just, then we pray remove them (Psalm 109:8 – let their days be few and another take their office).”
This might seem benign to some, but context matters. The biblical King David, the author of the imprecatory prayer they invoked, is calling on God to destroy his enemies and their families. As has been widely discussed, the phrase “let their days be few” is a prayer against their lives, not just their tenure in office.
Waging Biblical Warfare Against Reproductive Freedom
When Rev. Ken Peters left Covenant Church and appointed Shea as his successor in order to plant a Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, he explained, “This is God moving generals around.” There are now Patriot churches in Lynchburg, VA and Spokane as well. Shea’s Covenant Church in Spokane is an “affiliate.”
Peters pioneered the tactic of staging events they call The Church at Planned Parenthood which takes the form of worship services in front of the PP centers that are obviously intended to interfere with clinic patients and staff. The Patriot Churches have continued to organize these disruptive actions and have made their intentions clear. “As we grow,” they declared, “the number of services around the state and nation will continue to grow.”
Peters and Shea both live in the small world of “abortion abolitionists,” a movement that views anything short of criminalization, such as restrictions on access, as “regulating murder.” This movement is growing and getting noticed for the introduction of abortion abolition legislation in six states. Shea was the sponsor of a bill in 2019; it only had four co-sponsors, but it epitomizes the mainstreaming of a new kind of antiabortion militancy.
Taken together with the nascent Church at Planned Parenthood direct action campaign, a period not unlike the 1990s, when antiabortion militancy and violence flared along with the rise of the militia movement, could be on the horizon.
Just this past March, for example, Shea hosted veteran antiabortion (and now, abortion abolitionist) leader Rev. Matthew Trewhella on his Patriot Radio podcast. Trewhella first came to national attention in the 1990s as one of three dozen signatories to a statement that declared that the murder of abortion providers is “justifiable homicide.” He later became notorious for his advocacy for the formation of church-based militias.
Trewhella’s son-in-law (a pastor at his church and a fellow abortion abolition leader) Jason Storms, has been appointed as the new National Director of Operation Save America. OSA was formerly led by Rev. Phillip (“Flip”) Benham, and then Rev. Rusty Lee Thomas, under whose leadership it began to mobilize for abolition.
Storms was among the antiabortion leaders at the Capitol on January 6th. He called it a “revolution.”
Occupy the Last Days
Matt Shea hasn’t changed much since changing jobs. On Insurrection day, January 6, he urged people at a “Stop the Steal” rally in northern Idaho, to “fight back in every single sphere we possibly can,” and to prepare for “total war.”
Meanwhile, Ken Peters also issued a battle cry at a pre-insurrection rally in DC. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that Mike Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow flew him to DC with like-minded pastors on his private jet and put them up at the Trump International Hotel, a few blocks from the White House.
But like others whose rhetoric may have exceeded their readiness to be associated with the events at the capitol, Peters later said he didn’t agree with the insurrection.
Nevertheless, Peters’ church seems to be flourishing in the post-insurrection period. They plan to open a school in the Fall (although they don’t yet have a building) and cosponsored a conference on May 7-8. The event featured such notable figures as Rev. Scott Lively, perhaps best known as an advocate for the notorious “Kill the Gays” legislation in Uganda, and retired Army Major, Stephen Coughlin, a former high level military intelligence analyst and Fellow at the White House National Security Council.
The publications of Coughlin’s think tank, Unconstrained Analytics, argue that Black Lives Matter in conjunction with ISIS, Antifa, Neo-Marxists and Democratic Party operatives are domestic threats. Their materials are considered required reading for a new private intelligence and militia formation called, American Contingency.
“We are definitely living in the last days,” the Patriot Church conference description declared, “but yet we are called to occupy until the Lord comes.”
It’s clear that if the occupation comes, it will be the result of the convergence of far-right factions seeking to tear down the established institutions of democracy, what they call “tyranny.” The groups and individuals in this story are best understood less as regional actors and more as epitomizing the developing relationships between elements of the Dominionist New Apostolic Reformation, the Christian Right (as epitomized by Project Blitz), militant antiabortionism, and the insurrectionary Patriot Movement—from Washington State to Washington, DC.
It’s a movement that’s always been with us to varying degrees, but it is arguably broader and deeper than at any point in modern history. Far outside of the Western mountain range where these secessionist movements have become so familiar, these networks are toppling the boundaries between mainstream politics and religion, tapping deep into multiple far-right networks across the country to do so. This began long before January 6th and will continue long after.