TravelGuides – Christian group fights Idaho Covid mandates despite pocketing bailouts | Idaho
The controversial rightwing Christ Church – and its pastor, Douglas Wilson – have led an uncompromising campaign of opposition to coronavirus public health measures in Idaho, revealing the church’s powerful influence in its home city of Moscow and beyond.
The campaign has included in-person protests, misinformation and encouragement of civil disobedience across media channels owned by the church, which, as the Guardian has reported, is seeking to increase its power and influence in the town as part of an aim of creating a theocracy in America.
It also comes at a time when numerous far-right groups across the US are taking action against Covid-19 mandates, which have been echoed by calls for civil disobedience by more mainstream Republican figures, including office-holding politicians.
With Idaho health authorities recently rationing hospital care in the face of serious infections which are overwhelmingly afflicting the unvaccinated, Wilson has continued to rail against mask and vaccination mandates on his blog, with other church members following suit in public forums.
This has garnered national attention on the right, not least from Donald Trump, who signal-boosted a church protest against mask mandates on Twitter while his account was still active.
Despite this campaign against restrictions, church-aligned organizations – including several founded by Wilson – along with prominent individuals and leaders within Christ Church, applied for and received PPP and PPS loans from the federal government –programs that were designed to compensate businesses for the impact of coronavirus restrictions.
The loans were sourced from the Trump and Biden administrations’ efforts to compensate small businesses for lost income during the pandemic.
Despite his influence, his previous condemnations of government largesse in the form of welfare, education, and foreign aid, and his characterization of fsederal Covid response as a government plot, Wilson has not publicly criticized the loans, or counseled his followers against seeking them.
Wilson himself has used his widely read blog to dispute public health restrictions enacted by the city of Moscow and weave conspiracy theories about such measures. Wilson recommended that readers consider forging hypothetical government “vaccine passports” in order to move freely across state borders.
In another post on his blog Wilson said that “ruling elites are picking a fight, trying to provoke unrest, and are doing so in order to be able to justify measures that are genuinely repressive”. Elsewhere, in a discussion where he told readers to demand religious exemptions from vaccinations, he wrote of governments and health authorities: “they want to be in charge of every detail of human existence. They have a lust for control and power. They are totalitarians in spirit.”
Along with this public rhetoric, the Guardian has found that the campaign against restrictions was also carried out privately, in email campaigns targeting city officials, and in private meetings granted to Wilson by Moscow’s mayor, Doug Lambert.
Lambert did not respond to repeated requests for comment about his and the city’s relationship to Christ Church, including detailed questions about the subject of the July meeting.
In September last year, Wilson and other Christ Church employees sent emails to Lambert urging him to discontinue the city’s mask mandate.
Since the first local restrictions were imposed to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic last July, elders at Christ Church and its local offshoot, Trinity Reformed, have led public protests to the measures.
Initial opposition to restrictions culminated in September last year, when Christ Church promoted an unmasked “psalm sing” protest against Moscow’s mask mandate.
Psalm sing protests continued throughout the remainder of 2020, as Wilson promoted an increasingly uncompromising and at times conspiracy-minded line on his blog.
A Christ Church elder, Gabriel Rench, was cited at the September protest for breaking the mask mandate, and then arrested after he refused to provide identification to police.
Wilson’s son and two grandsons were charged in October with 13 misdemeanors over the placement of anti-mask stickers reading “Soviet Moscow – Enforced Because We Care”.
At the time of his 2020 arrest, Rench was a candidate for Latah county commission. In local media interviews, he attributed his run in part to his belief that the city’s mask mandate was unconstitutional.
Rench, who is a Christ Church deacon and has served on boards for a number of Christ Church affiliated organizations, lost the election.
Rench hosts a podcast with Christ Church associate pastor Toby Sumpter and another man, David Shannon, which they publish across mainstream video sites like Facebook, as well as alt tech sites like Rumble under the banner of a company, CrossPolitic Studios, which is controlled by a Rench-owned LLC.
On their podcasts and videos, and on a news aggregation service run by CrossPolitic, the men have spread anti-mask, anti-vaccine messaging, along with the church’s familiar, ultra-conservative position on gender and sexuality.
After his election loss, Rench filed a lawsuit against the city over his arrest.
But Rench was just the most recent local political candidate aligned with the church. In 2019, two Christ Church affiliated candidates, Kelsey Berends and James Urquidez, ran for city council, but lost to more progressive candidates.
Each candidate’s funding declarations show that almost all their donations came from high-profile local business people who are also members of Christ Church.
Urquidez, in particular, received a cumulative $2,000 from Christ Church elder, former chief executive of data analytics company EMSI, and newly minted property developer Andrew Crapuchettes.
Church members have also made inroads into local party organizations. Jesse Sumpter – the brother of associate pastor and podcaster Toby – serves as state youth chair for the Latah county Republican party. Wilson and Christ Church have backed candidates for Idaho’s state legislature.
Sam Paul graduated from church-affiliated New Saint Andrews College (NSAC) in 2014, having already commenced work at EMSI under Crapuchettes, and from 2016, according to his LinkedIn page, has worked as an “adviser” to one-time Republican candidate Carl Berglund.
Berglund has been described as “far right” by a local newspaper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
On his blog, Wilson has compared developing world debt forgiveness to stealing; complained of the idea of education and healthcare as rights that “remember that the reception of this right by the beneficiary is paid for by the enslavement of someone else”; and in another post said that “all of these have a price tag, and the payment will not be made by the possessor of the right”.
But according to records from the Small Business Administration (SBA), church-aligned organizations – including those founded by Wilson – and businesses of officeholders and prominent spokespersons for Christ Church not only took taxpayer-funded loans, but in some cases do not appear to have repaid them.
The loans reveal a new dimension of the overlapping membership of Christ Church members across a range of institutions with not just local but national reach.
The Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS), co-founded by Wilson in 1996 and still headquartered in Moscow, is an advocacy and accreditation body for “classical Christian schools” like Moscow’s Logos school, a private K-12 also co-founded by Wilson.
Recent tax filings made available by ProPublica show that ACCS took out a PPP loan for $75,800, and then took out another PPS loan for the same amount in 2021, for a total of $151,600. Although SBA records show that the earlier loan was repaid, there is no indication that the subsequent loan has been.
The growth of ACCS and the foundation of more colleges like NSAC led to the formation of a company, Classic Learning Initiatives, which devised the classical learning test as a means of standardized testing for Christian schools, for students seeking entry into Christian universities.
SBA records show that CLI was forgiven $282,479 in PPP loans. The company features on its leadership body Ben Merkle, the president of NSAC, and Daniel Foucachon, characterized there as a “national leader in educational renewal”.
Daniel Foucachon, his father Francis, and his mother Donna are all board members of Huguenot Heritage Ministries (HHM), a theological training ministry founded by the two parents.
Francis Foucachon is an elder at Christ Church, and Daniel is a board member of the NSAC alumni association, having graduated from the college before working for church-aligned publisher, Canon Press.
HHM received two loans of $26,400, and SBA records indicate that only one has been repaid.
One of Daniel Foucachon’s companies, Roman Roads Media, which supplies Christian homeschoolers and classical Christian schools with curricula and remote learning materials, received a loan for $16,600. SBA documents did not disclose the status of that loan.
Rod Story, a Christ Church member, has run a medical practice in Moscow since his resignation from a hospital in neighboring Pullman, Washington, after it began offering vaginoplasties to transgender women.
Story, who resigned on the basis that “genders are God-given”, has offered an equivocal position on vaccines in church-aligned podcasts, and in his own newsletters, emphasizing that the vaccines work, but arguing, along with Wilson, for “vaccine freedom” and the power of natural immunity.
Story’s practice received a loan for $27,100. The data did not disclose whether the loan had been repaid.
TravelGuides – Christian group fights Idaho Covid mandates despite pocketing bailouts | Idaho