‘Make it a Christian town’: the ultra-conservative church on the rise in Idaho

<span>Photograph: Geoff Crimmins/AP</span>
Photograph: Geoff Crimmins/AP

A Guardian investigation has revealed that a controversial church whose leader has openly expressed the ambition of creating a “theocracy” in America has accumulated significant influence in the city of Moscow, Idaho.

Related: How a secretive conservative group influenced ‘populist’ Trump’s tax cuts

Christ Church has a stated goal to “make Moscow a Christian town” and public records, interviews, and open source materials online show how its leadership has extended its power and activities in the town.

Church figures have browbeaten elected officials over Covid restrictions, built powerful institutions in parallel to secular government, harassed perceived opponents, and accumulated land and businesses in pursuit of a long-term goal of transforming America into a nation ruled according to its own, ultra-conservative moral precepts.

The rise of Christ Church may be playing out in a small Idaho city but it comes at a time when the US is roiled by the far right, including Christian nationalism, and when social conservatives are seeking to roll back basic tenets of US life such as legal abortion, as well as dominating powerful national institutions, such as the supreme court.

While the church’s previous controversies have centered on its founder and pastor, Douglas Wilson, a new generation of male church leaders – including Wilson’s son – have found ways to expand the church’s reach in Moscow and beyond, even gaining footholds in mainstream popular culture in the broader US.

In recent months, Christ Church has advocated for resistance to Covid mandates in Moscow, and Wilson has attempted to give theological ballast to opposition to restrictions and vaccination programs, as well as warning of political violence.

Last month, a video version of a post by Wilson at his well-read blog was removed from YouTube. The blogpost, entitled “A Biblical Defense of Fake Vaccine IDs”, was based on a conspiracy theory asserting that the vaccine response was a “power play” on the part of the Biden administration, which intended to leave the restrictions in place permanently.

Wilson further claimed that “we are not yet in a hot civil war, with shooting and all, but we are in a cold war/civil war” and urged readers to “resist openly, in concert with any others in your same position”, claiming that this would not be “rebellion against lawful authority” but “an example of a free people refusing to go along with their own enslavement”.

The post was met with outrage, including from other prominent evangelicals.

That was not the only time that Wilson’s activities and positions have led to criticism from other evangelicals, and associations with Wilson have led to crises in other churches.

In recent months, members and clergy resigned from Minneapolis’s Bethlehem Baptist church, and staff resigned from its associated Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS), in part over the appearance of newly appointed BCS president Joe Rigney on Man Rampant, a video series hosted by Wilson and streamed on platforms including Amazon Prime. The show promotes Wilson’s long-held position that men need to assert themselves in society.

Christ Church was founded in Moscow in the 1990s, and experts who have studied the church estimate the size of the congregation and its offshoot churches at about 2,000, or 10% of the city’s total population.

But they also say that the church is increasingly drawing people to the area who are attracted to the idea of northern Idaho as a conservative “redoubt” against American modernity, and by the church’s “reconstructionist” position, which holds that the world will need to be governed according to their interpretation of biblical morality before Christ returns to earth.

Christ Church’s previous controversies have garnered national attention.

Recent reporting focused attention once more on the church’s – and Wilson’s – handling of a series of sexual abuse cases, and the theological subordination of women.

In 2005, Wilson asked a judge for leniency in the case of Stephen Sitler, a former student at a Christ Church-aligned college, New Saint Andrews College (NSAC). Sitler was at that time convicted of sex offenses involving children.

After his release on probation in 2007, Sitler was married in Christ Church in 2010, by Wilson, to a woman who, by Sitler’s and her account, had been introduced to him by Edwin Iverson, then a Christ Church elder and now pastor of a Council of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) church in Colville, Washington.

Wilson has faced scrutiny over other positions.

In the early 2000s, Wilson received criticism over a book, Southern Slavery as it Was, which he had co-written in the previous decade with J Steven Wilkins. Wilkins is a Louisiana pastor who was a co-founder of the neo-Confederate organization, the League of the South. His church is a member of Wilson’s congregational umbrella group, the CREC.

The book depicted slavery in the antebellum southern United States as “a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence”, and argued that the enslaved enjoyed “a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care”.

Wilson has repeatedly disavowed any interest in national electoral politics, but Christ Church’s eventual aim is what Wilson explicitly describes in a 2016 book as “theocracy”, or “a network of nations bound together by a formal acknowledgement of the lordship of Jesus Christ”, as opposed to secular society ruled by “civil governments, [which] are in necessary degrees satanic, demonic, and influenced by the god of this world, who is the devil”.

These beliefs have led Christ Church into conflicts with local government, but additionally, Wilson and other Christ Church members have founded a range of local and national institutions which are affiliated with or sponsored by the church.

Christ Church itself is an unincorporated nonprofit, which means that it is not obliged to provide details of its finances to government authorities. Many entities associated with the church are either also unincorporated, like the Logos School, or, like publisher Canon Press, are operated by a network of limited liability companies (LLCs) which are similarly limited in their accountability.

But insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity said that all members tithe 10% of their household income, and wealthier members are expected to make an even larger contribution.

Within a network of educational institutions, publishing houses, churches, and national associations that Wilson has founded or led, a small number of men, from a small number of families, have come to exert significant power within the organisation and Moscow.

Not least among these is Wilson’s own family, with him as its head.

The Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre in Moscow, Idaho, during the coronavirus outbreak in April last year.
The Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre in Moscow, Idaho, during the coronavirus outbreak in April last year. Photograph: Geoff Crimmins/AP

At NSAC, for example, the college president is Wilson’s son-in-law, Ben Merkle. Another son-in-law, Luke Jankovic, sits on the board of trustees, as does Wilson himself and Christ Church’s associate pastor, Toby Sumpter.

Douglas Wilson is also on faculty at NSAC, and is listed as a senior fellow in theology. Also on faculty are his son Nathan (ND) Wilson, a fellow of literature; and his brother, Gordon Wilson, a self-described “young earth creationist” who believes that God created the earth in seven days, is senior fellow of natural history.

According to tax filings, Merkle and Gordon Wilson each draw salaries from the college, which lists tuition and costs for undergraduate students at $19,900 per year.

Merkle, Jankovic, and all three Wilson men are also elders at Christ Church, along with a founding director and former trustee at NSAC, Moscow resident Andrew Crapuchettes.

Until June 2021, when the company was acquired by a competitor, Crapuchettes had been chief executive of Moscow’s largest private employer, EMSI, for more than 19 years.

During that period, EMSI was a major employer of NSAC graduates. According to LinkedIn data, there are 55 current employees at EMSI who are NSAC graduates, from a college which has graduated only 635 people throughout its history.

In addition, a number of Christ Church elders hold senior positions at EMSI. They include Luke Jankovic – the NSAC trustee who is Wilson’s son-in-law – who is now executive vice-president of higher education.

Also, EMSI’s chief operations officer and chief financial officer is Timothy van den Broek, a teaching elder at Trinity Reformed church, Christ Church’s suburban offshoot.

Van den Broek began his career at EMSI immediately after graduating from NSAC, and he sits on the boards of church-aligned businesses and organizations, including their charity, the Hope Center, and Classic Learning Initiatives, which aims to devise alternative standardized testing for students at Christian private schools who wish to attend private Christian universities like NSAC.

Since his departure from EMSI, Andrew Crapuchettes has started a new venture, a jobs website called Red Balloon, which advertises itself as connecting “employers who value freedom with employees who value it too”, in “a world beyond cancel culture, where employees are free to work … without fear that they will find themselves on the wrong side of their employer’s politics”.

Many of the website’s initial clients appeared to be either church run or founded organizations, or companies belonging to other church members.

Now, Crapuchettes has branched out into property development, and this year won approval from Moscow city council for the “annexation” of 27 acres of land on Moscow’s south-western edge for a new, 109 unit subdivision called Edington.

A local businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the church already had a disproportionate presence in the downtown area, and that developments like Edington were evidence that “they are trying to attract more people here”.

He added that the church’s anti-mask and anti-vaccination positions, as well as its attempts to “take over local institutions” like a food co-op, had polarized the community.

He also referred to an ad for New Saint Andrews College that had been seen as transphobic by many in Moscow had “galvanized the town against them”. He called it a demonstration of the church’s preparedness “to throw red meat and recruit on the basis of hate”.

In response to detailed emailed questions about various aspects of Christ Church’s operations, Douglas Wilson did not offer any specific response, but wrote that the Guardian’s “approach illustrates an absurd fixation and anti-church bigotry that we have come to expect from certain elements of the leftist media”.

Asked about EMSI’s hiring practices under his leadership, Andrew Crapuchettes wrote that: “Under my watch, EMSI grew into a global company with offices on two continents, and in an ever-tightening labor market, we hired talent wherever we could find it, including from the 3 local colleges – Washington State, University of Idaho and New Saint Andrews.”