Cracks on the road to Christian Dominion: Is the shadowy "City Elders" group collapsing?

Kevin Hern Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Kevin Hern Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

When Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., looked out over his audience at the Tulsa Marriott on an evening in early November, he might have thought he was seeing the future of America. Hern was the headline speaker at the annual fundraising banquet for City Elders, a Tulsa-based Christian right group with national ambitions. The funds raised that night were earmarked for “expansion.”

In theory, that means expanding City Elders’ national network of county level committees of Christian right activists who want to function as the de facto government in their local jurisdictions. The group may well succeed in strengthening the political capacities of the Christian right. But its efforts have also exposed significant cracks on the road to Christian dominion that could derail the goal of building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. These flaws may provide hope and opportunities for those who want to resist the advance of theocratic forces in public life — and defend and advance human and civil rights and constitutional democracy.

The name City Elders is both a biblical reference and a description of the group’s focus on county seats as the planned locus of theocratic action. The group seeks to develop a permanent infrastructure to select and elect candidates for local entities such as school boards and county commissions, and then exert ongoing influence. There are statewide City Elders groups in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia, and start-ups in Arkansas and Texas, at least. They hope to play a bigger role going into the 2024 elections. (Such as in the U.S. Senate race in Virginia.)

But an examination of the videos and speeches at City Elders events over the past year reveals a group that may be significantly weaker than it claims to be — a possible bellwether for the fortunes of the greater Christian right.

Hern, the Oklahoma Republican who briefly attracted national attention during his short-lived campaign for House speaker, is himself a Baptist. Most of his audience at the City Elders banquet were Pentecostal and charismatic Christians (some of them outside the major Protestant denominations). But City Elders leaders know they need powerful allies on the road to establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Hern and other right-wing Christians in politics, including newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, have largely avoided media scrutiny over the religious dimension of their politics. But their involvement with aggressively theocratic elements of the New Apostolic Reformation (discussed below), including City Elders, is becoming increasingly toxic as public awareness and media attention increase. Theocrats know this, and they are scrambling to adjust.

This also comes at a time when tensions in the wider evangelical community are high. Many evangelicals believe their churches have become too political, and should focus more on spiritual and community matters. Others are fractured over theological issues and perceived political opportunism.

"Taking territory" — by any means necessary

City Elders has apparently gained remarkable levels of power and influence. Republican candidates and elected officials at all levels speak at their events. The November national conference, titled “Take Your Territory,” was an excellent example.

Joining Hern as conference headliners — all billed as “bold, territory-taking leaders” — were former Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and State Sen. David Bullard. Two prominent Christian right leaders were also featured: Bill Ledbetter, a Southern Baptist minister and “Senior Statesman” who belongs to the Council for National Policy, a secretive national conservative leadership group; and Apostle Dutch Sheets of South Carolina, a top figure in the New Apostolic Reformation who has played a dynamic political role in the Age of Trump.

Videos of City Elders events during the past year, however, suggest that the group’s leading supporters are getting squirmy as the larger society gets wise to their anti-democratic intentions.

Jesse Leon Rodgers, the founder and chairman of City Elders, declared in a promotional video for the conference that God had told him to be “prepared… to take possession” of what he called “our inheritance.” Paraphrasing scripture, he said, “the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. It’s an inheritance, but we must take it.”

But that is not, in fact, what the good book says.

André Gagné, author of the forthcoming book “American Evangelicals for Trump: Dominion, Spiritual Warfare, and the End Times” and a theology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, told Salon that there’s more to Rodgers’ words than may meet the eye.

“The call to ‘take your territory’ and ‘take possession of our inheritance,’” Gagné said, “is inspired by the war narratives found in the biblical book of Joshua — in which Israelite leaders are ordered to tell the people that they ‘will… take possession of the land the Lord your God is going to give you.’ They were to expel the inhabitants from the land they believed God had given them as an inheritance.

“Charismatic leaders obsessed with war narratives that involve either the total subjugation or destruction of the enemies of the ancient Israelites are suggesting that these are precedents for conquest and the establishment of God's Kingdom in America.”

Gagné was referring specifically to the above-mentioned New Apostolic Reformation, a neo-charismatic evangelical movement that remains little known to most Americans but has been covered in recent years by the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Christian Century and The Atlantic, along with Salon — largely because many figures in the movement are involved with far-right politics and have suggested the possibility of violence, fueled by theocratic visions of Christian dominion.

The NAR is a vital part of the Christian right and the Trump coalition. Leading figures such as Apostles Paula White-Cain, Dutch Sheets and Lance Wallnau are longtime Trump associates who, among other things, were deeply involved in the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and have continued to advance false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. NAR leaders were also prominent in the 2022 gubernatorial campaigns of right-wing GOP candidates in both California and Pennsylvania.

The NAR poses a radically different paradigm than traditional denominational Christianity of any stripe. As mentioned above, the NAR generally opposes denominations and doctrines, seeing them as bureaucratic obstacles to the advancement of “the Body of Christ” and the Kingdom of God on Earth. (This is known as the “sin of religion.”) The NAR seeks to restore the Christian church of the first century as the group’s leading figures understand it, to be led by what the book of Ephesians calls the “five-fold ministry,” comprising the church offices of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

Gagné is concerned about what he describes as an opportunistic misinterpretation of a key passage in the Gospel of Matthew, which Rodgers has used to justify the seizure of “territory” in the United States today.

Many who invoke the language of Matthew 11:12, that “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force,” are wrongly conflating it with the war narrative in the book of Joshua, Gagné says.

“Read in context, that passage is clearly not a call for Christian violence,” he cautions. “Rather, it warns of violence directed against the Kingdom of God by the political and religious opponents at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. In fact, both John and Jesus were put to death by the political powers of the day!”

"We are Plan A. There is no Plan B."

The City Elders national conference was not live-streamed, but Sheets, who leads a large international NAR network, may have previewed his conference remarks in a broadcast last year titled “Taking territory for Christ.”

Sheets explained then that what Jesus wants, he “will do through us. We are Plan A. And there is no Plan B.” Sheets listed words from scripture that he says apply to Plan A, including “fight,” “warfare” and “endurance,” adding that the words “victory,” “overcomer,” “conqueror,” “power” and “authority” apply as well.

“There is hope for America,” he said, if listeners do not put their destiny in the hands of “sinners, politicians, Satan or demons.”

Sheets envisions Christians (of the right sort) populating what he and the NAR call the Ecclesia, meaning literally the Church. City Elders invokes the role of elders in Old Testament Israel who met at the gates of their ancient cities, where important commercial transactions occurred, court was held and public announcements were made. City Elders seek to organize “spiritual leaders” to protect and advance the kingdom of God, as they see it, from non-biblical influences. They see their contemporary function as protecting their counties from ungodly government, and utilizing civil government to advance the Kingdom.

"God has destined for us ... to have dominion"

Rodgers’ goal of gaining political power goes back to 2015, when he says he and his wife had a vision while driving a church van. “God showed us both the barriers and the hindrances of the adversary for the church to advance,” he said, “and enter into its prophetic purpose and its, what I call, ‘reigning role.’”

“You see, God has destined for us, the people of God, to be the leaders and the influencers and to have dominion,” Rodgers said. “Not to be subjugated, but to rule. That doesn’t mean rule over, it simply means to have the transcendent influence, to be the influencers, to be the policy-makers.”

Rodgers and others have deployed “influence” as a weasel word, meant to deflect attention from, shade or soften the unambiguous meanings of “rule,” “reign,” “govern” and “dominion.”

Rodgers' role in politics seems to have originated with his role as the state representative of Watchmen on the Wall, a project of the Family Research Council,  which organizes thousands of clergy to pray for the nation. The Washington-based FRC has been the leading Christian right political organization since the mid-1980s, and its 40 state political affiliates play important political and policy roles in their respective state capitals.

City Elders appears to be ramping up its 2024 political program in sync with FRC. The group’s website features a section on Culture Impact Teams (still largely blank) which are FRC units established in churches to conduct electoral and policy-related activities. City Elders also lists such concerns as City Councils, School Boards, Voting Mobilization and more.

Meanwhile, City Elders’ shadowy political activities have drawn the attention of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which detailed the group's involvement with candidates in this year’s state and local elections. The politicians involved were reluctant to talk about it, and City Elders barred reporter Ashlyn Campbell from attending a meeting. That may have been because City Elders leaders are far from nonpartisan. Two Virginia leaders, Kevin Harris and David Grembi, for example, are members of the Augusta County Republican Committee Leadership Team.

Rodgers recently declared, “I believe 2024 is going to be the beginning of the Church — and you and I — taking territory which has been lost — lost politically, spiritually, economically, culturally — in every dimension.” He says they seek to  “take it back.” In so doing, he concluded, “We are going to see the glory of God.”

To that end, Rodgers says City Elders seeks to provide the “Biblical Model of City Governance,” and envisions “Church, Business and Civic leaders” serving on “Governing Councils” in “every county seat of America.” As grand as Rodgers’ religious and political vision may sound, there are lots of blank spots. Actual elders are not named on any of the group’s websites around the country (except in Kansas) nor is the selection process explained. In other words, it’s entirely possible this is mostly smoke and mirrors. While the lack of transparency may suggest a shadowy cabal bent on unearned political power, it might also signify that there’s not much there there — or, more simply, that the group’s membership and goals cannot withstand too much daylight.

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Rodgers, who was once a missionary in Singapore, quietly created City Elders in Oklahoma in 2017, established “City Elders” as a trade name of his Gateway Ministries in June 2018, and launched publicly in 2019. The group’s growing political influence drew the attention of The Frontier, an Oklahoma investigative news outlet, which reported that City Elders had a 12-member executive committee, including state GOP chairman David McLain and Tulsa County Election Board Vice-Chair George Wiland. But by this year, the executive committee appeared to have dwindled down to three.

The perplexing inner workings of City Elders notwithstanding, the group may have hit on a workable model to implement its religious and political vision.

Unlike similar past efforts at creating councils of backstage Christian right power brokers, City Elders comprises not only clergy but also conservative Christian business and civic leaders. Apostle Joseph Mattera, who until recently was convening apostle of the U.S. Coalition of Apostolic Leaders, says, “City Elders is perhaps the greatest model in the nation combining churchplace [sic] and workplace leaders as gatekeepers to influence society in each county in the United States.”

"You were made for war"

Apostles Jim Garlow of California and Mike and Cindy Jacobs of Texas, who spoke at City Elders events this year, joined Mattera in this assessment. Their remarks are in keeping with Rodgers’ vision, but they also reveal an agenda that has generated profound concern and increasing political backlash.

Speaking at a City Elders banquet in Tulsa in September 2023, Garlow, a former megachurch pastor who helped organize an anti-marriage equality California ballot initiative in 2008, outlined the group’s political vision.

(Garlow has been in the news recently because, like Christian right theorist David Barton and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, he has been close to recently elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson for decades.)

Garlow thinks City Elders is the right model for conservative Christian political development — and preparation for the literal fall of the U.S. government. He cited the story of an unidentified military officer who served in Afghanistan and now foresees the “collapse” of the government of the U.S. This officer drew an analogy between the current state of America, and Afghans who didn’t care about the central government in Kabul — but who “cared about their valley.”

Paradoxically, he also offers a vision for a model national leader: Viktor Orbán, the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, who Garlow says “may be one of the best leaders in the world… probably the most biblically grounded.” (Orbán has advocated what he calls “illiberal Christian democracy,” although he nominally belongs to a mainstream Calvinist denomination, is married to a Catholic and rarely attends church.)

Garlow says that the book “Live Not by Lies,” by American conservative Rod Dreher (who now lives in Hungary), “teaches us how to organize … in the situation in which we find ourselves.” That situation, in Garlow’s view, seems to involve potential governmental collapse and potential religious civil war. He says, “What you’re going to do as City Elders, under Jesse’s leadership — the vision he’s given — you’re going to start watching your valley.”

He held aloft the City Elders strategy manual, stating, “I've gone through major parts of this [and] this is a strategy that is executable!” He envisions using it to take power across the country, “county by county by county.” (The City Elders website says, “Join us as Governing Councils are built in every county seat of America.”) One key point in the manual, Garlow said, is making the transition to “dominion.”

“Now the ‘dominion’ word, boy, the left gets nervous about that one!” he exclaimed. “Oh, ‘Christian nationalists’ … ‘Dominionism,’ they have a whole string of words. They’re just terribly nervous. However, it just simply means that we are going to fast and pray and declare the word and let God be God! It’s that simple.”

It’s not that simple. The idea of “taking dominion” has been well developed over many decades, most prominently by the late Apostle C. Peter Wagner, whose 2008 book “Dominion: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World” made the case for taking societal dominion by conquering the “seven mountains of culture,” meaning government, family, religion, education, business, arts & entertainment, and media. His meaning is unambiguous.

Garlow’s attempt to downplay the meaning of “dominion” seeks to deflect attention from the visions of violence expressed by many (although not all) NAR leaders in books, articles, sermons and broadcasts for decades — and even in his own talk.

Seeking to rally the City Elders banqueters, Garlow told another military anecdote, this one about a Marine who had served during the comparatively peaceful Cold War period between the end of the Korean War and America’s involvement in Vietnam. This Marine, Garlow said, was disappointed that he never got to go to war.

“If you're made for war, that makes sense,” Garlow said. He told his audience that like that Marine, “you were made for war” — but that unlike him, “you are not between wars.”

Garlow also sought to minimize the theological differences in the room, saying, “Some people believe in a five-fold ministry. Some don’t — but I must tell you that all of you are prophetic and you are apostolic, whether you like it or not!”

There was very little applause at that line, but Garlow soldiered on. What was actually important, he said, was not how many people attend Sunday services but “how many are deployed into action, who are actually threats to the enemy of God.”

"We put structures in place ... we disciple our nation"

One indication of City Elders’ success (or at least its ambition) was reported by two of the group’s Virginia leaders, Brad Huddleston and Kevin Harris, on an AM radio talk show in 2022. Huddleston claimed that Oklahoma City Elders had become so important that the governor speaks at the group's meetings and “there is hardly a piece of… legislation [that] before it gets passed, that doesn’t go through City Elders out there first. So they are sort of like a model for the rest of the states.”

Harris claimed that “we hold 11 of the 12 positions on the Republican Party” (without explaining at what level) and that they were interviewing candidates for school board in several rural Virginia counties. “We’re vetting them,” he said. “We’re grilling them… to make sure that they fit the mold.”

Generally speaking, City Elders’ inability to substantiate its most important claims is more the rule than the exception. “Five new county seats have opened up for City Elders just TODAY!!!” Rodgers recently announced on Facebook, without saying where that was happening or offering any concrete details.

Apostles Mike and Cindy Jacobs of Texas spoke at a City Elders event in Tulsa in January 2023. Cindy Jacobs pointed to some of the group’s strengths, but could not help but display some of its weaknesses as well.

She pointed out that City Elders is more inclusive of women, and also more racially and ethnically diverse, than some past Christian right efforts. She mentioned a 1990s movement called Elders at the Gate, which comprised pastors but not business leaders, calling it a “white men’s club” and saying that invitations in her city had come with  “a little asterisk… [which] said ‘women not invited.’”

Looking around the room, she exclaimed, “Look at all these women!... You go, girls!”

She had a point. City Elders, like NAR more broadly, is far more welcoming to women than other conservative evangelical movements. Although not quite as inclusive as it might like to be, City Elders is also undeniably multiracial, multiethnic and multinational. That diversity has added considerable political strength to their movement.

While headliners at the national conference this year were all white men, a number of women and people of color are visible in photos of a recent City Elders meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia, posted on Facebook.

Jacobs warned,  “We're going to have pushback — oh, believe me, we're going to have a lot of pushback.”

“We're going to be accused of being Christian nationalists, but that's going to be a badge of honor.… I am not ashamed of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and I will give my life to see this be one nation under God. Amen!”

Jacobs, like others on the Christian far right, is willing to own being a Christian nationalist. (For some, it’s good branding.) Like Garlow, however, she sounded defensive about the vision of religious and political dominion she and her movement seek, saying that Dominionism “has got to be one of the most controversial words from the Bible,” but adding, “the Bible does say at the very beginning… we are to take Dominion.”

Achieving that, she said, will require a “biblical worldview” and “a biblical revolution.” She offered no further details, except a chilling prediction that their movement will get so big that newspapers will advise, “Don’t get on these people’s hit list.”

Jacobs did not deny that she favors conquering the above-mentioned seven mountains of culture, but insisted that “doesn't mean that we become dictators and we're not trying to make people have a theocracy. That's why we have to have Revival and Reformation, because we change the hearts of people — but then we put structures in place, a framework, we disciple our nation.”

End game

City Elders will no doubt continue to seek to organize groups in as many counties as they can, but the group’s silence and evasion on many things is at least as significant as its demagoguery and doubletalk. Nowhere in any of their materials, or the speeches and broadcasts I listened to while preparing this article, did I hear any indication of respect for the institutions of democracy, the religious and civil rights of others, or the bedrock value of equal rights under the law. For City Elders and their NAR sponsors, elections are primarily about using the tools of electoral democracy to degrade it, erode it and end it.

Politicians who seek out City Elders and rely on them for support should understand this. So should anyone who wants to defend and advance democracy.