On Sunday, August 9, Pastor Ron Hoffman of the Anchorage Baptist Temple (ABT) gave a defiant sermon to a large gathering. The sermon was a declaration of war between God and Caesar, with the Pastor playing the role of God’s General and the City Mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, cast in the role of Caesar.
The Municipality had just extended the limited lockdown emergency orders, EO-15. Those orders mandated partial closure of commercial establishments and limits on gatherings to 15 or fewer people observing social distancing protocols, mask-wearing, 6 feet of separation, hand-washing. This emergency order is in line with the medical and scientific “best practices” established by both the Trump medical advisors AND the State of Alaska’s chief medical officer. There is nothing controversial about it.
So why does Pastor Hoffman and his bosses choose to openly defy a medical emergency order designed to protect the residents of Anchorage, including ABT’s parishioners? Why does this defiance seem to be limited to a few of the churches that, like the Anchorage Baptist Temple, have politicised their pulpit?
The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of pastors who seem dedicated to the spiritual and social needs of the Anchorage community, wrote a community compass piece in the Anchorage Daily News on August 12, 2020. Their writing sums up the theological side of this debate very well.
“The Christian has a mandate from scripture to obey governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Stopping in-person worship is not the same as stopping worship. Worship cannot be stopped by anything!”
“Let us not attempt to lock God in a building! When the church was scattered because of persecution, in Acts 8, we are told the ‘preached the words wherever they went’ (Acts 8:4)...”
I am grateful to the Interdenominational Pastors for making the rational argument for right action in the face of this pandemic. The Municipality limits social gatherings to 15 or less. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said that worship did not require a megachurch filled with thousands, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. Two or three is well within the mandates of the municipality.
I think St. Paul would be shocked at the fancy trappings of the Anchorage Baptist Temple. We recall the struggle between Paul and the Corinthians; the pride, boastfulness, and wealth of the Corinthians were challenged by this humble but eloquent tentmaker. In 2 Corinthians 2:17 Paul told the people that [American Amplified Version] “…we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God.”
As a pastor, serving a community of worshippers, the Anchorage Baptist Temple has a RESPONSIBILITY for the care and well-being of the flock.If one parishioner dies the Pastor will be guilty--not in the judgement of men, but in the eyes of God. “If thou sayest, Behold we knew it not; doth not He that pondereth the heart consider it? And he that keepeth thy soul, doth not He know it? And shall not He render to every man according to his works?” Proverbs 24:12 (KJV)
WHY THE RESISTANCE?
SO if it is not necessary for the parishioners at Anchorage Baptist Temple to meet in a group (or a number of groups) larger than 15 to fulfill the Word of God; and if they are able to observe pandemic “best practices” while doing so; and if, by exposing the flock to a disease, the Pastor is failing his duty to care for his flock, why is the ABT openly resisting the Emergency Order by the Municipality?
There are two answers to this question, neither of which has anything to do with worshipping God.
(1) The ABT is a big business with a hefty cash flow and, like all businesses, compliance to pandemic best practices would hurt ABT financially;
(2) the ABT is a core oracle of the partisan Republican political culture of Alaska. Complying with "liberal" mandates, intended to promote the general welfare of the populace is contrary to the Republican war on sanity and public health that we know as the Trump 2020 campaign.
The Anchorage Baptist Temple is a Big Business.
One Sunday in May 5, 2019, Reverend Jerry Prevo delivered his “Farewell Sermon.” In attendance were three rows of political dignitaries including US Senators, Multiple Governors and Legislative leaders, all of them on stage to provide a political backdrop for Prevo’s performance. This was an act of ego and pride; a boastful exit for the founder of a politically powerful church. Such was the measure of his influence that the pandering by influential (mostly Republican) politicians tested the limits of the large stage in the 42,000 square-foot auditorium.
Franklin Graham, the son of Evangelist Billy Graham was there to heap praise on the beaming Prevo. Here is how Graham introduced Reverend Prevo in his speech:
“…Jerry Prevo is an incredible businessman. The Anchorage Baptist Temple, Inc. has $21 Million in reserves and $85 Million in assets…”
Indeed, according to Dun & Bradstreet, ABT has about $6.7 Million in annual revenues. Assume a COGS of 60% and an SGA of 25% ABT enjoys a gross revenue before taxes of 15% of slightly more than $1 Million. Anchorage Baptist Temple, Inc. even received between $350,000 to $1 Million from the COVID-19 Payroll Protection through the Small Business Administration earlier this summer.
And the school system operated by the Anchorage Baptist Temple is as large as the system of a small town and certainly larger than hundreds of public schools operated in the small towns and villages throughout the state. The ABT school accommodates 700 children K-12. As a private school it charges tuition which hundreds of parents from within and without the congregation are happy to pay. Assuming the tuition allowance for senior staff (roughly $11,000) is based on a statistical family average of 2 children per family, the tuition would be in the range of $5,000 per student. 700 Students represents a potential educational market of $3,500,000. That is a significant share of the Anchorage Baptist Temple’s income. Of course, there are hardship waivers and staff allowances and other reductions in actual revenue, but the range of $3,000-$3,500,000 is a reasonable assumption. Here we may find the single largest reason for ABT’s COVID Defiance: they need to keep school revenues flowing as it is likely that the municipal restrictions would apply to their schools.
The Church has used political strong-arm political tactics in the past to protect its tax-exemptions on property ineligible to receive them. There is no reason to assume that the ABT would not use the defiance of emergency orders to strong-arm an exemption from those.
In 2004, thanks to information provided by private citizens, the City Assessor discovered that several of the Church’s two dozen properties were ineligible for tax relief because they were not being occupied by ministers or used for religious reasons. The properties were being used as staff housing for the Church’s schools and property maintenance and an AV technician. Since the housing was tied to their compensation it was not a strictly religious purpose. The properties were put back on the tax rolls, but a fierce lobbying effort by Jerry Prevo and Glenn Clary convinced the Republican Senate (Lyda Green/ Ben Stevens) and Governor (Murkowski) to push through a bill that “fixed” ABT’s problem.
If the history of the ABT is any indicator, a lot of business practices stay hidden under the Church’s corporate veil. The ABT Corporate veil was pierced in 2012 when the record of the divorce between Allen Prevo, Reverend Jerry’s son, and Holly Jo Prevo, was documented in the press. Thanks to the sharp Journalism of an Anchorage blogger, Melissa “Mel” Green, a number of key documents were obtained under FOIA before they were sealed.
Green’s Blog, Henkimaa.com, published a series exposing a hidden real estate transaction, illegal under State and Municipal law, being transacted by ABT. Richard Mauer followed up on Green’s work for the Anchorage Daily News and the generated publicity was very embarrassing for the ABT. As before, a NEW Republican Legislature and a NEW Republican Governor fixed the problem for the ABT.
In summary, The Anchorage Baptist Temple is, first and foremost, a business. They operate like a business; they lobby like a business, and they conduct sketchy transactions behind a corporate veil to keep them hidden.
The Anchorage Baptist Temple is a Partisan Republican Actor and a Trump 2020 Ally.
The Second reason for the August 6 sermon is to demonstrate resistance by a key player in the Alaska Republican political culture. There is no secret that the ABT is a Republican agent. How could they not be? Jerry Prevo has been Republican Party activist his entire adult life. He was Chair of the Party and a delegate to the National Convention multiple times. Glenn Clary, associate Pastor of ABT under Jerry Prevo is the Chair of the Alaska Republican Party. The Republican party holds major functions using Church facilities. And the ABT has been a central force, along with the Alaska Family Council, in organizing polarizing political initiatives supported by the Republican Party. So it follows that by poking a stick in the eye of the Municipality and its popular Mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, the ABT is doing a solid for the Alaska Republican Party, as well as helping themselves.
The metropolitan areas of rural Republican States tend to be where Democratic votes in those states are concentrated. The Trump White House and the Trump 2020 machine are engaged in a calculated disruption of Democratic states and Democratic-leaning cities with Republican governors. The Coronavirus response and school openings are two important elements in that coordinated disruption.
The Game of “Hot Potato”. When it became clear in early March that the pandemic would require punishing measures, the Trump administration deferred leadership to the States. This way, the Trump Allies in Red States could also pass the “Hot potato” down to their larger municipalities (which are typically the “Blue” centers of the Red States). The Blue States would accept the Responsibility. So, in sum, the Blue Metros and the Blue States would take the “Hot Potato”
How it is played. The State of Michigan has a Democratic Governor. She accepted the hot potato and locked down early and tightly. Meanwhile Republican and Trump Allies like the DeVos family in Michigan began agitating to “open up” with the organized spreading disinformation about the coronavirus that supported tropes useful to the Right for propaganda purposes: Coronavirus is a hoax, coronavirus can be cured by Vitamin D, etc. All of this reinforced the anger and hostility inherent in the activist Right. On April 15, DeVos-funded groups had organized “Operation Gridlock,” which brought out 3,000 people surrounding the state capitol. Donald Trump tweeted his encouragement for the protests. Demonstrators called for the lynching or beheading of Democratic Governor Whitmer.
The State of Alaska has a Republican Governor. He Did NOT accept the not potato, forcing the Municipalities in the State to make the unpopular decisions needed to control the virus. So, it was up to the City of Anchorage to reduce the number of coronavirus cases and bring down the State averages. Anchorage accounts for roughly one-half of the State’s population. Following the advice of the Federal, State and local experts, the Assembly and the Mayor issued guidelines and restrictions.
Activating Trump’s base. In Alaska, activation of the Trump base requires them to be “against” something. Anchorage Metro is generally disliked by the rural areas of the SouthCentral region. That includes the Mat-Su Valley, Chugach and Eagle River. These are heavily Republican areas. A Right-Wing Facebook Page named “Save Anchorage” was created to function as a Republican pole of the SouthCentral bi-polar order, Rural, Suburbs and Exurbs vs Anchorage Metro.
The Republican base is triggered by any action that involves the decision-making of the Anchorage Assembly (considered by the Right to be far to the Left and by the Left to be Centrist) and/or actions by the Mayor (Mayor Berkowitz is a target by the Right because he has twice beaten Right-wing champions).
The Republican base includes activists who are already immersed in the national MAGA propaganda bubble which passes through conspiracy theories and hoaxes that contradict the Science and Reason driving Metro area actions in response to the Hot Potato. The Republican Party of Alaska enjoys a “soft” affiliation with a poisonous and toxic blog entitled “Must Read Alaska” whose scandalous and gossipy spin feeds tropes to the Southcentral Alaska base.
The toxicity of this GOP promoted polarization became even clearer on August 11th with the demonstration organized by the “Save Anchorage” group. Scores of people incensed by oratory from the religious-political leaders of the Baptist MAGA cults surrounded the library where the Anchorage Assembly was meeting. Under the emergency order in effect, the meeting could not accommodate everyone. So, they pounded on windows and beat on doors. They screamed at the Security staff. Demonstrators were reported calling for direct action against the Mayor and an Assembly member that included occupying his private residence and burning his house down. His telephone number and address were handed out among the mob so they could take some sort of action against the Mayor and his family; some demonstrators blocked the cars of Assembly Members trying to leave after the meeting.
In summary, the Anchorage Baptist Temple has helped create this poisonous political culture. Passively standing by while friends and allies participate in a political lynch mob is wrong. To encourage that atmosphere by unjustifiable defiance is worse. It would seem to be more in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus if Pastor Hoffman admonished his congregation to “love thy neighbor,” rather than hate the Municipality. To the detriment of the People of Anchorage, including its own parishioners, the Anchorage Baptist Temple is acting recklessly in the face of a pandemic. It actively engages in partisan politics in violation of its non-profit and religious status. And the ABT has operated behind its corporate veil to benefit and enrich the principals of the Church (re Property Scandal).
It is time for the ABT and ALL churches to put an end to their secular and political defiance for the sake of us all.
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock over whom the Holy Spirit has made you the overseer” Acts 20:28
Marc Grober contributed to this column