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Recently Dream City Church, a megachurch located in Phoenix, AZ, made the headlines when a Facebook post on the church’s page went viral. In it, pastor Luke Barnett (son of founding pastor Tommy Barnett) and Dream City’s CFO, Brendon Zastrow, claimed to have installed an air purification system that kills 99.9% of floating coronavirus bacteria. Thus, attendees to the church need not worry, because thanks to the vigilance of its leaders, they were now “totally safe” to attend.

That Facebook post has subsequently been removed, but not before it received widespread condemnation and mockery on social media. Its central claim was quickly debunked as at best misleading and at worse a complete falsehood, both by scientists and experts in air purification systems. The simple fact is that air purification systems will not protect people in the event of person-to-person viral transmission.

Was the Facebook post in reference to an upcoming Dream City church service, now that things are opening back up after months of lockdown? As it turns out, no! The larger context of the post was this: it had been announced the Dream City would be hosting, of all things, a Trump rally in one of its facilities on the 23rd of June 2020. These facilities are apparently available for private-party rentals. But why should a church be hosting a political rally? Isn’t this a violation of the Johnson Amendment, which threatens to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status if it crosses the line and endorses a political candidate or party?

Certainly, this isn’t the first time a megachurch has hosted a Trump rally, however. Back in January 2020, before Covid-19 dominated all the subsequent headlines, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado of El Rey Jesus (Christ the King) church in Miami, FL, held an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally at which Trump spoke. There were no repercussions, clearly, in the era of the Trump administration and its overly-friendly stance toward evangelicals.

In fact, one of Trump’s very first announcements as president-elect was that he aimed to do away with the Johnson Amendment, ostensibly to end the “religious persecution” of America’s evangelicals, which had apparently been one of the major aims of the progressive Obama administration. Following this Trump rally, the IRS will not be knocking on Dream City’s door in July to revoke their tax-exempt status, it would seem.

Drilling Down

But upon closer inspection, besides the scientific quackery of the actual dubious claim itself related to the church’s allegedly bulletproof “air purification system,” there’s a lot more that we need to dig into regarding the fallout from this story — and the very real threat of evangelical gaslighting. Dream City, after this public embarrassment, issued the following statement on its website:

“Dream City Church confirms it will be renting its facilities to Turning Point Action for their Phoenix event. Turning Point Action contacted Dream City regarding use of its facilities for a student event. Dream City prayerfully considered and then agreed. Turning Point Action subsequently informed Dream City that the President planned to speak at the event. Dream City’s facility rental does not constitute endorsement of the opinions of its renters. Each facility rental is a means to generate funds so that Dream City may continue to carry out its outreach vision — to reach the hurting and needy in the community for Jesus Christ. Please join Dream City in praying that the church may continue to effectively carry out that mission.”

Let the Gaslighting Begin

There are multiple problems and issues with the above statement. In order to translate the loaded language and gaslighting, let me re-translate each portion of the statement to demonstrate exactly how Dream City is spinning this narrative to a) absolve themselves of any guilt or wrongdoing and b) turn it into a positive so they won’t come off as the bad guys in this story.

Statement:Dream City Church confirms it will be renting its facilities to Turning Point Action for their Phoenix event. Turning Point Action contacted Dream City regarding use of its facilities for a student event. Dream City prayerfully considered and then agreed.”

Translation: Dream City Church will be renting their facilities to Turning Point Action (TPA) for a Phoenix event. Notice there is no mention of what the event actually is; a Trump rally. They also claim that when TPA contacted them about renting their facilities, Dream City “prayerfully considered and then agreed.” In other words, placing the blame on God for what would turn out to be a lie on the part of TPA. In other words, if the God they claim to worship and obey is truly omnipotent and omniscient, wouldn’t he know that TPA was lying to Dream City about their alleged “student event?” But since they prayed about it, and received no clear warnings from God that they were being lied to, Dream City went ahead and agreed.

Beyond the theological aspect, there’s a major glaring issue here: who exactly is “Turning Point Action”? The simplest Google search of the title reveals that TPA is a sister, non-profit organization linked to Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA (TPUSA). TPA’s tagline, prominently displayed on the landing page of their site, proclaims their vision: “Accelerating freedom through conservative action.” And anyone who has heard of Charlie Kirk knows that he is the youngest and most widely-known young conservative evangelical who is a proud Trump supporter. He is one of the biggest influencers on social media for his views on Trump, and has recently written The MAGA Doctrine. More information can be found on his website.

Long story short: anybody with half a brain would not even need to pray in order to find out who TPA, TPUSA or Charlie Kirk are, or what they stand for: unapologetic Trump supporters who have made it their business to infiltrate college campuses and churches to spread their Trump-supporting, conservative doctrine. So I have a hard time believing that Dream City simply “prayed about it,” received no red lights from God, and agreed to host a “student event” at their facilities.

Statement: “Turning Point Action subsequently informed Dream City that the President planned to speak at the event. Dream City’s facility rental does not constitute endorsement of the opinions of its renters.”

Translation: It was only after the ink had been signed on the rental agreement that TPA informed Dream City that — ha, ha! — “This event isn’t a student event! It’s for a TRUMP RALLY, suckers!” And Dream City was utterly shocked and devastated by this deception, immediately denouncing the trickery and tearing up the contract, right? Wrong. The event will go ahead as planned.

And now comes the gaslighting: after shifting the blame to TPA for lying to them, rather than expressing outrage and immediately cancelling the Trump rally — which is what it actually was all along, surprise surprise — Dream City distances itself from all culpability, using weasel words. This is the essence of gaslighting.

In other words, what Dream City is saying is this: “Well, we got hoodwinked by TPA. That’s on us (and maybe God, too, for letting us down by not answering our prayers). But, the contract has been signed; and besides, just because we hold an event at our facilities, doesn’t mean we endorse the message of the groups who rent them.” Classic dodge.

So let me get this straight: if a group of neo-Nazis had deceived Dream City, and rented their facility under the guise of a seemingly innocent event, would they be OK with it? What if the KKK wanted to hold a rally there and had lied to them about its purpose? According to their gaslighting “logic,” they are absolved of any and all responsibilities — even though they were lied to by TPA — and honestly, they should have known who this organization was from the get-go.

Statement: Each facility rental is a means to generate funds so that Dream City may continue to carry out its outreach vision — to reach the hurting and needy in the community for Jesus Christ. Please join Dream City in praying that the church may continue to effectively carry out that mission.”

Translation: This final paragraph is the essence of gaslighting. Basically, what Dream City is really saying is this: “OK, we were lied to by TPA and our facilities will be used for a Trump rally. Which we totally don’t endorse, as landlords. But hey! Look at the bright side. The money that we’ll be raking in from hosting this event will go toward our wonderful ministries to ‘the hurting and needy in the community for Jesus Christ.’”

Even their outreach ministries to vulnerable people has strings attached.

And then of course comes the final gaslighting statement: “We just know that you will join us in praying that we’ll be able to continue this wonderful ministry, with these ill-gotten gains from hosting a Trump rally in our church.” That sentence very sneakily puts a burden of guilt on any Christian who might read it: won’t you join us, brother or sister, in praying with us as we continue doing the great work of the Gospel in our city? We’re all on the same side here.

Which side is that exactly? Oh yeah — the side of Christian nationalism.

Conclusion

The final straw that breaks the camel’s back in all of this, in addition to the gaslighting as outlined above, was the Facebook post by Barnett and Zastrow announcing their super-cool, hi-tech “air purification system guaranteed to kill 99.9% of all coronavirus.” According to them, attendees of the rally — which they’ve carefully spun and distanced themselves from — will be totally safe. No need to fear getting infected with Covid-19 and either dying from it yourself, or potentially spreading it to others who might die from your irresponsibility.

As both scientists and experts on air purification systems have by now pointed out in numerous articles, while an air scrubbing system may indeed be helpful in eliminating airborne bacteria or viruses, it can do nothing to stop person-to-person spread once people are packed in tightly together. In other words, if the person you’re standing to has the virus, and you’re not wearing a mask (most Trump supporters), there’s a good chance you’ll catch it — no matter how great the air purification system is. The whole thing is designed to give people a false sense of hope and assuage their concerns, as well as absolve Dream City’s leadership should a number of people get sick at the rally.

So the final piece of gaslighting came with Barnett and Zastrow breathlessly announcing publicly that they’d had this all-singing, all-dancing air purification system installed, just in time for the Trump rally.

By openly lying about that — or at the very least misrepresenting the truth — Dream City’s leadership is acting incredibly irresponsibly by directly putting people’s lives at risk by hosting this Trump rally in their church facilities.

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I’m an ex-evangelical speaking out about the dangers posed by the Christian Right, dominion theology, and Christian nationalism. Host of the MindShift podcast.

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