Before I get into this post and its corollary, Street Preaching and the Christian Right, Part 2: Inside the Mind of a Street Preacher, let me just note that these posts contain very disturbing material. Be prepared to confront misogyny, rape, assault, homophobia, transphobia, racism, Islamophobia, bigotry toward other confessions, including Mormonism, Hinduism, and Catholicism, and extreme language, including misogynist, homophobic, and ableist slurs, before reading further or clicking on the links.
Why I Decided to Look into Street Preaching
I’ve been sitting on an interview with a right-wing street preacher, Jim Deferio of Syracuse, New York, for almost a year. Last May, the notorious Arizona-based street preacher Brother Dean Saxton, known for carrying signs saying some women “deserve to be raped,” and sometimes referred to as “the slut shaming preacher,” made both national and international headlines. The Saxton incident sparked my interest in trying to dive into the nearly ubiquitous, yet shadowy, world of street preaching in America. One of the best ways to learn about that world, and how we might understand it in connection with the broader Christian Right, would be to get information from street preachers themselves, if they were willing to share. And so, after poking around, I contacted Deferio via Facebook, and he agreed to let me send him some questions by e-mail. He then backtracked, saying he would not open any e-mails from me because of a perceived threat of being targeted with computer viruses, but he assented to answer my questions over private messages on Facebook.
At that time, I was communicating with a few other sources regarding street preaching and pitching a story that would contextualize the Saxton incident by focusing on the psychology and mentality of street preachers. (I had no luck trying to reach out to Saxton himself.) No outlet I contacted went for that story; one did express interest in a story about street preachers’ networks and connections with other elements of the Right, but that proved a larger task than I was up to at the time, and, indeed, remains methodologically difficult for a variety of reasons. Note, for example, what Joshua Grubbs, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University, had to say about this on Twitter yesterday when I started a thread on how I was thinking of finally writing something up on street preaching in order to crowdsource a little more information:
Despite the difficulties, at this point I am prepared to at least gesture in the direction of an analysis of street preaching relative to the broader Christian Right, to sketch out some observations in the hopes of starting a conversation that may lead to us learning more. I will do that in this piece, and then, in part 2, I will publish Deferio’s answers to my interview questions. When I communicated with him last May, I told Deferio that while I would most likely not be able to publish the entire interview, I would exercise journalistic integrity and do my best to represent his views accurately. Now that I have this site, I can publish everything he gave me on the record, letting his words speak for themselves. I think they will provide a valuable primary source for those interested in the phenomenon of street preaching, and so the next post will contain a short introduction and then his answers to my questions. But first, some context.
Here’s what happened with “Brother Dean” on April 26, 2016. While confrontationally preaching (aka spewing toxic anti-LGBTQ and anti-woman speech and threats of hellfire) outside Apollo High School in Glendale, Arizona, Saxton was assaulted with a baseball bat by student Tabitha Brubaker who had, understandably, had enough. In the video of the incident, the crowd of students broke out in cheers at Brubaker’s action. And while I am not condoning or promoting assault as a response to hate speech, I think it is more than fair to ask how much sense it makes to allow potentially dangerous maniacs the almost unfettered ability to create disturbances in such close proximity to schoolchildren, whose impulse control is not yet fully developed, and who should be able to learn in safe, nurturing, and religiously neutral environments without being exposed to messages that they deserve to be subjected to sexual violence and to burn in hell.
Saxton, who was able to walk away from the April incident under his own power, seemingly not severely harmed though visibly bleeding, would soon demonstrate his own capacity for more than just verbal violence. In September 2016, he got himself arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault for kicking a University of Arizona student in the chest. As loathe as far too many conservatives are to admit it (and despite their fondness for suggesting that other people’s ideas have consequences), there is a connection between violent ideologies and violent rhetoric, on the one hand, and violent actions on the other. After the kicking incident, Saxton’s UA victim was hailed as a hero on Twitter for getting the vile preacher banned from campus.
Street Preaching: A Controversial Form of “Witnessing”
A commitment to proselytizing is a generally accepted criterion for defining Evangelical Christianity. Related to Evangelicals’ belief in absolute “Truth” and resultant inability to accept new information that challenges truths regarded as sacrosanct–because without them the entire worldview is believed to fall–is the drive to convert others to their form of Christianity. This is a hallmark of fundamentalism, of which conservative Evangelicalism is a species that varies in degrees of extremism. Evangelicals and mission-driven conservative Christians of other confessions, including traditionalist Catholics, evangelize people in a variety of ways with the goal of achieving conversions.
Evangelism of this sort is often referred to as “witnessing.” This is a bit of Christianese that means proselytizing but holds the further connotations of bearing witness, or sharing “testimony,” about what the gospel means to the one engaged in “witnessing” and how they have supposedly been transformed by it. This is also referred to as spreading or sharing “the good news,” and Evangelicals justify their conviction that doing so is a moral imperative with reference to the “Great Commission” attributed to the resurrected Jesus in Matthew 28:19, which in the New International Version of the Bible reads, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As you can see, these are the kinds of convictions that cause fundamentalists to be able to live only very uncomfortably, at best, in conditions of pluralism, to which they generally cannot fully reconcile themselves. They believe the world would be a better place, if it were possible, if everyone converted to Christianity, and many of them will fight tooth and nail against restrictions on their ability to proselytize.
Tactics, however, vary. One of my Christian high school Bible teachers used to take students to downtown Indianapolis to hand out tracts, which I always hated doing, although I don’t believe I spoke up about my discomfort at the time. I certainly didn’t in any serious or sustained way. This was witnessing, but it wasn’t street preaching, as we did not shout or try to engage crowds. And indeed, this form of witnessing–distributing religious literature and trying to engage individuals in conversation–is quite common and widely regarded as legitimate, even by those who may not overcome their own discomfort or apathy or simply their life routine in order to engage in it themselves. Other forms of witnessing include outreach events such as Christian concerts, youth group meetings, and hell houses; public performances; and sharing “testimonies” to more or less captive audiences in certain types of mission trip environments.
Street preaching, also referred to as open air preaching, is a form of witnessing that is controversial among Evangelicals themselves. Many of those who engage in it seem to regard themselves almost as “prophets” of sorts, devoted to denouncing “sin,” and a seemingly large proportion of street preachers are extremely obsessive about sexual “sin” and homosexuality in particular. Street preachers like Dean Saxton, who falls into this unhealthily obsessive category, often come across as utterly deranged, and many probably do have serious untreated mental health issues. Saxton’s website, incidentally, has been private and accessible by invitation only for some time, but it was available to the public last spring. I read some of his rambling screeds. Nothing that I viewed on the site at that time could be described as coherent.
On a related note, as Brooke Sales-Lee pointed out to me, Phillip Garrido, who held Jaycee Dugard as a sex slave for 18 years (from 1991-2009), was planning open air events of a religious nature at UC Berkeley when Dugard’s captivity was discovered by police. (Sales-Lee pointed me to this site, which she identified as Garrido’s blog). Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper was a Mormon street preacher. The Craigslist serial killer Richard Beasley was a street preacher. At least one Washington state Trump delegate has a history of street preaching. And Florida Republican Joshua Black, who called for President Obama to be hanged, has engaged in street evangelism. Unbelievably, Black’s tweet calling for the former president to be hanged is, as of this writing, still up (but I will preserve it below in a screenshot):
Sometimes street preachers’ sexual obsessions are expressed in ways that are both creepy and campy. Take, for example, the style of self-proclaimed “ex-gay” preacher Robert Breaud, who has preached with Jim Deferio and who at least used to visit the campus of the University of South Florida, where I currently work. (USF is still frequented by street preachers and is a site where numerous religious groups recruit and distribute literature, but I have not encountered Breaud there.) Breaud is perhaps most well known, to the extent that he is, for his bizarre ditty, “It’s Not Okay to be Gay.” If you have the stomach for this corny and disturbing expression of bigotry, you can watch a YouTube video of Breaud performing the song at USF here.
Because of these associations, some Evangelicals who both believe in the imperative to proselytize and hold to reactionary beliefs, but prefer more “respectable” forms of engagement, see street preaching as of dubious value or even as counterproductive. A man who used to engage in open air preaching on an American university campus (but gave up the practice over a decade ago), and who still works in a ministry that is active on that campus, responded to my inquiry about street preaching–not wanting to be associated with people like Saxton, he allowed me to quote him only on condition of anonymity–as follows:
I no longer do open air preaching. Not that I am against it; I just found that I spent most of my time talking with Christians trying to defend why it was “okay” to speak in a public forum like that. I grew weary of those conversations, and often found that those who didn’t believe in Jesus were more frustrated with Christians and their opinions than the preaching I was doing. It is a unique environment and everyone is not going to see eye to eye on how/whether it should be done… I have just found different ways to connect with those who are skeptical, questioning faith, etc.
My own undergraduate alma mater, Ball State University, was also, and most likely still is, a site of regular street preaching. Indeed, street preachers are practically ubiquitous features of American university campuses, which are undoubtedly one of the most common places they’re found (along with pride parades, areas adjacent to major sporting events, and other sites where large crowds gather). In addition to street preaching of a relatively moderate sort, Ball State used to play host to a strange, cultish group, the name/precise affiliation of which I have unfortunately forgotten, whose members displayed massive, Westboro Baptist-style banners with scary slogans, such as “A friend of the world is an enemy of God.” They would tell us all we were going to hell simply for getting an education. They didn’t even consider education from Christian colleges acceptable; their whole spiel was that it was only acceptable to learn directly from Jesus. (If anyone can identify this group in the comments below, I would be grateful.) They always had children with them. I felt sorry for the children.
Street Preaching and Other Christian Right Initiatives Targeting Schools
When the story about Saxton being assaulted outside a high school broke last May, the location stood out to me, as I did not know street preachers targeted K-12 schools. But as it turns out, Saxton’s far from the only one. For example, the similarly deranged Angela Cummings also preached her toxic bile in front of at least one school in 2016. Cummings is probably best known as that lady who marched through a Target store singing “God bless America” and then proceeding to yell about Target’s transgender inclusive bathroom policy; her “sermon” includes the line “This is Massachusetts, and I would say that the pilgrims would not be having a happy Thanksgiving over your bathroom policy, can I get an ‘amen’?” In addition, the shadowy and possibly not very organized Lift Your Voice Ministries has been known to target schools with street preaching, although I do not know how active the “ministry” ever was, and its website has not been updated for some time.
Much street preaching, of course, is done with loose organizational affiliation or no official organizational affiliation at all, making the phenomenon difficult to track. It would be difficult if not impossible to determine the frequency with which street preaching in front of schools or to schoolchildren takes place, how much it may vary geographically, and whether and to what extent the frequency of such activity has varied over time.
Nevertheless, run-ins with the law, or controversies involving parents, bring some instances to light. In 2013, as documented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Dauphin County, Pennsylvania court ruled that street preacher Stephen Garisto had to stand at least 20 feet away from school bus stops when preaching to children entering and exiting the buses. In that case, Judge Jeannine Turgeon concluded, “Certainly the School District has a strong interest in preventing an adult stranger from approaching captive audience school children and engaging them in conversation, handing out pamphlets, stopping them as they get off a school bus or pursuing them as they walk away therefrom.” This seems more than reasonable in light of the crimes committed against children by street preachers noted above. Per the Americans United writeup:
Witnesses testified that Garisto called at least one student a “heathen” and that he yelled at parents who supervised their children at the bus stop. At least one child said Garisto frightened him, according to court documents.
Before bringing this piece to a conclusion, it is worth noting that many fundamentalists consider reaching children especially urgent, given how few people convert as adults. They are generally incapable of seeing how perverse and manipulative this sentiment is. They, after all, have “the Truth” and are deeply emotionally invested in being right about that “the Truth,” and thus they easily allow the lines between ends and means to blur. Growing up, I heard many times how important it ostensibly is to reach children with the gospel. No one else around me seemed to find this in the least bit creepy. In addition, while legal abortion was the number one focus of resentment and activism in my Evangelical milieu, there was plenty of resentment left to go around for legal restrictions on school prayer and religious activities at public schools.
To be fundamentalist is to reject all notions of religious neutrality. Most white Evangelicals believe that public schools cannot be religiously neutral; what public schools supposedly do, then, by default, is indoctrinate children in “secular humanism.” And Evangelicals look for all sorts of ways to counter this, ranging from distributing Bibles and other religious literature on school grounds; to fighting for access to school facilities for religious activities outside school hours; to attempting to get creationism or at least “intelligent design” into science classrooms in some capacity. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has documented numerous examples of their tactics–see for example here and here. When I was crowdsourcing information on street preaching outside schools yesterday on Twitter, one elementary school principal explained how his school handles the distribution of Gideon Bibles:
In addition to these tactics and street preaching, K-12 schools have been the sites of protests led by the late Fred Phelps (I thank Frederick Clarkson for the reference) and of anti-abortion protests. With respect to the latter, it is not difficult to find news stories from recent years (like this one and this one) about parents upset about the practice. As fellow Twitter users helped me discover yesterday when I was crowdsourcing information related to street preaching outside schools, the extremist group Abolish Human Abortion is particularly notorious in this regard. Blogger and activist Kathryn Brightbill, who was mobilized for the culture wars as a child homeschooled for Christian Right ideological reasons, had this to say, based on her observations growing up with more Christian Right activism than I did (I was taken to an anti-abortion protest precisely once, when I was 11), in yesterday’s Twitter discussion:
These anti-abortion protests in front of schools, which often involve the display of graphic images, may sometimes involve shouting akin to street preaching, but are on the whole distinct from it. Nevertheless, in the context of schools, the negative impact on children could be similar. And both tactics are focused on “reaching the children.” Take, for example, what anti-abortion activist Diana Kline has had to say about her selection of Tampa’s Gorrie Elementary School as a site for protest, a choice that has understandably been upsetting to many local parents: “I started out going to high schools, but I found the vast number of those students had been already been indoctrinated with the pro-choice mantra.” This statement echoes the general sense among Evangelicals that children must be reached (i.e., indoctrinated) with “the Truth” as early as possible.
To wrap up, then, here’s what we can say about street preaching and the Christian Right. Because street preaching is an amorphous and often individual or small group practice that in many cases takes place apart from formal institutional ties, it can be difficult to track. Certain charismatic individuals may be well known regionally, as Jim Deferio is in New York state. If his experience is typical, schools may be frequent targets for street preaching. Deferio considers elementary and middle schools off-limits, but, according to the interview I will publish tomorrow, he has preached outside high schools “numerous times.”
Despite the individual and amorphous nature of street preaching, it is a means through which hardline Christian Right ideology is spread. And there is at least one highly educated man in the more institutionally organized Christian Right with an impeccable culture wars pedigree who has taken notice. That man is lawyer Nate Kellum, who has in the past worked for both the American Family Association and Alliance Defending Freedom, and who is now chief counsel at the Center for Religious Expression, which grew out of the local Memphis ADF branch in 2012. Kellum’s CRE has taken an interest in defending access for street preachers to public spaces when controversies arise. One of CRE’s cases, in which access to the Central New York Pride Festival is at stake, involves Jim Deferio.
With this context established, I will publish part 2 of this series, consisting mostly of Deferio’s responses to my interview questions, tomorrow.
6 thoughts on “Street Preaching and the Christian Right, Part 1: Suffer the Little Children”
Chris, great work. I remember several years back (I think it was around 2009) Westboro Baptist showed up to protest outside of Gunn HS in Palo Alto, CA at a time when the school was struggling with a string of student suicides. At the time I was the pastor of a church that is more or less across the street from Gunn HS. I was not deeply involved in the counter-protest, but a group of ecumenical faith leaders and students worked together with the the high school community and local press to counter their work, keep it from gaining the type of press and agitation Westboro Baptist was looking for, and most of all – to help rally an already traumatized and grieving community in a way that was inclusive, safe, and healing.
A few observations: first, religious groups that see the trauma, grief and vulnerability of others as an opportunity to brandish their ‘truth’ are abhorrent (this should be obvious but apparently, bears repeating). Second, there was an outside organization that helped us best understand how to counter-protest and had a wealth of information about Westboro Baptist and other groups and individuals. I wish I could remember who they were so I could help you get in touch with them. One of the things they made clear was that any direct confrontation was exactly what Westboro Baptist was looking for both in terms of gaining exposure and in terms of lawsuits. It’s very lucrative to agitate and then sue. Finally, I was impressed by the leadership of our local synagogues who were able to provide counseling, support and organization that was genuinely helpful.
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Thanks very much for these insights, Dan! I was in grad school at Stanford at that time, living in Sunnyvale. So I know exactly the area you’re talking about and remember reading about the suicides.
As a local, I remember that it was indeed the WBC.
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One of the years running in the Chicago marathon I noticed a guy in a suit holding a sign for the runners and crowds to see: “The Wages of Sin is DEATH!” As a recovering fundy and not concerned about my time, I stopped and confronted him, matching verse for verse with statements of God’s Love (I learned lots of scripture as a fundy). Finally left and then passed by Moody Church, where the congregation had a water station. They were giving hugs and cups of cold water “in Jesus’ name”. :?) DLMoody the consummate street preacher preached on the Love of God.
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A street preacher managed to get under my skin, too, though I had a different response.
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