TIME Religion

Watchmen on the Wall: Pastors Prepare to Take Back America

FRCAction and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, on Oct. 11, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
FRCAction and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, speaks during the Values Voter Summit, held by the Family Research Council Action, on Oct. 11, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Jose Luis Magana—AP

A group of pastors fears the United States is losing its Christian heritage, and they came to Washington to be encouraged to stand firm.

On the evening of May 21, a group of fifty pastors stood soaking wet in the Capitol rotunda, undeterred by the rainstorm outside. Beneath the giant painting Baptism of Pocahontas, David Barton, an evangelical advocate for what he believes is the besieged Christian heritage of the United States, was holding forth on the nation’s spiritual history. Pocahontas, he was saying, really wanted to be known by the Christian name Rebecca, but America’s politically correct textbooks insist on calling her Pocahontas. President James Garfield, he continued, preached one day and 34 people accepted Jesus as their savior. The Capitol building’s Statuary Hall used to be a chapel, he added, and remember, “This is a government building.”

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) walked up and hugged Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, who was in the group, murmuring his ‘Amens’ as Barton spoke. When he gets discouraged with the state of politics or the country, Lee said, he likes to make a late night pilgrimage though the Rotunda and look at all the paintings and statues to be reminded of America’s early religious life. “That really is what the American dream is all about,” he said. “We are a shining city on a hill but we have to resume acting like that shining city.” The group applauded, and then closed their tour with a blessing for the country: “God Bless America,” they sang, many with hands outstretched and eyes closed in prayer.

The pastors had come to the nation’s capital as part of the annual “Watchmen on the Wall” Washington briefing, a conference sponsored by the Family Research Council to connect pastors with policy makers and legislators and to encourage the pastors to advocate for those Biblical values FRC believes should be advanced in America. This year’s event, held May 21-23, marked the 11th year of the program, and more than 650 people from a total of 42 states attended, including 500 pastors and their wives. Nearly half were repeat participants, and most come from conservative or evangelical congregations.

Watchmen on the Wall is FRC’s network of 28,000 pastors nationwide. A “Watchman” pastor is one who has committed to watch what goes on in the culture, pray for wisdom to engage the culture and sound the alarm of perceived cultural transgressions from the pulpit. The group gets its name from a passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest.”

This year’s briefing focused on defending the idea that marriage only should exist between a man and woman and on countering what many conservative Christians believe are widespread attacks on Christian religious liberty. “There is an all-out assault on Biblical marriage, with judges overturning the will of the vast majority of voters in some states […] Religious organizations and Christian-owned businesses are being forced to provide insurance plans that cover abortions and abortion-inducing drugs or face fines and punishment…and the list goes on,” FRC president Tony Perkins wrote in a welcome letter to attendees. “It would appear that lawlessness has been unleashed upon our country and culture as we witness an unprecedented and outrageous abuse of power by governing authorities.”

The conference brought together 46 speakers, including Duck Dynasty’s Al Robertson, Sen. Ted Cruz’s father Rafael, Franklin Graham, Tony Evans, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI). Pastors pay $199 to attend, and FRC pays an additional $800 per pastor, bringing this year’s total cost to near half a million dollars. But all of that is worth it, organizers say, to guide Americans toward what the FRC says is the correct Biblical path. “The cure is to be found in a return to the God of the Bible,” explained Perkins. “Now, more than ever, America’s Bible-preaching pastors must serve as the spiritual catalysts for this radical return to God, first in the Church and then as the leaders on the front lines of our communities in this struggle for the heart and soul of America.”

The conference walks the line between prophetic ministry and political engagement. Watchmen provides pastors with a Voter Impact Toolkit, created by FRC, Focus on the Family, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, designed to get like-minded believers to the ballot box. FRC also provides pastors with a Culture Impact manual, with policy goals including action steps like, “Do not misuse civil rights laws to protect homosexual conduct and gender identity disorder.”

The pastors, for their part, say they are grateful for these practical resources and for the encouragement the event gives them to press on with their goals. Jack Hibbs, founder and pastor of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, Calif., has been involved with the Watchmen movement since the beginning. He worries the United States has become a nation of intolerance for Christians, especially when it comes to changing public opinion about sexuality. His church helped to file a referendum to repeal California’s AB1266, commonly called the transgender bathroom law. “As pastors, we need to stand up for what’s right,” he says. “I’m not here to make this a Christian nation, but I believe that freedom should be for everybody.”

J.C. Church, pastor of Victory in Truth Ministries in northeastern Ohio, helped to develop Awake88, a pastoral network throughout all of Ohio’s 88 counties, and is reaching out to the state’s Latino community. Church, like others in the Watchmen leadership, see Latino evangelicals as key allies in their fight, especially given their shared views on the nature of the family. “There is an absolute undeniable attack and a hostility toward Christianity, we have a double standard, tolerance is supposed to be a two-way street,” he says. “We believe that anything that threatens the biblical definition of family, faith, and freedom, are the things that we are finding that pastors will meet and work together on.”

The Watchmen views may be unpopular as the country increasingly supports marriage equality and believes religion is losing its public influence, but that’s all the more reason the Watchmen are gearing up for a fight, the pastors say. For many of them, the battle goes beyond politics: it is spiritual warfare. As senior FRC fellow E.W. Jackson preached to the gathering, the ACLU and the Foundation for the Freedom from Religion, in trying to stop Christian prayer at public events, represent a movement “not simply [of] human beings who disagree with us—it is demonic power moving to shut down the power of God.” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) reminded the group that their place in the country is still significant. “The foundation of the American dream is the Judeo-Christian foundation,” he said. “But if our pastors don’t ignite our pews we may lose this unique anointing we have as a country.”

FRC hopes to grow the Watchmen to 40,000 pastors by 2015, just as the battle for the White House begins to heat up. “They may call us racists, Uncle Toms and what they will, but Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you,’” Jackson said. “You have read the back of the Book like I have—you know that we win.” The auditorium leapt to its feet in applause.

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