Texas GOP lawmaker hires Christian nationalist who called for drag show attendees to be executed

A Republican lawmaker and Texas House speaker candidate has hired a self-described Christian nationalist who called for the public execution of people who take children to drag events.

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, hired Jake Neidert, 22, last month as his office’s legislative director amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ violence and rhetoric, and ahead of an impending legislative session that is expected to focus heavily on anti-trans bills.

Tinderholt, one of the most conservative members of the Texas House, is currently mounting a long-shot challenge to Beaumont Republican Rep. Dade Phelan’s House speakership. Tinderholt has previously pushed for legislation that proposed the death penalty for Texans who get and perform abortions.

Neither Tinderholt nor Neidert responded to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

Neidert is the twin brother of Kelly Neidert, the founder of the anti-trans group Protect Texas Kids that has been a key driver of protests of drag and LGTBQ events across the state, and who has aligned with far-right movements — including Holocaust deniers. And like his sister — who has called for “rounding up” people who attend Pride events — Jake Neidert has similarly espoused anti-LGTBQ views.

[“The most hated conservative college student in the state”: How a UNT student embroiled her campus in a culture war]

“You want to force kids to see drag shows, I want to ‘drag’ you to the town square to be publicly executed for grooming kids. We are not the same,” he wrote on Twitter on June 7, 2022, according to screenshots of his accounts that were posted by Living Blue In Texas, which first reported his hiring. His Twitter account has been suspended since this summer, but archived versions of his profile show a tweet from that day was removed for violating the site’s terms of service.

In another post this year, Neidert complained about the arrests of members of the Texas-based extremist group Patriot Front, who authorities say were apprehended on their way to commit violence at a Pride event in Idaho over the summer.

Neidert’s hiring comes amid skyrocketing violence and hate rhetoric aimed at the LGBTQ community. Across the state and country, drag and Pride events have been increasingly targeted by far-right movements, and right-wing pundits and politicians have routinely, and falsely, depicted drag events as opportunities for children to be sexually groomed.

Neidert has also joked about the death of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police. “George Floyd is two years sober today,” Neidert wrote on the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing — a reference to Floyd’s earlier struggles with drug addiction.

Neidert’s hiring was condemned by LGTBQ rights groups and lawmakers.

“It is a frustrating thing to both be appalled and not surprised,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Driftwood Democrat and member of the House LGBTQ Caucus. “And while it’s sure alarming to know that there’s someone working in my building who has called for my execution, it feels just par for the course.”

Others said Neidert’s comments — and failures by Republican leaders to call out anti-trans and homophobic language more broadly — will only normalize hateful rhetoric and violence that have already been spiking in recent years as some politicians, pundits and organizations increasingly target the LGTBQ community.

“Neidert has publicly pushed transphobic campaigns that we know spew hateful narratives that yield very real violent results,” said Adri Perez, organizing director for the Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for LGTBQ equality. “Neidert does not share the collective interest of Texans and should not be allowed to use public funds and time to push his hateful and violent ideology at our State Capitol.”

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott last year directed Child Protective Services agents to investigate families who provide gender-affirming care to transgender children — which years of research show significantly curtails their likelihood of depression, suicide and drug abuse. And, on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office sought information on Texans who requested gender changes on their drivers licenses — raising concerns among transgender Texans that they were being monitored.

Meanwhile, ahead of Texas’ next legislative session that begins early next year, lawmakers have already filed dozens of bills targeting LGTBQ rights, including bills that would criminalize gender-affirming care for minors. Neidert’s job as a legislative director allows him a great degree of influence over legislation and what bills Tinderholt supports.

Phelan declined comment when asked about Neidert’s hiring. Other Republican leaders, including Abbott and Texas Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi, did not respond to requests for comment.

LGBTQ groups say it’s impossible to divorce ongoing rises in hateful rhetoric like Neidert’s from violence and anti-trans legislation. The number of anti-LGBTQ demonstrations has nearly tripled this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Far-right groups have also been increasingly armed at such events, ACLED found.

“We’ve seen 30 bills filed that attack the LGBTQ community in some form or fashion, and we’ve definitely seen an increase in attacks,” said Johnathan Gooch, spokesperson for Equality Texas. “And it’s extremists pushing these transphobic narratives and politicians disseminating disinformation that is driving these movements to intimidate queer people in safe spaces and entertainment venues — places where people shoudn’t feel unsafe.”

Neidert’s new job is not his first foray into Texas politics. As a student at Baylor University, he led the campus chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, a role in which he similarly received backlash for his tweets about the LGBTQ community and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In one tweet — which prompted a petition for the group’s removal from campus — Neidert compared LGBTQ allies to child rapists and serial killers, saying that homosexuality was equally sinful.

Neidert defended the post by saying he was a Southern Baptist, and that “many congregations and denominations of Christianity still believe that homosexuality is a sin. I would not say [the tweet] is a stretch.”

According to his Facebook page, Neidert also worked as a legislative intern for state Rep. Bryan Slaton, a Royse City Republican who has pushed for children to be banned from drag events and recently filed legislation that would expand the state’s definition of child abuse to include providing gender-affirming health care under the guidance of a doctor or mental health care provider.

Slaton did not respond to requests for comment.

Campaign finance records show that before joining Tinderholt’s office, Neidert also worked on the failed House campaign of Shelley Luther, the North Texas salon owner who rose to minor prominence after she was jailed for violating COVID-19 lockdown rules. During that campaign, Luther said she was “not comfortable with the transgenders” and said she supported school choice in part because of her disappointment that trans kids couldn’t be laughed at in public schools.

Campaign finance records also show that, during the 2022 campaign season, Neidert also received $9,750 in payments from Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a fundraising group tied to west Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks that has poured millions of dollars into far-right campaigns across the state, including those of Tinderholt, Slaton and Luther. Leaders of Defend Texas Liberty PAC did not respond to a request for comment.

Dunn and Wilks have similarly espoused extremist views on the LGBTQ community, including comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

The two billionaires have also sought to blur the lines between church-state separation, a view that Neidert shares. He has previously described himself on Twitter as a Christian nationalist — an extreme brand of Christian politics that claims the United States’ founding was God-ordained and its laws and institutions should thus favor Christians.

“Please understand that we’re not trying to turn America into a Christian theocracy,” read one post that Neidert shared on his Facebook page earlier this year. “We’re going to do it.”

Experts say such extreme religious views would mean the death of pluralistic democracy in America. They note that there is a direct correlation between preferences for authoritarian leaders and the religious zealotry and anti-LGBTQ extremism that are frequently espoused by Christian nationalists.

Christian nationalism is predicated on the idea that there are “true Americans who deserve access to all the privileges of being an American,” said Andrew Whitehead, an Indiana University sociologist and prominent scholar of Christian nationalism. That makes adherents far more likely to accept the use of violence and oppression to enforce social — and often racial — hierarchies, he said.

“There is a comfort with authoritarian social control,” Whitehead said. “They are comfortable bringing violence to bear.”

Disclosure: Baylor University, Equality Texas and Texas Freedom Network have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/16/texas-tony-tinderholt-jake-neidert-drag-legislature/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Hundreds of Texas Methodist churches vote to split from denomination after years of infighting over gay marriage and abortion

LUBBOCK — The Northwest Texas Annual Conference of United Methodist Churches started like a regular church service. Participants sang, took communion, then prayed before voting to split from the United Methodist Church, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination.

“We are a broken body,” Presiding Bishop James G.Nunn, said as he explained to his hundreds of congregants how the communion bread represented both the broken body of Jesus Christ but also the tension within the faith. “But it teaches us that the breaking is not the end.”

Nunn continued, calling the accompanying communion juice “cups of forgiveness.” He prayed for the congregation’s mercy and forgiveness toward one another.

“Even in the best of circumstances, there are feelings that are hurt, and sometimes, relationships are rendered in two,” Nunn said.

The Northwest Texas Conference includes 200 churches from far West Texas up through the Panhandle. The Lubbock gathering included 145 of those churches — about a third of the 439 Texas churches that finalized their departure from the denomination on Saturday. The split, organized by more conservative church members, comes after years of infighting that stems from the UMC’s more inclusive stances when it comes to congregants and its acceptance of gay marriage and other divides that mirror, and are likely to intensify, America’s broader, ongoing polarization. The measure in Lubbock passed by a vote of 261-24.

Hundreds more are expected to similarly depart in the coming months after getting final approval from church leaders and join the Global Methodist Church, which would follow the same beliefs more conservatively. The UMC has four regional bodies in Texas, two of which met on Saturday: the one in Lubbock and another and the Texas Annual Conference in Houston.

There, in the nation’s fourth-largest city, 1,245 members voted to approve the disaffiliation, with 3% voting to oppose the split and another 4% abstaining. Nearly half of the UMC congregations in East Texas — 294 churches — voted to leave the denomination.

The fight within the denomination occurs as the UMC has expanded into more conservative areas of the world. And it comes amid a national reckoning in broader, American Christianity over similar questions about inclusivity and doctrinal alignment that have intensified

“It parallels this moment in the broader world,” said Rev. Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe, senior pastor at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Houston, which is remaining in the UMC. “It's a hard time to bring people together. We really reflect the brokenness of the culture and the world.”

In Lubbock, the Northwest Texas Annual Conference greenlit the exits of nearly 75% of the region’s congregations. According to the conference workbook, it is anticipated the northwest division will cease to exist.

Archie Echols, a retired deputy minister who has been part of the conference for 75 years, was the only person to speak before the vote to disaffiliate. He referenced a scripture that instructs them to prepare a way for God, and closing the church to gay members goes against that.

“I think there’s a whole mass of God’s children,” Echols said. “And I feel, instead of preparing a way with that mass of people, who happen to be gay, we’re making a block that doesn’t let them in. May we open up the table and not cause people to be left out.”

When they asked church members to raise their hands in favor of disaffiliation, dozens of arms flew up.

In response to the vote, St. John’s United Methodist Church in Lubbock released a statement saying they will continue being part of UMC and advocate for church policy changes at local and denominational levels.

“We will continue to work at being an affirming and inclusive community for all,” the church said in a statement.

Many of the Texas congregations say they’ll join a new, more conservative breakaway denomination, the Global Methodist Church, that was created earlier this year.

The mass exodus in Texas significantly exacerbates ongoing issues for the UMC: Since 2019, when UMC delegates approved initial disaffiliation plans, more than 1,300 of the UMC’s 30,500 American churches have voted to leave, and the denomination is now bracing for massive spending cuts and 30-year budget lows, the denomination’s news service reported earlier this year.

The split is likely to further religious and political partisanship as United Methodists — who make up a huge portion of more moderate, mainline Christianity — lose influence, said Ryan Burge, an Eastern Illinois University professor of religion and political science who has for years studied the decline and polarization of American religious life.

Burge noted that mainline Christian denominations have for decades been hemorrhaging members and power as younger generations become increasingly nonreligious. He said the new, breakaway denomination is much more likely to align with strands of conservative evangelicalism that are already the dominant force in American religion and Republican Party politics.

“It’s going to accelerate religious polarization because the mainline is going to be even more marginalized, and they were always the moderates,” Burge said. “We are losing the middle tranche. They have always been the counterpoint to evangelicals.”

UMC fight history

The UMC debates date back to the 1970s, a few years after the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church that created the denomination. As the sexual revolution and other progressive social movements of the 1960s continued to flourish in more liberal parts of the country, the UMC attempted to reconcile its ranks’ divergent views on gay rights and other issues.

At the UMC’s 1972 meeting, Don Hand, a San Antonio lawyer and Methodist layman sought what he thought was a compromise on the issue: An amendment to the faith group’s doctrinal stances that said all people were created equal by God, but that homosexuality was nonetheless “incompatible” with Christian beliefs. “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality, and consider this practice incompatible with Christian doctrine,” Hand, wrote at the time.

That 16-word addition, known as the “incompatibility clause,” has only grown more contentious in the 50 years since, as Americans — including many Methodists — increasingly accept same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the denomination has increasingly expanded globally, giving more power to voting blocs from conservative countries. And, after the United States legalized same-sex marriage, American ministers were forced to decide whether they’d condone gay marriage.

Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe, the pastor of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Houston, said that he is sad to see so many churches depart from the UMC, but that he is hopeful for a future.

“In the very short term, it hurts,” he said. “We’ve fought a lot, and not talked about what it means to love our neighbors or what this seemingly endless fight does to our witness. And I am hopeful that, moving forward, we are able to do more interesting things that make the church look a little more like the Kingdom of God.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/03/texas-united-methodist-church-split/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.