This week Policy Watch published a special report on the increasingly close relationship between the American Renewal Project, conservative evangelical churches and the North Carolina Republican party.
To report the story, Policy Watch attended North Carolina Renewal Project events this month and last. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson spoke at these events, as he does at nearly all advertised Renewal Project events in the state. Known widely for his fiery, controversial statements — especially during speeches before church groups — Robinson has been heavily criticized for homophobic, transphobic, and factually incorrect statements since he entered politics in 2020.
As the top elected Republican in the state, his more controversial statements have sometimes gone beyond the usual rhetoric of his party and its leaders on a variety of issues. But it has earned him a reputation among some conservative Christians as a champion of their values in a culture they say should be ordered and governed based on their interpretation of the Bible.
In his recent appearances at churches in Raleigh and Statesville, Robinson lived up to that reputation, giving speeches that railed against LGBTQ people, state and federal government, weakness he perceives in modern Christian churches, pastors and Christians who disagree with his conservative evangelical brand of faith.
Potatoes, gender and outrage
Robinson got laughs and cheers early in his remarks at Calvary Chapel Lake Norman church in Statesville on Sept. 26 with an anecdote about Hasbro’s “Potato Head” line of toys:
“Somewhere in a board room a bunch of grown ups with a college degrees at some sat around…God, in a board room for crying out loud..they sat around and argued about the gender of a plastic potato!” Robinson said. “There was a raging argument in a toy company about the gender of a plastic potato!”
Robinson appears to have been referring to the 2021 rebranding of the “Mr. Potato Head” line of toys, which became the “Potato Head” line. There does not appear to be any evidence that a raging argument took place at the toy company, though a number of conservative commentators were outraged by the change.
Some outlets misreported that the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” designations of the long-lived and popular Potato Head characters were being removed. In fact, those titles remained — as did the traditional gender characteristics of the non-human potato characters. It was the toy’s overall branding and logo that changed. The company had to correct the record in a Tweet the same day the brand name-change was announced.
Gender has in fact been a discussion surrounding Potato Head toys almost since their beginnings. In 1952 Hasbro introduced “Mr. Potato Head,” an anthropomorphic potato toy the company decided to make and market exclusively as male. A year later, the company introduced “Mrs. Potato Head,” a gender variation on the male toy. Since then, child Potato Head characters — male, female, and unspecified baby potato characters in diapers — have joined those two adult versions. The company has also sold male/female wedding and family sets, implying the gendered characters are married and have families. None of those gendered decisions made the cultural ripples the name-change did.
The company further outraged some conservatives with advertising showing families with two male Potato Head dolls and their children and two female Potato Head dolls and theirs, a move the company said provided representation to customers with LGBTQ families. Once again, the ensuing argument over the family composition of non-human children’s toys appears to have taken place not at the company level but in conservative social media circles, with some calling for a boycott of Hasbro even as they raged against “cancel culture.”
Robinson, however, was using the toy story to warm up to an attack on real-world transgender people.
Transgender and LGBTQ attacks
“We have the leader of our Health and Human Services who is a man who dresses up like a woman,” Robinson told the crowd after his Potato Head anecdote.
Robinson appeared to be referring to Admiral Rachel Levine. Levine, a medical doctor and the highest ranking openly transgender person in the federal government, is not the leader of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra leads the department. He is a cisgender man. Levine is assistant secretary for health with the department.
After years of criticism for his transphobic and anti-LGBTQ remarks, Robinson has repeatedly said in interviews his private religious views on LGBTQ people don’t impact his job as lieutenant overnor, in which office he says, he will defend the rights of all North Carolinians. Under North Carolina law, transgender people can change the gender designation on their birth certificates and all legal identification. Despite that, Robinson continued to refer to Levine as a man and does so with all transgender women.
“He is literally the living reality embodiment of Klinger from ‘M*A*S*H,'” Robinson said of Levine.
Robinson was comparing Levine to the character Maxwell Klinger of the popular 20th Century television show set during the Korean War. That character attempted to get a psychiatric discharge from the Army through, among other things, dressing in women’s clothing.
“What was once comedy on television is a realty in the highest ranks of our government,” Robinson said.
Robinson pivoted from his anger over Levine’s presidential appointment and U.S. Senate confirmation to what he said was the root cause — the failure of conservative evangelical Christians to successfully organize and impose their religious beliefs and taboos throughout the government and culture.
A call to action — some of it illegal
“Why?” Robinson said of Levine’s position. “Because God has been removed from the equation. His argument has been removed from the equation. His wisdom has been removed from the equation. Why? Because his people have withdrawn themselves from the equation.”
Christians need to loudly proclaim their faith and re-enter the cultural fight in the public square, Robinson said.
“No longer is the Christian willing to stand up in the college classroom and declare that God is not dead!” Robinson said. “No longer is the Christian willing to stand up in that board meeting and say, ‘What are we doing? This is a child’s toy! This is foolishness!'”
Robinson then went further, lamenting that Christians aren’t willing to engage in aggressive action — some of it illegal — to proclaim their faith and enforce their religious views in secular society.
“No longer is a Christian willing to stand up at the swim meet and point down into the pool and say, ‘That is a man! Get him out of that pool!’” Robinson said.
In fact, public protests against transgender athletes at nearly every level of competition have become much more frequent in recent years. Violent assaults and murders of transgender youth who don’t even play sports are on the rise — including some at their own schools.
Opponents of transgender women competing in women’s swimming events scored a major victory earlier this year. But they did so by following the established process for addressing the issue through FINA, the world governing body for swimming, not through interrupting competitions with religiously inspired public confrontations as Robinson suggested.
Robinson suggested Christians should not only be disrupting sporting events, but also threatening libraries.
“No longer is a Christian willing to grab that whip and walk into the public library,” Robinson said, “And tell them, ‘In this library you will not use my tax dollars to promote sin to these children, and if I have to come in here and tear these books out myself and run that drag queen out of here myself, I will!’”
Protests and threats against libraries for carrying books and holding events to which conservatives object are also on the rise the last few years. One group taking the steps Robinson suggests: neo-Nazis. In July about 20 members of a neo-Nazi group in Boston mounted just such a library protest, leading to the arrest of their leader.
Closer to home, the Forsyth County Republican Men’s Club protested a Drag Queen Storytime event in June — not at a public library but at Bookmarks, a privately owned independent bookstore in Winston-Salem. Messages promoting the protest called it “perversion” and the chairman of the county GOP called it the work of “militant gay leftists trying to separate children from their parents.”
The incident, an assault on the right of private businesses and their customers to peaceably hold legal events on their own property, was the sort of escalation the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented and explored through recent studies on the rise of extremism in America.
Lessons in historical revisionism
Continuing his criticism of the “weakness” of Christians today, Robinson said he doesn’t believe they — or their pastors — properly understand the Bible, its purpose and history.
Too many pastors want to make their churches welcoming, comforting, feel-good places, Robinson said, when they should instead be giving correction and direction.
“One disturbing trend I see on social media is people will post Bible verses on memes,” Robinson said. “And these Bible verses are written in ways that…how can I say this delicately? They’re supposed to tug at your heart strings and make you go, ‘Oh, look at that! Doesn’t that just make me feel so good inside? Oh, Lord, look at that. That’s good.'”
“I see it and I hate to say it…no, I don’t hate to say it… I’m repulsed by it!” Robinson said. “Why? Because the Bible is not some feel good book that’s supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy. It’s not a warm drink on a cold evening that’s supposed to warm you up and make you go, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful!” The Bible is literally the living word of our creator, given to us not just to read and understand but given to us to digest like the food we eat!”
Robinson railed against popular modern translations of the Bible, which he said dilute the text.
“People complain about that King James version of the Bible,” he said. “‘I don’t like all them thees and thous and I can’t understand that.’ Maybe you’re not supposed to! Maybe it’s written like a mystery because the God who gave it to you is a mystery. Maybe you don’t need some highfalutin egghead who came from the cemetery…I mean the seminary…to tell you what those passages mean. Do you know who you need? You need God!”
“In too many churches we have eliminated God and replaced him with a guy with a PhD who wants to be the next Joel Osteen or the next T.D. Jakes,” Robinson said. “There’s a reason why God delivered his holy word to English speaking people the way he did. He delivered it to them so it could be a mystery, so you would read it and be confused. So you would read it on Monday and think it means one thing but then Friday morning wake up and face something and it means something completely different! It lives. But we no longer honor that.”
The King James Bible, first published in 1611, was in fact the product of 47 Biblical scholars working in a half-dozen committees to make the work more accessible and appealing. The third English translation authorized by the church, it also faced criticism it diluted and in some cases mistranslated the Greek and Hebrew texts from which the scholars worked as well as earlier English translations.
“Something funny happened in the 1960 and 1970s,” Robinson said. “Pastors started going to college. They started getting PhDs and all of a sudden they became smarter than all those people who had founded our nation, all those people who had fought those world wars, all those people who read that Bible and in faith fell down on their knees and asked for the wisdom and understanding and received it and did miraculous things. And they decided to start making some new translations.”
Robinson suggested those new translations — and the new vogue for higher education among Christian leaders — was of a cultural piece with the “free love movement” and the passage of Roe v. Wade, which were of the same era.
In fact, theological higher education was the cornerstone of protestant Christianity hundreds of years before the 1960s. High-level Biblical scholarship was essential to the creation of the King James Bible Robinson praises, the formation of protestant Christianity in what would become the United States, and the religious revival movement Robinson credits with inspiring America’s founding fathers.
William Tyndale, a theological scholar educated at Oxford, was responsible for the first English translation of the New Testament — an essential building block for the dozens of highly educated scholars who would assemble the King James version more than 80 years later.
George Whitefield, another Oxford-educated minister, was one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement. In the 1730s and 1740s he would — with Yale-educated theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards — help touch off the series of religious revivals commonly referred to as “The Great Awakening.”
American founding father John Witherspoon studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh, from which he earned his Master of Arts degree. He also had a doctorate in Divinity from the University of St. Andrews.
Michael Whatley, the current head of the North Carolina Republican Party, was on-hand at the North Carolina Renewal Project events at which Robinson spoke. He praised Robinson as the greatest Lt. Governor in the United States.
Whatley himself has a Masters in Religion from Wake Forest University and a Masters in Theology from Notre Dame.
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