A white statue of Jesus Christ is lit up against a black background.
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A statue of Jesus Christ, Columbia, Mo. 

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A statue of Jesus Christ, Columbia, Mo. 

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A Strange Combination of the Secular and the Sacred


In January 2016, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made a promise. "I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don't want to talk about it," Trump said. If he were to be elected president, he vowed that "Christianity would have power."


Evangelical Christians have long supported Republican presidents. It began with Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, and in 2020, 81% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump. This support, often simplified as a position against abortion rights, is a component of evangelical organizations' cultivation of "biblically correct" positions on modern political issues. Because of this, some scholars have alleged that some churches are held together more by political orientation and sociology than by theology.


In American politics, Catholicism is a more nuanced story. President Joe Biden is the second-ever Catholic president. Because of his political support for abortion rights, he has faced backlash from conservative American bishops who expressed desire to deny him communion. Yet, outside the clergy, about half of American Catholics support abortion rights. This is one example of a larger chasm in the Catholic electorate. Catholics were almost evenly divided in the 2020 election. However, Biden's Catholic support came from non-practicing Catholics. Practicing Catholics favored Trump by 40%


The Christian Right underscores much of modern Republican politics. Key components of the Christian right are underscored by an ideology known as Dominionism, the idea that regardless of theology, means or timetable, Christians have a right to exercise control over society's political and cultural institutions. It is a belief in Christians' God-given right to power in America, 


This work examines Christianity's influences on American political life. It is an ongoing project. 

A group of young people in church clothes sit in a row, the man on the right is looking up and to the left.
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From left, Jack Miller, Karis Peters, Alona Savchenko and Jenna Nepomuceno attend morning service on Nov. 29, 2020 at Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. The group of students, most of whom were on Thanksgiving Break from Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, Fla., led the church’s worship service that morning. 

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From left, Jack Miller, Karis Peters, Alona Savchenko and Jenna Nepomuceno attend morning service on Nov. 29, 2020 at Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. The group of students, most of whom were on Thanksgiving Break from Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, Fla., led the church’s worship service that morning. 

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A tablet, a microphone, a white book with a red church decorated by a hammer and sickle, and a leather-bound Bible decorated with a flag sit next to each other on a table.
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The book “Church & State: How the Left Used the Church to Conquer America” features chapters written by numerous conservative pundits and religious leaders. The book claims, ““Marxists have been infiltrating every aspect of our American way of life in an attempt to fundamentally change our great country” and frames the evangelical church as “the last beacon of hope to push back against their progressive, leftist socialist agenda.” 

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The book “Church & State: How the Left Used the Church to Conquer America” features chapters written by numerous conservative pundits and religious leaders. The book claims, ““Marxists have been infiltrating every aspect of our American way of life in an attempt to fundamentally change our great country” and frames the evangelical church as “the last beacon of hope to push back against their progressive, leftist socialist agenda.” 

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A man in a camouflage hoodie with an American flag on it sits in a row of wooden chairs.
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Pastor Ken Peters is the founder of Patriot Church, where Christianity and conservative politics are intertwined — something Peters calls a revival within American evangelicalism “to raise up Christians that have an extra edge” and to fight for the Judeo-Christian values on which he believes the country was founded.

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Pastor Ken Peters is the founder of Patriot Church, where Christianity and conservative politics are intertwined — something Peters calls a revival within American evangelicalism “to raise up Christians that have an extra edge” and to fight for the Judeo-Christian values on which he believes the country was founded.

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A wooden barn with an American flag roof is lit up against a black background.
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The barn in which Patriot Church meets, in Lenoir City, Tenn., is adorned with a massive American flag painted on the roof. The building was like that when Peters found it in July 2020. The church rents the space, which also includes cabins for children’s groups to meet in and a large outdoor patio. 

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The barn in which Patriot Church meets, in Lenoir City, Tenn., is adorned with a massive American flag painted on the roof. The building was like that when Peters found it in July 2020. The church rents the space, which also includes cabins for children’s groups to meet in and a large outdoor patio. 

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A wooden few stands in front of a red, white and blue wall decoration of the United States, the decoration has a cross in front of the outline of the United States.
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A chapel stands just off the geographic center of the contiguous United States, just outside of Lebanon, Kan. It seats eight people and is open to visitors 24 hours a day. Inside, you can find notes left by previous visitors — they range from those encouraging people struggling with addiction to those encouraging people to have a “Happy Pride” month. It is, unequivocally, a tourist attraction — a photo opportunity just a couple miles off the highway. In February 2021, rockstar Bruce Springsteen starred in a politically-themed Super Bowl commerical for Jeep featuring the chapel. 

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A chapel stands just off the geographic center of the contiguous United States, just outside of Lebanon, Kan. It seats eight people and is open to visitors 24 hours a day. Inside, you can find notes left by previous visitors — they range from those encouraging people struggling with addiction to those encouraging people to have a “Happy Pride” month. It is, unequivocally, a tourist attraction — a photo opportunity just a couple miles off the highway. In February 2021, rockstar Bruce Springsteen starred in a politically-themed Super Bowl commerical for Jeep featuring the chapel. 

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A pair of hands hold a wooden rosary. The person is wearing a black jacket with 40 days for life embroidered on it.
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James Imhoff prays the rosary on Nov. 3, 2020 at St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. He, along with a handful of other parishioners, prayed the church’s “Election Day rosary” in the hopes that the outcome of the election would advance the anti-abortion movement. Imhoff had previously spent the morning praying outside a Planned Parenthood in nearby Columbia, Mo. That Planned Parenthood location does not provide abortions. 

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James Imhoff prays the rosary on Nov. 3, 2020 at St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. He, along with a handful of other parishioners, prayed the church’s “Election Day rosary” in the hopes that the outcome of the election would advance the anti-abortion movement. Imhoff had previously spent the morning praying outside a Planned Parenthood in nearby Columbia, Mo. That Planned Parenthood location does not provide abortions. 

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A painting of the Virgin Mary and a statue of Jesus Christ sit next to a table of red and blue candle holders.
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A painting of the Virgin Mary and a statue of Jesus Christ inside St. Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. While overwhelming support from evangelical Protestants is often considered a linchpin of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, a retrospective report from NPR noted that “Trump reached the presidency in large part because he won traditionally Democratic Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all states in which Catholics outnumber evangelicals by significant margins.”

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A painting of the Virgin Mary and a statue of Jesus Christ inside St. Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. While overwhelming support from evangelical Protestants is often considered a linchpin of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, a retrospective report from NPR noted that “Trump reached the presidency in large part because he won traditionally Democratic Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all states in which Catholics outnumber evangelicals by significant margins.”

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A man wearing glasses, a blue shirt, jeans and no shoes sits against a white bench and wall.
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Nick Koval was born in the Soviet Union, and came to the U.S. as a religious refuge. He now leads a college ministry in Columbia, Mo. and believes Christians have become too close to politics. After the emperor legitimized Christianity within Rome, Koval said, the church began to cater to secular leaders. Now, Koval sees history repeating itself in the United States.

“Caesar protected the church and the church approved the emperor. This is the downfall of the church in America. We look to D.C. to protect us, and we approve D.C.,” Koval said. “When we work so closely with Washington D.C., we destroy our ability to be a true witness for God.”

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Nick Koval was born in the Soviet Union, and came to the U.S. as a religious refuge. He now leads a college ministry in Columbia, Mo. and believes Christians have become too close to politics. After the emperor legitimized Christianity within Rome, Koval said, the church began to cater to secular leaders. Now, Koval sees history repeating itself in the United States.

“Caesar protected the church and the church approved the emperor. This is the downfall of the church in America. We look to D.C. to protect us, and we approve D.C.,” Koval said. “When we work so closely with Washington D.C., we destroy our ability to be a true witness for God.”

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A man's hands hold open a book.
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Nick Koval’s belief that the American Christian church is too intertwined with politics was heavily influenced by his reading of “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder — the book details Yoder’s interpretations of the Books of Luke and Romans and their relationships to secular politics. 

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Nick Koval’s belief that the American Christian church is too intertwined with politics was heavily influenced by his reading of “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder — the book details Yoder’s interpretations of the Books of Luke and Romans and their relationships to secular politics. 

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A sign that says "pray to end abortion" is below a dimly lit stain glass window.
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A stained-glass window and an anti-abortion sign sit outside St. Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. The restriction of abortion access was considered a Catholic political issue long before it became a mainstream issue among Protestant evangelicals. In 2020, despite Joe Biden being Catholic, the group CatholicVote.org committed $9.5 million toward turning Catholic swing voters toward Trump, according to NPR. The ads were highly partisan and highlighted Catholic issues like abortion. One, according to NPR, included the assertion, “Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions, sacrificing his Catholic values, to kneel before leftist mobs.”

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A stained-glass window and an anti-abortion sign sit outside St. Peter & Paul’s Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. The restriction of abortion access was considered a Catholic political issue long before it became a mainstream issue among Protestant evangelicals. In 2020, despite Joe Biden being Catholic, the group CatholicVote.org committed $9.5 million toward turning Catholic swing voters toward Trump, according to NPR. The ads were highly partisan and highlighted Catholic issues like abortion. One, according to NPR, included the assertion, “Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions, sacrificing his Catholic values, to kneel before leftist mobs.”

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A man in a gray suit and black t-shirt stands at a podium and yells into a microphone.
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Pastor Ken Peters yells during his sermon on Nov. 29, 2020 at Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. Peters’ sermon focused on ideas of “freedom” in both a Biblical and American context, as he preached from the Book of Galatians and pulled inspiration from American founding father Patrick Henry, famous for his quote, “Give me liberty or give me death!” 

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Pastor Ken Peters yells during his sermon on Nov. 29, 2020 at Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. Peters’ sermon focused on ideas of “freedom” in both a Biblical and American context, as he preached from the Book of Galatians and pulled inspiration from American founding father Patrick Henry, famous for his quote, “Give me liberty or give me death!” 

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A group of people sing, some have their hands raised and are looking to the ceiling, some have their eyes closed.
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Members of Patriot Church worship on the morning of Nov. 29, 2020. Not a single person in the congregation was masked in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, a virus that killed 818 Americans that day. 

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Members of Patriot Church worship on the morning of Nov. 29, 2020. Not a single person in the congregation was masked in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, a virus that killed 818 Americans that day. 

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A young man wearing glasses and a sweater sits on a couch with his hands clasped. Behind him is a lamp and a chair with two backpacks.
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Leighton Shepherd grew up in a church. Then, a student working on the digital team was asked to step down because he was gay. For Shepherd, who is gay and had been hiding his identity, that incident was a wake-up call.

Three years removed from his former church, Shepherd is now an atheist and considers much of American evangelicalism to be hypocritical.

“How does one community get to decide ‘God sent this man’ and now he’s in power?” Shepherd said. “Christians are putting these politicians on a level that is near-next to God. That just confuses me.”

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Leighton Shepherd grew up in a church. Then, a student working on the digital team was asked to step down because he was gay. For Shepherd, who is gay and had been hiding his identity, that incident was a wake-up call.

Three years removed from his former church, Shepherd is now an atheist and considers much of American evangelicalism to be hypocritical.

“How does one community get to decide ‘God sent this man’ and now he’s in power?” Shepherd said. “Christians are putting these politicians on a level that is near-next to God. That just confuses me.”

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One half of a heart necklace rests against a white table. Around it sit a group of pictures, a wallet, a candle, some twine and a partially out-of-frame picture frame.
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Years removed from his former church and now open about his identity as a gay man, Leighton Shepherd wears a necklace that is one half of a pair — the other half belonged to his late grandmother. While she died before he left his former church, she gave him the necklace as a reminder “to always be true to myself.” 

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Years removed from his former church and now open about his identity as a gay man, Leighton Shepherd wears a necklace that is one half of a pair — the other half belonged to his late grandmother. While she died before he left his former church, she gave him the necklace as a reminder “to always be true to myself.” 

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A cross wrapped with Christmas lights stands in a room with white walls. Behind the cross is a cork board with pamphlets and pictures of babies.
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Anti-abortion pamphlets sit alongside a cross in the entryway of St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. Data highlighted by NPR shows that support for Republican or Democratic candidates corresponds with how often Catholics attend religious services — those who regularly attend services lean Republican. According to NPR, “a recent NBC/Marist poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania, where White Catholics make up about a quarter of the electorate, found that practicing White Catholics favored Trump by more than 40 points, while those who call themselves non-practicing supported Biden by about 25 points.”

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Anti-abortion pamphlets sit alongside a cross in the entryway of St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Boonville, Mo. Data highlighted by NPR shows that support for Republican or Democratic candidates corresponds with how often Catholics attend religious services — those who regularly attend services lean Republican. According to NPR, “a recent NBC/Marist poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania, where White Catholics make up about a quarter of the electorate, found that practicing White Catholics favored Trump by more than 40 points, while those who call themselves non-practicing supported Biden by about 25 points.”

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A hand is lit up against a black background. The background is speckled with lights in the distance.
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A worshiper raises a hand as they sing on Nov. 29, 2020 at Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. In 2016, 81% of evangelical voters supported Donald Trump in the presidential general election. In 2020, between 75% and 81% of evangelical voters supported him again. 

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A worshiper raises a hand as they sing on Nov. 29, 2020 at Patriot Church in Lenoir City, Tenn. In 2016, 81% of evangelical voters supported Donald Trump in the presidential general election. In 2020, between 75% and 81% of evangelical voters supported him again. 

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Tristen Rouse is a documentary photographer born and raised in southwest Missouri. He was also raised in the Southern Baptist Church. 


In 2016, he saw many of those he knew in the church begin to support a presidential candidate who dehumanized refugees, bragged about assaulting women and advocated for violence against those who opposed him — but promised to secure Christianity as a powerful force in the United States.


In this candidate and in the members of his faith who supported him, Rouse did not recognize the values espoused by Jesus Christ. In 2016, Rouse left organized Christianity. Today, his relationship with Christianity and God is complex. He believes in the values of Jesus Christ but does not see them in some of His supporters. He does not attend church but carries a Bible that once belonged to his mother. He understands Christianity to be one of the most influential voting blocs in modern conservative politics but does not understand why.


This project is a reconciliation for Rouse as he searches for reason within the relationship between scared beliefs and secular politics. 

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