Charlie Kirk, the 27-year-old founder of Turning Point USA, didn’t start his career claiming to be a servant of God, but all of that appears to be changing as he launches a new initiative aimed at leveraging the intense loyalty that many white conservative Christians hold for the Republican Party.
Just like Kirk’s first group — currently the largest right-wing outreach effort to high school and college students — Turning Point Faith seems to be lavishly funded.
Since the new effort was announced, Turning Point has posted on its website at least 25 job openings for staff across the country who will engage church leaders and congregants on issues of “faith and freedom,” a term frequently used by believers in the Christian nationalist ideology that has become much more powerful in Republican politics since former president Donald Trump began his term in 2017.
As defined by sociologist Andrew Whitehead (co-author with Samuel Perry of a recently published historical look at the ideology in the US called Taking Back America for God), Christian nationalism is a cultural framework that advocates for a fusion between Christianity and American civic life. According to Whitehead, adherents are motivated by “assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism, [and] militarism” to view their own personal political beliefs as part of “God’s plan.” Critics of the movement often refer to it as Christian supremacism for this reason.
Kirk and his team formally unveiled the faith initiative in early May during an event held at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona. A few months earlier, the church had hosted Trump for a campaign rally. Kirk and Dream City’s pastor, Luke Barnett, have said they will hold similar “Freedom Square” events on a monthly basis.
Kirk’s move into Christian nationalism might seem incidental to his Trump sycophancy, a kind of self-interested move to keep in the good graces of MAGA world and its exiled leader. After all, the former president was not shy about allowing pastors in the movement to link him to whatever scriptural hero they wanted. Kirk himself has analogized Trump to Jesus. Other fans have compared the former president to the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great and the Biblical kings David and Saul. Christian nationalism played an outsized role in the Jan. 6th insurrection, and in both 2016 and 2020, as well.
In his speeches and comments, however, Kirk evinces more than just a desire to kneel before the throne of Trump. He appears to actually believe he is doing God’s work.
Sincere or not though, Kirk’s public turn to this ideology follows a long history of the Republican Party returning to Christian fundamentalist origins, especially when shut out of power. In this sense, Kirk’s theo-political awakening is a lesson for anyone thinking about what a “post-Trump” era might look like.
Its church-based expansion isn’t Turning Point’s only move toward Christian nationalism. The group is also launching a new effort to enlist teachers through Turning Point Academy which will offer a K-12 curriculum that mirrors Trump’s 1776 Commission to which Kirk was appointed in the waning days of the former administration. The commission became the subject of national controversy after it published a highly controversial report that historians lambasted for its attempts at “government indoctrination of American students” and to “elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.”
The commission and Turning Point Academy are part of a larger network of conservative groups that aim to be educational arms for Christian nationalism. Another similar group is PragerU, a project of radio host Dennis Prager that seeks to indoctrinate children and young adults in doctrinaire conservative ideas. Kirk has appeared in PragerU videos, as have many other right-wing political activists.
Though Jewish himself, Prager frequently claims that United States was founded as a Christian nation and says it will be harmed if it becomes secular. His PragerU initiative is funded by Dan and Farris Wilks, two Christian supremacist brothers who also own the Daily Wire, an anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT website that markets itself to evangelicals.
Both Prager’s and Kirk’s radio shows are distributed by Salem Media Group, a little-known fundamentalist Christian company that has quietly become the most influential conservative media operation after Fox News Channel.
The first public evidence of Kirk’s turn to the gospel of God and country came when he was announced in November of 2019 as one of the namesakes of the Falkirk Center, a pseudo-think tank set up by the evangelical-owned Liberty University, that seems more about producing YouTube clips than academic studies.
In a February 2020 CPAC speech promoting the group, Kirk praised Trump as a president who understands the seven mountains of cultural influence, a term frequently used by Christian nationalists to refer to various areas of society adherents believe Christians are entitled to control as mandated by a doctrine commonly referred to as “Dominionism.”
But the Falkirk Center gig didn’t last long for Kirk after Jerry Falwell Jr.—the organization’s primary namesake—was forced to resign in August of 2020 following a series of embarrassing disclosures about his sex life and drinking habits. This past March, the organization was renamed the Standing for Freedom Center and Kirk announced that he would be departing to set up Turning Point Faith.
Ahead of his own group’s launch, Kirk seems to have laid the groundwork for it by meeting and speaking with quite a number of Christian right leaders. In the last year, by his own count, Kirk has spoken at about 70 churches. During a May 2 visit to a Westgate Chapel — a congregation in Edmonds, Washington — he joked that churches were the only places open during the global coronavirus pandemic.
While somewhat misleading, the joke is partly accurate. Turning Point USA has seen its usual semester-long campus tours ended due to pandemic restrictions, though it still hit a few campuses in late March. Its annual Student Action Summit in Florida was limited. Kirk’s time was also occupied elsewhere. He logged many miles campaigning for Trump in 2020 between his radio show and regular Fox News appearances; he also got married in early May.
During his Westgate Chapel speech, Kirk fueled the audience’s conversion to Christian nationalism by performing a confession of sins, but only after presenting his evangelical credentials.
He began by speaking of his childhood in suburban Chicago where attended a “Bible-believing” church and a private primary school started by one of American evangelicalism’s celebrities, theologian Wayne Grudem. And it was through those two influences, that in fifth grade, Kirk says he gave his heart to Jesus.
But Kirk’s salvation was not complete, he continued, because he did not believe in Dominion theology. Instead, he had accepted the tenet that the church was to stay out of politics.
Indeed, the only “crisis” Kirk mentioned in his 2016 book, Time for a Turning Point, was a reference to the student debt crisis. Even the word “gospel” does not appear in the text. The only “culture war” that appears in Kirk’s 2018 book Campus Battlefield is on college campuses. And in Kirk’s 2020 sycophantic book about Trump, The MAGA Doctrine, which was subtitled “the only ideas that will win the future,” there is a distinct lack of religion.
Confessing his misdeeds to the Westgate Chapel audience, Kirk seemed nervous, rubbing his hands along his lap. But the tone of his voice became energized when he started recounting how he was able to see the error of his ways under the tutelage of a new “personal pastor” Rob McCoy, a California megachurch preacher who is a leader in the Christian nationalist movement.
McCoy is the head of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, a city where he had once served as mayor and on the city council until he resigned in April 2020 because he didn’t agree with the local and state government’s pandemic restrictions on churches.
After the 2020 presidential election, McCoy has promoted Trump’s lie that the election was “stolen” from him.
“This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and it requires participation,” he told a Christian nationalist podcast in February. “The systems that were put in place to allow the opposition to steal the election in those states happened because of the absence of moral and godly people who would provide a check and balance in regards to that.”
McCoy’s flagrant blending of electoral politics and religion has served as the inspiration of the American Renewal Project, a group funded by the Wilks brothers which holds free conferences for ministers and their spouses to encourage them to emulate McCoy and run for office.
According to Kirk, his conversion to Christian nationalism began after he first met McCoy at an event about two years ago. He had never “heard a pastor talk like” what he had heard from McCoy, Kirk told the Westgate Chapel audience.
Eventually, Kirk said, McCoy pushed him to reconsider whether church and state should really be separated.
“He said, ‘Charlie I want to challenge you […] you are a Christian and I want to tell you that not only does the Bible say a lot about civil government, not only does the Bible say a lot about how we should interact with our leaders,” Kirk recounted.
Not long afterward, the Turning Point activist was sold on McCoy’s theocratic vision. Since then, both Kirk and McCoy have appeared at events sponsored by the Council for National Policy, a networking organization for Christian nationalist donors and activists that has become an important talent incubator, business development vehicle, and fundraising system for the far-right.
Kirk’s transformation due to McCoy is the single-most important moment in his still-slim biography. Not merely because for years Kirk has demurred from “culture wars,” but also because he is a fulcrum in conservative theo-politics that both influences and is influenced by the Republican Party and the (mainly white) American evangelical movement. He is a whisperer to both, spreading a message that Jesus wants smaller government and that political rights are granted by God, not by the state.
Kirk’s political biography began in 2012 when he, as a high school senior, convinced Breitbart to run his screed against a high school economics textbook. His first Fox appearance came soon thereafter. A few months later, he corralled a GOP mega-donor in a stairwell at the GOP presidential convention to get his first dollars for Turning Point USA.
As he has moved further into Christian nationalist circles, Kirk has begun changing his “origin story” to suit his new pursuits.
Earlier in his career, Kirk claimed that he started Turning Point after being rejected by the U.S. Military Academy due to affirmative action. He has never offered any proof of this assertion. In 2017, he told the New Yorker that his allegation was only sarcasm. In 2018 Kirk noted to the Chicago Tribune that his comment was merely repeating something he had been “told” by unnamed people.
Whatever the truth behind his failure to get into West Point, Kirk has portrayed himself as a victim of the college system that he and Turning Point have been funded lavishly to denounce. But in 2019 as he began reorienting himself and his organization, Kirk began describing his rejection as a “gift God has given me.”
Kirk’s transformation can also be traced through his visits to shows hosted by other conservatives.
In a January 2018 interview with YouTuber Dave Rubin, Kirk claimed that Christianity politically went wrong or “crossed a line” in the 60s and 70s and 80s when “we tried to impose our beliefs through government policy where people then inherently have a rejection to it…”
Realizing this error, Kirk told his host, he tries to advocate for his political positions “through a secular worldview” because most Americans are secular and that the government as set up by America’s founders was intended to be secular. Kirk even went so far as to suggest that arguing for a law because it is the “Christian thing to do” has turned less-devout citizens away from Republicans.
Kirk’s views had undergone a shift in May of 2019 when he began his podcast. The second episode was titled “Why I believe what I believe.” In the show, he borrowed a phrase from his Salem Media Group colleague, Dennis Prager: the American Trinity, defined as 1) “out of many, one,” [e pluribus unum] 2) liberty, and 3) “in God we trust.” They roughly also link to three words — in this order — that Kirk labels himself in the episode: Christian, American, and conservatarian (a combination of conservative and libertarian).
Yet despite all this God talk, Kirk added that “I’m very careful not to have my religious views and my faith inform my political decisions.”
A year later, Kirk had turned 180 degrees from that statement during an August 2020 appearance on the radio show of James Dobson, one of the founders of the modern Christian Right who is regarded as a legend in the community for his decades of service. (Here are the links to Part I and Part II of the interview.)
During their discussion, Kirk told Dobson that he started Turning Point after noting a “crisis” in American culture, one that could only be solved by spreading a fundamentalist Christian belief system but also “harmonizing” it with “first principles” of the Constitution such as freedom of speech and religious liberty.
But despite his claim to be “harmonizing” Christianity and politics, Kirk is actually distorting the faith through the lens of Christian nationalism he seems to have acquired from McCoy.
“In a lot of ways, Galatians 3 is what we’re doing at Turning Point, which is that the law can be a schoolteacher,” he told Dobson, a reference to Galatians 3:24: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
However, Kirk is not in any fashion applying Galatians 3 to politics. He is rewriting it to fit his Christian nationalism. In the verse, the Apostle Paul is referencing the Mosaic Law, the code of religious commandments that Jews believe was delivered by God to Moses. In Galatians, Paul was claiming that the Mosaic Law was supposed to be a moral framework to prepare Jews to accept the future Christian religion. This is why the New International Version of the Bible translates 3:28 this way: “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.”
That is not the only Bible verse Kirk distorted on Dobson’s show.
In his continual references to a coming spiritual renewal or awakening in the United States, Kirk argued Christians need to stop being passive or silent in the face of government “tyranny.”
He grounded this thesis in a misinterpretation of Romans 13. This chapter can be summarized by the first few words of the first verse: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.”
Speaking to Dobson, Kirk claimed to believe the traditional interpretation of the chapter but then claimed that because “we the people” are the sovereign in the United States, Americans don’t have to obey laws that they find objectionable, including rules and regulations designed to prevent the spread of the SARS2 coronavirus. According to Kirk, public health guidelines in Democratic strongholds like California and Biden’s national strategy are eerily similar to edicts issued by dictators in Cuba, Venezuela, China, and Russia who needed “to remove the church in order to implement a massive, totalitarian power grab…”
Faced with such “totalitarian” circumstances, only America’s pastors can show their fellow citizens a way forward beyond the medical tyranny, according to Kirk.
In his May chat at the Westgate church in Washington, Kirk claimed America was founded by “activist pastors,” a reference to a common white evangelical belief that religious leaders increased colonial support for the American Revolution through their sermonizing.
One contemporary “activist pastor” Kirk seems to admire is Jack Hibbs, whose Calvary Chapel churches in California have hosted Kirk several times. In 2021, Kirk spoke to at least two Calvary Chapel locations. In January, he was at Calvary Church San Juan Capistrano. Later that month he famously tried to “cancel” the Christian rapper Lecrae while speaking to Calvary Chapel in Chino.
Kirk also appeared at Hibbs’s church on-stage with McCoy in February 2020 where McCoy offered a specific, political translation of a key Bible verse used by Christian nationalists who adhere to a Dominion theology, Matthew 16:18.
In his sermon, McCoy told congregants that the King James Version of the Bible incorrectly translated the Greek word ekklesia to mean “church” instead of “assembly” when Jesus says “upon this rock I will build my church.”
As Peter Montgomery, who writes and researches at People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch project, has noted: “Dominionists who believe conservative Christians should be running things on earth frequently use the word ekklesia to refer to the church acting with governmental authority, as God’s legislative body bringing kingdom rule to the earth.”
During his February 2020 chat with McCoy, Kirk asserted that the biggest obstacle to Christians seizing the political rule to which they are entitled is the country’s educational system. “There are way too many people going to college in America,” he said.
“If your child sat down and watched every Prager U video, they would be infinitely more wise than the professors that would be teaching them at the universities,” Kirk told the audience. He urged parents to stop pushing their kids to attend college, after recounting an experience being heckled at Brown University.
“If you want your child to hate America, send them to Brown University, that’s all I have to say,” Kirk said. “If you want to turn them into an anti-American, godless, atheist, unhappy radical, send them to Brown University.”
Kirk also offered the same misinterpretation of ekklesia in his chat at the Edmonds, Washington church in May. Like McCoy had asked him to do earlier, Kirk asked the crowd to pray about their lack of understanding of church and state so that they would avoid a “compartmentalized Christianity […] where we have the truth but we’re gonna hope they eat us last.”
Instead, Kirk told the audience to push for a “bold Christianity,” one that would be unafraid to be political.
“I believe we are called to push God’s purposes in all different realms. And that includes especially right now government leadership,” he said.