‘This Is All About Jesus’: A Christian Rocker’s Covid Protest Movement

It was one of those breathtaking late summer afternoons in Seattle, with sunlight splashing over a part of the city that, two months earlier, had been occupied by Black Lives Matter protesters. In Cal Anderson Park, part of the six-block stretch that became known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), volunteers were setting up for very different kind of event.

Pacing about doing sound checks on the sidewalk was a man with a generous mane of curly blond hair wearing Birkenstocks and a 1990s-era Seattle Sonics jersey over cutoffs. This was Sean Feucht, an evangelical Christian musician from California, and he was about to stage a rock concert with a distinct message: Covid-19 won’t get in the way of those who want to worship together.

At about 6 p.m. Feucht, 37, picked up his vintage 1963 Gibson J-45 sunburst guitar. “Can we come to agreement that heaven will be opened up tonight?” he asked, to cheers from a crowd that was largely maskless and not socially distanced, despite a state requirement to wear face masks unless 6 or more feet apart. “This is all about Jesus,” he said. “Don’t try to sing pretty. Don’t try to be on key or on pitch. Just be wild. You’re in CHOP, for heaven’s sakes.”

CHOP was one of the edgier locations Feucht chose for a series of concerts he has been staging over the past several months—in parks, on (and under) bridges, along river fronts and even on the steps of state capitols. The performances, which kicked off in July with an impromptu concert on the walkway of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, began as a response to California’s coronavirus restrictions against singing, chanting and religious gatherings. They’ve morphed into a national tour of what Feucht calls “worship protests” that can draw crowds in the thousands.

On Sunday, Feucht is scheduled to play a concert on the National Mall, bringing his brand of hippie-religious Covid skepticism—and a to-be-determined number of followers—to the heart of the nation’s capital. With the country still radically split over how to handle coronavirus, his movement offers a window into how the public-health response has divided Americans not just along political lines, but along cultural and religious ones as well, with easily fanned resentments among religious groups more accustomed to being left alone by government rules.

Feucht has built himself into a symbol of the enormous frustration felt by some religious Americans, particularly evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, over Covid regulations they feel have been applied only to them and not to the Black Lives Matter protesters who flooded the streets in recent months. For Feucht—and for some houses of worship—these restrictions aren’t a health issue but a matter of religious freedom.

Feucht doesn’t talk directly about politics in his performances, even as some of his concerts attract people wearing Donald Trump regalia or waving American flags. But he has clearly aligned himself with the political right. In addition to making a long-shot, failed congressional run as a Republican in California this year, he has traveled to the White House along with other religious leaders to meet with the president and vice president. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri has taken up his freedom-to-worship cause, meeting with Feucht and promoting his efforts on social media.

Feucht might give off a relaxed California vibe, but he has developed a massive national following, granting interviews to friendly media outlets. What he plans to do with all that attention is less clear. He failed to show for a phone interview I scheduled with him for this story and did not respond to subsequent requests. People I spoke with who know or have observed Feucht said they were surprised by his political run—but less surprised by how he has channeled a sense of exasperation felt across the country, fashioning himself as the millennial face of the religious right in the Covid era.

As the concert continued in Seattle, Feucht swung into “I Raise a Hallelujah.” Backing him up was a six-member band, two female vocalists and what I later found out were about 30 bodyguards. It soon became apparent why they were there when a man wearing a white hood and carrying a staff rushed the stage, yelling, “Hail Satan!” Two security guys closed in on him. (“Gotta love Seattle,” Feucht joked.)

Throughout the performance, hecklers tried to drown out Feucht with bullhorns, cut off his power and pour Superglue on one band member’s keyboard. But Feucht remained defiant.

“They killed our generators at one point,” he later wrote on his Facebook page, “yet through it all … SEATTLE NEVER STOPPED SINGING!!”

The son of medical missionaries, Feucht (pronounced FOYT) has a reputation in Christian circles as an upbeat folk-flavored contemporary musician and founder of Burn 24-7, a global organization that helps churches establish round-the-clock worship teams. When he and his wife, Kate, decided to start a family several years ago, they moved from Dallas to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they attended a church called Life Center.

“Sean was appreciated, but he wasn’t around that much,” said Charles Stock, senior pastor at Life Center and a spiritual adviser for Burn 24-7. (In addition to running Burn 24-7, Feucht was doing international missionary work.) “He traveled relentlessly. He had a tremendous amount of energy and stamina. He’s a force of nature.”

In 2016, the family relocated to Northern California and joined Bethel Church, a charismatic Christian megacongregation in the city of Redding. Bethel, which has about 11,000 members, is known for its Bethel Music label and its School of Supernatural Ministry, a nonaccredited program that teaches how to “heal the sick, prophesy, preach, pray, cast out demons.” For years, Feucht was a volunteer worship leader at the church, playing guitar as he led the congregation in singing. In 2018, he recorded an album, “Wild,” under the Bethel label.

Then, last year, with no political experience to his name, he announced he was running for Congress, portraying himself as a “non-politician.”

“I am running as the guy with long hair,” he told podcaster Sean Tabatt. “I am running as the guy with four kids. … The heart of the Founding Fathers was that representatives would be normal, everyday people.”

Because the congressional district where he lives, surrounding Redding, was already in GOP hands, Feucht ran as a Republican for California’s 3rd Congressional District, about a two-hour drive down Interstate 5. The Sacramento County Republican Party unanimously endorsed the other GOP candidate, Air Force veteran Tamika Hamilton. “We didn’t know him,” Betsy Mahan, the party chair, says of Feucht. “We thought Tamika Hamilton had the qualifications we needed. It wasn’t anything against him.”

Despite being a first-time candidate, Feucht got national press coverage as “the long-haired conservative millennial running for Congress,” as a Washington Examiner headline put it, and was interviewed by Fox News. Contributions came in from around the country, including $5,000 from Huck PAC, founded by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to support conservative candidates. (Huckabee wrote the forward for Feucht’s new memoir, Brazen.) A who’s who of the Pentecostal charismatic movement also chipped in, including several leaders out of Bethel, as did bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs. In total, Feucht raised nearly $333,000.

The one missing segment were voters from the 3rd District. “Donations to Sean’s campaign are not mostly from the people in his district, or even his state,” Annelise Pierce, a freelance journalist in Redding reported in a local news site in February.

Although Feucht presented himself as a political outsider, he cultivated ties to national politicians during his campaign. When the White House hosted a “faith briefing” in December, Feucht, along with the two founders of Bethel Music, was among the 50 Christian worship leaders and pastors invited. Afterward, Feucht posted a photo on Instagram of himself with Vice President Mike Pence; he later turned a more professional photo of him and Pence into a campaign poster. In a photo President Donald Trump took with attendees, Feucht is conspicuously reaching out to touch the president on his left arm.

A Bethel spokesman said Feucht was not representing the church at the event and that his invitation came through a political connection. Neither the White House press office nor Pence’s office responded to inquiries about the event.

In March, Feucht placed a distant third in the open primary, behind Hamilton and the Democratic incumbent, John Garamendi. By then, Covid was in full force, and everything, including services at Bethel, was shutting down. But Feucht wasn’t done with politics. In May, he founded the nonprofit Hold the Line, which he describes as a “political activist movement” to encourage churchgoers and young people to become more politically active. It would also provide the framework for organizing and funding his future concerts.

“I was super bummed when I didn’t advance beyond the primary,” Feucht told podcaster David Harris. “I was ready to just quit, and the Lord began speaking to me saying now is the time … to focus on America.”

When Covid hit the West Coast in the spring, churches were quickly linked to outbreaks of the virus. The governors of Oregon, Washington and California were the first to institute bans on social gatherings of more than 250 people. California closed all houses of worship. The restrictions generated a backlash. Even after Governor Gavin Newsom allowed houses of worship to reopen at limited capacity, three churches sued the state of California in April, arguing that their First Amendment rights were being violated; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the state’s favor. In late May, 1,200 California faith leaders signed a letter informing Newsom that they would resume in-person gatherings at the end of the month.

“Most pastors said, ‘You’re kidding me. I have a sanctuary that seats 2,500, and I can only have 100 people?’ Many of them said ‘no,’” says Robert Tyler, a Murrieta, California, lawyer whose firm has prepared other lawsuits against Newsom.

Then came the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which led millions of Americans to take to the streets in protest. Some church leaders noted that protestors, unlike worshippers, were allowed to gather in massive crowds without social distancing.

Feucht seized this moment, quickly organizing a series of concerts that he called “Riots to Revival,” in places that had seen large protests, including one on June 5 in St. Louis, Missouri. Three days later, Feucht tweeted a photo from a one-on-one meeting with Hawley, Missouri’s junior senator, in his D.C. office. The next day, Hawley wrote to Attorney General William Barr asking for an investigation into what he described as the violation of religious Americans’ civil rights, while state officials were “encouraging protests, giving preference to one form of speech or gathering over another.” (A spokesperson for Hawley’s office said there had been no response to the letter.)

On June 14, Feucht appeared in Minneapolis along with several other musicians, for what they called a “unity revival” concert about 50 feet from the site of Floyd’s death. Feucht, who said he had been invited to the site by Black pastors, was criticized for trying to co-opt the tragedy and for staging a concert loud enough to drown out other activity at the site. While Feucht has said, “Yes, Black lives matter,” he also has called the BLM movement a “fraud” and criticized it on Facebook for being pro-abortion rights and for supporting what he called “radical gender theory and the complete denuclearization of family.”

When he broadcast his Minneapolis and St. Louis appearances on social media, Feucht said Instagram then blocked his posts for violating community guidelines. Hawley tweeted about it on June 23: “Cancel culture meets #BigTech. Now @Instagram is censoring a Christian worship leader who wants to post videos of praise and worship from places where there has recently been unrest. And that doesn’t meet ‘community standards’? Can’t wait to hear an explanation for this.” (A spokeswoman for Instagram said no content was removed from Feucht’s account, and that it was another user whose posts were blocked.)

Feucht was beginning to establish himself as a poster boy for conservative cultural causes, and he continued to build on his momentum. After Newsom levied another ban, forbidding singing or chanting in churches, Feucht, wearing Bob Dylan-style sunglasses and a black hoodie, staged a defiant concert along the Golden Gate bridge in early July. More than 300 people showed up, and Feucht splashed photos of the event on social media with a new hashtag: #letusworship.

Fashioning himself a leader of a “new Jesus movement”—a reference to a Christian revival in the 1970s—Feucht began traveling the country. He staged a rally in New York at Washington Square Park, which featured baptisms in the park fountain. In August, after months of protests nationwide, he held gatherings in Portland and Seattle, intended, he said, to counteract the “narrative of burning and destruction” in the news.

One rally in Redding drew thousands of people, including some members of Bethel Church. Attendees were mostly maskless and packed together. Afterward, Bethel put out a statement making clear that Feucht did not represent the church, and conceding that a safety plan “did not get implemented to the level it needed to be at this gathering.” Aaron Tesauro, the church spokesman, told me Bethel was not involved in the rally.

On September 6, Feucht held a concert in sweltering heat on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento. One of the first speakers was state Rep. Shannon Grove, a Republican representing Bakersfield who showed up despite being under a quarantine order. (Grove’s office, which applied for the permit for the event, did not respond to a request for comment.) Feucht claimed 12,000 people were present; the California Highway Patrol estimated 3,000. Regardless, state officials condemned the event. “It does not help to have thousands and thousands of people not practicing physical distancing or social distancing not wearing masks,” Newsom said, “when literally someone can lose their lives.”

Beyond statements like these, Feucht managed to pull off his gatherings without much trouble throughout the summer. (“He’s like a combination of Teflon and the Artful Dodger,” Doni Chamberlain, publisher of a local news site in Redding, told me. “He’s like Bethel’s naughty little brother.”) But at a second concert in Seattle, on September 7, city officials shut down the park where the event was held, hurriedly throwing up a fence and stationing park officials at the entrance. Local pastors secured a spot a half-block away and came up with a unique solution: Instead of a gathering—which was banned because of Covid restrictions—they labeled the concert a “protest,” which was protected by the First Amendment.

“Welcome to Seattle’s largest worship protest,” Feucht told the roughly 900 people in attendance. “In this city, that makes it a legal gathering.”

The “worship protest” gambit went only so far. At a September 16 rally in South Chicago, Feucht was forbidden from setting up shop. He turned the event into a street march. In West Palm Beach, Florida, a few days later, he claimed he had obtained a permit for a concert but that, “someone from the city heard we were coming and blocked off the amphitheater.” The Palm Beach Post said the city hadn’t issued a permit. After Feucht held a concert on October 11 in Nashville, the Tennessean reported that the city’s public health department was looking into levying a citation because the event drew well over the 500-person limit and masks were not worn.

“We’ve not had one Covid case tracked back to our concerts,” Feucht told reporters at his second Seattle gathering. “This is about blatant discrimination against Christians.”

What will Feucht do with all the attention he has gained from nearly 45 concerts?

While his events are free of charge, he asks attendees to donate online to Hold the Line to help with costs. At the second Seattle rally, he told the crowd that an unidentified supporter had handed him a $50,000 check during a previous concert. Even that didn’t fully cover the event’s cost, according to Feucht’s spokeswoman, Whitney Whitt, who said Feucht’s expenses include a staff of five, videographers, permit fees and port-a-potties. A 990 tax form for Sean Feucht Ministries, a nonprofit Feucht started in 2013 (and of which Hold the Line is a subsidiary), showed $315,861 in total assets for 2018, the latest year the form was filed.

On September 22, Feucht videotaped a plea for more funds. “I am faced with costs right now that are astounding,” he said. Whitt told me the rally planned at the National Mall, for which the National Park Service has granted a permit, is expected to cost several hundred thousand dollars and that Feucht hopes at least 10,000-15,000 people will show up. After Feucht announced on October 16 that it would cost him $30,000 to install turf protection, Feucht said supporters raised that amount in two days.

As Feucht has traveled the country, church leaders from different denominations have continued to put up resistance to Covid restrictions, including the pastor of Grace Community Church, a staid evangelical congregation in the Sun Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco. Tyler, the attorney in Murrieta, says Californians who were required to hold services outside during a heat wave in August and again in September, when massive fires filled the skies with smoke, are running out of patience. “It’s going to start getting cold,” he adds. “It’s totally unhealthy for people to sit outside, and a lot of churches are saying, ‘No way.’”

Feucht isn’t answering questions about what will happen once the concerts cease, nor about whether he will make another attempt at politics. But he recently added events in Las Vegas and Phoenix to his schedule. “Senators and congressmen are reaching out, and just the level of what the Lord is doing right now is profound,” he said in a recent fundraising pitch.

“Sean is energetic, visionary and not afraid of controversy,” says Stock, his former pastor. “Now he’s doing these worship rallies. That seems more his lane than running for Congress. … This might be the next season of his life. Whether this will become something big or not, I don’t know.”

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