Pastor Harry Reeder is a busy man, and one who has managed to combine his two passions—the word of God and the Civil War—into a single, continuous practice through sheer force of will.
In addition to ministering to over 4,000 congregants at a megachurch with a yearly operating budget of more than $25 million, Reeder teaches seminars on Christian manhood as exemplified by figures like Robert E. Lee and shepherds the faithful through paid tours of Southern Civil War sites. And still he finds time to deliver 10-minute angles on current events through his daily radio program, “Today In Perspective.”
Reeder’s tone, when he’s evangelizing, is measured rather than zealous. Even during sermons he rarely raises his voice. And on a recent Monday morning, a few days after Donald Trump signed his executive order on religious liberty, Reeder used his slow, deliberate drawl to commend the president for his courageous defense of the First Amendment—and to anticipate just the sort of article you are currently reading: “Notice how the media puts ‘religious liberty’ in quotes,” he reminded his listeners across several Southern states.
Reeder is regularly troubled by the encroachment of the “neo-Pagan thing they call secularism, they call humanism, they call relativism” on the lives of Christians. He likes to emphasize the importance of “communicating in a winsome way” with those who are pressured by “the cultural elite of the media, academia, and corporate America.” Recently, he likened the “the LGBTQ revolution of sexual anarchy” to a steamroller.
There are many Evangelicals in America who feel the way Reeder does. A number are currently in the White House. But, said Reeder, “it’s very important that this executive order not carve out exemptions for Christians” in particular. Which is odd, considering that in the state of Alabama, where Sharia law was outlawed in 2014, Reeder’s church recently introduced an exemption of its own: unprecedented legislation that would allow it to hire a trained and armed police force to patrol its two locations, K-12 school, and theological seminary—much, it says, like certain college campuses have theirs.
In April, the bill passed through the Senate and a key House committee. It is expected to soon land on the governor’s desk. In those secular circles Reeder derides, the news conjured images of a Christian militia enforcing the laws of an anti-abortion, same-sex-marriage-loathing God. In truth, the implications of a church-sponsored police force are more insidious, widening the door for discrimination of religious minorities and law enforcement with few checks and balances.
It doesn’t help the church’s case that Briarwood Presbyterian’s congregants affectionately refer to their church on a hill as “Fort God.”
When the culture of a tight-knit religious community and the powers of the state are combined, corruption and vigilantism usually follow. Recently, after years of litigation, the Justice Department won a federal suit against the FLDS Church in multiple states, charging religious discrimination in towns where the majority denomination and state agencies had become too cozy.
Police forces in a number of areas dominated by FLDS members, the suit alleged, had declined to protect citizens of other denominations and refused to collaborate with other agencies when it came to investigating prominent members of the church. In some cases, the police had actively enforced the whims of those leaders themselves. This April, when the case closed, it was considered too costly to entirely dismantle the police department. But it will be monitored by the court for the next decade. On the other side of the country, in a city patrolled by the country’s largest police force, even unarmed religious “neighborhood watch” groups have been accused of being the a one-stop “judge, jury, and executioner” in their hermetic communities.
Campus police, Briarwood’s favored parallel for its proposed law, have found themselves at an odd legal intersection between private and public, as the practice of hiring uniformed officers on large campuses has expanded over the last 10 years. Private police are emboldened with all the powers of the state: They have the ability to detain, arrest, and use deadly force, and access to state databases to investigate people they deem suspicious.
But unlike local police forces, campus police aren’t necessarily required to publicly release data about stopping or arresting citizens, even under freedom of information laws. Since 2015, states like Texas have enacted specific legislation to make sure private police forces are required to disclose at least some of their internal practices. Alabama has no such law.
Briarwood’s congregants’ have varying theories when it comes to why their church needs tighter security than its existing guard—himself an off-duty sheriff. A number expressed ambivalence toward the issue to me, but at least one member was rumored to have left after hearing about the law. Some mentioned what passes for crime in the area: parents without visitation rights trying to pick kids up from the school, or cars being broken into during a Sunday service. Last year, a disgruntled man appeared at a Briarwood service and made “obscene gestures” at the deacons during a Mother’s Day service. He was subsequently arrested by sheriffs and charged with making terroristic threats.
A number of people connected to the church mention this incident in connection with the proposed law, but this isn’t the first time Briarwood has filed such legislation. In 2015, as LGBTQ rights and “religious freedom” were being pitted against each other in a number of high-profile legal battles, Briarwood proposed a similar law that was pushed through the House and Senate. The now-ousted governor Robert Bentley opted not to sign.
The 2015 legislation came months after a drug investigation inside Briarwood’s high school resulted in a number of arrests—a process some local papers considered to be overly mired in secrecy, and which was extremely embarrassing for the church. In a letter sent to parents at that time, Briarwood outlined a plan to hire a director of security, uniformed officers, and install security cameras to prevent crime from invading its fortress. A parent of a kid in the church’s school pointed to this incident when asked about the newer bill, suggesting the church wished to deal with such issues more privately: “I don’t think this has anything to do with terrorism,” he said.
And when one member found out about the bill from an alumni’s Facebook post, she said she understood the fear it came from, but was generally anxious and disappointed in her church. “People ask, why is your church doing this?” she said. “And I have to say, ‘I have no idea.’”
Briarwood Presbyterian Church is located in Vestavia Hills, an affluent and very white suburb outside of Birmingham. The town takes its name from a 20-acre estate built by one of the city’s former mayors, itself modeled on the Roman Temple of Vestas. The round, columned home was torn down around the time Vestavia Hills was incorporated, in the ‘50s. It was replaced by a church, one of 30 or so that bring the good word to the city’s 34,000 residents. It’s a town of doctors and lawyers and CEOs—Birmingham’s political elite—and where you can find one of the largest houses in Alabama, a castle built by an executive now jailed for political corruption. The median income is more than $80,000 a year.
Alabama is generally a god-fearing place, and churches have shaped Birmingham’s politics from the civil rights movement all the way up to Baptist Robert Bentley’s adulterous free-fall. Ben Carson and Ted Cruz have both visited Briarwood in the last few years. A member of the Republican House, Arnold Mooney, is married to the director of admissions at the church, and all three of their children go to its school. Mooney was the one who brought the most recent iteration of the bill, which was approved unanimously by the church’s 75 elders, to the House. It was additionally sponsored by Senator Jabo Waggoner, the son of a public works commissioner who served under the staunch segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor. It was the church’s decision, Waggoner told NPR, to introduce the law. “And if they wanted to have their own police force, you know, I don’t see any reason why they can’t. It’s not unusual.”
Except it’s actually quite unusual—so much so that legal organizations, including the ACLU, expect it to be challenged in court. And if you are a church, even a very large and powerful one, attempting to change Alabama law and employ the most conspicuous symbol of the state, it’s best to have a solid explanation for yourself. Since news of Briarwood’s play for uniformed officers hit national outlets, the church has been forced to answer uncomfortable questions.
Briarwood, which has campaigned to get its own police force since at least 2015, has been relentlessly consistent in its reasoning: Its administrators and the politicians who support them cite increasing violence in houses of worship. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook comes up often. So does “today’s ever changing culture of violence”—the same culture, one would imagine, that allowed Dylann Roof to open fire on a black church in Charleston, and in which mosques and temples are defaced and attacked with increasing frequency. According to Carl Chinn, who has been tracking violent assaults at churches since the mid-’90s, about 3% of all violent instances like these occur in Presbyterian churches.
Marci Hamilton, an advocate for the separation of church and state, believes Briarwood’s desire to hire police is adjacent to the fear of government intervention: It’s part of the idea that “conservative Christians are being increasingly attacked,” she says, a justification to “co-opt government benefits” while “progressing religious liberty.”
When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Reeder wrote a long blog post about the “tsunami” threatening to “moralize the immoral” across the country, and predicted that if unchecked the federal government’s decision could “soon signal the demise of what was once an imperfect but significantly blessed national heritage.”
Nearly 50 years ago, in the hills outside of Birmingham, Alabama, representatives from a few hundred Southern conservative parishes gathered to announce the formation of a new church, one free of the liberalism that had infested mainline Presbyterianism. It was late 1973—112 years to the day since the Southern Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States pushed off from their Northern counterparts, arguing for an interpretation of the Bible that didn’t consider slavery a sin.
Officially, the Presbyterians split over the question of appointing women, but the new faction molded crucial sections of its founding documents on the Old Southern Presbyterians’ mission: “We seek to continue the faith of the founding fathers” from 1861, they wrote. Cultural schisms had been developing for decades at that point, as Northern pastors swept into the South, bringing with them feminist and anti-war ideas. But today most historians agree the church split over racial integration. At the time, the new church believed “politics” like these had no place in the literal interpretation of scripture. Perhaps you’ve heard that one before.
Today that church is known as the Presbyterian Church in America, and it ministers to more than 300,000 members in America—numbers it claims make it among the fastest-growing conservative Evangelical denominations in America. As its churches have spread beyond the Mason-Dixon line, this neo-Confederate legacy has proven to be a source of internal strife, not to mention a significant public relations challenge.
Throughout the 2010s the PCA drew the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which recounted various pastors’ racist remarks. On two occasions white supremacist groups took over its churches. (Those churches eventually left the PCA rather than answer to its complex parliamentary system.) Over the last decade internal struggles like these have been common among Evangelical Christians, and just last year the PCA publicly apologized for its civil-rights adjacent sins.
Members of the PCA are Biblical literalists and extremely conservative Evangelicals, but they’re not anti-intellectual: “They’re smart, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting an attorney,” says Dr. Peter Slade, co-chair of the religious studies department at Ashland University and the author of a book on Southern churches and race. There are less hardline churches within the denomination, and black PCA members involved in movements like Black Lives Matter.
But those churches aren’t indicative of the more extreme positions taken by congregations like Briarwood. Charles Robert Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia who attended Briarwood in the late ‘70s, tells me Reeder, who has been the senior pastor of the church since 1999, “strikes me as an aberration, quite frankly, from the more measured PCA clergy I’ve met and interacted with.” The church Marsh attended 40 years ago, he tells me, was a conservative reform evangelical church. “But it wasn’t politically motivated around the culture wars.”
Today the church’s website has a page dedicated to the separation of church and state. There is a private email list members can join if they’re interested in mobilizing around the issue, and in a recent “State of the Union” conference prominent PCA members gave tips on how to patiently persuade non-believers on issues such as gender and sexuality.
Other publications have pointed to some of Reeder’s fundamentalist beliefs in connection with the proposed police force. Recently, when The Root found a news item about the pastor speaking at an event organized by the neo-Confederate Sons of Confederate Veterans, religious organizations took notice. Reeder has subsequently assured the public he believes The War Between the States was fought over slavery: So much, actually, that he promptly did a podcast about it.
Reeder is a Civil War fanatic who has published two books; he sells a six-part CD set on the church’s website, part history and part self-help, that uses the lives of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as examples of aspirational Christian masculinity. His most recent print publication argues the body of Christ “needs to resume its role as society’s definer of leadership by sending godly, trained men into all areas of culture, rather than keeping them solely within the church.”
Originally from North Carolina, Reeder graduated from a small Christian college in the mid-’70s before moving to a small church outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. Listening to the pastor talk about that first tiny, neglected church, it’s hard to tell whether a real dream of a down-home Christian community died in Chattanooga or the sense of persecution was simply self-imposed. As he recounted in a 2015 lecture called “Beyond the Bible Belt,” “My whole life, all I wanted to do was be a pastor in a small Southern town.”
But when he got to Chattanooga, he found himself in a community where less than 10% of the population, he said, were Christian, and where the average age in the church was 69. His small parish was vandalized every day, and when he tried to get credit from the local office supply store, “the clerk says sure, I give credit for churches. And I gave her the name of my church and she said, sorry. Not yours.”
Shortly after Briarwood’s bill cleared the legislature, someone created a Facebook page mocking the church and poking fun at Reeder specifically. On social media the news spread quickly. “I’m looking for the ‘shooting bad guys’ ministry on its website,” the director of another church a couple states away wrote. Elsewhere some asked why Briarwood hadn’t offered a theological justification for its actions: “They’ve made security into an idol,” a former student wrote. Others, predictably, felt the press was slandering Reeder and the faith: “It’s a shame how much animosity there is towards the church and Christianity these days.”
Finding itself under the microscope and facing confused congregants, the church launched something of a PR offensive: In a packet circulated among members in mid-April, Briarwood refuted speculation that its police force would be involved in gay marriage issues or protests at abortions clinics. No, it said, it would not have its own jail.
Briarwood has not responded to request for comment, but it has stated elsewhere that any investigation its police department would be done in full cooperation with local law enforcement, and that its police force would be restricted to its two locations. In one of the last interviews he gave, Briarwood’s spokesperson said allegations of sexual abuse would be dealt with “seriously and Biblically,” with such instances being reported to the “appropriate local agencies.” But as with anything connected to the proposed Briarwood police, we’d just have to take them at their word.
For all the pains it’s taken to paint its police force as something analogous to more secular security forces, Briarwood also noted in a letter to its members that while the church could have chosen to simply add its name to the existing legislation that covers other campuses, it “opts not to pursue this avenue because it identifies itself as a church first, with its schools as a ministry under the administrative umbrella of the church.”
And if Briarwood wanted a militia, it could probably have one, and without all the unwanted press: Another bill in Alabama would allow churches to arm and train their own congregants. Its sponsors similarly cite violent attacks against Christians. Not to mention Trump’s recently signed executive order, a symbolic nod to an emboldened Evangelical right. Declaring he was “giving our churches their voices back,” the president vowed to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law preventing non-profit groups like churches from lobbying and campaigning on behalf of politicians—a promise that, if kept, would make churches far more powerful in national American politics.
Marsh, who attended the church and enjoyed his time there, is troubled by the development, but most intensely along theological lines. “If Briarwood and other congregations want to fight the legal and cultural battles necessary to open-carry in their congregation, or deputize members of their church, or hire a private police force or militia to protect their congregation, that’s fine,” he says. “But they’re making a mockery of a history of witness to Jesus, a heart for peace and openness and generosity.”