Twenty years ago this week, brothers Benjamin and Tyler Williams, armed with nothing more than sincerely held religious beliefs and a small caliber pistol, invaded the Happy Valley home of Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder and killed the gay couple in cold blood.
They were just obeying the law of God, claimed the brothers, who sparked off that hot, hateful summer of 1999 by torching three synagogues in Sacramento before murdering Matson and Mowder.
While it’s true several Old Testament passages command believers to execute men who have sex with men, such a sincerely held religious belief is not a permissible defense for murder in a court of law, at least for now.
The brothers were quickly captured after the murders. Benjamin Williams committed suicide in the Shasta County Jail in 2002 before he could be tried; Tyler Williams subsequently pleaded guilty and is serving a 21-year sentence at Mule Creek State Prison for torching three Sacramento synagogues, after which he’ll serve 29 years-to-life for the murders of Matson and Mowder.
The Williams brothers were cultivated in the faith and values of the conservative Christian evangelicalism that still runs deep in northern rural California. The brothers, who once attended Bethel Church in Redding, said they were only carrying out what they’d been taught by their parents and pastors for years—that homosexuals are an abomination in the eye of the Lord worthy of ultimate judgment.
Twenty years later, conservative Christian evangelicals continue to preach the anti-gay gospel in northern California, led prominently by Bethel, the Redding megachurch once better know for its music than its hostility toward the LGBTQ community.
This hostility, cloaked in love, emerged last year after pastor Kris Vallotton, from the pulpit, called for his congregation to contact the Legislature and protest AB 2943, a bill that proposed to ban the sale of for-profit conversion therapy to adults.
Conversion therapy is the discredited pseudoscience of turning gay people straight, usually involving religion. There is no scientific study that says it’s effective, and there’s plenty of evidence it causes more harm than good.
Vallotton loves gay people. He says it all the time. But someone who fights for the right to inflict what some gay people have described as torture — conversion therapy — does not demonstrate love for the LGBTQ community. He’s just preaching the same old “love the sinner, hate the sin” theology conservative evangelicals were spouting 20 years ago, when two of their own viciously murdered a well-liked local gay couple.
The exact same theology was on full display at the Faith and Values Town Hall co-hosted by Bethel elder and Redding Mayor Julie Winter, and newly elected 1st District 1 State Senator Brian Dahle on June 13 at the Little Country Church, just in time for Pride Month.
The meeting’s obvious Christian bias raised the hackles of local citizens attuned to civil rights and separation of church and state issues, and several people contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, to register complaints.
Last Thursday the nonprofit watchdog organization fired off a letter to both Winter and Dahle, warning them that they’d transgressed the boundary between church and state and not to do it again. Most local news organizations picked up on the controversy, including the Record Searchlight.
“We write to you both because this town hall was divisive, inappropriate, and projected an intent to deliberately discriminate against non-Christians,” reads the letter from FFRF. “The event was held in a church and the invitation invited ‘Christians from local churches.’ It focused on ‘faith and values’ and ‘Christians’ who were mentioned three times in the invitation.”
I was unable to attend this event, but thanks to a reader who submitted a digital audio recording of the meeting, I’ve been able to transcribe everything that was said at the Faith and Values Town Hall. At the risk of beating a one-trick pony to death, I think it’s safe to say that Christian nationalism, the mistaken belief that the United States was founded on Christian values, is alive and well in Shasta County.
The Two Lies Of Julie Winter
As she opened the meeting, Julie Winter explained the obvious, that she wears two hats, one for her duties as mayor and another for her duties as a Bethel elder.
“It’s no secret that I am a woman of faith,” she said. “My faith really grounds me, it’s very important to me. My faith is highly personal, but it’s not private.”
“My faith is highly personal, but it’s not private,” she repeated for emphasis, signaling the wall separating church and state was about to be breached.
“Our faith hopefully has a public manifestation,” she said. “It should have outward measurables that affect how we make decisions and how we interact with people. My faith hopefully grounds me in those core values that helps us make decisions for the community as a whole.”
No doubt more than a few concerned citizens would like to see the measurables on these so-called manifestations.
Winter noted that unlike some Christians, she firmly believes in the separation of church and state. Yet she seems to locate the roots of that uniquely America political invention not in the Enlightenment, but in Medieval times, when various European kings challenged the Catholic Church’s authority in matters spiritual:
“[The separation of church and state is] a foundational principle, although it was really brought forth by Thomas Jefferson, it was actually even before our Constitution. It’s a principle that goes all the way back to Europe and the reason for that is … you don’t want to have the government telling the church what to do. We have examples of that in Europe, it hasn’t worked out well.”
Indeed, it ended in numerous bloody civil wars fought over religion. Winter sees a parallel to our own time.
“We don’t want the government telling the church what to do,” she said. “In some situations, we’re running into that in our faith right now. We have issues where the government is telling us what we can and cannot do.”
What, exactly, the government is telling Christians they cannot do is revealed later in the meeting, but here’s a hint: It involves abortion and the LGBTQ community.
Winter then set the stage for the town hall by introducing two lies she wanted to discuss.
“I wanna go against two lies that are fairly common, that I see among people of faith and not of faith, and that’s if you belong to a certain church you shouldn’t be in politics,” she said. “I’ll see this on Facebook, you’ve probably seen it as well. ‘She belongs to Bethel, she shouldn’t be elected to city council, she shouldn’t run for office.’ Whether it’s Bethel, you can fill in the blank with any church.”
There’s no doubt that mean people on Facebook suggested Winter shouldn’t run for office because she’s a high-ranking member at Bethel. These mean people are mistaken. The Constitution mandates that there is no religious test for holding public office. It’s one of the rare times religion was mentioned in the Constitution by the founders.
But Winter’s Bethel membership isn’t really the issue here. The issue is whether Julie Two-Hats wears one hat at Bethel and the other hat when she’s representing the citizens of Redding, or both hats simultaneously.
At the town hall, Winter and Dahle argued that public servants should be able to wear both hats when they’re doing the public’s work.
Winter’s second lie concerned her fellow Christians who think politics are dirty and ‘of the World,’ which of course, is absolutely true. But not for Winter. She cares because god cares.
“God cares about government,” she said. “The Word says, ‘Of his government there shall be no end.’ Solomon wrote that ‘When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.’ You can probably think of examples of that now. It’s true!”
The crowd chuckled nervously. Then the newly-minted states senator arrived.
It’s Hard To Be A Believer
Full disclosure: I voted for State Senator Brian Dahle in the June 4 special election. I agree with Mayor Winter’s introduction of Dahle on the tape, that he appears to have a strong work ethic. The seed farmer and trucking operator from Bieber, who served 16 years on the Lassen County Board of Supervisors and six years as 1st District Assemblyman before being elected to his latest post, has been busting his ass for two decades.
With his solid working class background and ability to occasionally cross the aisle with Democrats, some voters, including myself, have entertained the idea that Dahle might be that long-missing political figure in northern California, the moderate Republican. For me, he was the obvious choice over opponent Kevin Kiley.
Now, after listening to the town hall meeting, I’m not so certain. As one fellow journalist who’s heard the tape said, “It’s really swell that Dahle waited until after the election to let his fundamentalist freak flag fly!”
Dahle is what northern California evangelicals call a “believer”—he in fact calls himself that. Asked by Winter how his Christian faith influences his public decision-making process, Dahle, who freely admitted “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed,” explained it this way:
“Well, it’s pretty simple for me, as someone who was baptized when I was 23 … I have to stand in front of the Lord someday and be accounted for what I do. The other thing for me is that I think there’s a bill every day that has half of what you like, and half of what you don’t like. Those are tough decisions you have to make.”
When those tough decisions concern conservative evangelical hot-button issues such as abortion rights or LGBTQ rights, it actually turns out to be easy. He’s guided by his faith, which he apparently thinks is shared by all of the one million people in his district.
“You also have to make those decisions on how it’s going to affect your communities, so for me, there are things that I just don’t move on,” he said. “So I’m pro-life, 100 percent pro-life, and I get beat-up about that a lot.”
For the record, “100 percent pro-life” means no abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, no abortions for fetuses with serious life-debilitating birth defects, no abortions when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy, no abortions for women who’ve been abandoned by their men, no abortions or abortifacients for consenting adults who aren’t financially ready to have a child, and so on.
Are you one of Dahle’s pro-choice constituents who believes otherwise? That’s OK with him. He loves you anyway.
“It doesn’t mean that I judge someone who is pro-choice, absolutely not, I love them,” Dahle explained.
Welcome to Calabama.
“I believe at conception, there’s life,” he said, waxing metaphysical. “To me that is simple, clear-cut. So those are the things I don’t move on. I don’t move on those. I want to give everybody the same rights I have. Freedom. If you choose not to be a believer, that’s OK with me. But I don’t want you to influence me in my beliefs.”
Why would anyone try want to influence his beliefs? Beside the fact the they’re his constituents, too? Anyway, it’s hard being a believer in the den of iniquity that is the state’s capitol, Sacramento.
“I will tell you that there are real struggles for believers in the capitol,” he said. “Those struggles are, it’s a different lifestyle. People think you are like that, because you got elected. They think it’s a big party, some people think. Some people think there’s infidelity, and there are, I’ll be honest with you. There are a lot … you are pampered as a legislator somewhat.”
Careful, Senator! You’re giving up the whole show!
How tough is it for believers in Sacramento? Dahle claimed that one of his colleagues, who had voted for last year’s bill that would have banned selling snake oil conversion therapy to gullible adults, was reduced to a puddle of tears when thousands of voters in his district phoned his office complaining about the bill.
Dahle then switched gears, first talking up the state’s economy, then talking it down, then talking it back up.
“I’m a farmer,” he said. “What goes up will come down. You buy your tractor in a good year and make it run through the poor years and we’re gonna see some tough times coming. There’s a lot of obligations.”
But California will prevail because of its industrial diversity, including those well-known conservative Christian favorites, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Dahle apparently held up a cellphone to the audience.
“The thing about California is, this little thing right here, this device, was developed in California,” he said. “Think about this: Somebody in another country can speak into it and another language comes out of it. Think about spreading the Word. This device right here, it’s a TV in your hand, it’s information. If we can get this to the world, we can grow, we can share the Lord with so many more people.”
But hold fast, Christian soldiers! There’s also a devil in your universal translator!
“So, it also has pornography and there’s all kinds of other stuff in there, that’s the enemy side of it,” he said begrudgingly. The enemy, as it turns out, is everywhere.
Combating The Gay Agenda
Dahle continued with a discourse on farming, religion and politics that may make some readers a bit squeamish.
“I think for me, God blessed me with being a farmer,” he said. “You can’t harvest until you plow, level the field, there’s a lot of preparation you have to do before you can get a harvest. You have to put the seed into the ground. You have to believe it’s going to grow. As some point you have to turn it over to the Lord.”
If you ask me, I don’t really think, “You have to believe it’s going to grow!” is the greatest slogan for a guy who sells wheat, barley and rye seed for a living. Dahle brings this same faith to his interactions at the capitol, planting a seed in each person he meets. Maybe it will grow, maybe it won’t. It’s God’s will, and according to Dahle, God is on the move.
Winter re-introduced her “two lies” theme and explained how she mixes faith with politics.
“As a woman of faith I was called to be salt and light to the earth and I should bring my skill-set to wherever it is to bring good governance, to bring the values of the King and his Kingdom to the marketplace,” she said.
For the uninitiated, “King and Kingdom” is terminology from Bethel’s dominionist Seven Mountain Mandate theology. No one from Bethel really ever articulates what these Kingdom values are, other than a great work ethic and opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights. Turns out Bethel is just more of the same old time religion.
By the way, the “marketplace” Winter referred to is your government, which mandates the separation of church and state.
Dahle explained that the “enemy” referred to above is indeed the devil, who apparently resides not just inside cellphones, but inside every member of the LGBTQ community.
“We don’t fight against flesh and blood,” he said. “Nobody is my enemy. I fight against … I have one enemy, and that’s Satan, the devil. The liar. The deceiver. So I love everybody. Some of my best friends in the Legislature, people I truly love, are people who are … who are homosexuals.”
A few people audibly gasped.
“They’re awesome!” he responded, perhaps a bit too eagerly. “They’re my friends, I love them. They are great to work with!”
Does he condone or promote their insidious bedroom behavior, not to mention their holding of hands in public, or God forbid, kissing? Absolutely not! They’re all abominations. Love the sinner, hate the sin. So says the Word.
Virtually every credible medical and psychological association in the world agrees that LGBTQ individuals do not choose their sexuality. Neither do heterosexuals, for that matter. Sexual orientation or gender identity, for most people, is not something you consciously choose. Without choice, free will, you cannot have sin, in the Christian sense of the word.
But Dahle’s beliefs about the LGBTQ community aren’t based on scientific data or even sound Christian principles. If they were, he might understand why LGBTQ youth in our public schools deserve protection from bullying and bigotry.
No, Dahle follows the Word on such matters, and like conservative evangelicals across the country since the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land in 2015, he’s choking on the gristle of his meatless arguments.
“I don’t like what my government is forcing down my throat, in education, in a lot of things,” Dahle said. “I believe we should be involved. … Voting is awesome, you should vote. It’s a right that our forefathers, who were believers, they gained a lot of ground for this country having those freedoms, and we should not give that up.”
Smells like Christian nationalism to me. Fortunately, the very same forefathers were thoughtful enough to build a wall between church and state. Dahle encouraged the audience to tear down that wall and swap out man’s law with God’s law.
“There’s no trick to taking back our government and changing it to what you want it to look like,” he said. “If you want it to look like what the Word says, you have to be involved. Do what they do.”
“They” being the homosexuals behind the gay agenda.
“Every single day they’re at the capitol and every single day they’re raising money and they’re putting their candidates in and they’re voting what their agenda is,” he said.
Dahle And Trump Chosen By God
Dahle portrays himself as the biblical King David fighting against the mighty great gay Goliath, but the reality is quite the opposite: The LGBTQ community is diminutive David in this bout, fighting 2000 years of oppression by a religious giant that remains the dominant faith in this country, and let’s face it, Shasta County.
Like Winter, Dahle scolded the faithful for being apathetic.
“Too many believers are thinking somebody else is going to do it,” he said. “Or that God sets up Kings. He absolutely does. He also tears them down and puts his people in. When David picked the rock up he put his people in. He did something.”
“He” meaning “God.”
“He wants us to do it with the glory going to him,” Dahle said. “I didn’t win this race. I didn’t win this race. God won this race. If I wasn’t supposed to be in the senate, I wouldn’t be in the senate.”
Winter asked if action taken last year by Bethel and other conservative Christian groups against AB 2943, might serve as a model for future political protests. The adult conversion therapy bill was shelved by its author, Rep. Evan Low, one of those homosexual legislators Dahle loves, after thousands of constituents called their legislators at the bequest of their pastors.
“The church I attend, Bethel, actively spoke out against that, obviously the church took quite a bit of heat for taking that stance,” Winter said, donning her church-lady hat. “We sent people down to the capitol to testify and they did a very effective job.”
Dahle once again described frantic legislators being phone-bombed by their religious constituents over the bill and offered the following advice:
“The best thing would be to organize across the state. Let me give you an example. If every believer in the state wanted to make a change on a bill like the conversion therapy bill, if I got 500 calls in my office and every other legislator from their district got 500 calls, that’s going to awaken people that I have a problem.
“You need to tell your legislator I’m very concerned about this, this is personal to me, and I’m going to work every day to take you out of office.”
You can test out this method by calling Sen. Dahle’s Sacramento office at (916)-651-4001.
Like many religious conservatives across the state, Dahle is concerned about revisions to the state’s Health Education Framework that have added the subjects of gender identity, LGBTQ relationships, and transgenderism to sex education curriculum in public schools.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the education code that will blow your mind about the curriculum,” he said. “I was reading some of it a couple of weeks ago, I have a 9-year-old daughter, and the stuff that they want to teach her in school … is scary. It was not even readable for me and I’m married after 20 years and I know the birds and the bees stories.”
Dahle was referring to six recommended educational books, including “My Princess Boy” and “The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity,” that have since been removed from the curriculum after religious conservatives complained. The books are well-reviewed and readily available on Amazon, and you can’t get them at the local porn store. Consider their removal from the curriculum a sign.
“God is on the move,” Dahle said. “You don’t think he’s on the move? Donald Trump’s in office.”
The audience responded with the loudest applause of the evening.
“I don’t like all the things that he [Trump] says, but he’s there,” Dahle said. “Somehow he got there, and I don’t think it’s because he was the best politician out there. I believe God moves things around. … People of faith are, like, awakening. They’re like, that is just not right.”
With that, Dahle made the transition to full-blown Christian nationalist.
“I believe God is going to increase us and we’re going to see a grass roots revival,” he concluded.
The Limitations Of Faith
In the Q&A session that followed Winter’s interview with Dahle, the senator fielded questions from the audience on homelessness, illegal immigration, sex education in the schools, vaccinations, the status of the Shasta Dam-raise, the state’s water supply and forest practices. Faith played a roll in some of his answers.
He said throwing more money at the homeless crisis will only make the problem worse. Any funding the state allocates to the crisis should be awarded to faith-based organizations, because they do a better job than the government.
Dahle said he knows and loves a few illegal immigrant Dreamers, but despite his sincerely held religious beliefs, he can’t figure out whether it’s right or wrong to deport them.
Don’t like LGBTQ content in the public school sex education curriculum? Complain to your local school board. If they don’t listen, run for the board. Sound advice.
Don’t want to vaccinate your child for religious reasons before sending him or her to public school? The senator, apparently unaware of the concept of herd immunity, thinks parents should have that choice.
Dahle was unaware of the Shasta Dam-raise status, but his comments on the state’s water supply were interesting, particularly his emphasis on recharging existing groundwater aquifers and using our forests as natural reservoirs. Faith is of little help there. If we don’t make massive investments to secure our water supply and forests now, we risk losing them to this burning world in the future.
But Dahle’s local base, well in attendance at the Faith and Values Town Hall, is apparently not too concerned by anthropogenic global warming. They’re more worried about religious matters. This great Christian nation is going to hell in a handbasket; fast. Banning abortion may be a lost cause in California, but the gay agenda can still be stopped.
At this point I must ask the reader to forgive these Christian nationalists, for they do not know what they are doing.
I began this report with the murder of two well-liked local gay men for a reason. Twenty years ago this week, a pair of young brothers steeped in the very same religious-based homophobia espoused at the town hall, used the Word to justify taking the lives of two men whose only “sin” was to be attracted to one another.
That’s where this particular brand of faith always leads, toward violence. It’s no secret that LGBTQ youth suffer more physical bullying and abuse in public schools than their straight counterparts. That’s one of the main reasons California revised the sex education curriculum: to inform parents and students that being LGBTQ is normal, so at least some the violence will stop.
Conservative Christians claim they aren’t homophobic, they love gay people, some of their best friends are gay people. Their actions speak louder than words. They’ve opposed every inch of freedom the LGBTQ community has gained since the Stonewall Inn Riots 50 years ago. They don’t care if gay kids are bullied at school. They hate the sinner and the sin.
If they could, they’d insert into state law that passage from Leviticus that commands men who lay with men to be stoned to death, just like the Pilgrims did. The founding fathers knew better.
Winters has apologized to citizens who felt the Faith and Values Town Hall was not inclusive of all religions. Dahle has fired back at his critics, saying in a written statement that those “who think they can intimidate me or religious people in my district who identify as religious, I want you to know that I will not stand down.”
Please don’t stand down, senator. The Faith and Values Town Hall demonstrated perfectly why the founding fathers erected a wall separating church and state, and why now, more than ever, we need to protect it from religious zealots such as yourself and Mayor Winter.