President Donald Trump plans to speak later Tuesday in one of the largest megachurches in the Southwest. Dream City Church in Phoenix is hosting the Student Convention for Trump today, where the president will give a speech announced as “a speech for young Americans.”
New cases of COVID-19 are emerging in Arizona. Several major cities, including Phoenix, have enacted new mask requirements only in the past week. But Dream City, like the president, has taken an approach to the virus that strays between scientifically questionable disdain and arrogance. In a video posted Sunday on the church’s Facebook page, Senior Pastor Luke Barnett claimed that the church had installed air purifiers that “kill 99.9 percent of COVID in 10 minutes.” Standing shoulder to shoulder with the director of church operations, Brendon Zastrow, Barnett explains that the church hired a local company called CleanAir EXP to install the purifiers. “When you walk into our auditorium, 99 percent of COVID is gone, killed, if it was there in the first place,” Barnett says in the clip. “You can know that when you come here you will be safe and protected. Thank goodness for great technology and thank goodness for being proactive. “None of the men wears a mask while talking.
The video was later removed from the church’s Facebook page. “We understand that there is recent confusion about claims made by one of our customers about our laboratory tests,” CleanAir EXP CEO Tim Bender said in an email statement. “Our proprietary technology leads to a 99.9% elimination of coronavirus substitutes in the air. However, we are not removing COVID-19 at this time. ”
“We do not eliminate COVID-19-19 right now, “the CEO from the air purifying company said in a email.
Dream City did not cancel in-person worship services until April 5 and reopened on May 31, a much shorter closing window than many other churches, including those also headed by Trump supporters. Robert Jeffress’ First Baptist Dallas, for example, closed on March 22 and reopened on June 7 at 20 percent of capacity. In non-pandemic times, the church draws more than 20,000 weekend church service attendees at six locations, including on its flagship 72-acre campus in Phoenix. Barnett was among a group of 25 Christian leaders invited to a private meeting at the White House last fall, and attended an Evangelicals event for the Trump Coalition in Miami in January.
Founded in 1923 as Phoenix First Assembly of God, Dream City became the fastest growing church in the United States under Barnett’s father, Tommy. Tommy, who is still listed as co-pastor of the church, approached the leadership with a showman’s instinct to get headline stunts. He oversaw the construction of the current building in 1985, which boasted that a local newspaper cost more than $ 10 million. Televangelist Oral Roberts from Tulsa, Oklahoma, visited to help dedicate the new building; Tommy also cultivated a friendship with televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, later disgraced. At one point, the church spent nearly $ 200,000 on a Christmas show with “flying” angels, a laser light show and camels, elephants, and live kangaroos, and an Easter show featured a fountain on stage spitting 50 feet into the air and sparks flying from the fingers of angels to light the stone in front of the tomb of Jesus. In 1997, Tommy trotted from Phoenix to Los Angeles to raise money for the 400,000-square-foot church mission in California, the Dream Center. Tommy didn’t hide his politics, either: in 1986, he appeared with conservative activist Pat Robertson at a Washington rally mocking Robertson’s future candidacy for president; 4,000 people, including the head of the local John Birch Society, gathered at the church to watch the event on CCTV and cheer on Robertson.
Luke Barnett took over his father’s church in 2011 and renamed it Dream City Church a few years later. In many charismatic megachurches, ministry is a family business. Luke’s brother now runs the Dream Center and the nearby Pentecostal megachurch, and Barnett’s daughters are listed as employees of the church’s communications team. A Twitter account associated with one of the women has retweeted dismissive messages of police brutality and protests in recent weeks, as well as a message from Student Founder for Trump Ryan Fournier calling for “a GREAT MASS MEGA COMPETITION” .
Despite the apparent lack of public rejection by his parishioners, Dream City made a belated attempt to distance itself from the Trump event today. “The rental of the Dream City facility does not constitute endorsement of the opinions of its tenants,” a statement said on the church’s website. The church said it agreed to rent the space to Students for Trump before Trump’s involvement was confirmed. (Students for Trump was acquired last year by conservative Turning Point action by activist Charlie Kirk.) A spokesperson for Students for Trump told me they approached the church in part because it is a large and well-equipped event space, but also because of the assumption of ideological friendship. “Obviously it is a conservative event,” he said. “You are not going to try to have this event at Planned Parenthood.”
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