As I pulled into Dripping Springs on Thursday evening, the first thing I saw was a truck with two disproportionately large flags flying from its bed. One was the American flag. Its complement—displaying a red cross inside a blue square on a white background—was the Christian flag.

Behind me, a big black SUV honked repeatedly in support of the convoy that had descended on this 5,500-person town. When the driver honked again upon passing a group of similar flag-bearing trucks outside the Taco Bell, I realized this might be a bigger event than anticipated. For the last week, I’d been following the progress of the “Take Our Border Back” convoy as it curled its way down from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a group of Christian nationalists recently “recovenanted” the nation to God on the site of the Reverend Robert Hunt’s 1607 landing.

The group was due at the border on Saturday, at Cornerstone Children’s Ranch, on the Rio Grande about twenty miles upstream from Eagle Pass, where tensions between Governor Greg Abbott’s border security initiative Operation Lone Star and the federal government have been mounting. As it started getting national attention, I’d heard occasional references to the convoy as the “Army of God.” I was curious to know if this was just the sort of “one nation under God” brand of rhetorical deism we expect from the political right, or if it was a sincere crusade. That question echoes on a national scale. Christian nationalism is a rising concern, but the highly specific roots of the ideology are not nearly as commonly addressed as the banal rhetoric of the campaign trail. The convoy’s preborder stop in Dripping Springs on Thursday was the perfect occasion to see whether God’s army had any steam. 

It did.

That evening, several hundred people gathered at One Shot Distillery & Brewery as a way station on their route to the border. By the time the convoy made it to its final destination, that number had multiplied to well over one thousand attendees. Parking for the border event stretched at least three quarters of a mile down the tiny rural road running parallel to the Texas-Mexico border in Quemado. And in addition to actual immigration-related messaging, the crowd represented an assortment of far-right political causes. Images of assault rifles were everywhere. Anti-vax posters were getting a second showing. Flags with profane language in reference to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden flew alongside others bearing images of former president Donald Trump as what appeared to be Rambo.

But the organizers managed to stay on message: linking the failure to secure the southern border to the degradation of America’s holy calling. Robert Agee, the lead organizer of the Texas convoy, did not seem to be there to cynically stump for Trump. In fact, when I asked Agee about his goals, he described something that transcended any one politician. “I believe this nation is called to be a light to the world,” he said. “We’re dealing with spiritual principalities and high places that are trying to destroy what the nation was founded on. Evil is bringing in drugs and bad actors.”

Agee is a man burdened by purpose, or at least he seems to be. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, a leather vest, and a cowboy hat, he presented as the serene eye of the graphic design hurricane swirling around him. Agee was sober and focused to the point of coming across as ambivalent to the spectacle of it all. Not that he’s opposed to spectacle when the moment calls for it—nor is immigration his only concern.

Agee and his wife, Jaimé, are behind several highly public Christian nationalist efforts, including the Banners 4 Freedom initiative that has put up billboards around the United States declaring “Fauci Is a Fraud” and tallying “jab injuries.” Past billboard campaigns promoted a defense fund for those arrested after the January 6 insurrection, promoted the movie about human trafficking Sound of Freedom, and linked human trafficking to the southern border.

Christian Nationalism at the Border
The “Army of God” gathers at One Shot Distillery & Brewery, in Dripping Springs. Bekah McNeel
Christian Nationalism at the Border
Robert Agee. Bekah McNeel

Human trafficking is the issue Jaimé Agee is most concerned about, she says. As a trafficking survivor herself, she believes God is working through this growing movement to end that kind of evil.  She sees the risks involved with a growing coalition. But as far as who gets involved, she said, “It’s a discerning of the Holy Spirit.” She and her husband can’t see the hearts of those who ask to take the stage, but she believes God can.

As Robert Agee addressed the crowds in Dripping Springs, and at the border—regularly reiterating the call to peaceful assembly, condemning any psyops present, and giving several sermons’ worth of biblical metaphors for the convoy’s holy mission—the response was closer to what one might hear in church. Every now and then someone would shout “That’s right!” or applaud in agreement.

If Trump and his proxies represent Christian nationalism’s superficial appeal to those who equate Christianity with a Wonder Bread 1950s America wherein LGBTQ people were still in the closet and women were still in the kitchen, then Agee represents the deep well from which that imagination draws.

There’s a lot of academic exploration of Christian nationalism, but it’s another Agee project—First Landing 1607 Project—that might summarize it best. Agee’s nationalism is based on a covenant, a sacred agreement between God and humans. He believes that when the Reverend Hunt landed at what is now Virginia Beach, his consecration of the land established a special relationship. The First Landing 1607 Project website puts it thus: “This land is His. Yes, he is Sovereign over all nations, but particularly America: only two nations in the history of the world have dedicated their land at the inception of their nation—Israel and America.”

That is not how all Christians would describe God’s relationship to the political entity that is the United States. Even among the 45 percent of Americans who told Pew Research surveyors in 2022 that America should be a “Christian nation,” a minority went on to affirm implications of Christian nationalism. Only 28 percent of those who said America should be Christian nation also said that the federal government should declare it such.

In Dripping Springs, I was accompanied by Stephen Reeves and Cameron Vickrey, who lead Fellowship Southwest, a missions and advocacy group that connects Christians around social justice issues such as immigration, along with Griff Martin, pastor at the First Baptist Church of Austin. I wanted to hear how they would respond to the claims made on behalf of their God. To make the rally, Reeves had flown in early from El Paso, where he’d just been at a conference with other Christians discussing how to ensure safe passage for migrants. Both he and Agee believe that God’s hand is needed at the southern border, which neither would describe as fully functional. So deep are their respective beliefs, in fact, that both men traveled to the border to pray for God’s intervention. They’re just asking for God to do very different things.

Reeves and Martin want immigration reform that makes it safer and, in many ways, easier for the most vulnerable immigrants to get to safety inside the United States. They root this idea in a global vision of God’s people—not a national one—that transcends borders, and thus should not be beholden to them. They also believe that the Christian calling is particularly focused on compassion and justice for the marginalized and oppressed, and that the people coming across the southern border with nothing but the clothing on their backs seem to fit the bill.

But both Christian nationalists and Christians like Reeves and Martin would say they are on God’s side—or that God is on theirs. Both use the Bible to justify their widely disparate positions. Both claim a connection to rich religious tradition. But they don’t seem to be arguing over who gets to interpret Scripture, or whose tradition is more orthodox. “It’s the brand,” Martin said. “Both sides are trying to fight for the brand.”

The brand might be hard to hold on to for the earnest, well-disciplined Christian nationalists, because the distilled populist version is, frankly, raucously antinomian. For theological antinomians, a higher law frees one from the authority of a religion’s moral code. According to one of the flags at the border rally, “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” I watched as Robert Agee had to tell convicted January 6 rioter Treniss Evans (whose minor celebrity underscores the point) that he could not take the stage if he’d had anything to drink. Evans tried to argue, beer in hand, but Agee stood his ground.

I later asked Jaimé Agee how she felt about the excessive use of the word “f—” on all the signage. “I don’t love it,” she said, “but I understand their emotion, so I have compassion for it.”

A man named Darrell, who would not give me his last name, told me that he wasn’t particularly motivated by the religious aspects of the convoy. Measured and moderate, with half-moon glasses, Darrell would have seemed professorial if not for his T-shirt with the image of an AR-15 stretched across the American flag. “I’m here because I’m concerned about border security,” he said. “I’m just someone who loves their country and I see things that defy common sense.”

As Darrell and I were chatting, the crowd began to roar around us. “She’s here,” Darrell said.

Sarah Palin had arrived.

Whatever the actual mix of motivations in the crowd, Agee’s elaborate illustration of the biblical story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho—which, Reeves pointed out, was about bringing down a wall, not building one—was not nearly as electrifying for the crowd as was the special appearance from Palin and Ted Nugent, who both arrived by helicopter to say . . . not much. Palin called Biden a traitor, and Nugent called him “a devil-scum snake.”

I scampered out of the froth, back to the Baptists on the back row. Reeves and Martin were fully outfitted in their own cowboy boots and ambiguously sportsmanlike shirts. Reeves wore a hat with a Texas flag on it. It was all stuff they had in their closets. Which reminds me that just like there’s more than one Christianity, there’s more than one Texas.

Reeves, who lives in Dripping Springs, described his community as another kind of border, between red and blue America. The small town turned exurb turned suburb of Austin usually doesn’t feel too political, he said, but the advent of the convoy had brought out some of the more polarizing voices, even on the neighborhood Facebook group. He wondered briefly if it had “divided the town in a way we can’t come back from,” but then concluded, “I don’t think so.”

As I listened to the various speakers at the convoy rally, it became evident that they expected to be painted as incompassionate monsters by those on the other side of the ever-widening political divide. I was asked several times if I was going to misquote people on purpose. Of course, anticipating internet backlash is partially a strategy to stir up grievance and the perception of oppression, but also, they aren’t totally wrong.

So I asked Robert Agee about compassion. I asked him about the mothers and children fleeing violence. The people whose neighborhoods are controlled by gangs, or who have no means of putting food on their tables. Those souls, he explained to me, are part of God’s plan too. The ones who have made it into the United States will be “part of the greatest revival the world has ever seen.” He believes that revival starts here but will spread to the rest of the world, including the countries people are currently fleeing. Still, he believes that illegal immigration should be stopped, to protect the people already here. “God is a God of borders,” he said, “of law and order.”

Martin sees an almost unbridgeable divide between Agee’s “God of borders” and the God he and Reeves talk about—a God who is on the side of those who suffer, who identifies with the “least of these” in every situation. “I don’t even know if we share the same Jesus.” Christians like Reeves and Martin also believe God has a plan for the thousands fleeing hunger, poverty, and violence. But they believe that Christians in the United States, like everywhere else, are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Not his army.