Controversial Pastor and His Church Plan ‘Spiritual Takeover’ of Idaho College Town

Pastor Douglas Wilson, center, speaks before Communion as Christ Church meets in the Logos School gymnasium on Oct. 13, 2019, in Moscow, Idaho. RNS photo by Tracy Simmons

For many local residents, this town is just about perfect.

Surrounded by the rolling Palouse hills, the city of 25,000 is home to the University of Idaho and trendy coffee shops and restaurants like One World Cafe, Bucers Coffeehouse Pub and the gastropub Tapped.

In 2018, Moscow, nicknamed “heart of the arts,” was named by Livability as the best city in the U.S. to raise a family. It’s a place where progressive residents and local entrepreneurs get along just fine, said Ryan Rounds, a resident and veteran and a former University of Idaho student.

“Moscow is an amazing city that tries to strike a balance between the ‘hippie’ population and the business/development-oriented population,” he said.

The city also stands out for its residents’ unusual take on God and politics.

Two-thirds of Idahoans identify as Christians, according to Pew Research Center, ands six in ten voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

In Moscow and the surrounding county, however, about half the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. And while the city has plenty of churches, including four Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint meetinghouses, only 30 percent of Moscow identifies as ‘religious,’ according to an analysis from Best Places.

One congregation is hoping that will change — an ambition that’s been a source of tension for years.

Led by controversial pastor Douglas Wilson, Christ Church of Moscow has for years been planning a spiritual takeover of the town — transforming both its politics and its soul. Wilson is gentle and soft-spoken when not behind the pulpit but will go head-to-head with anyone in a debate.

And he does not mince words about his views on Moscow.

“Basically this is a blue dot in a very, very red state and the blue dotters are pleased,” Wilson told Religion News Service in an interview. “Our mission is ‘All of Christ for all of life’ and if you drill that down, then for all of Moscow.”

The church website explains the church’s mission further.

“Our desire is to make Moscow a Christian town,” it reads, “ … through genuine cultural engagement that provides Christian leadership in the arts, in business, in education, in politics, and in literature.”

Not everyone in the community is on board with that plan, Wilson admits. He also told RNS the idea of a spiritual takeover of Moscow started with his father, James, who came to the area after retiring from the Navy to start a Christian bookstore at the nearby Washington State University campus. Jim Wilson is now in his 90s and is being cared for by Douglas Wilson and his wife, Nancy.

In his 1964 book, “Principles of War: A Handbook on Strategic Evangelism,” Jim Wilson explains that the concepts of physical warfare can be applied to strategic evangelism.

According to his dad’s text, Douglas Wilson said, a takeover of Moscow is feasible because of the city’s relatively small size and its reputation. And a takeover is strategic because it would mean a significant loss to the enemy.

“We could have Bovill for Jesus in two weeks,” Wilson joked, “but that wouldn’t be strategic.”

Bovill is a nearby town with only 260 residents.

Instead, the Wilson family set its sights on Moscow, where the plan remains controversial.

The Wilsons are revered by the 1,300 people affiliated with Christ Church and loathed by many others — in both cases because of their conservative, Reformed evangelical biblical teachings. Christ Church preaches that procreation is an essential part of marriage. The Wilsons have three grown children and 17 grandchildren. The entire family dines together weekly for Sabbath Dinner.

They also believe that homosexuality is a sin and that wives should submit to their husbands.

Wilson promotes the church’s beliefs in a direct, take-no-prisoners approach to preaching and writing. That approach is highlighted in a recent video featuring Wilson sitting on a burning couch and smoking a cigar while talking about his newest series of blog posts.

In the posts, Wilson says he plans to speak the “unvarnished truth” and “to see how the general public likes them apples.”

“It’s not the job of the preacher to be a firefighter out in the world — we’re not supposed to be running around putting out other people’s fire,” Wilson says in the video. “We are supposed to be arsonists.”

Wilson’s tactics often clash with the town’s welcoming ethos.

“Moscow, a university town with a diverse population, should be a welcoming community for all faiths and beliefs. Christ Church’s goal promotes division and excludes our many friends of whatever faiths including Jewish, Muslim, atheists or anyone besides Christians, as defined by Christ Church. Moscow should not be defined by any religion and certainly not owned nor controlled by any church,” wrote Moscow resident Linda Pike in a recent letter to the editor in Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Wilson’s past behavior has also given locals reason for concern. In 2001, he presided over the wedding of a convicted pedophile, a decision he still defends.

“He had repented,” Wilson told RNS.

After Wilson counseled and vouched for the suspect, Steven Sitler, Sitler was released on probation, married a young Christ Church member, became a father and was later removed from his home for violating probation.

Despite Sitler’s status as a convicted sex offender, Wilson told church members he was “very welcome” at the church’s services, just like any other sinner.

Wilson also organized a conference about Southern slavery in 2004. The event was held on the University of Idaho campus in response to a pamphlet Wilson wrote titled “Southern Slavery: As It Was,” which argued that slavery created “a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”

“It was a history conference that people said was a pro-slavery conference,” Douglas Wilson said.

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Source: Religion News Service