CISCO, Texas — Right outside this little town, there’s a tiny church that wants to change the world. And, thanks to the billionaire pastor’s backing, it just might be able to get that done.
The church is the Assembly of Yahweh, and its pastor, Farris Wilks, happens to be one of the most powerful new players in presidential politics. Farris, along with his brother Dan, made his fortune off the fracking boom and is using part of it to back Sen. Ted Cruz in his bid for the White House.
But new wealth didn’t dint his commitment to old-time religion—and to the culture war (read: anti-gay) politics that defined George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. Now, Cruz is taking a page out of Karl Rove’s playbook, looking to galvanize evangelical voters as a way to make the Republican Party competitive again. And Farris Wilks is just the guy to fund that effort.
The Wilks brothers and their wives have given $15 million to one of Cruz’s super PACs—one of the biggest contributions of this campaign cycle, in either party.
And their generosity that has changed the contours of the Republican presidential primary is newfound: The Center for Responsive Politics notes that the brothers and their wives had only given $263,000 to federal candidates before going all in for Cruz this cycle. Farris Wilks didn’t speak with The Daily Beast for this story, but a visit to the church he pastors may shed light on the way the billionaire’s faith informs his commitment to bankrolling a culture warrior like Cruz.
At the end of December, the brothers hosted Cruz and conservative Christian leaders for a fundraiser at Farris’s homestead in Cisco, as The Washington Post detailed. And it recalls a central element of Cruz’s campaign: He’s said he can win the White House by dramatically boosting turnout among evangelical Christians (never mind that his strategy may have a math problem).
The last time Republicans won the White House, way back in 2004, evangelical turnout was the clincher. So, Cruz argues, it’s worth another shot. And Wilks’s little church provides a tiny preview of what Cruz’s evangelical army could look like.
Assembly of Yahweh is just off a ruler-straight two-lane highway that runs between Cisco, Texas, (population 3,820), and Rising Star (“A Small Town With A Big Twinkle,” population 799), and a few miles down from the ornate gates to Wilks’s home. The roadside is dotted with longhorn cattle, cemeteries, and small oil pumpjacks. Suburbans and pickup trucks whip around you if you drive even a hair below the 75 mph speed limit.
The building itself is simple, with tan bricks and clean lines. There’s a large playground out front and a pavilion behind. Two young girls swing open the pair of glass entrance doors when I walk up, and the younger one—who looks about 7 years old—yells, “Go through mine, go through mine!” Then she gives me a hug.
Right inside, there’s a table with a purple sign that says, “The Salt & Light Ministry Biblical Citizenship”—a project that encourages churchgoers to contact their elected representatives about a different policy issue every month. It’s affiliated with the Liberty Counsel, the group that represents Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. This is no accident, since Farris Wilks supports Liberty Counsel (according to Reuters, which reports he’s given the group $1.5 million).
Cruz recently told backers at a private Manhattan fundraising event that marriage wasn’t one of his top three issues, but it gets top billing at his benefactor’s church. There is a section for topics they always pray for—the Peace of Jerusalem, All Brethren Everywhere, Hopeful Couples (“Yahweh’s blessings for couples eagerly awaiting children”), as well as young people, pregnant women, and the unemployed. Then there are a few new items: attendees who are ill, facing surgery, or recovering from it. And finally, there is a list of continued prayers, including about two dozen people from the area facing various health problems.
Then there’s an entry for Obergefell v. Hodges.
“The Supreme Court has issued a ruling recognizing homosexual marriage in the United States, thereby forcing all states to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples within their states, and recognize as valid homosexual marriages issued in other states,” it reads. “Please pray for our nation as we enter a time of upheaval, and pray for those public officials who are fighting to maintain their religious beliefs. (7/4/15)”
And, finally, there’s the space for Kim Davis.
“Kim Davis, the County Clerk of Rowan County, KY, was jailed on 9/3 for Contempt of Court after refusing to issue same sex marriage licenses,” it says. “Liberty Counsel is representing Mrs. Davis. Many other government officials are also refusing to comply with the supreme court decision, however Mrs. Davis is the first to be jailed for her convictions. (9/5/15)”
Like Kim Davis’s Apostolic Pentecostal Church, the Assembly of Yahweh rejects the doctrine of the trinity—that God is one but exists as three persons, the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, the church teaches that Yahweh is the only god and that Yahshuah (Jesus), is a separate being. (Davis’s denomination teaches that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God are different names for the same being—also a rejection of trinitarian doctrine, but in a different way.)
Though their theology isn’t identical, Davis and Wilks share a committed opposition to same-sex marriage. According to sermons transcribed by the liberal group Right Wing Watch, Wilks has preached that LGBT people endanger children.
“If we all took on this lifestyle, all humanity would perish in one generation,” he said in one sermon. “So this lifestyle is a predatorial lifestyle, in that they need your children and straight people having kids to fulfill their sexual habits. They can’t do it by their self. They want your children… But we’re in a war for our children. They want your children. So what will you teach your children? A strong family is the last defense.”
The Assembly of Yahweh’s teachings on Israel and Jewishness are also interesting. A pamphlet called Doctrinal Points says, “[We believe] That the true religion is Jewish (not a Gentile religion)… [T]he Gentiles must be adopted into the Commonwealth of Israel. This is done by baptism into Yahshua.”
The pamphlet says that the congregation does not observe “the religious holidays of the Gentiles”—including Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween. Instead, they celebrate feasts mentioned in the Old Testament. In particular, the congregation sleeps outside in tents or campers for a week in the spring to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and again for a week in the fall to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacle. Ruth York, a member of the congregation, said the weeklong celebrations take place on church property and include bounce-houses for kids, cookouts, and softball games.
They follow the Old Testament teachings on eating laid out in Leviticus 11, which means no pork and no shellfish. And the church teaches “[t]hat homosexuality is a serious crime—a very grievous sin.” So is getting drunk. “It is debauchery,” the pamphlet on doctrine says. “Drunkenness is classed with such grievous crimes as robbery, sexual perverts, adultery, and idolatry. Do not be deceived; no drunkard will enter the kingdom of Yahweh.”
They worship on Saturdays. Farris Wilks’s parents, Voy and Myrtle Wilks, were founding members of the church back in 1947, according to a separate pamphlet on the congregation’s history. Farris is now the congregation’s pastor.
Besides its literal reading of much of the Old Testament, the church also distinguishes itself in its political advocacy. Beside the bulletins is a pamphlet from a group called Stand Up Texas, praising Molly Criner—a clerk of Irion County who issued a declaration this summer through Liberty Counsel promising to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The church service itself—kicked off with three blasts of a shofar by a teen named Isaac—was largely apolitical. There are tons more kids and no Sunday school, so the sanctuary is filled with their muffled hum—coloring in their bulletins, crying, pushing their siblings, giggling, and wandering about. A towheaded toddler in the row in front of me keeps herself busy with a pink plastic castle. At one point during opening worship songs, an orange ball bounces across the aisle. It’s taken in stride.
After the service wrapped up, an announcer noted that it was Salt & Light Sunday, which comes once a month. York explained that the congregation became part of the ministry several months ago—a project affiliated with the Liberty Counsel (which works with Davis and Criner). Churches that participate in the Salt & Light ministry have a table set up once a month that encourages attendees to call or write postcards to their representatives—in the state legislature and in Washington—about a different topics. This month, one focus is the Texas Advance Directives Act, a law that affects end-of-life care decisions. York, the volunteer liaison for Salt & Light, tells congregants that the law means hospitals could “pull the plug” on patients against their expressly stated wishes.
Then Jo Ann Wilks, Farris’s wife, stands up for a quick interjection, frustrated with the quality-of-life rationale she says is sometimes used in these situations.
“We will put away murderers that do horrific crimes, and pay for their pathetic quality of life, and they have no qualms about that,” she said.
It’s not just end-of-life issues. Visitors to the Salt & Light table were also encouraged to write their representatives about the transgender bathroom debate, as well as to urge their representatives to call for public hearings on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. If that wasn’t enough to keep Salt & Lighters busy, a bulletin insert also suggested that the recent Paris climate change deal could mean we are “misusing our yah-given dominion.”
That refers to a verse in Genesis where God calls on Adam and Eve to have dominion over the Earth—a passage often cited by opponents of laws designed to curb climate change.
“Man, created in Yahweh’s image, is to exercise dominion over all the earth,” the insert says. “Yet disagreements in the scientific community give pause concerning the wisdom of the recently-adopted climate change accord.”
An attached postcard encourages members to write to their representatives asking for public hearings on the Paris deal.
The program is an innovative way for conservative Christian pastors to keep their congregations engaged with policy issues even when Donald Trump isn’t yelling about them. It won’t result in the instant materialization of Cruz’s Christian soldiers. But it—and Assembly of Yahweh—is a reminder that though the Christian right has been set back on its heels for the past eight years or so, it’s far from cowed.
“We are not called to isolation,” the pastor said. “We are called to change the world.”