Today we’re talking about “City Elders.” No, it’s not a senior citizen group that meets every Thursday morning to discuss books; not a group of retired folks volunteering at a local food bank; not a seasoned group of bocce ball players tuning up their games in the park; not older folks sharing their history during neighborhood tours. The “City Elders” we’re talking about today is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based shadowy group of evangelical Christians hell-bent on taking over cities across the country.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of “City Elders” (https://cityelders.com/). I’ve been researching and writing about the radical/evangelical right for more years than I care to remember, and I’ve never heard of them. However, thanks to veteran investigative reporter Frederick Clarkson, “City Elders” is being unmasked.
Writing for Salon in a piece titled “Cracks on the road to Christian Dominion: Is the shadowy ‘City Elders’ group collapsing?” (https://www.salon.com/2023/11/12/cracks-on-the-road-to-christian-dominion-is-the-shadowy-city-elders-group-collapsing/), Clarkson, Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank in Somerville, MA., takes a deep dive into City Elders, a “national network of county level committees of Christian right activists who want to function as the de facto government in their local jurisdictions.” While City Elders “may well succeed in strengthening the political capacities of the Christian right. … Its efforts have also exposed significant cracks on the road to Christian dominion that could derail the goal of building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The name City Elders is both a biblical reference and a description of the group’s focus on county seats as the planned locus of theocratic action. The group seeks to develop a permanent infrastructure to select and elect candidates for local entities such as school boards and county commissions, and then exert ongoing influence. There are statewide City Elders groups in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia, and start-ups in Arkansas and Texas at least.
In early November, the headline speaker at the annual fundraising banquet for City Elders, held at the Tulsa Marriott, was Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla. “Hern and other right-wing Christians in politics,” Clarkson reports, “including newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, have largely avoided media scrutiny over the religious dimension of their politics. But their involvement with aggressively theocratic elements of the New Apostolic Reformation … including City Elders, is becoming increasingly toxic as public awareness and media attention increase. Theocrats know this, and they are scrambling to adjust.”
Clarkson reported that joining Rep. Hern at the confab were former Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and State Sen. David Bullard, Bill Ledbetter, a Southern Baptist minister and “Senior Statesman” who belongs to the Council for National Policy, a secretive and ultra-powerful national conservative leadership group; and Apostle Dutch Sheets of South Carolina, “a top figure in the New Apostolic Reformation who has played a dynamic political role in the Age of Trump.”
Differences within Christian Nationalist ranks might mean rough times ahead for City Elders. Clarkson notes that “City Elders invokes the role of elders in Old Testament Israel who met at the gates of their ancient cities, where important commercial transactions occurred, court was held and public announcements were made. City Elders seek to organize ‘spiritual leaders’ to protect and advance the kingdom of God, as they see it, from non-biblical influences. They see their contemporary function as protecting their counties from ungodly government, and utilizing civil government to advance the Kingdom.”
Jesse Leon Rodgers, the founder and chairman of City Elders, says he and his wife had a vision in 2015 while driving a church van. “God showed us both the barriers and the hindrances of the adversary for the church to advance,” he said, “and enter into its prophetic purpose and its, what I call, ‘reigning role.’”
He added: “You see, God has destined for us, the people of God, to be the leaders and the influencers and to have dominion,” Rodgers said. “Not to be subjugated, but to rule. That doesn’t mean rule over, it simply means to have the transcendent influence, to be the influencers, to be the policy-makers.”
Rodgers, who was a state representative of Watchmen on the Wall, a project of the Family Research Council is linking City Elders up with the FRC – the powerful longtime Washington, D.C. lobbying group – for the 2024 elections.
In a YouTube video, Rodgers said that he believes “2024 is going to be the beginning of the Church — and you and I — taking territory which has been lost — lost politically, spiritually, economically, culturally — in every dimension. …. “We are going to see the glory of God.”
In an email, Clarkson told me that, “There is also the growing toxicity of the movement as people become more aware of who they are and what they are about. We saw this for example, when Project Blitz went underground in the face of media coverage of their agenda and how the model bills were popping up around the country … In my Salon piece, I am underscoring how Garlow, Jacobs, and Rodgers are clearly sensitive about their Dominionism which is as creepingly totalitarian as it sounds. (They are obviously less concerned about the charge of Christian nationalism).
Ultimately, Clarkson added, “Americans value their democracy and rightly take umbrage at expressions of religious and political supremacism. They are or will become uncomfortable with the stealth politics of CE's shadowy, unnamed governing councils."