MOSCOW, Idaho – 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.
It’s a place where progressive residents and local entrepreneurs get along just fine, said Ryan Rounds, a resident, 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.
In Latah County about half the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. And while the city has plenty of churches, only 30% 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 – hoping to transform its soul.
Wilson 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,” he said. “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 said 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.
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.
The Wilsons are revered by the 1,300 people or so affiliated with Christ Church and loathed by many others – in both cases because of their conservative, Reformed evangelical biblical teachings.
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 where he says, “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. We are supposed to be arsonists in the world.”
Wilson’s tactics often clash with the town’s welcoming ethos.
In recent months, numerous community members have aired their concerns about the church in Moscow-Pullman Daily News’ letters to the editor.
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.
Then, in 2004, Wilson organized a conference about Southern slavery.
“It was a history conference that people said was a pro-slavery conference,” Douglas Wilson said.
Despite the controversies, the church continues to grow. Nancy Wilson said it’s part of God’s plan.
“It’s the story God’s writing. We’re surprised,” she said. “It’s been a really good story and every story has tension.”
Wilson and his followers don’t limit themselves to spiritual matters. They also have a prominent role in the local business community. Two members recently ran for City Council, but lost.
“I would say any tension between the town and the church is one-sided in that the city bends over backwards to try and accommodate the church and school, granting them special use permits for buildings so they don’t stay unoccupied, while trying to maintain a business district,” Rounds said.
Douglas Wilson, though, says his church’s influence on the town is organic and that the church has no official role in them.
“It looks like a power move, but we’re running into people trying for City Council for the same reason you run into them at (the local tire store). They’re just part of the community. People have homes here and buy businesses. It happens. It’s not a directive,” he said.
Besides, members of the two local congregations that are part of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches – which Wilson was instrumental in forming – make up only about 5% of the town. Christ Church has about 900 members and Trinity Reformed Church, a church plant of Christ Church, has about 400.
Nevertheless, apprehension remains. Many residents avoid supporting businesses with ties to the church.
The Rev. Elizabeth Stevens, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, said she tries to patronize businesses that share her values.
“I look for a ‘welcoming and affirming’ decal from PFLAG,” she said, referring to the social organization that supports parents, families and allies of the LGBTQ community. “I look for products that are ethically sourced, and employers that treat their employees fairly and with dignity.”
The Wilsons said they want to support all local businesses, even ones that disagree with their theology.
“We don’t boycott liberal businesses,” Nancy Wilson said.
Christ Church has also been in local headlines lately because of New Saint Andrews, a Christian college that the church helped form. Earlier this year, the City Council voted to restrict new colleges and universities downtown and to reject the expansion of existing ones. NSA purchased a second downtown building prior to the vote and will be allowed to continue with plans to convert the building – a former nightclub – into a music conservatory.
“We want to do nice things, good things. Like open a conservatory on Main Street instead of a nightclub,” Douglas Wilson said.
Along with those plans, Christ Church also is building a larger facility on the edge of town for Logos, its K-12 school.
Heather Wilson, daughter-in-law of Douglas Wilson, said members of Christ Church are used to people lashing out at it. Recently her son’s pickup was vandalized for having a New Saint Andrews bumper sticker.
“A lot of it is remanufactured Moscow misconceptions. People have a habit of yelling things out of context,” she said. “We take care of our kids, be good neighbors, but people always have something to say. People are looking to find offense and give offense when really, at the end of the day, we’re just trying to be good neighbors.”
Douglas Wilson said the divide that’s happening in Moscow is reflected nationally. He said the country seems to be in a “slow-motion civil war with no bullets.”
“The only possible solution is a massive religious revival,” he said. “Short of that and we’re headed for trouble.”
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