Elections 2022: Some Say Bethel And City Council Politics Don’t Mix. Here’s Why.

Several of the candidates running for the Redding City Council this fall are connected to Bethel Church. Some in the community worry about how the church’s out-sized funding and theological beliefs, including the 7 Mountains Mandate, might impact local political candidates.

Ten candidates are running for three seats on the Redding council this fall. Connections between some of those candidates and Bethel Church have become a flashpoint in the race. We break down why. 

First, what’s Bethel?

If you live in Shasta County, you’re probably familiar with Bethel Church, a North Redding megachurch with an attendance of approximately 10,000. The church used to be part of the Assemblies of God denomination but is now non-denominational. Since the late 90s, under senior leader Bill Johnson, the church has been devoted to the “pursuit of the presence of God,” manifested in supposed signs and wonders, including messages from heaven, miraculous healings, gold glitter, feathers, and special stones. Sunday morning sermons stream out to viewers in more than a hundred-and-fifty countries via Bethel TV, and church leaders are in demand as itinerant speakers both nationally and internationally. Bethel also operates multiple schools, including the three-year Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM). In 2018, the last year for which data is available, the church had annual revenue of more than $60 million.

Why is Bethel so important to Redding politics right now?

Julie Winter, a Bethel elder, already sits on the five-seat Redding City Council. With three more “Bethel-affiliated” candidates running for three open council seats this fall, a win by any two would leave the council with what might be described as a “Bethel majority.”

That’s exactly what persuaded candidate James Crockett to run for the council this election. Crockett says he attended Bethel for nine years and continues to maintain friendships with individuals at the church. A Bethel majority on the council concerns him, he explained, because it’s been his experience that people at the church often think similarly and have an agenda that might not serve the city as a whole. “I’m not entirely clear on what the agenda was,” Crocket responded to Shasta Scout on Friday, “but when you raise questions (at the church) they are not heard.”

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Brad Everett, Bethel’s Director of Communications, declined to answer any of Shasta Scout’s questions for this story.

Bethel Senior Associate Leader Kris Vallotton’s response to Candidate James Crockett statement that he’s running for office to prevent a Bethel majority.

Which local candidates are “Bethel-affiliated”?

Redding council candidate Tenessa Audette is open about her involvement at Bethel Church. She attended Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry and says she now teaches a God and Government class there to help ensure that Christians know the importance of maintaining the appropriate separation between church and state.

Candidate Alex Shea also confirmed that he attends Bethel Church. He said he used to work for the church but no longer holds any staff or leadership positions there. While his two hours weekly at the church are important to him, he said, they have less weight in his life than the forty-plus hours he spends working and interacting in the city.

Candidate Jack Munns has also attended Bethel Church. It’s not clear whether he continues to attend there. Munns did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

What’s Bethel’s history of political involvement?

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As a nonprofit religious institution, Bethel is not permitted to endorse or fund political candidates. But Bethel Senior Associate Leader Kris Vallotton has made multiple political statements from the pulpit, including his prophecy that Donald Trump would win the 2020 presidential election. As Trump ran for reelection, Vallotton used the Bethel pulpit to encourage attendees to vote for Trump or risk facing God’s displeasure. More recently, he has also compared women who seek out abortions to school shooters. His fellow senior leader Bill Johnson has also compared the COVID vaccine to the “mark of the beast”.

But Audette said she knows of only two two instances when she has seen Bethel actually become politically involved. Once was the church’s vocal response to a 2018 California bill which would have made it illegal for Bethel to “sell resources with the intent to reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction,” according to a tweet from Vallotton. Audette said the way the church engaged that time was legal and appropriate because it would have “affected their ability to exercise their 1st Amendment rights.” 

“The second time they got involved,” Audette continued, “was when the city, county, and law enforcement asked for their help to pass Measure A (a 2020 proposed 1% county sales tax).”  Audette said the city ran a voter registration campaign at that time to encourage members to become more involved.

Would Bethel-affiliated candidates be able to pull on the church’s substantial finances as city council members? 

Bethel’s 2017 donation of half-a-million dollars to help fund Redding police and another $25,000 to fund police drones hasn’t been forgotten by the community. For some, it’s one more reason to appreciate the church’s outsized local impact, which they feel is mostly positive. For others, it’s an indication of the dangerous power and influence on local politics that the church already wields. 

While neither candidate directly addressed whether they might be able to pull on Bethel funding for the city in future, both said the church’s finances had not impacted their campaigns. 

Audette called the idea that she has access to Bethel funding “one of the biggest myths” she has heard. “I have received no funding from Bethel,” Audette wrote, “In fact I have one donor from the over 400 staff that work there. No one from Bethel staff has organized, solicited or directed anyone to donate to my campaign.”

Shea agreed, saying that Bethel has not contributed to his campaign and has no legal means of doing so. “I have no influence on Bethel’s decisions, financial or otherwise,” Shea wrote, “ I am just one of several thousand people who choose to spend my personal time there as a private citizen on Sunday mornings.”

Is Bethel’s overall impact on Redding positive or negative?

Bethel attendees represent approximately 10 percent of the City of Redding and Bethel is listed by the Shasta Economic Development Corporation as the 8th largest employer in Shasta County. Dozens of local businesses have been started by Bethel attendees and many local short-term rentals are either owned by those affiliated with the church or house those who visit the region for faith tourism. Bethel’s pull on the local housing market, both short-term and long-term, is tremendous, and Bethel-connected dollars spent by attendees in the city are significant.

Shea said only that he has heard both positive and negative comments about the impact of Bethel in conversations around the dinner table with his wife’s family, who has lived in Redding for generations.

From Audette’s perspective, the impact from Bethel has been overwhelmingly good. She cited the church’s involvement in bringing funding to the city to help secure a daily flight from Redding to Los Angeles on United Airlines, the half-million in funding given by Bethel in 2017 for local police staffing, and Bethel’s decision to form Advance Redding, a nonprofit that was awarded a contract to run the city’s Civic Auditorium.

She also praised the volunteerism Bethel students are required to engage in with the city as part of Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry, a total she says of “over 14,000 hours of community service every year.” Audette says those hours indicate strong community buy-in and that as a result of them, the city has regularly qualified for and received grant funding.

While Crockett says it’s clear that Bethel is passionate about making a positive impact in the city, he worries that the ways they attempt to do so may not take into account the perspectives and needs of all.

“Imagine you are overworked and stressed out,” Crocket explained, “and your neighbor took it upon themselves to mow your lawn. At first you are thankful, but you feel like it was a bit invasive. The next time you talk to your neighbor, you say ‘hey, I am thankful you mowed my lawn but this is my property, before you do that again can you please ask me?’ Then imagine if you will that your neighbor launches into this diatribe about how you are this poor struggling person but that they are rich and powerful! They continue saying you should be appreciative of the help and that they really don’t need to stop because they are just doing it to serve you. Would your relationship with that neighbor be positive or negative?”

Could Bethel theology influence Bethel-affiliated candidates on the council?

Bethel teaches what is known as the 7 Mountains Mandate, a theology that encourages Christians to influence the “seven mountains” of society, including the political realm, to bring God’s kingdom realities to earth. The theology is sometimes referred to as dominionism, and is widely believed to include the idea that believers should “take dominion” over society to bring more of heaven to earth.

But both Audette and Shea say the 7 Mountains Mandate is really about reminding Christians to get involved in the community and find ways to use their skills and resources to make the community better for everyone, although, Shea added, he understands that’s not always how the theology is seen.

“I realize many interpret it differently, as a mandate to Christians to control all institutions,” She explained. “This couldn’t be further from my goals and ideas about how the government should work. I believe elected officials should serve the people they represent, not control them, and that the government should empower its constituents, not restrict them.”  

Audette said Bethel leaders wouldn’t influence her vote because they don’t tell her what to believe about anything. “I’ve been in churches my whole life,” she said, “and Bethel  is the least religious church I’ve ever been in. What you believe and what you do, it’s up to you. They’re not telling you what to do, or how to do it or keeping track of what you do. You’re on your own.”

Would affiliated candidates allow Bethel’s outspoken opposition to homosexuality to affect city government?

Like many evangelical American churches, Bethel teaches that homosexuality is sin. The church also operates a ministry called Changed which has engaged in political action in Washington D.C. and is designed to “support people to leave the LGBTQ+ community to follow Christ.”

Both candidates said despite that teaching they would not discriminate against the gay community in any way in their role on the council. Shea said he would represent all citizens in office, irrespective of their sexual identity, race, color, creed, religion, social status, housing status, or national origin.

And while she believes the Bible calls homosexuality a sin, Audette added, the Bible also says no sin, including lying or greed, is greater than any other. “I can confidently say that (the issue of homosexuality will have) no influence on my role as a council member,” Audette wrote by email. “My duty is to serve ALL people . . . All are equal under the law and representation.” 

Does Bethel support Christian Nationalism?

Christianity Today defines Christian Nationalism as the idea that America is defined by Christianity and should take active steps to keep it that way. Some Christian Nationalists advocate keeping prayer in schools, outlawing abortion access and gay marriage and enshrining a Christian Nationalist version of American history in public school curriculums.

Former Bethel volunteer worship leader and visible political activist Sean Feucht has openly endorsed Christian Nationalism over recent months, but Shea and Audette both said that belief is not part of the church’s teachings. Crockett says while he’s sure some in the church would endorse Christian Nationalism he doesn’t believe most in the church’s rank-and-file are even sure what that term means and he has not heard it taught from the pulpit.

Is it appropriate to scrutinize candidates’ religious beliefs or the church they attend?

In interviews with local candidates Shasta Scout avoided asking directly about Bethel Church involvement to avoid discriminating against individuals on the basis of their faith. But many in the community, including Crockett, feel that a harder look at Bethel-affiliated candidates is valid given the size, funding and theology of Bethel Church.

Audette sees the issue differently, saying that people shouldn’t discriminate against a candidate based on their attendance at a church and emphasizing that Bethel doesn’t participate in candidate election activities or try to influence votes. “Bethel is a church not a PAC,” she wrote.

But Shea said that voter concerns about his attendance at Bethel are part of what running for office entails. “To think that people wouldn’t call out my attendance at one of the biggest organizations in town,” Shea said, “is unreasonable. I just hope they don’t stop there. I spend just 2 hours at Bethel each week and 45+ hours in the community, helping unlock funding for real estate deals, putting my financial skills to work, and investing in our local nonprofits. My focus in my run for City Council is on minimizing homelessness, fighting crime, and strengthening our economy. I have the financial skills and experience to help us navigate the coming recession. I hope everyone knows those things too.”

Disclosure: Annelise Pierce is a former member of Bethel Church and a graduate of the first year of BSSM. She left the church eight years ago.

Do you have feedback on how we are covering Bethel or other topics?  Email us, or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here.

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