A video clip circulated online last week that was so cartoonishly vile it might have at first scanned as poorly scripted fiction: A man in a pulpit rails against the comedian Sarah Silverman as a witch and “a God-hating whore of Zionism,” to shouts of apparent approval from an unseen audience. “I hope that God breaks her teeth out, she dies,” the pastor adds. “She’s the perfect representation of religious Judaism.”
“This is Adam Fannin of the Stedfast Baptist Church in Florida and he is going to get me killed,” Silverman tweeted last week when she posted the undated clip.
When obscure pastors make national headlines for rhetoric like this, it’s sometimes a stretch to call them religious “leaders.” Another Florida pastor named Terry Jones dominated multiple national news cycles in 2010 for threatening to burn a copy of the Quran, and his independent church turned out to have no more than 50 members. Vice found him working at a fry stand at the mall five years later. Anyone can declare themselves a “pastor,” no matter how small their flock. The most virulent voices are typically fringe characters who do not represent—or even appeal to—very many people.
Sure enough, Stedfast Baptist Church, founded in 2017, is not a large or well-known church. Google Maps shows it located in a modest strip mall in Jacksonville, Florida, alongside an arcade, a barber shop, another church, and a raw-meat store for pets called Paw Lickin’ Good. Fannin himself is no longer a pastor there. He was ousted in a power struggle earlier this year, and according to an online directory, he is now preaching at a different Baptist church in Florida.
But Fannin is not just a random voice in a strip mall. He has ties to a small but growing network of ultra-fundamentalist Christian churches headed by young pastors whose noxious rhetoric has gone viral multiple times in the past few years. Grayson Fitts, a Tennessee pastor who also worked as a county sheriff’s detective, made national headlines in June for preaching that LGBTQ people should be executed. Also in June—Pride month—a Florida pastor hosted a “Make America Straight Again” conference with the goal of putting “homosexuals back in the closet.” Jonathan Shelley in Texas suggested from the pulpit in January that rebellious students and “lazy gamers” should be stoned. Another Texas pastor, Donnie Romero, said “the Earth is a better place now” after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
All these men are or have been pastors in the New Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, a loose cohort organized by Steven Anderson, an Arizona pastor who has been called “the heir apparent to late Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps.” (Anderson has praised the Pulse shooting, prayed for the death of President Barack Obama, and attempted to evangelize Muslims in Michigan by handing out anti-Semitic videos.) The New IFB’s priorities include “soul winning,” strict devotion to the King James translation of the Bible, and “hard preaching”—a devotion to supposed Biblical truths, no matter how difficult or unpopular. Unlike many conservative American Christians, New IFB leaders describe their movement as anti-Zionist, because they assert that “saved” Christians—not modern Jews—are the real chosen people. Unsurprisingly, this often manifests as anti-Semitism of the kind Fannin directed at Silverman. (Silverman has attributed Fannin’s fury to an out-of-context clip from her 2005 standup special, Jesus Is Magic, in which she jokes in character that she’s “glad the Jews killed Jesus.”)
Most New IFB pastors are young and savvy enough to post their sermons online, even if the production values are questionable. Anderson’s sermon clips, with titles like “Infant Baptism Debunked” and “More Effeminate Garbage From West Coast Baptist College,” routinely receive more than 5,000 views on YouTube, a modest tally but far greater than the size of his church. “We would have never heard of this guy, but now he’s a sensation because he puts a YouTube video up,” said Jeff Straub, a professor of historical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary who has studied the “KJV-only” movement within fundamentalism. “Twenty years ago, idiots could say whatever they wanted to, but no one would ever know. Now everyone knows.” (Straub identifies as a fundamentalist himself, but warily, because of rhetoric like Anderson’s: “Steven Anderson would not consider me a fundamentalist, and there’s some comfort in that.”)
The New IFB is an attempt to revive the former glory and orthodoxy of the Independent Fundamental Baptists, a movement that arose in the mid–20th century in reaction to fears that mainstream Baptists were becoming too progressive. That group doesn’t maintain an official count of its current numbers, but the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last year (in a major sexual abuse investigation) that there are about 6,000 IFB congregations in the United States now; their most famous members are the Duggar family. (Neither the “old” nor New IFB has any affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention or other mainstream Baptist denominations.) Like its predecessor, the New IFB is not a formal denomination. But its website lists 32 member churches, most in the United States but several in Canada, Australia, and the Philippines. The newest, Sure Foundation Baptist Church Hawaii, started holding services on Oahu in July.
If the New IFB seems to have some alarming momentum, there’s at least reason to hope that it won’t be able to maintain cohesion for long. Men who are this antagonistic in the pulpit often turn out to be antagonistic among themselves too. Just a few years after its founding, the New IFB has already gone through a series of upheavals. Donnie Romero, for example, left his church in January after confessing to patronizing prostitutes and gambling. Shelley replaced him, which then prompted Anderson to call Fannin “duplicitous” because he refused to accept Shelley’s appointment. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which warns that the New IFB has “growing influence,” published a detailed account of the church’s power struggles and splintering earlier this year, and suffice it to say, it’s a mess.
On Friday, Shelley addressed the backlash to Fannin’s sermon in a video posted to the church’s YouTube channel, which he addressed directly to Silverman. “Adam Fannin is fired from the Stedfast Baptist Church, but it’s not for the reason that you think,” the young Texas pastor says to the camera. “It’s actually because six months ago, we found out this guy’s a liar, this guy’s a ‘railer’ ”—a term from the King James Bible that essentially means “slanderer”—“this guy’s super selfish.” Then, on Sunday morning, Shelley devoted his hourlong sermon to Silverman, referring repeatedly to her “whoredom” and “fornication,” and making such bizarre, baroque claims against her that it’s tempting to reproduce all of them here. Presumably, that’s exactly what he wants.