President Donald Trump is scheduled to speak later on Tuesday at one of the largest megachurches in the Southwest. Dream City Church in Phoenix is hosting the Students for Trump Convention today, where the president will give a speech billed as “an address to young Americans.”
New cases of COVID-19 are surging in Arizona. Several major cities, including Phoenix, have enacted new mask requirements just within the last week. But Dream City, like the president, has taken an approach to the virus that veers between dismissiveness and scientifically questionable swagger. In a video posted Sunday to the church’s Facebook page, senior pastor Luke Barnett claimed that the church had installed air purifiers that “kill 99.9 percent of COVID in 10 minutes.” Standing shoulder to shoulder with the church’s chief operations officer, Brendon Zastrow, Barnett explains that the church contracted with a local company called CleanAir EXP to install the purifiers. “When you come into our auditorium, 99 percent of COVID is gone, killed—if it was there in the first place,” Barnett says in the clip. “You can know when you come here you’ll be safe and protected. Thank God for great technology and thank God for being proactive.” Neither man wears a mask as they talk.
The video was later removed from the church’s Facebook page. “We understand there is recent confusion around the claims made by one of our customers around our laboratory testing,” the CEO of CleanAir EXP, Tim Bender, said in an email statement. “Our patented technology leads to a 99.9% elimination of airborne coronavirus surrogates. We do not, however, eliminate COVID-19 at this time.”
Dream City did not cancel in-person worship services until April 5 and reopened its doors on May 31, a much shorter closure window than many other churches, even those also headed by Trump supporters. Robert Jeffress’ First Baptist Dallas, for example, closed March 22 and reopened June 7 at 20 percent capacity. In nonpandemic times, the church attracts more than 20,000 attendees to weekend church services at six locations, including at its 72-acre flagship campus in Phoenix. Barnett was among a group of 25 Christian leaders invited to a private meeting at the White House last fall, and he attended an Evangelicals for Trump Coalition event in Miami in January.
Founded in 1923 as Phoenix First Assembly of God, Dream City became the fastest-growing church in America under Barnett’s father, Tommy. Tommy, who is still listed as the church’s co-pastor, approached leadership with a showman’s instinct for headline-getting stunts. He oversaw the construction of the current building in 1985, which he boasted to a local newspaper cost more than $10 million. Tulsa, Oklahoma, televangelist Oral Roberts visited to help dedicate the new building; Tommy also cultivated a friendship with later-disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. At one point the church spent almost $200,000 on a Christmas extravaganza featuring “flying” angels, a laser light show, and live camels, elephants, and kangaroos, and an Easter show featured an onstage fountain spouting 50 feet in the air and sparks flying from angels’ fingers to ignite the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb. In 1997, Tommy jogged from Phoenix to Los Angeles to raise money for the church’s 400,000-square-foot California mission, the Dream Center. Tommy also made no secret of his politics: In 1986, he appeared with conservative activist Pat Robertson at a D.C. rally teasing Robertson’s future run for president; 4,000 people—including the head of the local John Birch Society—gathered at the church to watch the event on closed-circuit television and cheer for Robertson.
Luke Barnett took over the church from his father in 2011 and renamed it Dream City Church a few years later. In many charismatic megachurches, ministry is a family business. Luke’s brother now heads the Dream Center and nearby Pentecostal megachurch, and Barnett’s daughters are both listed as employees of the church’s communications team. A Twitter account associated with one of the women has retweeted messages dismissive of police brutality and protests in recent weeks, as well as a message from Students for Trump founder Ryan Fournier calling for “one MASSIVE MEGA RALLY.”
Despite the apparent lack of public pushback from its parishioners, Dream City made a late attempt to distance itself from the Trump event today. “Dream City’s facility rental does not constitute endorsement of the opinions of its renters,” reads a statement on the church website. The church said it agreed to rent the space to Students for Trump before Trump’s involvement had been confirmed. (Students for Trump was acquired last year by conservative activist Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point Action.) A Students for Trump spokesman told me they approached the church in part because it is a large and well-equipped event space—but also because of the assumption of ideological friendliness. “It’s obviously a conservative event,” he said. “You’re not going to try to have this event at a Planned Parenthood.”
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