HENDRICKS, Minn. — Jay Nelson steered his car past Lake Hendricks, past giant windmills and soybean fields, across the South Dakota border that abuts his town, and up a gravel lane.
Here stands the idyllic country church where Nelson was raised: Singsaas Church, founded in 1874 by America's first Norwegian Lutheran minister and now on the National Register of Historic Places. The adjacent cemetery is the final resting place for 870 people, including a Civil War soldier. "I know all of them," Nelson joked.
The former deacon is no longer welcome here, though. As Nelson walked the length of the cemetery, the 51-year-old was filled not with nostalgia but with sadness about losing his church home, which is now nondenominational. He was also filled with fear.
In the past few years, a conservative, fundamentalist pastor has taken over the church and divided this lakeside town of about 600 people. Some say Pastor Jason Hartung executed a "hostile takeover" and "hijacked" the historic congregation; Hartung has referred to people like Nelson as enemies of the church, and Nelson and four others have been kicked out of the congregation. Meanwhile, the church has grown under Hartung; Former members say the church used to pull in 40 to 60 people on Sundays; current attendees say they see upwards of 100. There are lawsuits and countersuits, hurt feelings and split families, and a cemetery association whose finances — some $200,000 in a bank account — are in dispute.
The country church controversy illuminates a broader divide between Christians who are unwilling to mingle politics and religion, and fundamentalists who see politics and religion as inextricably intertwined.
It culminated this summer during the annual cemetery association meeting. Men with concealed weapons were posted at the church entrance as security while a vote took place; dissenters — the church's old guard — were afraid to enter and instead held their own vote outside. The sheriff came after someone was seen carrying an AR-15 rifle inside.
"To see [the church] devolve into something with no integrity at all — it's the most dire sense of sadness someone can experience," Nelson said. "The integrity of being born and raised here stays with people ... Now it's a place where the pastor encourages carrying guns to fend off pretend enemies."
The roots of the divide, some former congregants say, stem from the pastor strongly advocating conservative political stances: against gay marriage, for the Second Amendment, and against current American government leaders, whom he calls tyrants. He encourages parishioners to openly carry firearms in church. He displayed a straight pride sign during gay pride month in June saying, "Identity Is God Determined, Marriage Is God Defined." Some who've left the church call it hateful rhetoric, but Hartung says pastors must take such strong stances — and that spreading "the truth" isn't hate but the very definition of love.
Hartung declined interview requests, but his views were on display at a recent worship service, where he struck unabashedly nationalist tones in a 40-minute sermon, dense with quotes from scripture and titled "Hell is Hotter for Some." God's strongest judgment is reserved for those who know God's word but deny it, he said.
A parishioner recited part of the U.S. Constitution, a regular occurrence in the church. Hartung spoke of Americans' responsibility to uphold the Judeo-Christian belief system underpinning the Constitution.