BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Linda Wenhold closed her eyes, bowed her head and offered a prayer. “Lord, let us see that the further we move from biblical truth, the further we move from our liberty and freedom,” she began.

The 60-year-old grandmother stood at the front of a modest stone church in this former steel town just beyond the exurban sprawl of Philadelphia. About a dozen people had turned out on a cold February night for the fourth week of a 10-week course she was leading on the Constitution and America’s Christian roots, one of 500 that were underway at churches and community centers across the country. Radiators clanked. The attendees sipped coffee from foam cups.

Wenhold hit play on a video that opened with soaring music and scenes of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The classes were the product of the Patriot Academy, a Texas-based nonprofit whose mission is to “restore our Constitutional Republic” and the “Biblical principles that cause” the United States “to thrive.”

The Patriot Academy’s classes were tapping into a growing fear among some evangelical Christians that their faith and what they saw as its rightful place at the center of American culture and government were under siege. It’s a message sounded in recent years from church pulpits, conservative think tanks, right-leaning colleges and the 1776 Commission report, released in the final, chaotic days of Donald Trump’s presidency. This sense of loss has become a central part of Trump’s 2024 campaign and his outreach to conservative Christians. Like the former president’s “Make America Great Again” movement, the Patriot Academy was calling for a restoration.

The Patriot Academy classes urged participants to run for local office, especially school board, and to fight back against the “secular leftists” and “Marxists” in their country and their communities. In November, Wenhold won a seat on the Palisades School Board. The position was unpaid, but it gave her a little bit of power. She wanted to use it to make sure students in her school district were taught America’s “true history” as a Christian nation, as she had come to understand it.

Wenhold led the class through a lesson that discussed how the country was abandoning the Founding Fathers’ egalitarian vision — initially limited to White males — of a government that existed to protect Americans’ “inalienable rights” as individuals. Instead, the government was providing special rights and benefits to groups based on their race, class, sexual orientation and countless other categories.

“As soon as you start to give privileges to one group, you are taking away from or neglecting others,” Wenhold said. “So, I do think that the solution is going back to teaching our kids that we are all equal in the eyes of God.”

Some students scribbled notes. The people who had come out on a cold Monday night for Wenhold’s class were mostly White, middle-aged and middle-class. They included a retired schoolteacher, a mechanical draftsman, a laid-off software engineer, a lawyer and the owner of a small construction company. Most were devout evangelical Christians.

They talked about the country’s ever-expanding federal deficit, the shortcomings of its public schools and all the ways their influence as Christians seemed to be waning as other groups, long shunted to the country’s margins, gained new voice and power.

The class ended around 9 p.m. Wenhold headed home, where piles of school board documents — spreadsheets, contracts, policy papers — covered her dining room table. She guessed it was going to take at least 10 hours to get through all the material before the next meeting, a week away. One item on the agenda caught her eye. The school district was going to be receiving a “diversity award,” commending its Advanced Placement computer science program for enrolling a high percentage of girls.

Wenhold worried that the focus on boosting girls’ enrollment might cause deserving boys to be overlooked or turned away from the classes. She saw the award as another example of the government deviating from the Founders’ vision — singling out one group at the possible expense of another. She planned to speak out against it.

The first time Wenhold took a version of the Patriot Academy’s course, in 2017, she said she was “blown away” by all that she didn’t know.

In the years that followed she signed up for more Patriot Academy classes and then started teaching them at her church, in her community and to her grandchildren. For the first time in her life she read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in their entirety. She dug into the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers. She bought an 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s first comprehensive dictionary so that she could better understand the Founders’ words and their original intent.

Wenhold had always seen herself as a good citizen. She and her husband had married when Wenhold was just 19. They had raised and home-schooled three children who now had families of their own. Together, they built a small, but thriving, construction business. They were lifelong Republicans who paid their taxes and voted each Election Day.

The Patriot Academy videos convinced Wenhold that she hadn’t been doing nearly enough. As her interest grew, demand for Patriot Academy books and videos was surging. Some of the increase in 2021 and 2022 was driven by Americans’ anger over the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Everybody was asking all of a sudden, ‘Can the government do this to us?’” said Rick Green, who founded the nonprofit after serving two terms as a Republican in the Texas House of Representatives. “Can they shut down our church? Can they shut down our business?”

In the years since the pandemic began, the Patriot Academy’s annual revenue has grown sixfold to more than $4.5 million, according to Green and the group’s financial statements. He said about 1 million people across the country have taken a version of his course. Green also speaks at about 100 events a year, including one in Colorado Springs in February in which he appeared alongside Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder who has pushed baseless election-related conspiracy theories.

A crowd of about 1,000 filled a large church sanctuary where they waved American flags and chanted “USA! USA!” A Christian rock band played and pyrotechnical devices shot plumes of smoke into the air. Green called for the church to once again become “the epicenter of the community … and permeate the culture.” The event’s moderator then led Green, the other panelists and the crowd in something called the “Watchman Decree,” which includes vows to “take back our God-given freedoms” and “stand against wokeness, the occult and every evil attempt against our nation.”

Many of Green’s videos were shot before Trump entered politics, but they all aligned with a core message of his presidential campaigns, that “radical leftists” were spreading lies about the country’s history to cast it as irredeemably racist, erase its Christian roots and undermine the Constitution.

To make his case, Green relies heavily on the work of David Barton, an amateur historian and influential figure inside today’s GOP. Barton offers a largely de-racialized history of American slavery, maintaining that it wasn’t rooted in white supremacy. He supports his thesis by asserting that some free Black people and Native Americans enslaved people during Colonial times. He also argues that some Black patriots held positions of influence in early America.

His narrative doesn’t account for the fact that the vast majority of the half-million enslaved people at the time of the American Revolution were Black. Nor does it acknowledge that the country’s slave market was created and sustained by Whites who “bought their independence with [African] slave labor,” in the words of Edmund S. Morgan, a renowned professor of Colonial American history at Yale University who died in 2013. Morgan called this the “American paradox of slavery and freedom … the rights of Englishmen supported on the wrongs of Africans.”

Barton has also drawn harsh criticism for claiming that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation — a view he summed up in a book that was pulled from circulation in 2012 after its publisher, Thomas Nelson, said there were “historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion — that were not supported at all.”

Professional historians have accused Barton of selectively quoting the Founding Fathers in a way that distorts their views on faith and government. Barton has countered that his critics have purposely ignored the Founders’ writings on religion in an effort to downplay the influence of the Bible and Christianity on the nation’s formation. Barton didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

The criticism hasn’t damaged Barton’s reputation with conservatives in Congress, who regularly seek his advice. Among his most enthusiastic backers is House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who in a 2021 talk to state legislators praised Barton’s “profound influence” on his work, his life and his career.

Barton and Green have also become a regular part of Wenhold’s life. Most days, she tunes into their “WallBuilders” podcast, listening and scribbling notes in her kitchen as the hosts lament the country’s “spiritual decay” and the many ways they claim conservative Christians are under attack from an overreaching federal government, a biased judiciary and a hostile culture.

Wenhold believed she could see these injustices happening in her own community. She talked about the case of Mark Houck, a local antiabortion protester who was prosecuted by the Justice Department for allegedly shoving a Planned Parenthood volunteer in 2021. A jury acquitted Houck last year. She talked about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that same-sex couples have the right to get married, which she saw as an assault on an important Christian institution. And she talked about the pressure she felt every day as a believer to censor herself and not bring her faith “into the public square.”

To Wenhold, it often felt as if the country was moving from a state of “freedom,” by which she meant a society built on a foundation of biblical truth, to one of “bondage” in which government and man made all the rules.

Wenhold had run for school board hoping to reverse this decline. She supported state tax credits that would make it easier for parents to send their children to private or Christian schools. She advocated displaying the phrase “In God we trust” inside all of the district’s classrooms. Mostly, she wanted to make sure that the district’s students were taught a version of American history that reflected what she had learned in her Patriot Academy classes.

Some liberals decried Wenhold as a Christian nationalist who wanted to impose her views about religion, homosexuality and morality on the school system. That opposition wasn’t enough to keep her off the board. In November, Wenhold received just over 1,000 of the roughly 2,600 votes cast in her three-person race, easily securing a seat.

At her first school board meeting, in December, she noted that the oath of office that she was asked to read at her swearing-in didn’t include the words “so help me God,” and observed that George Washington had warned Americans never to forget their “sense of religious obligation” when swearing an oath.

At her second meeting, in January, she said she wanted to see the school system “get away from using federal funds” because the money came with “requirements and strings” that she believed officials in D.C. had no power under the Constitution to mandate.

Now it was time for her third meeting.

A few hours before the school board was set to meet, Wenhold called Silvia LeBlanc, the board president, and explained why she was planning to speak out against the computer science diversity award. Students should be judged on their individual merits, not as members of a particular group, Wenhold told her.

LeBlanc listened carefully. Her education in American politics began as a college intern in Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s office. As a law student at Georgetown University in the late 1990s, LeBlanc landed a job as a research assistant for then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat. She admired Daschle’s pragmatism and willingness to work across the aisle. But she was discouraged by Washington politics, which were consumed at the time by President Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his sexual liaisons with a White House intern.

“I thought you went to Washington to make a difference,” LeBlanc said. “And I learned that’s not how you do it.”

Now she was 48, a mother of three children, and a lawyer at a big law firm in Philadelphia. She and her husband had picked Palisades, about 60 miles north of the city, because it was small — the entire district consisted of only about 1,300 students — and had a strong academic reputation. She began attending school board meetings in 2018 in an effort to save her children’s elementary school from closure.

“I became a board noodge,” LeBlanc said.

Then, in 2019, she ran for a seat on the nine-member body, which leans conservative and Republican but isn’t especially partisan. Four years later, LeBlanc’s fellow board members chose her to be the board president.

At the new board’s first meeting in December, LeBlanc sketched out her hopes for the coming year. “The hard work begins tonight to change the me’s into we’s,” she said. “And don’t underestimate how hard we is.”

LeBlanc had watched with worry over the past few years as the school districts just south of Palisades — Pennridge and Central Bucks — suffered through bitter fights over school curriculums, covid-era mask mandates, book bans and bathrooms. The screaming at board meetings, lawsuits and teacher resignations made national news.

Palisades had largely been spared such rancor. LeBlanc believed that most of the parents in her district were “somewhere in the middle” when it came to the most difficult and polarizing issues facing the board. Many of these parents didn’t have the time or energy to come to meetings. Instead, they would grab LeBlanc at a football game or school play to ask for help or lodge a complaint.

“They don’t know the right answers,” LeBlanc said. “They want us as a board to sit down and work them out.” To Leblanc this was the essence of American democracy — “compromise,” “late-night conversations” and mutual respect.

She offered Wenhold her perspective on why the diversity award mattered. “This is personal to me,” LeBlanc said. In high school she had excelled in physics and calculus but was “actively discouraged” from pursuing those subjects in college. “I was told women don’t do certain things,” LeBlanc recalled.

She was proud that Palisades High School was receiving recognition for reaching 50 percent female enrollment in its computer science classes. If Wenhold criticized the award, LeBlanc told her that she would publicly disagree with her and applaud it.

Wenhold’s next call was to her twin sister, Brenda Hendricks, who co-taught the Patriot Academy courses with her. The two shared most of the same political views and religious convictions. They saw each other or spoke on the phone almost every day. Wenhold read a statement she had drafted laying out her concerns about the award.

“Stop and think. Don’t react,” Hendricks cautioned after listening to the draft.

She asked Wenhold a series of questions: Was the award part of a broader pattern in which some students received special privileges based on their race, gender or other factors? Did the school system apply for the award or simply receive it? Wenhold wasn’t sure.

“There’s more you should ask before going out and saying, ‘I don’t agree with this ideologically,’” Hendricks advised.

A few hours later, Hendricks met up with her pastor and a friend from church by the flagpole in front of Palisades High School, the site of the board meeting. Her habit was to invite a few friends to pray with her for her sister and the other board members before each session.

Trucks rumbled loudly past. Some high school students were laughing and roughhousing on the steps nearby. Hendricks, her Bible tucked under her arm, asked God to grant Wenhold and the other board members “unity” and a “wisdom that transcends all human understanding.”

Then she headed toward the board meeting, which was just getting started.

“I am absolutely thrilled to be able to share that Palisades High School for the second year in a row has received the AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award,” said Bridget O’Connell, the Palisades School District’s superintendent.

On cue, the Advanced Placement computer science teacher took up a spot just beneath the auditorium stage where the superintendent and the board members were seated. He spoke about “closing the gender gap” and mentioned a recent study that found there were about 500,000 computer science jobs open nationwide. The high school principal handed him a certificate to hang in his classroom.

There was a brief flurry of applause and the board moved on to other business: the tech school needed a new roof; the number of students struggling with anxiety and depression was on the rise; some parents were concerned that elementary school class sizes were too big.

“So with that we will move on to board comments, compliments and concerns,” LeBlanc said.

Wenhold was the second-to-last board member to speak. She hadn’t changed her mind about the diversity award, but she also decided that her sister was right: She needed to learn more about it. Instead of voicing her concerns, Wenhold congratulated all of the AP computer science students — male and female — on their “individual achievements.”

A few days later, LeBlanc invited Wenhold out to lunch. She understood that Wenhold harbored a strong mistrust of the federal government and the public schools. Sometimes LeBlanc wished the skeptics could see what she saw when she sneaked backstage at one of the district’s school plays and watched the young actors and stagehands huddle together and support one another.

“There’s a magic to these children,” LeBlanc said. “I choke up just thinking about it.”

Over lunch, LeBlanc told Wenhold about her Italian immigrant parents, her Catholic upbringing and the challenge of managing a stressful legal career while parenting three children. Wenhold talked about the home-schooling advice that she had been giving her daughter.

To Wenhold, LeBlanc seemed warm but guarded. “It’s going to take numerous get-togethers for me to understand what’s in her head,” Wenhold said.

LeBlanc knew that Wenhold spoke to people in the community who would never confide in her. She hoped that Wenhold could bring their concerns to the board before they began to “fester” and “cause mistrust.”

In late February, the school board gathered for its regular twice-monthly meeting, which concluded as always with LeBlanc asking the board members for their “comments, compliments and concerns.”

Wenhold was among the last to speak. She looked to her left where her fellow representatives were sitting in a row. There was Scott Freeman, the board vice president, who had answered her many questions about the district’s budget process. There was Karen Beerer, a former teacher, who had helped her understand how the school system chose curriculums. And there was LeBlanc, whom she was still trying to figure out.

This was a version of American democracy that bore little resemblance to the horror show that Green and Barton described each day on their podcast.

“I’ll just say for anybody that thinks they would like to get on the board and make some changes, it’s quite a different perspective sitting over here,” Wenhold said. She paused, searching for the right words. “It’s a lot to learn, a lot to manage. So, I just appreciate all of you.”

“And we appreciate you,” LeBlanc replied.

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