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How to Get Excommunicated in 2023

Is Ryan Turnipseed an ‘alt-right Christian extremist’ or has the Lutheran Church gone woke?

Katherine Dee
June 30, 2023

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Earlier this year, Ryan Turnipseed, a college student and devout Lutheran in Oklahoma with a modest following on Twitter, found himself on the brink of excommunication by his church.

In response to his stern criticisms of the church, Turnipseed was first denounced as a fascist by an outside party, then lumped in with a call to excommunicate fascists led by his church, and finally summoned for a meeting with church leaders where they informed him and his father that he was associating with evil. The scene was simultaneously old-fashioned, with its back-and-forth accusations of heresy and bitter struggles over the soul, and “very online,” very 2023.

The specter of Christian nationalism and other supposedly extremist right-wing ideologies festering inside middle American churches has become a focal point within the political culture as well as the national security establishment. In February, in the same period when Turnipseed was clashing with his church, a leaked document from the FBI showed that the agency’s Richmond, Virginia, office was using funds earmarked for domestic violent extremism to monitor “radical traditionalist Catholics.” The FBI retracted the memo after it was exposed by a whistleblower, but not before it revealed that the agency’s criteria for designating people as extremists was that they preferred to worship at the traditional Latin Mass. To critics, it seemed to show the federal government taking steps to criminalize religious traditionalism.

Yet rather than simply being an attack by the government on Christians, the case mirrored a conflict that is playing out within churches as well. Last February, in an interview with the progressive Center for American Progress, Amanda Tyler, a lawyer and the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, declared: “the single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism.”

On Jan. 21, Ryan Turnipseed stepped into this larger debate and made his stand—as one does in the age of online religious wars—by authoring a Twitter thread about the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s (LCMS) new edition of Luther’s Large Catechism.

Luther’s Large Catechism is the Lutheran doctrine outside of the Bible. Originally authored by Martin Luther, each section is broken down into explanations designed to help clergymen teach the Lutheran faith. It is foundational to Lutheranism—as vital to the faith as the catechism of the Catholic Church is to Catholicism. Turnipseed’s thread went softly viral, receiving just under 1,000 likes on a platform where the most viral tweets regularly reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of engagements.

Turnipseed’s central claims were that the LCMS’s new edition had gone so far in accommodating the dogmas of American political progressivism that the book undermined the faith entirely. In his thread, some of his complaints about the updated text were that it equivocated “homosexuality, pornography, sodomy, pedophilia, whorishness, and transgenderism with heterosexual fornication outside of sex”; “affirm[ed] the reality of transgenderism”;  and contradicted scripture by “saying that Genesis is entirely separate from any ‘scientific’ theories.”

While there are a few places in Turnipseed’s thread where his judgments seem motivated by his own ideological concerns, his tone remains levelheaded. He’s stern, certainly, but there is no extremist language, no incitement to violence, and no name-calling. One gets the impression that he’s simply a conservative churchgoer who disagrees with changes being made and is deeply concerned. It’s the type of disagreement that is–or should be–par for the course whenever major changes are being made to a foundational religious document.

According to Turnipseed–and to LCMS President Matthew Harrison–he wasn’t the only person who raised objections about these changes. In a short piece published in a small publication called Christianity Today, other critics, like pastor and blogger Larry Beane and pastor David Ramirez, were also concerned that “some of the essays, which are not Lutheran doctrine, mishandled current issues like racial justice, human sexuality, and gun rights.”

On Jan. 23, two weeks after the updated Large Catechism’s release, President Harrison announced on Twitter that the LCMS would pause publication and distribution of the new catechism so he could evaluate the criticism they had received about the changes. Nine days later, the LCMS concluded that the changes would stay, and they would continue to distribute the updated version.

But here’s where the story takes a turn and enters the stage of national political drama. Harrison didn’t frame the controversy as a disagreement within the faith. Instead, Harrison presented it as something far more sinister. In a letter to the LCMS, he singled out the alt-rightan umbrella label used to describe various strands of neofascist and white nationalist ideology—for fomenting criticism against the new catechism and called for their excommunication.

In his letter, he wrote:

These “alt-right” individuals were at the genesis of a recent controversy surrounding essays accompanying a new publication of Luther’s Large Catechism. This group used that opportunity to produce not only scandalous attacks and widespread falsehoods but also to promote their own absolutist ideologies.

He called for a complete rejection of the alt-right, characterizing their views as “white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide.”

Blaming the “alt-right” for the pushback against the church’s new directive didn’t sit well with Turnipseed. “Alt-right” is a very specific label, and a dated one at that. It’s not that no such movement has existed, but it’s often applied in a way that is deliberately vague and overly broad. In reality, “alt-right” describes a particular group of people that rose to national prominence during a particular moment in time that peaked in or around 2017. At worst, the label is a lazy smear against right-wingers. To evoke “alt-right,” in many situations, is to immediately shut down difficult conversations by associating conservatism with racially motivated violence.

Turnipseed discovered a week later that it wasn’t just that Harrison was condemning the “alt-right,” he was also condemning him personally. Shortly after Harrison’s letter was published, Turnipseed’s father received an email from a pastor stating that the church was concerned for his son’s physical and spiritual safety.

It tunred out that a lengthy blog post authored by an anonymous group of antifa activists had been sent to the church. The post called Turnipseed and others “Lutefash” (Lutheran fascist) and alleged that he was part of a group that wanted to raise a “mighty fortress of neo-nazi hatred” within the faith. While not everything in the post is factually incorrect—and some of what the post describes is indeed troubling—it’s not a fair-minded, fact-finding document but a deeply editorialized attack written from an explicitly ideological perspective that is, itself, inconsistent with church teachings. The post uses explosive, theatrical language and lumps together a broad group of people. Perhaps most crucially, the post equated Turnipseed with Corey J. Mahler, a controversial figure who had been previously barred from attending services.

At the very least, this was the kind of document you’d want to fact-check before acting on. The pastor, however, read or heard about this blog post and concluded that Turnipseed was associating with the wrong kinds of people online.

The worry wasn’t totally unfounded.

Corey J. Mahler, according to his Telegram, wants a return to monarchism by way of authoritarianism that he sometimes will describe as “facist” or “National Socialist.” He is a self-described Christian Nationalist, and has a number of views that many Christians–even conservative Christians–would find offensive, such as the view that slavery is supported by scripture. He is also a World War II revisionist (and possibly a Holocaust denier), and is an antisemite. In one post on his Telegram, he says, “Whatever you people may believe Hitler did to the Jews in the 1940s, what God is going to do to them in eternity is going to be much, much worse.” In another, he says, “Telling the truth about Jews enrages them.”

While Turnipseed’s own online presence doesn’t promote the same views as Mahler, he did seem OK with engaging with Mahler’s content. For example, Turnipseed hosted Mahler on his podcast a week before his thread criticizing the new catechism. But to Turnipseed, the whole thing felt like guilt by association.

Turnipseed defended his criticisms of the new catechism and summarized his problems with the condemnation of the alt-right in a blog post on the website Gab, a Twitter alternative that spun up during the 2016 elections after a particularly aggressive wave of suspensions that targeted users on the right and far right. In a post titled “Here I Stand,” Turnipseed laid out his views. Much of what Turnipseed describes in “Here I Stand” is unsurprising for a conservative Christian, and much of it would be sympathetic to moderate or progressive Christians as well.

But his coolly logical approach also reveals his commitment to a close reading of the Bible and of Lutheranism that places the historical foundations of the faith above the evolving moral concerns of the present. Turnipseed writes:

Both Martin Luther and the first president of the LCMS, C.F.W. Walther, condemned abolitionism and wrote extensive defenses of slavery and, by extension, white supremacy. Both Walther and Luther must now be condemned as “alt-right”, and both would be excommunicated from President Harrison’s new LCMS.

When reached for comment to clarify whether he was defending slavery or white supremacy, or merely pointing out that condemning anyone on the “alt-right,” by Harrison’s definition, would erode the foundations of the faith, Turnipseed responded: “It was indeed to show the wild inconsistency with the modern LCMS and its forefathers.” He continued, “Condemning Martin Luther as a Lutheran isn’t necessarily a conflict of interest, but rather it’s not Lutheranism recognizable to any of our forbearers.”

It is possible to read Turnipseed’s concerns in at least two ways: In one interpretation, he is pointing out that Lutheranism is simply not compatible with contemporary mores. “A moderate from the Civil Rights Era,” writes Turnipseed, “would be excommunicated today under the supposedly conservative Matthew Harrison’s LCMS.”

The essential question is, “at what point does updating a faith tradition’s views to better fit with the political climate alter the religion beyond recognizability?” But in the alternate reading, Turnipseed is not just asking questions, he is posing his own version of Lutheranism that is not only incompatible with the one coming from the church’s leaders but would, for instance, maintain Lutheranism’s traditional approach to condemning interracial marriage. If no evolution of the faith is possible or permissible, as Turnipseed seems to suggest at certain points, then what excuse could any good Lutheran have for no longer defending slavery?

When asked for comment, Turnipseed explained his position: “The ‘excuse’ would be to oppose slavery for secular reasons and not religious ones.  ‘I’m against slavery because it is evil’ encounters the contradictions I point out in my article.”

At what point does updating a faith tradition’s views to better fit with the political climate alter the religion beyond recognizability?

After Turnipseed’s post was published, the supervising pastor (in LCMS called a circuit pastor) of his congregation reached out to him. LCMS wanted to have a meeting with Turnipseed, where according to the circuit pastor, he was going to be issued a warning for his “online activity.” Turnipseed wasn’t provided with an agenda, as is customary for this type of meeting—just a warning that his congregation was concerned without specifics.

When Turnipseed pressed the circuit pastor, he was later told that he would also be asked to renounce his connection to Mahler and other so-called “alt-right” internet personalities, though the circuit pastor couldn’t define “alt-right.”

During the conversation, Turnipseed asked him a question: Would churchgoers who voted in policies like abortion be placed under the same scrutiny he was, for hanging out with people considered persona non grata? The circuit pastor told him no, but that this was about him, not Democrats.

The meeting day came. Turnipseed was nervous. He was aware of two other incidents where churchgoers had been penalized without having undergone the proper processes, one of which was the decision to bar Mahler from being on church property. Turnipseed decided to record the session (Oklahoma is a one-party consent state).

At the meeting was the circuit pastor, Turnipseed’s congregation pastor, and two elders who Turnipseed claimed he was not informed would be present. The 90-minute session was a complicated, emotional back-and-forth. The clergymen were concerned about Turnipseed’s online activity, as they’d said, and his association with Mahler. Turnipseed was told by his pastor, “From where I sit, these men [Mahler and his podcast co-host, Woe] are proliferating evil [...], from a casual glance, you are closely tied to their work.” The clergy believed that he was promoting hateful views by associating with Mahler in any capacity.

To Turnipseed and to anyone acquainted with the online spheres he is operating in, “closely tied to their work” is an exaggeration, though it’s true that he and Mahler do exist in the same dissident ecosystem. But Turnipseed and Mahler are in dialogue in the same way some conservative journalists–particularly ones who don’t write for legacy publications–are “in dialogue” with the right-wing Twitter personality Bronze Age Pervert (BAP), whose social and political commentary is at times–to put it lightly–“out there.” There’s a continuum of thought that exists outside of traditional institutions, and some people are more extreme than others, but the internet places them all in the same broad geography. Plenty of right-wing journalists have engaged with less fringe aspects of BAP’s work and worldview, but that doesn’t mean that they endorse him wholesale, and, indeed, many have engaged with him in a deliberate effort to dissuade younger right-wingers from taking up his project. The nature of online discourse creates an atmosphere where moderate Republicans sometimes quote-tweet self-styled National Socialists. They might sometimes even agree with one another on a topic-to-topic basis. It’s something that’s unheard of in the mainstream media space where you’re asked to shun people who may have said something offensive on social media 10 years ago–forget 10 posts ago.

It’s also an atmosphere that’s anathema to the mainstream gatekeeper mindset and difficult to fully convey–and fully understand–if you’re unfamiliar with its framework. It would be disingenuous to say that Turnipseed doesn’t believe things that are beyond the realm of mainstream acceptability. He doesn’t just dance on the razor’s edge of what’s socially sanctioned, he crosses it. But it would also be disingenuous to say he’s promoting the same ideas as Mahler. For example, Turnipseed does not share Mahler’s views on National Socialism.

The specter of Christian nationalism has become a focal point within the political culture as well as the national security establishment.

From the clergy’s perspective though, it felt as though Turnipseed and Mahler were the same, and that a retweet meant a full-bodied endorsement of his platform. The clergy wasn’t just unaware of the labyrinthine social structure and culture of Twitter and online political discourse; Turnipseed believes they were also informed primarily by the original blog post published by antifa. In the recording offered by Turnipseed, one clergy member admitted that “at least 75%” of the research about Turnipseed’s online presence was brought to them by third parties.

As Turnipseed saw it, he was having challenging, interesting conversations with controversial people, functioning, as his father put it, “essentially as a journalist,” and every nuance was important. Yes, Mahler and others espoused unconventional and even hateful views, but Turnipseed disagreed with those. He wasn’t going to “disavow the wholeness of their messaging” because they had “bad politics.” That was something leftists did.

The clergy, on the other hand, felt that Turnipseed didn’t understand “the gravity of their evil.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it may feel like Turnipseed was being too pedantic. To quote one of the clergy members Turnipseed recorded, “if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, it doesn’t matter if it’s not a duck–people are going to say it’s a duck.” It should be “easy” to disavow someone like Mahler.

But the disagreement isn’t necessarily over Mahler’s views as much as the demand for disavowal. The issue of abortion is salient here. According to Lutheran teaching, a congregant who is pro-choice is literally endorsing a mother murdering her child. That, according to Lutheran teachings, would be as evil as some of the more heinous things Mahler has said.

Yet as the same clergy member acknowledged, they won’t disavow Democrats. They won’t condemn people who “enshrine pro-abortion policies into law.” If you’re outside of the faith–if you’re a progressive–the comparison between support for (or even entertaining a discussion of) legal abortion and white nationalism must seem, if it is conceivable at all, absurd and offensive. But within it–if you put yourself into the headspace of a Christian who believes that life literally starts at conception–the situation is more complicated. Why should one set of “bad politics” be more worthy of condemnation than another set of “bad politics”?

Turnipseed’s conclusion–that it’s a matter of fashionability–makes sense from where he’s standing. Either the LCMS is playing a game of respectability politics or they are more progressive than they themselves realize.

Whatever the case, the scales tip toward the current order, and the church is not run as a democracy. For the moment at least, it is not Turnipseed but his accusers within the church–leaders who have aligned themselves with a broader progressive effort to root out the scourge of Christian extremism–who get to define what Lutheranism is and who its enemies should be.

Katherine Dee is an internet culture reporter and advice columnist. You can find her at