Pastor Mike Voight is the leader of the New Horizon Christian Fellowship in the small town of Klamath Falls, Oregon, located just north of the California border.
On July 6th, Voight held his usual Wednesday evening sermon, focusing this time on readings from the Book of Genesis, chapter 38. He hammered the idolatry, sinfulness and ultimate fate of the Canaanites, a group of people heavily mentioned (and decried) in the Old Testament as the counterpart of the godly Israelites. Most famously, God commands the genocide of the Canaanites, justifying the cleansing as key to His chosen people seizing their lands.
From his pulpit, Voight observed that God has “exterminated” the “wicked” Canaanites, concluding that is the reason why there are “no Canaanites today.” “We recognize even tonight, that our world is full of perverse wickedness beyond anything we can comprehend,” he said. “There are groups coming into this community this month who want to teach your kids what it is to be a drag queen. Who want to entice your children, groom your children, and I think, how many parents are aware of the wicked things that are coming into this community? It is time we as people stand up.”
Two days later, on July 8th, Voight asked to give a blessing at the annual “Benefit for the Basin” dinner and event. What attendees received was a rant about the perversions and grooming that would take place at the Pride event he was referencing above; Voight then passed out crudely made flyers decrying child “exploitation,” according to witnesses.
Now, his flock is readying to hit the streets of Klamath Falls on Saturday, hosting an event dubbed “Prayer at the Park” in response to the second-annual Klamath Pride celebration at Veterans Memorial Park. In so many ways, it feels like a repeat of the kinds of conflicts we saw during a month of Pride events across the country: A small group with extremist beliefs and a love of conspiracies about the left, agitating loudly and hoping to tip the scales against their perceived political enemies.
Thanks to Voight, Klamath Pride is now receiving interest from an assortment of people who operate in and around politics, like Oregon State Rep. E. Werner Reschke and Klamath County Republican Central Committee head Pati Horton, who frequently spreads fear-mongering rhetoric and conspiracies on her Facebook page. (“Citizens for Safe Schools is a sponsor of this event. The focus on the website is human trafficking. What an oxymoron they have created,” she wrote, adding the hashtag #notouchingchildren.)
This is exactly the kind of blueprint we saw unfold in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, when a state representative teamed up with a Christian far-right motorcycle club to claim that LGBTQ people were rising up to destroy children, and that people needed to band together and physically confront the threat. This conspiracy is fortified by claims that the “mainstream media,” Democrats, “antifa” and teachers across the country are in on a plan to indoctrinate children in order to foment a leftist takeover of America.
Of course, it’s all just a fantasy that justifies all manner of cruelty in the name of “saving the children” — a repeating bit that’s become the obsession of America’s far-right extremists, whether it’s filtered through the lens of COVID vaccinations, the threat of “critical race theory” or panic over “grooming.” The stress over Pride events and drag shows also recalls the kind of cut-and-paste conspiracies we saw in 2020, as small-town agitators spread fear about “antifa buses” bringing in black-clad terrorists who want to “kill all white people.”
In fact, Klamath Falls was the site of one of those antifa panics in 2020, when an array of right-wingers, militia members and conservative politicians pointed to the small town as a potential battleground. But “antifa” never showed up — instead, the town’s own residents held a small rally in support of Black Lives Matter, and stood toe-to-toe with a gaggle of white men armed to the teeth with rifles and tactical gear.
A few of those men decided to get into fistfights with BLM protesters, per witnesses; formally, several people were detained but all were let go, except for one man who was cited for disorderly conduct. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop some extremists from pretending the night was a crushing defeat for the left.
More recently, Klamath Falls became the subject of agitation from anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, noted for his involvement in a number of standoffs, when he and other right-wing militants launched a plan to fight for water rights in 2021 amid a severe drought in the Klamath region. They threatened to seize control of the federally controlled water supply, turn it on, and engage in another armed confrontation with authorities. It never quite came to fruition, but it did lead to a swell of attention and recruitment to Bundy’s group “People’s Rights,” a national effort that has coalesced a broad range of Trumpers, QAnon obsessives, anti-vaxxers and militia members.
In other words, this is an area ripe for recruitment with farcical far-right conspiracies and moral-panic exaggerations about the corruption of society. Local police are hoping that Saturday’s event will go off without conflict; a spokesperson for the Klamath Falls Police Department noted that it has spoken with “organizers on both sides,” and plans to have “extra resources” on the ground. It’s also currently reviewing reports of potentially threatening speech that was posted on Facebook against the Pride event.
With any luck, there won’t be any violence. Indeed, the “Prayer at the Park” organizers today announced they’re moving their event to the government center, about three blocks from Veterans Memorial Park. Perhaps it’s so that the prayer doesn’t feel like a “real” counter-protest. Perhaps, more cynically, it just provides plausible deniability if anything happens.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to shake the specter of violence being announced against a group of people who have historically been disproportionately victimized for their identity. And it’s especially difficult to shake when the flier for the prayer event includes an ominous quote from the Bible: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”