In the flurry of news stories about former President Donald Trump’s fourth indictment, you might have overlooked one unusual detail: Among the people indicted alongside Trump in Georgia is a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Church pastor from Illinois.
Reported Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service: “The indictment singles out the Rev. Stephen Cliffgard Lee, a pastor within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod denomination, alleging he and 18 others ‘unlawfully conspired and endeavored to conduct and participate in criminal enterprise in Fulton County, Georgia, and elsewhere.’ Among the specific charges levied against Lee: attempting to influence witnesses and conspiring to solicit false statements and writings.”
Swallowing Trump’s lies
How on earth did a pastor who doesn’t even live in Georgia get caught up in this mess? As Jenkins reports, Lee’s involvement was apparently sparked by one of Trump’s more bizarre post-election claims: that Wandrea “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, election workers in Fulton County, had stuffed ballots in a suitcase in an effort to deny Trump votes.
Strangers began showing up at their homes. Among them, the indictment asserts, was Lee. The indictment reports that after Lee knocked on Freeman’s door, she called the police. An officer’s body cam video shows him approaching Lee in his car. Lee tells the officer, “I’m a pastor, and I’m also working with some folks who are trying to help Ruby out – and also get to some truth of what’s going on.”
(Freeman was so terrorized by incidents like this that she went into hiding.)
The indictment asserts that Lee’s actions were part of an effort to “influence [Freeman’s] testimony in an official proceeding in Fulton County, Georgia, concerning … the November 3, 2020, presidential election in Georgia.”
Harassment and intimidation
Lee is among several people who are accused of harassing and intimidating Freeman. Others involved were Willie Lewis Floyd III, head of a Black pro-Trump group, and Trevian Kutti, the publicist for the rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West). At one point, Kutti told Freeman she could go to prison unless she admitted her involvement in election fraud. But there was no election fraud, and Freeman stood firm. She’s one of the few heroes in this tragic tale.
Americans United has repeatedly warned religious leaders about the dangers of diving into partisan politics. Not only is it illegal in some contexts, but it also threatens to destroy a cleric’s integrity and independence.
Lee’s story ought to serve as a cautionary tale: A religious leader can tie himself so tightly to a candidate that their fates become intertwined. That’s what happened to Lee by becoming so enamored with Trump – and now both men may be headed for a serious fall.
Photo: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis discusses the indictment against Donald Trump and co-conspirators. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.