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He Believes Hitler Went to Heaven — and Wants to Take Over the Lutheran Church

Rolling Stone 3/3/2023 Tim Dickinson
© Provided by Rolling Stone

On Ash Wednesday, the First Lutheran Church in Knoxville called the cops on a parishioner who was attempting to attend services. Corey Mahler — a white nationalist who has sought to transform the Lutheran Church into a bastion for young fascists — was removed from church grounds for causing what his pastor called “harm and division to the body of Christ.

The move against Mahler in Tennessee was set in motion a day earlier in St. Louis. The president of the nation’s second-largest Lutheran denomination posted a denunciation of agitators “propagating radical and unchristian ‘alt-right’ views” and advocating the “destruction” of the church’s leadership. Addressing what he termed the “most bizarre” development of his tenure, Pastor Matt Harrison declared: “This is evil.”

Harrison is president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod; its midwest branding aside, LCMS is a nationwide denomination for 6,000 congregations and nearly 2 million members. Harrison insisted that LCMS churches “categorically reject the horrible and racist teachings of the so-called ‘alt-right’,” and that the punishment for those that refuse to renounce its ideology “must be excommunication.”

The LCMS is a bastion for conservative Christians. It takes an activist role against reproductive rights, condemns gay marriage, and does not allow women pastors. Yet this same veneration of “traditional” values has made LCMS vulnerable to infestation by reactionaries who believe the bible justifies their hate. The church’s struggle is increasingly common in our extremist age: How do you stop a conservative space from becoming a fascist one? 

The LCMS’ fight against the ‘alt-Right’ has burst into the open on the heels of the mid-February publication of a damning research dossier by Machaira Action, a new anti-fascist group, that details Mahler’s role the rise of Lutheran fascism — or what it dubs “Lutefash.” 

Mahler’s views are not covert. He’s is an unabashed white-Christian nationalist who — among other deplorable views — insists that Hitler went to heaven. As detailed in the dossier, Mahler has longstanding ties to Jason Kessler of Unite the Right, which sponsored the deadly, racist rally in Charlottesville Virginia in 2017. Mahler reportedly raised money for Kessler’s legal defense, and was slated to be a speaker — along with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke — at short-lived Unite the Right II, which was drowned out by counter protestors.

In an interview with Rolling Stone Mahler insists that he’s at his core a monarchist — and that the fascism he promotes is just “the off ramp from democracy back to traditional government. Monarchy is the goal.” Mahler, 37, balks at being labeled “neo Nazi” but admits that he wants America to be a white ethnostate — suggesting that it is God’s will. 

Raised in California, Mahler attended Chapman University law school, where Trump’s infamous election lawyer John Eastman used to teach. Mahler has a been an active member of the state bar since 2013. 

In recent years, Mahler moved to Tennessee, where he’s led far-right agitation within LCMS — at one point becoming webmaster for the “Book of Concord,” the Lutheran Church’s manual of doctrine. Mahler has used that clout to build relationships with what he calls “faithful pastors,” while dreaming of “cleaning house” of the church’s current leadership, and leading an “influx of hardline young men” into LCMS congregations.(He claims to have personally recruited “dozens.”) 

Mahler tells Rolling Stone he’s attempting to “save” LCMS  by “getting these young men back in the church.” But he’s also described these recruits as pawns a larger plot: “The Millennials who will replace the feckless, spineless, degenerate boomers will be sure to settle accounts and amend the errors of the past century,” he’s written, adding: “The LCMS will continue to get more and more conservative and more and more traditional — very soon, we will expel the liberals.”

The Machaira Action report argues that modern fascists are attracted to fundamentalist Lutheranism, in part, “because of Martin Luther’s own vehement antisemitism.” (Luther famously sparked the Protestant Reformation. But in less-reckoned-with with history he also called on Jewish schools and synagogues to be set ablaze “in honor of our Lord and of Christendom.”) Evoking the language of Hitler’s Germany, Mahler writes of Lutheranism as “the ancestral faith of my Volk” and insists LCMS has been in decline since it “gave up its explicitly German character.”

Mahler spews his repulsive ideology on Twitter and Telegram. A review by Rolling Stone finds Mahler claiming that Jews “worship Satan.” He weaves Jesus into his white supremacy: “Hatred of Whites is virtually always thinly veiled hatred of Christ.” And he insists that his racism is an essential component of conservatism: “Anyone who is not explicitly pro-White is not actually a member of the Right, but an enemy agent.” Mahler also writes that fascism is a response to the “Marxism” of modern society: “You will be Fascist or your will be Marxist,” he writes. “There are no other options.”

The Machaira expose appears to have sparked LCMS’ thunderous condemnation of alt-right members. But the church has been grappling with Mahler’s corrosive influence for months. In a blog post where he details his side of recent events, Mahler reproduced a June, 2022 complaint letter by three LCMS pastors to the leader of the Knoxville church Mahler attended, sounding the alarm about Mahler’s “sinful behavior.”

In the letter, the pastors warned: “Mr. Mahler engages in regular hateful and racist behavior… and promotion of Nazi Germany and its ideals. He does so in a manner than makes him appear as a sanctioned representative of the LCMS.” It records that Mahler had been booted from his webmaster role (“the Synod saw fit to remove him from oversight of the bookofconcord.org”) but noted that “this in no way has deterred him.”

Mahler claims that his pastor took no action at the time, and that Mahler remained in good standing within the church. The pastor did not respond to an interview request; neither did LCMS president Harrison. Since that time, Mahler and his followers continued to wield significant clout in the broader LCMS — including waging a successful campaign to stymie an update to the church’s statements of doctrine that Mahler & Co. lambasted as too “woke.” 

In his February excommunication warning, Harrison explained that “‘alt-right’ individuals were at the genesis [of that] controversy” over doctrine, which they’d used promote “their own absolutist… racist and supremacist ideologies.”

Mahler has created such a stench that even arch-conservative LCMS voices are eager to see his ilk cast out of the church. “I’ve been disheartened in recent weeks to encounter posts from LCMS Lutherans expressing admiration for Nazi Germany,” tweeted Rev. Chrisopher Neuendorf, an LCMS hardliner from North Dakota. 

“I had always thought the neo-Nazi menace was largely a fantasy concocted by Communists… to justify extreme measures against the Right,” he added. “Turns out there are at least some who are… exactly what the Communists need them to be.”

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