A second venue scrapped plans to host the premiere of a documentary film “featuring several prominent right-wing Pennsylvania figures, most notably state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is the Republican candidate for governor,” LNP | LancasterOnline investigative journalist Carter Walker reported last week. “The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania” was originally scheduled to premiere Saturday at Lititz-area theater Penn Cinema but was canceled by the venue. The second venue, the Wyndham Lancaster Resort and Convention Center in East Lampeter Township, canceled, too, according to Steve Turley, a right-wing podcaster and YouTube creator who produced the film. The documentary was to be screened Saturday in a third venue.
“PA is coming back and so is America,” concludes the trailer for “The Return of the American Patriot,” which is replete with images of the Liberty Bell, Revolutionary War soldiers, muskets, Trump flags and masked children, and infused with the rhetoric of right-wing activists and politicians.
This film clearly is not going for subtlety. It’s propaganda. Featuring the founders of the antidemocratic extremist groups Audit the Vote PA and FreePA, it’s guaranteed to be filled with untruths. And while, as the saying goes, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, we’re not entitled to our own facts.
So we’re not surprised that Penn Cinema ultimately rejected it. It had the right, as a private business, to do so. Likewise the Wyndham resort. The government cannot legally hinder free speech and assembly, but a movie theater can decide which movies it chooses to screen and a resort isn’t required to host dangerous ideologues and extremists.
Penn Ketchum, co-owner of Penn Cinema, allowed the organizers of Donald Trump’s rally at Lancaster Airport in October 2020 to use its parking lot. And the cinema has hosted political debates and screened both faith-based movies and films with politically conservative viewpoints. So Ketchum certainly doesn't seem to be opposed to the airing of political viewpoints. But the “nationalist populist agenda” of this film’s makers caused Penn Cinema to cancel the screening, according to a message from the cinema to Suzy Wurtz, a member of the progressive advocacy group Lancaster Stands Up.
We’re heartened that people in the community are resisting propaganda that seeks to normalize nationalism. And we’re encouraged that Lancaster County business owners are heeding the concerns of citizens about racist, antisemitic ideologies. We love this county and we’re deeply proud of its tradition of welcoming people from diverse backgrounds.
LNP | LancasterOnline’s Walker has been reporting for months on the efforts of white nationalists to make inroads in Pennsylvania. And this editorial board has been imploring Lancaster County residents to take a stand against white nationalism — the belief that white Christians are superior to Jews and people of color. It took courage for Ketchum and the management of the Wyndham resort to put principles ahead of profits. We’re grateful to them.
If only the Tied House restaurant in Lititz and its owner, St. Boniface Craft Brewing Co., had exhibited similar character.
Tied House’s management seemed happy to host a discussion in June on Pennsylvania’s supposed founding as an “explicitly Christian state” that required officeholders to affirm their belief in God. Leaders of the right-wing Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society and The Lancaster Patriot newspaper were to speak at the event.
It only was moved to another location after county residents and businesses strongly registered their disapproval. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Walker reported, Kevin Brown, owner of The Fridge in Lancaster, removed St. Boniface beers from his bar’s selection.
It’s clear that the discussion met Amanda Tyler’s definition of Christian nationalism. Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told Walker that it is “a political ideology and cultural framework that merges American and Christian identities.”
She has called it the “single biggest threat” to religious freedom in the United States, Walker noted.
Dennis Downey, Millersville University professor emeritus of history, examined Christian nationalism in a column in last Sunday’s Perspective section. He noted that the anti-LGBTQ Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society and the Mountville-based Lancaster Patriot “are part of a vast far-right subculture at war with the American mainstream.”
“That subculture’s leaders have a misguided understanding of history,” Downey wrote, pointing out that they fail to grasp that William Penn’s colony was “rooted in religious tolerance and liberty,” and “the commonwealth from the American Revolution onward” was remarkable for its “rich and deep religious and cultural diversity.”
Downey wrote that much of “contemporary hate culture is informed by a Christian nationalist outlook” — a “self-righteous fundamentalism in the defense of an imagined American identity” as thoroughly white and Christian.
Mastriano, who is running against Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro for governor, personifies Christian nationalism.
According to a New York Times article published in last Sunday’s LNP, Mastriano spoke in April at a far-right conference called Patriots Arise, where he called the separation of church and state a “myth” and vowed: “In November we are going to take our state back. My God will make it so.”
As The New Yorker magazine noted, Mastriano speaks at political rallies that “take on the trappings of revival meetings,” with participants carrying Bibles and invoking Scripture. According to that publication, Mastriano has allied himself with an effort of the religious right that “has targeted state legislatures across the United States with a series of bills intended to inject Christian ideals into law and public life.”
Mastriano certainly doesn’t seem to have any reservations about appealing to nationalists. His gubernatorial campaign paid the social media platform Gab — which, as the Pittsburgh NPR station 90.5 WESA reported, “provides a home for conspiracy theories and antisemitic content” — $5,000 for “consulting services.” When Mastriano posted a criticism of Democratic economic policies on Gab earlier this month, at least two dozen of the responses were antisemitic insults about Shapiro, who is Jewish, 90.5 WESA noted.
Mastriano also took busloads of Trump supporters to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, and though he has denied remaining at the U.S. Capitol once the violence started, widely circulated video footage shows he was on the grounds after the Capitol was violently breached.
So we completely understand why there would be hesitation about amplifying a documentary that glorifies Mastriano and others in his sphere.
Walker, whose important investigative work is supported by the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund, posted on Twitter on Thursday that Turley, the film’s producer, retweeted “an article promoting the racist idea that whites are being intentionally, systematically replaced by non-whites.”
As Walker noted, the article’s author wrote this on his blog: “No blacks, know peace; know blacks, no peace.”
That’s horrifyingly racist. But this is the company that Mastriano keeps.
Amid nonsense about tyrants, populism and globalism, the trailer for “The Return of the American Patriot” tells us that Pennsylvania has “always been a centerpiece and macrocosm of the nation as a whole” — and that, at least, is true.
The Christian nationalism we’re seeing here is showing up across the nation. We hope the same holds true for the pushback.