He was introduced as “the next governor of North Carolina.”
But as he neared the 40-minute mark in his sermon-like speech at Charlotte’s Freedom House Church in May, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson sounded more like a drill sergeant readying his troops for the culture wars.
He dismissed social justice as a “wickedness” that saps initiative. He belittled those who say the Bible “teaches you how to be nice.” He mocked “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement.
“Not one time in my life when I faced adversity did I say, ‘You know, I shall overcome,’” said Robinson, a conservative Republican who’s also the first African-American ever elected lieutenant governor in North Carolina.
Then Robinson halted his back-and-forth march across the church stage, planted his 5-foot-11, 300-pound body behind the lectern, and began shouting into his hand-held microphone.
“My God tells me that when I face adversity, that, number one, I am to stand up like a MAN! M-A-N!” he said, the congregation answering his booming voice with cheers and a standing ovation. “Unbend your back and stand up like a man!
“Number two, look at your family and say, ‘Stand back! I got this!’”
And, “number three, put on the whole ARMOR of God,” Robinson roared, now quoting from the Bible. “Put that armor on and then do like David. Go into battle and take the head of your enemy in God’s name.”
Turn the other cheek? Love your enemies? Blessed are the peacemakers? Not for Robinson. His brand of combative Christianity is more David vs. Goliath than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
The Assembly asked to interview Robinson about his faith; his office declined our request. But a review of 11 of Robinson’s church speeches, and attendance at a 12th, offered some insights into his religious beliefs.
In the Gospel According to Mark Robinson, the United States is a Christian nation, guns are part of God’s plan, abortion is murder, climate change is “Godless … junk science,” and the righteous, especially men, should follow the example of the Jesus who cleansed the temple armed with a whip, and told his disciples to make sure they packed a sword.
“People ask me all the time why I seem to be so bold in what I’m saying,” Robinson told the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem in November 2021. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t like it, go ask the man that told me to say it. And see what He has to say about it. You don’t like the words I’m speaking from the Bible? Go talk to the author of the Bible.’”
Robinson grew up in the United Church of Christ and says he was saved in an evangelical church. His claim that he’s merely giving voice to what’s written in the Good Book seemed like an invitation to check it out with people who teach and preach the Bible every day—theology professors, clergy, and other experts.
We sent extended quotes and a video from Robinson’s speeches to 12 scholars and ministers from a spectrum of Protestant backgrounds, and interviewed them about Robinson’s theology.
Dennis Hollinger, the former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical school co-founded by Billy Graham, echoed many in the group in wishing Robinson had done a deeper and less political reading of scripture, one that could have cast a brighter light on such biblical hallmarks as justice, love, and compassion.
“Lt. Gov. Robinson gives some strong critiques of what he calls the social justice movement, such as its failure to emphasize personal responsibility,” Hollinger, who lives in Charlotte, told The Assembly in an email. “But he fails to incorporate the strong biblical emphasis on justice found in the Law, the Prophets (in the Old Testament) and in Jesus (in the New Testament). Biblical teaching on justice includes care for the poor, the marginalized and immigrants in the land.”
- “There’s a lot of Bible there, but not much Gospel,” said Bill Leonard, former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. “It is claiming a biblical literalism in such a way that it contradicts the heart of the Gospel, which really is ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ That’s Jesus doing the talking.”
- “It’s an us vs. them mentality. So I think it’s very polarizing,” said Ellen Davis, a professor of the Bible at Duke Divinity School. “And there’s no genuine appeal to how the Bible represents God as a lover of justice and a defender of the weak.”
- “Being a political leader or even a person of faith … does not make you a public theologian,” said Gregory Howard, dean of the divinity school at Shaw University in Raleigh, the South’s oldest historically Black college. And pointing to how white Southerners once claimed to find a blessing for slavery in the Bible, Howard added: “Scripture can become a weapon when it’s not properly interpreted.”
He has signaled a likely run for governor in 2024. And he’d be the favorite in a North Carolina Republican Party whose chairman, Michael Whatley, recently told a gathering of conservative Christians that the state GOP wants to be “the party of faith.”
Look for candidate Robinson to wrap in biblical language both his life story—born into poverty, shaped by faith—and those culture-war issues that have fueled his meteoric rise. Since taking office in 2021, he’s spent many of his Sundays doing just that at conservative churches like Freedom House.
‘You Need You A Sword’
“Jesus told folks they should own a sword. ‘Go get you a sword. You need you a sword.’ … In our [U.S.] founding documents, it says rights come from God. Now, I want you to think about this: To every animal, God has given the ability to defend itself. [Robinson gives the example of the garden slug, which has an enzyme that makes it unappetizing.]
“Now, if God gave the garden slug a way to defend itself, what makes you think he didn’t give man—who he created in his own image—a way to defend himself? Those AR-15s and Glock 9-millimeters and .45 calibers—where do you think they came from? Who do you think inspired them? God knew the world he was putting us into. So he formed in our minds the ability for us…to defend ourselves.” — Robinson at Asbury Baptist Church, Seagrove, June 6, 2021
“When there’s a school shooting, what’s the first thing they do? … It gets on my nerves so bad I want to scream—when I see these folks down at the schoolhouse, after a school shooting, having the nerve to pray. Why were you not praying BEFORE that shooting happened? Don’t you know the reason why it’s happening is because you have purged prayer from the hallways of those schools?” — Robinson at Berean Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nov. 15, 2021
Here’s the backstory on the lieutenant governor and guns.
In 2018, Robinson, then a private citizen, was planning to buy an AR-15 rifle at a gun show in Greensboro, where he lived. But in the wake of a mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, the Greensboro City Council wanted to cancel a local gun show. This infuriated Robinson, who attended the city council’s meeting, and decided to speak up about his belief that the council was penalizing law-abiding gun owners for something a disturbed young man had done, with an AR-15 rifle, hundreds of miles away.
A video of Robinson’s angry speech to the council went viral. Fox and Friends invited him to be on their show, and one of the co-hosts suggested he run for political office.
Robinson did, beating a crowded field to get the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, and then winning the post in 2020. He also now sits on the board of the National Rifle Association, and regularly speaks at NRA conventions.
In one of his church speeches, Robinson ascribed religious meaning to his life-changing speech: “That moment, on that day—April 3, 2018—that was the moment [for which] God formed me in the womb. He literally held me in his hand that day.”
But what of his claim that God somehow inspired the manufacture of high-powered guns as a way for people to defend themselves? Some of the scholars we consulted called that a case of “proof-texting,” the practice of using a biblical text to justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage.
Robinson alluded to something Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke. He was gathered with his apostles at the Last Supper, on the day before his death, when he said to Peter and the others: “And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”
But Robinson made no mention of what Jesus said and did later that night, when he was about to be arrested by the high priest.
“[Robinson] forgets the Garden of Gethsemane,” said Leonard, the former divinity school dean at Wake Forest. “When Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus puts it back on, and tells Peter, ‘Put away your sword!’”
Leonard and a few of the other biblical experts also pointed to what Jesus said next, according to the Gospel of Matthew: “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
What about Jesus’ earlier statement, about buying a sword?
“Jesus is using irony with the disciples who are trusting in their own capabilities,” explained Hollinger, who also teaches Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell. “Robinson tends to throw out scripture, taking [passages] out of context and failing to look at the whole of God’s word. … One can make a constitutional case for gun ownership, but it’s hard to base that directly from the Bible.”
What does come from the Bible, said Rodney Sadler, a Bible professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, are some of the most eloquent calls for making peace, not war, even with your enemies.
“God in the Hebrew Bible is constantly telling people that, in the latter days, we want you to beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks,” Sadler said. “And Jesus never said, ‘Pick up a gun on your neighbor.’”
Robinson’s literal interpretation of Jesus’ words was seconded by one of our scholars, Bruce Ashford, who taught for 19 years at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.
He also read Jesus’ instruction to buy a sword as an affirmation of the right to self-defense. Ashford, a former columnist for FOX News, said Jesus told Peter to put away his sword to make sure nothing stopped him from his mission “to go to the cross and suffer on our behalf … Peter’s attempt to defend him by the sword would have derailed Jesus’ mission.”
But self-defense is one thing; saying God gives his imprimatur to easy access to military-style weapons by civilians is another, said the Rev. William Turner, pastor of Mt. Level Baptist Church in Durham and a professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School.
“I don’t doubt that there are occasions when Christians need to defend and protect themselves,” Turner said. “But to turn the Christian faith into a war-like religion, I think you have violated the heart and soul and core of what it means to be Christ-like.”
And at a time when the United States is politically polarized and already “armed to the teeth,” said Leonard, who’s also a church historian, Robinson and other gun-rights advocates should be careful to not unwittingly offer “biblical permission” to groups like the Proud Boys that are ready “to take up the sword.”
Then there’s Robinson’s other claim, that mass shootings at public schools happen because of the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision outlawing school-sponsored prayer.
Several of the scholars interviewed pointed out that the ruling—saying the First Amendment forbids the government from siding with any one religion—did not affect students’ right to pray on their own.
And houses of worship, where praying is the main activity, have hardly been spared from mass shootings, said Howard, dean of the Shaw divinity school. Among the victims in recent years: Members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Said Howard: “They were in study and praying when they were gunned down.”
‘Led By Men’
“We’re called to be the Christians that God has called us to be. And we are called … to be led by men. God sent women out … to do their thing. But when it was time to face down Goliath, He sent DAVID, not Davita. DAVID! When it was time to lead the Israelites out of [Egypt], He sent MOSES! Not Mama Moses, Daddy Moses.
See, God knew what He was doing when He made men big and hairy and ugly. Because you’re supposed to scare away predators, whether they’re in the woods or standing in front of your kids in elementary school.” — Robinson at Freedom House Church in Charlotte, May 22, 2022
In making the case that God picked men, not women, to lead, Robinson skips over a lot in both the Old and New Testaments, according to several of the biblical experts.
For starters, said Davis, who teaches the Old Testament at Duke, women saved both David and Moses—the stars of Robinson’s chosen stories — from being killed. David’s wife, Michal, foiled an assassination attempt and several women helped baby Moses survive.
“And if (Robinson’s) point is that in moments of combat, it’s only men, that’s not really true,” said Davis, pointing to the Book of Judges, which prominently features Deborah, a leader and prophet in ancient Israel, and Yael, who helped deliver Israel from the Canaanite army by hammering a tent peg into the temple of one of its commanders.
In the New Testament, there’s Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, said the Rev. LaTonya Penny, who pastors Belonging Fellowship, a Baptist ministry in Mebane.
“Jesus is the walking, breathing, living Word, but Mary brought him forth,” said Penny, whose divinity doctorate is from Campbell University in Buies Creek. “It took a woman to do that. It did not take a man’s participation … This was God choosing her.”
And Jason Myers, a New Testament professor at Greensboro College, said “new avenues opened up for women … as apostles, teachers and preachers” during the times chronicled in the Gospels and in the Letters of Paul the evangelist.
Paul entrusted women with leadership positions, including Phoebe, who delivered his Letter to the Romans to the church there. “For the first time, what many Christians consider the greatest letter of Paul was read and interpreted and preached,” Myers said. “It was done so by a woman.”
Robinson’s use of bellicose language and his suggestion that God turned to the manliest of men also drew the notice of some of our experts.
Leonard said Robinson’s comments echo some evangelical Christians today who argue that “men have to reclaim this kind of macho manhood and be willing to go to war.” There’s even a book about the movement: Jesus and John Wayne.
Their model is the whip-wielding Jesus who angrily overturned tables in the temple to drive out the money-changers. Though Jesus’ anger there is real, Myers said, there are many more New Testament texts that portray him as the suffering servant who rejects violence in favor of love.
And Goliath, not David, is likely a better fit for Robinson’s description of men as big and hairy, Myers said. David made his debut in the Bible as the unlikeliest of kings and warriors.
“He’s described as beautiful and handsome and he’s actually the youngest of Jesse’s sons,” said Myers. “All of his older sons—the bigger, stronger ones—God says no to. He takes the youngest, and you might say the weakest.”
A postscript: Faced with backlash over his comment, Robinson sent out a video response that said it was “absolutely 100 percent ridiculous” for anyone to “insinuate” that he didn’t believe women should be leaders. He pointed to his mother as “my greatest hero and leader of my life.” His comments at the church, he said, were designed to encourage men to “stand up and take on the role of leadership as well.”
‘A Christian Nation’
“There’s a lot of people that like to say that this isn’t a Christian nation. But, hey, take a look around you. Every good thing that’s ever come up in this nation, every problem that we’ve ever needed solved—it’s all been solved by people who believed in Jesus Christ.
“That’s where the real solutions are in this nation. They always have been. And there’s always going to be a regimen of people in this nation who call themselves Christians and believe in the tenets of Christianity. And so this is a Christian nation.” — Robinson at Cross Assembly, Wake County, Oct. 10, 2021
A majority of Americans—63 percent—still call themselves Christian, though that number has been shrinking over the years.
Robinson calls the United States a Christian nation for another reason: He believes that’s the way the Founding Fathers intended for it to be. Three out of four Republicans agree with him, according to the Pew Research Center.
But the scholars interviewed by The Assembly say history tells a different story.
“The Founders were very clear: They did not want the United States tethered to one religion at all,” said Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College who’s a historian of American religion and the author of 18 books, including two on the separation of church and state. “That’s why we have the First Amendment. And none of the Founders, with the possible exception of John Witherspoon, would be considered as members in any of the churches [Robinson] is talking to.”
Robinson frequently quotes the proclamation in the Declaration of Independence that all men get their rights not from kings, but from their Creator. But Christians aren’t alone in acknowledging God—Jews, Muslims, and members of other religions believe in their Creator, too.
And several of our experts noted that the Declaration’s main author, Thomas Jefferson, was not an orthodox Christian. Like some of the other Founders, he was a Deist—someone who believes in a God who made the world but does not influence human lives.
In fact, said Leonard, Jefferson took the New Testament and edited out all of Jesus’ miracle healings and his resurrection from the dead. Leonard owns a copy of what’s been called the “Jefferson Bible,” which he said keeps and emphasizes “all the moral teachings.”
There’s also the U.S. Constitution, which Leonard notes does not include the word God—unless you count its mention of “the Year of our Lord” in Article VII.
Beyond setting the record straight, some of the scholars also had issues with other parts of what Robinson said, such as his exclusion of non-Christians in his accounting of those who have contributed “every good thing” to the United States.
In a 2021 speech before the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition, Robinson said he’d pay the plane, train, or automobile fare out of the country for anybody who didn’t like that this is a Christian nation. “You can go to someplace that’s not a Christian nation,” he said.
The Rev. Amantha Barbee, pastor of Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church, and some others interviewed questioned what they considered Robinson’s downplaying of those chapters in American history when the great mass of Americans—including many who professed a fervent faith in Jesus—failed to live up to Christian ideals.
“Considering how the United States was stolen from indigenous people and how the United States has built itself on the backs of free human labor, I don’t know if I care to label that Christian,” said Barbee, who is African-American. “What I believe a Christian to be is the antithesis to that.”
‘Either One Of Two Things’
“Ain’t but two genders—male and female.… And I don’t care how much you cut yourself up, drug yourself up, and dress yourself up. You’re still either one of two things. You’re either a man or a woman. You might be a cut-up, dressed-up, drugged-up ugly man or woman. But you [are] still a man or a woman. …
“When I die and leave out of here, I’m not going to be standing in front of CNN, with them asking me about what I said about transgenderism. I’m going to be standing before the Almighty and he’s going to ask me, ‘Did you follow along with them lies they were telling down there on Earth about my creation? Or did you stand up for me and what I told you to believe in?’”
— Robinson at Berean Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nov. 16, 2021
Robinson’s harsh words for people who claim a gender different from the one on their birth certificate brought pastoral reactions, not biblical references, from the preachers and teachers we spoke with.
“The transgender issue is difficult to address,” said Davis, the Bible professor from Duke. “It’s not something the Bible imagined.”
Ashford, the former professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he agreed with Robinson that “we should not overturn biological categories.” But, he added, he would put it differently than the lieutenant governor. “I think [transgender people] should be treated with love and care and respect,” he said.
It was the lack of all three in Robinson’s remarks that left some of our experts, particularly the pastors, shaking their heads.
“I don’t know what being transgender feels like, but I have the compassion to walk alongside someone who is experiencing that and accept them for how they see themselves,” said Rev. Penny of Belonging Fellowship.
Pastor Turner of Mt. Level Baptist Church said the need to offer an understanding heart is even greater at a time when many transgender people are bullied. “I think there’s been a lot of persecution that’s gone on,” he said. “You just don’t get that kind of [abusive] language from the Gospels. I defy someone to show me any there.”
‘Patriots, Not Politicians’
In late September, Robinson went back to Charlotte’s Freedom House Church to be the keynote speaker at the 2022 Salt & Light conference—an annual commingling of religion and politics sponsored by the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Organizers said about 1,500 conservative Christians came from all over North Carolina and beyond to hear from a parade of Republican politicians and conservative pundits. There was even a raffle: Somebody at the faith and freedom conference took home an AR-15-style rifle.
The big name speaker on Friday, the first night, was U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, whose three-word platform—“Jesus, Guns, Babies”—is spelled out on one side of her campaign bus.
But on Saturday, the excitement in the air was for Robinson, whose barnburner of a speech was to be the finale.
“We really need a conservative Christian governor right now,” said Johanna Christian, a retired X-ray technician who drove from Cary and stayed after Robinson’s speech to buy his new book—and got him to sign it.
In the book—We Are The Majority! The Life And Passions Of A Patriot—Robinson tells his story, including a faith journey that started when his widowed mother took him to St. Stephen United Church of Christ in Greensboro. At this Black church, affiliated with a mostly white mainline Protestant denomination, Robinson found not only a spiritual home but also father figures and mentoring.
St. Stephen was a safe haven for Robinson, who grew up poor, the ninth of 10 children. And he was inspired by the successful African-Americans he saw in the pews. “They were people of means,” he writes. “They had money and jobs and careers and families. I always wanted to be like the people at church.”
But sometime after the conservative pastor retired, Robinson left St. Stephen. As a freshman at North Carolina A&T University, he had a more intimate spiritual experience, when a friend invited him to an evangelical church. It was there that “I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior,” he writes.
Being saved, though, didn’t mean much change in Robinson’s lifestyle, he writes, though he always had a sense that God had a plan for him. That became clear to him in 2018, when—after job losses, bankruptcies, and other life curves—Robinson gave his speech on gun rights at the Greensboro City Council.
Back at the conference, it was finally time for what the crowd had been waiting for. “If we have ever had a fighter in North Carolina, it’s this next speaker,” said Jason Williams, executive director of the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Robinson entered accompanied by a pulsing rock music score and dressed to the nines: blue suit, white dress shirt, red-and-blue striped tie, stylish brown shoes, and a red handkerchief peeking out from a pocket in his jacket.
He also carried a red towel, which he used to mop the sweat from his face and head. A red towel has become such a Robinson trademark that there were red towels for sale in the church lobby, emblazoned with a map of North Carolina and the words: “Mark Robinson … Patriots, Not Politicians.”
As his fans cheered and jumped to their feet, Robinson started off with another of his trademarks: “The very first thing we’re gonna do as always is we’re gonna thank our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. … He’s the one we’re really working for.”
Robinson then started picking off his targets: Democrats for a porous Southern border, unchecked crime, and an economy “in shambles.” Black Lives Matter. Antifa. And the medical profession for peddling “unproven, untested” vaccines.
At the 20-minute mark, Robinson started to amp it up by mixing religion and politics—a caffeinated brew that perked up the crowd. “What is the most essential element of our nation’s founding?” he asked them. Not the Constitution, he said, not the Declaration of Independence.
“The most essential element is the wisdom and knowledge of Jesus Christ and his word,” he said, moving a red-toweled hand up and down to signal he was really serious. The applauding crowd was with him.
From there, it was a short hop to what Robinson has done in all of his church speeches: Rile up the troops, get them ready for war. Not the kind America fought overseas, but one here at home.
“Today, we fight a different kind of war,” he said, calling it one for decency, freedom, and faith. “And who are the soldiers that will get the work done?”
He looked out at their faces: “YOU will be the heroes of this next war to save our republic!”
After the speech, a line quickly formed in the church lobby. A hundred people waited to buy Robinson’s book and get his signature. They even got a picture with the lieutenant governor, taken on their phones by a member of his staff.
John and Linn Hatcher of Greensboro were among the Robinson fans who got a book. And yes, they’re on board for him running for governor—and more.
“We want to see him go national,” said Linn, a retired teacher. “Doing and saying the same things he’s talking about now.”
Her husband, a small businessman, was also ready to sign up. “We love him,” John said of Robinson. “He stands up for God.”
Tim Funk covered religion, politics, and other beats for The Charlotte Observer for 35 years.