, ,

The Gospel of Matthew Trewhella: How a militant anti-abortion activist is influencing Republican politics

The Wisconsin pastor was once a political pariah. Now his book is being quoted by politicians and former Trump officials. One activist is using it to disrupt elections.

Pastor Matthew Trewhella speaks to an audience at the Arlington Community Event Center in Iowa about his book, which encourages government officials to defy law, policy or court opinion they deem “unjust or immoral” under the “law of God.” James Year, special to ProPublica

This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with Wisconsin Watch. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Wisconsin Pastor Matthew Trewhella has an affable routine when he’s trying to persuade government officials to abolish abortion, ignore gun laws and question election results.

The 63-year-old opens his talks with a photo of “Trewhella nation”: his wife of over 40 years, their 11 home-schooled children and dozens of grandchildren. He cracks jokes. He quotes history and scripture. He floats secession as a regretful possibility. With half-rim glasses and collared shirts, Trewhella looks and sounds more like a professor than a provocateur.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

But when addressing his congregation at an Embassy Suites in suburban Milwaukee, he sneers and shouts, deriding his enemies as wicked dogs, whores and tyrants. 

“When you see sodomy running rampant, when you see women in government, when you see men behaving like effeminate little squirrels, judgment is in the land,” Trewhella said during a 2020 sermon. 

Last year, he said homosexuality should be treated as a crime, noting that the Bible called for the death penalty for “the filth of sodomy.”

For much of his public life, Trewhella has made a career of denouncing the law while railing against abortion and gun restrictions. Twenty years ago, that made him a political pariah. His reputation for blockading abortion clinics, calling for churches to form militias and defending the murder of abortion providers was so extreme that two state chapters of Right to Life, the anti-abortion group, condemned him. 

But today, the world has changed. He has been invited to speak by local Republican parties and other groups across the country. He gave a prayer breakfast sermon to one of the nation’s preeminent law enforcement associations. And a prolific booster of election conspiracy theories has used his work as the basis for a campaign to disrupt elections. 

Trewhella’s ability to tailor his message for different audiences has helped. He’s gracious to the women who introduce him at political events but tells his congregation that the idea of women in government is “sickening” and “perverse.”

In the cast of characters who might influence the upcoming election, he’s not rallying crowds like Steve Bannon, the former Donald Trump strategist, or Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative student group Turning Point USA. Trewhella is more behind the scenes, providing a religious justification for some far-right policies and causes. With the political establishment shifting, he exemplifies how in this splintered landscape, even the most fringe figures can become influencers.

Trewhella gained his newfound acceptance with a self-published 2013 book, “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates,” which relies on a theory developed by 16th-century Calvinists seeking holy justification for fighting political oppression amid the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation. Trewhella has applied it to today’s political battles, writing that government officials have a divine “right and duty” to defy any laws, policies or court opinions that violate “the law of God.”

To him, that means outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, or even violently resisting the government if necessary, noting in his book that there are times when men “must redden their swords.”

Pastor Matthew Trewhella, once a pariah for his militant anti-abortion advocacy, has influenced current politics with his book, which encourages government officials to defy law, policy or court opinion they deem “unjust or immoral” under the “law of God.” Sara Stathas, special to ProPublica

In recent years, Trewhella’s teachings have popped up in legislatures and local boards as the Christian right has increasingly influenced Republican politics. A Missouri state representative applied the doctrine when he proposed banning abortion in 2020, when Roe vs. Wade was still in effect. Commissioners in western North Carolina invoked it when they declared their county a “gun sanctuary” to protest state laws.

Former President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has praised Trewhella’s book several times, extolling it as a “masterful blueprint showing Americans how to successfully resist tyranny.” And a member of Trump’s 2020 campaign legal team, Jenna Ellis, cited Trewhella’s work as a solution to government overreach in her 2015 book advocating for a biblical interpretation of the Constitution.

Trewhella’s acceptance into more mainstream circles has surprised extremism researchers who have tracked him for decades. It’s important to pay attention to a man “creating the ideological rationalizations for these ideas,” said Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a nonprofit that tracks the far right.

“I think that the public needs to know that he’s a dangerous theocrat who would fundamentally alter the United States in irreparable ways that would harm many, including women, people of color and the LGBTQ community,” Burghart said.

In Wisconsin, Trewhella has forged a close relationship with the Republican Party of Waukesha County, the stronghold for state GOP power. His book is the only one the group promotes on its website. Twice in the past two-and-a-half years, the party has invited him to speak at events, including one where he addressed local candidates. A young leader in Trewhella’s church gave the opening prayer at a county GOP dinner, and the party paid that member to do political canvassing just a month after he was charged in state court for calling in a bomb scare against an LGBTQ+ event. The member is awaiting a plea hearing in August and said his lawyer advised him not to comment.

During a speech to the Waukesha GOP last year, Trewhella focused on how local officials were best positioned to safeguard Americans’ most cherished freedoms.

“You may have to do things in the future you’re not authorized to do,” Trewhella told them. “The country is breaking apart. Counties are becoming important in the process. Counties may secede from one state and join an adjoining state as things break apart. Several adjoining counties may end up leaving a state and forming their own state. Remember, this happened during the Civil War.”

The Waukesha GOP chair declined to comment through executive director Kathy Pape, who wrote in response to repeated interview requests, “We are done with this.” 

Approached near a suburban strip mall at one of his regular anti-abortion street protests in May, Trewhella smiled when asked by a reporter about his reputational rehabilitation. Dozens of his followers spread out at an intersection beneath a punishing sun, handing out pamphlets and displaying 5-foot signs of aborted fetuses.

“Most people will always only care about three things in life: me, myself and I,” he said. “It’s only because of their mundane, self-absorbed lives that they would think someone like me is an extremist. That’s my answer.” He chuckled and returned to his flock.

Matthew Trewhella (center) distributes signs for an anti-abortion street demonstration in West Allis, Wisconsin, in April. Sara Stathas, special to ProPublica

Trewhella’s transformation

Trewhella tells his own life story in biblical terms: A fallen man finds redemption. Trewhella said he wrote it all down in a 23-page conversion testimony after his 5-year-old son asked him, “Dad, when are you going to write a book where you can tell us how you went from being a bad guy to a good guy?” 

Growing up in a Catholic family, Trewhella wrote, he was forced to attend “nearly unbearable” Sunday Masses. He described his mother as a “classic merciful mom” and his father as “short on words and quick on corporal punishment.” When Trewhella was 11, his parents divorced, which he called an “ugly thing” that “removes all innocence.”

As a bad guy, Trewhella wrote, he joined a Detroit gang and “dealt drugs, stole cars, firebombed houses, robbed businesses, burglarized homes, fought other gangs, and fenced stolen items to the Mafia.”

Then, he said, he landed in an evangelical rehab program at 17 and had an epiphany during church.

“Understand, I had told the shrink at the psyche ward just three days earlier that I would burn down more houses when I got out of jail,” Trewhella wrote. “But sitting there — I saw my sin for how truly reprehensible it was. I was in the presence of a holy God.”

As a good guy, Trewhella got married, graduated from a Pentecostal college and, in 1989, founded Mercy Seat Christian Church in the Milwaukee area. 

He also became one of the nation’s most militant anti-abortion activists. He joined the so-called rescue movement, in which activists blockaded clinics. In 1990, he founded his own organization, Missionaries to the Preborn, whose members chained themselves to cars parked in front of clinic entrances.

Trewhella racked up arrests and jail time for misdemeanor convictions, though other charges were dropped. By 2007, the group took credit for permanently closing down six of eight Milwaukee clinics.

Trewhella has professed nonviolence. But after an activist killed an abortion provider in 1993, he signed a document describing the murder of these doctors as “justifiable.” Around the same time, Planned Parenthood recorded Trewhella urging churches to form militias and telling parents to teach their children to assemble weapons blindfolded: “This Christmas, I want you to do the most loving thing. I want you to buy your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.”

In this still from a video posted on YouTube by an anti-abortion activist, Matthew Trewhella is seen handcuffed at Milwaukee’s 2003 Summerfest after police said his group was loitering. YouTube screenshot by ProPublica)

A man who reportedly used Trewhella’s group’s address on his driver’s license shot and killed a physician who performed abortions in 1998. The group fundraised for the families of people imprisoned for anti-abortion violence, according to a 2001 book. And Trewhella wrote in 2003 that he visited a man awaiting execution for murdering an abortion provider, saying that “when abortion is outlawed,” future generations would view the man “as the sanest and bravest man of our age.”

It all made Trewhella persona non grata. Republican politicians disregarded him. Wisconsin Right to Life said Trewhella’s group had scant support from “the mainline right-to-life people.” Vermont Right to Life called his group’s statements “disturbing.” And by the time Trewhella’s group announced a tour through Montana in 2001, the state’s Right to Life organization warned its supporters to steer clear.

“They’re really out there,” Steven Ertelt, head of the Montana group, said at the time. “They know we won’t give them the time of day.”

After Wisconsin Watch and ProPublica’s initial interview with Trewhella, the pastor did not return more than a dozen calls, emails and text messages seeking a follow-up interview. The news organizations tried to speak with Trewhella at another protest and at his church service, but he was not there. He did not respond to emailed questions and refused receipt of a certified letter containing them.

Through his anti-abortion militancy, Trewhella came across an idea that would give him a religious foundation for his crusade: the doctrine of the lesser magistrates.

For years, the theory had circulated among Christian Reconstructionists, who believe that all of society — including government, education and culture — should follow their strict reading of Old Testament law. Its adherents included some of the most violent members of the rescue movement. 

Trewhella recalled in an interview first encountering the lesser magistrates doctrine during a talk by a minister in 1990. It drew from the Bible to claim that those vested with political power could actively resist tyranny on behalf of the people — including, in extreme cases, with lethal violence.

“Immediately that made sense to me because I was very involved on behalf of the preborn,” he said. Then, at a 2007 prayer meeting, the spirit moved Trewhella to do more. “I just felt from the Lord,” he said, “that I should write a book on the doctrine of the lesser magistrates, make a website for it, teach it to the government officials and the people of America.” 

The obsession led him to a 1550 German Lutheran text called the Magdeburg Confession, which he claims is the doctrine’s first formalization. Trewhella commissioned an English translation, releasing it in 2012. 

The next year, he self-published his book, in which he beseeched readers to deploy the doctrine against “abhorrent” issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. The back cover called it “a hopeful blueprint for freedom.”

Matthew Trewhella makes a presentation in Arlington, Iowa. James Year, special to ProPublica

Trewhella’s embrace

After his book came out in 2013, Trewhella hustled. He used his blog and talks to spread the doctrine across the religious right. He seized on controversy and the attention it brought.

Often, he veiled the more extreme elements of his philosophy in American patriotism, asserting that the doctrine influenced framers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In interviews with half a dozen academics, including conservative, Christian professors of government and religion, all but one disputed Trewhella’s claim. Two leading scholars on the revolutionary period and constitutional law said they had never even heard of the doctrine. All of them considered its application in modern-day America inappropriate and dangerous. But to those of a certain political or religious persuasion, Trewhella has proved convincing. 

The book helped Trewhella attract the ear of high-level officials. 

In 2015, in a remarkable turnabout, Republican lawmakers welcomed Trewhella to the Montana Capitol for a sermon in which he discussed the doctrine. 

“The federal government has already attacked and abridged liberty; they are now in the process of plundering the American people,” he said. “The phalanx of laws created by the state to invade our domestic affairs, disarm the people, seize our property and harass our persons all point to the growing tyranny in America.” 

Trewhella’s message resonated in the rotunda and in the nation’s politics, coming in the period between the Tea Party’s rise and Trump’s election.

That speech, Trewhella later said, helped put his book “on the map.”

Following Matthew Trewhella’s presentation in Arlington, Iowa, people line up to purchase copies of “The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates” and other merchandise from his wife, Clara Trewhella, left. James Year, special to ProPublica

In 2017, Kentucky’s then-Gov. Matt Bevin met with Trewhella and Operation Save America, an abortion abolition group now run by Trewhella’s son-in-law. 

“We were able to pray for him and challenge him with the Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate and the abolition of abortion,” a group blog post said. “He told Pastor Matt Trewhella and the rest of us that he read the book and has passed it to others.”

Bevin did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In 2019, Missouri state Rep. Mike Moon, now a state senator, helped run a conference on the doctrine of the lesser magistrates, where Trewhella spoke. A few months later, Moon introduced a bill to completely outlaw abortion in the state, leading Trewhella to claim credit on social media. Moon and his office did not return repeated requests for comment. 

Trewhella’s ideas also gained favor among gun rights activists as a wave of counties declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” some of which state that local law enforcement will not act on any gun laws they deem unconstitutional. The hard-line Gun Owners of America has consistently cited Trewhella and his book in its support of such resolutions. At least 10 resolutions across the country specifically refer to lesser magistrates. One of the earliest, issued in 2019, was authored by a county commissioner who has described reading Trewhella’s book as a “turning point” in his leadership.

“It gave me the foundation I needed as a county commissioner to be the big brother to protect my constituents,” Dr. Dan Eichenbaum, a Republican in Cherokee County, North Carolina, said on his podcast. In an interview, Eichenbaum said his Second Amendment resolution inspired several other jurisdictions to take action. He said he was not aware of the details of Trewhella’s anti-abortion activism, including that Trewhella had defended the murder of abortion providers. “I can’t make excuses for that,” he said.

Like many leaders on the right, Trewhella suddenly found a much larger audience when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. As some people questioned public health measures like masks and vaccines, they began looking for ways to resist government officials they saw as trampling their rights.

They found answers in Trewhella, who pumped out short-form videos and spoke on conservative podcasts and other platforms.

“In light of the tyrannical acts by the state regarding COVID-19, we are rebooting our efforts,” he posted on social media in April 2020. 

The doctrine appeared in local meetings in Indiana and Tennessee as officials challenged public health measures. Andy Ogles, then-mayor of Maury County, Tennessee, south of Nashville, invoked the doctrine when he took steps to allow unvaccinated health care workers to keep their jobs. Ogles is now a Republican member of Congress. His office did not respond to requests for comment. 

Frustrated by pandemic measures like restaurant closures and masking in schools, Republican activists in Ottawa County, Michigan, west of Grand Rapids, invited Trewhella to speak several times. In 2022, one group that invited him, Ottawa Impact, helped flip the county board of commissioners to Christian control.

Since then, the board has tried to fire its health administrator and declared Ottawa a “constitutional county.” The largely symbolic resolution states the board will not enforce any measure that it believes infringes on constitutional rights.

Trewhella called Ottawa “a blueprint for counties across America.” 

Two Ottawa Impact founders denied that Trewhella influenced their work. But that sort of denial is common: When asked about their relationship with Trewhella or his ideas, people often distance themselves or are reluctant to give him credit.

In Wisconsin, the Waukesha GOP’s grassroots outreach director, Keith Best, said he had “never even heard the name” Trewhella. But Best promoted his county party’s event with Trewhella on social media four times.

The relationship dismays former Waukesha County Sheriff Bill Kruziki, a Republican who held office from 1994 to 2002. Kruziki knew of Trewhella from his protests, which included distributing pamphlets saying “Never disarm!” to high school students after the 1999 Columbine shooting.

“It would have been very surprising” for the Waukesha GOP to have invited Trewhella to any event back in the 1990s or 2000s, Kruziki said. “I just can’t imagine that they’d support this person,” he added. “You can quote me on this: I think it’s a shame they do that.”

Wisconsin Watch and ProPublica identified numerous examples of Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions that include reference to the “lesser magistrates.” The first of these three appeared in Cherokee County, North Carolina, where the author said he incorporated language from Matthew Trewhella’s book. Obtained by Wisconsin Watch and ProPublica. Highlighted by ProPublica

Challenging elections

Last spring, conservative activist David Clements made the 44th stop on his “Greater Magistrates Tour” in northwestern Wisconsin. The tour, which took its name from Trewhella’s book (revising it to promote the voters as “greater” magistrates), blended Christianity and conspiracy theory to encourage disrupting future elections.

As about 200 people listened on, Clements ran through the familiar debunked claims about the “rigged” system, urging attendees to demand their local officials withhold certification of voting machines and results. Using Trewhella’s playbook, Clements said, they might save their country county by county.

Referring to certain voting machine vendors, Clements told the crowd, Jesus Christ had been resurrected to “restore you to a place where there are no tears, there is no suffering, there are no Dominion or ES&S machines.”

Throughout his tour, Clements had the company of some of the nation’s most prominent election denialists, including Bannon and Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow. Joe Oltmann, an activist who concocted the baseless claim that a Dominion Voting Systems employee had rigged the election, appeared several times. Oltmann has hosted Trewhella on his podcast and told his Telegram channel that Trewhella’s book is “required reading for all freedom minded Americans.”

Clements said he would only do an interview if Wisconsin Watch and ProPublica allowed him to record a video and broadcast it in its entirety. Oltmann had similar terms. The news organizations did not agree, and neither Clements nor Oltmann answered written questions.

Trewhella’s name has previously come up in attempts to challenge the 2020 election. Pennsylvania state Sen. Cris Dush, a Republican who led a legislative investigation into election results, called upon the doctrine of the lesser magistrates when he “urged people to take action against the certification of presidential electors,” the Pennsylvania attorney general said in a court filing.

Republican state Sen. Cris Dush of Pennsylvania referenced the doctrine of the lesser magistrates when challenging the 2020 election results, Pennsylvania’s attorney general said in a state court filing. Obtained by Wisconsin Watch and ProPublica. Highlighted by ProPublica

In an interview, Dush said the doctrine resonated with his military training, which permitted him to disobey an unlawful order.

Extremism researchers and pro-democracy groups say Trewhella’s influence on attempts to disrupt elections is particularly concerning because he claims some of his most vocal supporters have been sheriffs. 

Sheriffs wield significant law enforcement power in much of America. Some have claimed they have the power to seize voting machines should they believe there’s fraud. A faction known as “constitutional sheriffs” claim that within their jurisdictions, they have the sole authority to interpret the constitutionality of state and federal laws. Leaders of the movement have promoted election conspiracies and urged sheriffs to investigate possible fraud. They have also celebrated Trewhella, name-dropping him at conferences and giving his book to attendees.

Trewhella also spoke last year at a prayer breakfast at a conference held by the National Sheriffs’ Association, which represents thousands of law enforcement officers across the country. Trewhella said he spoke at their invitation. 

The organization did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But former Daviess County, Kentucky, Sheriff Keith Cain, a past board member who coordinated the prayer breakfast, said by email that Trewhella had asked to give the sermon after registering a booth. Cain said he requested Trewhella stick to spiritual matters.

Trewhella did not abide.

He told a group of about 40 — each with a complimentary copy of his book placed in front of them — that sheriffs are “ministers of God first” and must defy laws, policies or court opinions deemed “unjust or immoral” under the law of God.

“America is languishing under the blithe compliance of the lesser magistrates,” he told them. “The filth of Sodom is paraded down the streets.” 

Now, with a presidential contest looming, what worries Frederick Clarkson, an extremism researcher who has tracked Trewhella for decades, is not the pastor’s influence on who wins, but the impact he’ll continue to have on state and local politics.

“There’s a tectonic shift that’s gone on in American public life and politics,” he said. “All of those county commissioners and mayors and whatnot who are entertaining this stuff, they’re putting people’s lives and the entirety of civil order at risk by playing footsie with Matt Trewhella.”

Mollie Simon of ProPublica contributed research.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.