SPRINGFIELD — Darren Bailey says his entry into politics, including his successful bid to be the Republican nominee for governor, came after he couldn’t find or wasn’t satisfied with those seeking public office.
“So Cindy and I fasted and we prayed, as did our family, and the encouragement came from you people all across — first of all my home area, and our district — our state to run and push back,” the downstate state lawmaker recounted on a Facebook video of his decision with his wife to take on Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
“We fast on Tuesdays. Cindy and I, in particular, go without food all the way through the evening. Later, in the evening, we have a healthy meal,” he said. “And we just dedicate this time to fasting and prayer and we’re doing this all the way through Tuesday, Nov. 8, when we fire Pritzker. So we believe that there’s power in that and we ask you to join us in that.”
More than any other statewide candidate in recent times, Bailey has placed his faith front and center in his campaign for governor, displaying the evangelical, charismatic Christianity that is commonly found throughout rural Illinois.
He opens campaign events with a prayer. The door to his campaign bus is adorned with “Ephesians 6:10-19,” a Biblical exhortation to wear the “armor of God” to stand against the devil and “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
He is a member of an Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Protestant church in Effingham, which shares much of the charismatic, evangelical flavor of many nondenominational churches.
He founded a “Christ-centered” private school, the Full Armor Christian Academy for preschool through high school-age students. Run by his wife in downstate Louisville, near the family’s three-generation multimillion-dollar farming and trucking operation, the school did not follow Pritzker’s COVID-19 mitigation mandates, its staff is armed, and it uses curriculum from BJU Press, the Effingham Daily News reported last year. Founded by the Christian conservative Bob Jones University, BJU Press has offered textbooks contending the Bible is “the unerring source for analysis of historical events” and is the ultimate source if it conflicts with scientific conclusions.
And in nearly daily appearances on Facebook Live videos, where he has 112,000 followers, Bailey shares a devotion primarily from the book “Every Day With Jesus” before offering his own prayers. He encourages people to share his videos as well as to mention them as they attend church services.
Bailey’s prayers have included exhorting God’s help for Illinoisans to “band together in one focus to getting rid of this J.B. Pritzker as governor, someone who has brought much destruction to our state” and for God to “do something amazing to show this nation what you created us for.”
Those who know Bailey do not question his sincerity toward his religious faith as he engages in a political campaign that he has likened to a “modern day mission field” — a religious term describing the work of a missionary to preach the Gospel and gain followers of Jesus Christ.
But on top of numerous controversies, there are questions about the political viability of Bailey’s faith-based candidacy before a general election audience of voters. Also at issue are his calls for organized religion to “wake up” and become more involved in the direction and function of government at a time when the lines of separation of church and state have grown increasingly blurred by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Courting religious conservatives in a Republican primary is a valuable political strategy. They are an important constituency. But it’s not enough to win a general election. He’s got to expand his base,” said David Yepsen, a retired political journalist who formerly headed the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
“Constantly talking about that (faith) in such a public way — it may be a statement of his faith. No one questions his faith. But it’s dumb politics because it offends a lot of people who are not Christians or who are members of other faiths. And it looks intolerant,” Yepsen said. “It probably helped him win the primary, but it’s time to change gears. He’s in a different game now.”
But changing gears to attract the broader electorate needed to defeat Pritzker may be overthinking Bailey and his campaign, said Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of religion and politics.
Burge — who was born and raised not far from Bailey’s farming operation and who once taught the candidate’s campaign manager, Jose Durbin, as an undergraduate student — also is a pastor of the First Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon.
“I think it’s very important to say that he is not putting on airs when he does this. He really believes this. And I think for him, it would be a betrayal of his principles to do anything but be who he was six months ago,” Burge said. “He is a charismatic, evangelical Christian and he was doing this long before he was running for governor, so I think for him, there’s no going back.”
Burge said Bailey would “rather lose by being 100% who he is and authentic to himself, as opposed to selling out and still probably losing and not be able to look himself in the eye six months from now.”
“If it wins, it wins,” Burge said, citing a political strategy that has advanced Bailey from a rural downstate member of the Illinois House to a statewide candidacy in four years. “If you lose, you become a martyr.”
It is the “martyr” role that has often been at the center of factional disputes between conservatives and more moderate members of the Illinois Republican Party as primary voters weighed candidates’ devotion to conservative causes over more electable general election candidates who back compromise and bipartisanship.
Bailey said he doesn’t think people are offended by his proselytizing on the campaign trail and said he is “seeking unity among the diversity here in Illinois.”
“And I’m not pushing anything on anyone. I’m a devout Christian. I’m a conservative American. And I look to appeal to everyone,” the Republican from Xenia said.
Yet Bailey acknowledged in a recent Facebook video that people have come up to him and told him, “Quit cramming your religion down my throat.”
“Friends, you don’t have to be watching. I’m not cramming any religion down anyone’s throat. I’m simply sharing what I believe and hopefully earning your trust that as governor, just as I’ve done as state senator and state representative, that I’m going to do everything I can to bring us together,” Bailey said. “I’m telling you the truth of what I believe. It is the true hope to this world. But you get to decide whether you’re going to accept that or not.”
And a few days later, he used his Facebook video to assure people he was not going to be “shoving my ideology down your throats.”
“I’m going to give you an option. You’re going to decide what you want,” he said.
Despite his frequent prayers for “unity” in a diverse Illinois, Bailey’s own views on religious tolerance and society have sometimes caused controversy.
Crain’s Chicago Business reported that in a December 2018 Facebook post, Bailey encouraged followers to watch a “tutorial” that was billed as showing that “Islam is NOT a religion of peace.”
Bailey also received criticism from Jewish and civil rights groups for a 2017 Facebook video in which he contended the Nazi Holocaust paled in comparison to lives lost from abortion. Bailey, who opposes abortion with no exceptions except to save the life of the mother, said he didn’t need to apologize and that unnamed Jewish leaders told him, “that I’m right.”
Bailey’s comments marked one of the few times when Pritzker, who is Jewish and who spent millions of dollars to help build and operate the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, spoke of his religion in a political context.
“What Sen. Bailey said is offensive. It’s offensive to me as someone who is Jewish. It’s offensive to me as someone who built a Holocaust museum with Holocaust survivors and it’s offensive to those survivors. He owes an apology to them. He especially owes an apology to those survivors and their families,” Pritzker said.
Bailey also has spoken frequently of the decline of the family unit, his view of the role of women, and has called transgender rights “the moral rot that is destroying society.”
Speaking in an interview last April, Bailey said, “God, in His creation, He intended, you know, the family unit to be headed by the dad. The dad is supposed to be out, you know, teaching his children hard work, ethics, honesty and integrity.”
On Aug. 25, WTTW Ch.-11 reported Bailey campaigned with two Rockford-area pastors who were at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, during the riots pushed by supporters of defeated President Donald Trump and aimed at overturning the election of Joe Biden.
WTTW showed Bailey appearing on stage during a service with Pastor Brian Phillips at Phillips’ Grove Fellowship church in Poplar Grove. Above the pulpit was a screen graphic with a line from the Old Testament saying, “The Lord is a Man of War” next to a symbol of “The Punisher” — a Marvel Comics character that has been appropriated by far-right militia groups such as the Proud Boys, WTTW said.
Bailey also has appeared with Pastor Steve Cassell at Cassell’s Beloved Church in Lena. Cassell, Bailey’s Stephenson County campaign coordinator, told WTTW that he and Philips never entered the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection but were there to do ministry work.
Trump endorsed Bailey’s candidacy only days before the June 28 Republican primary. In a Facebook video earlier that day, he praised God for Trump’s role in appointing a conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue of abortion to the individual states.
“Father God. I thank you for President Trump for his fortitude and stands, that he had the boldness, the courage and the wisdom to do the right thing when it was time for him to do that. And I thank you for his continued influence to just raise the integrity level of this nation,” Bailey said.
Bailey often invokes Biblical themes in his Facebook devotionals, frequently asking God to “remove the corruption and evil” from government, urging him to help “restore Illinois” and wishing for a revitalization of the church as a moral force.
“Tomorrow when you’re in church, get your church to wake up. The church holds the answer, but we’ve got to wake up and put this constitutional republic, this freedom that we have, we’ve got to protect it and put it back together because we’ve lost elements of it and we cannot stand for this,” Bailey said in one video, recorded with the huge Cross at the Crossroads in Effingham as a backdrop.
Burge said with Bailey’s call for reviving the church, he is “saying he wants the church to have as much power for as long as it possibly can, knowing that demographically, it’s losing its hold every single year as more people die off. They’re replaced by non-Christians or nonwhite people.”
“Revival is always the talk of the American church, but especially now because they think unless a revival happens, the church is going to be minoritized in American society,” Burge said. “It’s to hark back to the time when white Christians dominated American culture and society and politics.”
In assessing his campaign opponent, Bailey in one prayer asked God to protect a growing corn crop, likening nature’s threats to the agricultural commodity to the ill effects he contends come from Pritzker’s leadership.
“Father, I know there’s still adversity to come, even with this corn. I pray for Your protection upon it. And I know that wind and blight and insects can still come and I see that same disastrous situation with our government, with our families, with our businesses, with our men and women that stand to protect and uphold law and order,” Bailey said.
Bailey also says problems from physical ailments to relationships to mortgage foreclosure can be resolved if people follow his faith.
“Read the other day that Illinois has the most foreclosures in the nation, so I know there’s a lot of people out there struggling,” Bailey said, “I lift them up to you, Father God, that if they hear this message or hear the truth somewhere that they just lay it at your feet and they will trust you, they will trust you in the decision.”
Many of Bailey’s videos also feature his wife, Cindy, such as one recorded on the couple’s 36th wedding anniversary in which she encouraged “any young people especially that are out there to make the Lord the head of your household and to stick to those virtues and they’ll take you far.”
Cindy Bailey’s comments on social media have also become an issue in the campaign, particularly those about gay rights. Crain’s reported Cindy Bailey used Twitter to urge “any red-blooded American” to drop their subscription to Netflix for “normalizing homosexuality” and other issues that she deemed to be objectionable.
”We are living in wicked days, just as in the time of Noah,” she stated.
Darren Bailey responded to the revelations by attacking the media for trying to “twist her words” and said it was him, not her, who was on the ballot. But Cindy Bailey often appears with her husband at campaign events, acts as a campaign surrogate and is listed as a “board member” of his campaign fund.
Standing side-by-side with Darren outside the Agriculture Building at the Illinois State Fair, Cindy Bailey also reminded followers of their Tuesday day of prayer and fasting and urged people to join them.
“We dedicate Tuesdays to the Lord, in prayer and through fasting. You can check that out on the Team Bailey Prayer Warriors page and follow that journey, join the page, join us as our hearts and our desire is to restore Illinois. And we know that prayer and fasting is the key to that,” she said.
The Team Bailey Prayer Warriors page on Facebook, with 3,700 members, describes itself as committed to praying for the candidate’s success.
“We will not be able to (be) victorious in restoring Illinois and good governance without prayer,” it states in the group’s description. “Let us, therefore, lock our shields together and stand strong as we release the arrow of the Lord’s deliverance through a people committed to honor God and His Word.”
Facebook is as much a part of Bailey’s underfunded campaign as it is a vehicle for his evangelicalism — a “new breed of America evangelical,” Burge said, “the shining star of the bottom up evangelical movement” who relies on social media to attract a largely nondenominational Christian audience to his politics.
That’s in contrast to the Rev. Jerry Falwell-led “Moral Majority” alliance with Republicans of the 1980s that relied on the organizational strength of the Southern Baptist Convention to harness the religious right to disseminate messages and voter guides.
”I don’t think Darren Bailey would be Darren Bailey if he was running 20 years ago. He would not be able to find traction without Facebook and social media,” Burge said.
”He made himself from nothing into who he is, largely because of his social media presence,” Burge said, citing Bailey’s opposition to Pritzker’s COVID-19 mitigation mandates. “All around his area he’s seen as a conquering hero for fighting back against the mask mandates and evil J.B. Pritzker.”
Through social media, Burge said, Bailey “preys on middle- and middle-lower-class white Christians in the southern part of the state, where his base of power is. To them, he says Springfield is corrupt. When he says evil, he’s talking about Chicago and Springfield politicians who don’t look out for you.”
Now, with nearly two months to go until Election Day on Nov. 8, Illinois voters will ultimately decide the success of Bailey’s faith-based candidacy. But in the meantime, he awaits a response to a recent prayer.
“Father God, I know that diversity is great in this state. And I just pray that we would learn to live in unity and in love. And I even pray for myself that you just help me to understand and know and do what I don’t understand,” the candidate said.
Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner contributed.
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