Crowdfunding Hate in the Name of Christ

Crowdfunding Hate in the Name of Christ

Crowdfunding Hate in the Name of Christ

Right-wing extremists have found a safe haven on GiveSendGo, the “#1 Free Christian Crowdfunding Site.”

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When I ask Heather Wilson and Jacob Wells, the founders of GiveSendGo, the “#1 Free Christian Crowdfunding Site,” whether they would host a fundraising campaign for the Ku Klux Klan, the call goes dead for a few seconds.

“Some of these campaigns are situational,” Wells finally offered.

“It would depend on what they were raising money for,” Wilson said.

The pair are siblings in their 40s, just two in a family of 12 children who grew up in Salem, N.H. Along with their sister Emmalie, they founded GiveSendGo in 2014 because, as a 2017 blog post put it, “Gofundme has taken a stance against Christians and has been taking down campaigns that they did not agree with.” The idea, Wells said, was not just to run a profitable business but to create a community where both givers and receivers could be inspired by the hope of Jesus. On the site’s clean, spare interface, the “Share Now” button is supplemented with a “Pray Now” button, allowing users to offer their devotions with a click.

On GiveSendGo, where “the most valuable currency is God’s love,” Kyle Rittenhouse, the alleged murderer of two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wis., netted almost $600,000 to pay his legal fees. A few months later, a page for Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio raised more than $113,000 after his arrest en route to Washington, D.C., with high-capacity magazines two days before the Capitol riot.

“Money, money greases the wheels for whatever you want to do,” Wells told me.

There are only a few crowdfunding sites that specifically target Christians, and GiveSendGo is the top platform that surfaces when one Googles “Christian crowdfunding.” Others aimed at the same audience, like WayGiver and InHisSteps, are smaller and intended more for ministries and churches than for individuals. By comparison, GiveSendGo’s vision is expansive. A map on its home page shows the locations of its fundraisers around the world, pinpointing the sites with cartoonish gouts of fire and encouraging you to “Add Your Flame.”

At the same time, GiveSendGo offers a safe haven for far-right figures who have long struggled to find a stable place to raise money. GoFundMe, Patreon, Kickstarter, and other sites sporadically bar individual far-right figures. Tech companies purged many fascist-friendly fundraising efforts after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. In response, far-right groups set up alternative crowdfunding platforms, creating sites like Hatreon and GoyFundMe. (“Goy” is a Hebrew word for “gentile” that has been adopted as a frequent self-descriptor among the more rabidly anti-Semitic factions of the far right.) The sites were shoddy and short-lived, quickly banned by payment processors and credit card providers. But on GiveSendGo, hate groups can prosper amid fundraising campaigns for homeless nuns, a church that provides tube socks for the unhoused, or infants with spinal cord injuries. Any backlash by payment companies risks raising the ire of a grievance-drunk right-wing media ecosystem primed to detect the traces of anti-Christian prejudice.

Speaking with Wilson and Wells, it becomes clear that an authentic theological impulse animates their actions—the desire to, as they put it, “share love and hope with each campaign owner and giver.” That theology is closely tied to the principles of the evangelical Christian right, although Wilson and Wells eschew the label “evangelical,” preferring to call themselves “Jesus followers.” On the subject of Jesus, they wax eloquent, discussing his embrace of “sinners and drunkards” and their desire to emulate him. They do not believe they should pass judgment on those who come to the site to make appeals. This policy has one immutable exception: GiveSendGo does not allow fundraisers for abortions. “That would be an intentional act for harm,” Wells explained.

The questions of intention and harm ring throughout the cheery white pages of the site, with its hopeful airborne-kite logo. Some might assert, for example, that Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes, might have committed an intentional act of harm. His fundraising campaign on GiveSendGo, however, is still active and has raised just over $6,000. A photo of Chauvin presides over a page crowded with updates (“We feel that God has chosen Derek to be the catalyst for change and for him to take on the burden of the world”). Supporters post quotations from the Book of Psalms alongside donations and their 455 prayers.

Swathed in a blanket of theological uplift, GiveSendGo offers a Christian cover for violent insurrectionist groups. Several members of the Proud Boys—not just Tarrio—have taken to using GiveSendGo to raise money for legal battles, setting up their pages as Christian, patriotic cris de coeur. Alan Swinney, a 50-year-old Texan-cum-Oregonian with a Proud Boys tattoo on his forearm, is currently being held on charges of assault and menacing after pointing a revolver at protesters in August; a judge has denied his release, citing, among other things, Swinney’s online celebrations of a left-versus-right “civil war” in the United States. A GiveSendGo page collecting funds for his defense describes him as “a HERO.”

“He stood his ground like a proud American,” writes the page’s organizer, Chris Bailey. “He stood strong for all of us, to send a message that real Americans will never let tyranny, or a totalitarian regime take over and destroy our beloved country.”

Ethan Nordean, aka Rufio Panman, a longtime street brawler for the Proud Boys and the sergeant at arms of the Seattle chapter, has been fundraising for his legal defense since the January 6 storming of the Capitol, in which an organized cadre of Proud Boys took part. Nordean faces several federal charges, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on the Capitol grounds. On February 16, however, his GiveSendGo page, which had raised just shy of $5,000, appeared to have been hacked: It briefly read “Ethan Nordean Piss and Shit on Myself Fund” before being suspended. (GiveSendGo forbids “obscenities” under its terms of service; other Proud Boy fundraisers continue uninterrupted.)

The inclusion of some of the most infamous figures on the alt-right creates a striking juxtaposition: evangelical Christians, who number in the millions in the United States, alongside fringe extremists—white nationalist ideologues of the type that President Biden called “demented” during a CNN town hall in February.

“GiveSendGo seems to be one of the most significant spaces in which alt-right and Christian right converge,” notes Chrissy Stroop, a self-identified ex-evangelical writer and researcher. “Of course, we know there is considerable overlap in ideology between right-wing Christians, white nationalists, the manosphere, 4chan types, etc. It can be difficult to trace the direct connections and networks, so I think the existence of GiveSendGo provides us with a sort of horrifying laboratory in that regard.”

In this fizzing laboratory is a steady stream of formal and informal militia organizations. A group calling itself the Colorado Patriots, whose logo on GiveSendGo contains the iconography of the anti-government militia group the Three Percenters, created a campaign to “stay well equipped” in the event of civilizational breakdown. “We are the ones standing up against evil and standing watch over the community to keep from being destroyed and people from getting hurt by BLM/Antifa,” write the organizers, adding that they hope to “keep innocent families [protected] against evil.” The Arkansas State Militia Corp, described by MilitiaWatch as an anti-government group that “believes that a second American civil war is approaching in response to overreach from the federal government,” has a page on GiveSendGo. And most glaringly, an ongoing fundraiser for My Militia—an umbrella site and message board that seeks to link up those interested in joining militias with established groups, as well as to encourage the like-minded to create militias in their area codes—serves as an emblem for GiveSendGo’s tolerant attitude toward organized extremists. Describing itself as “the de facto authority in American Patriot Militias,” My Militia has served as an organizing hub for groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and innumerable smaller anti-government groups around the country. “Fostering the lawful rebirth of State militia is a crucial step in preserving the Republic,” declares My Militia founder Josh Ellis on his GiveSendGo page.

In describing the ethos of GiveSendGo, Wilson and Wells laid down an elaborate groundwork for their reasons for offering a service to individuals accused of a broad range of crimes, including political violence. They spoke to me about the presumption of innocence and the right to afford a legal defense and repeatedly invoked the notion that it was not their role to serve as “judge and jury”—something that was best left to the courts and to God. “We’ve made ourselves our own gods in this omniscient type of mentality around, this knowledge that we can declare what is right and what is wrong,” Wells told me.

When asked about the consistent pattern of hate group members fundraising on the site, Wells expressed doubt that the Proud Boys really were a hate group, explaining that he had visited their website and found it lacking in statements explicitly embracing discrimination. “Unfortunately, the media does have an agenda with the things they portray, whether it’s social media or other forms of media,” Wells said. “What are their core beliefs? Is it misconstrued by the media?” When I pointed out that the Canadian government had recently designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist group, Wells answered that this should be just one factor to consider. “We are learning just like everyone else,” he added.

The other core principle embraced by Wells and Wilson tracks with a doctrine known as “total depravity” in Christian religious discourse: the idea that all human beings are created sinners, damned without the grace of God. In this moral framework, all sin is equal, and the path to resolution is the love of Christ.

On GiveSendGo, this plays out as a curious flattening. When I brought up the Rittenhouse campaign and its massive cash influx, Wilson countered with the fact that the site had allowed an LGBTQ fundraiser. A search for “LGBTQ” on the site brought up three pages: two for a group of “former lgbtq individuals who have left the lifestyle of homosexuality to follow Jesus Christ” (sum raised: $7,900) and the other for the LGBTQ Freedom Fund, a nationwide nonprofit (sum raised: $0). “‘Politics, schmolitics,’ says GiveSendGo while at the same time giving a fundraising platform on behalf of Mr. Rittenhouse,” writes Joanna Galuszka, who set up the LGBTQ Freedom Fund page. Though the campaign hasn’t raised any money to date, it has garnered 25 prayers. When I asked whether raising funds for an LGBTQ charity was morally equivalent to raising bail for an alleged multiple murderer, Wilson replied, “We believe that anytime we disobey God, whatever it is, there’s no judgment as who’s worse.” In this moral view, causing death and being queer are not only on the same spectrum, they are identical.

“The idea that sin is sin, regardless of scale, is common if not pervasive in conservative evangelicalism,” says journalist Jeff Sharlet, the author of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. “The emphasis is on authority.”

It’s this theological false equivalence coupled with a marked conservative viewpoint that has made GiveSendGo an appealing home for those seeking money for legal fees since the January 6 insurrection. According to a Washington Post analysis, some $247,000 was raised on the site for 24 campaigns looking to cover travel costs to D.C. before the event. Legal defense fundraisers have also proliferated for those caught up in the dragnet after the riot. From Jenna Ryan, the real estate agent who infamously took a private jet to the uprising, to Sean Watson, a former laboratory scientist who claims to be under investigation by the FBI, the Capitol mob is clearly relying on GiveSendGo for help. For their part, the site’s founders appear to have doubled down on their stances on sin, freedom, and the money that flows from givers to goers.

In the wake of January 6, Wilson and Wells faced significant public controversy, as a collective recoiling from the events of that day by a majority of the American public—and pressure on tech companies—forced their hand. According to Wells, PayPal, which the site used to process donations, approached GiveSendGo about removing the campaigns for Rittenhouse and Tarrio. In response, he said, GiveSendGo severed ties with PayPal entirely. (PayPal issued a public statement saying that it had ended the relationship on its own; a request for comment from the company went unanswered.) It’s not the first time that GiveSendGo has clashed with financial providers over its willingness to go to bat for conservative-media darlings accused of violence. In response to a decision by Discover Financial Services to block transactions for the Rittenhouse fundraiser, Wells posted a video in which he cut up his Discover Card and encouraged others to follow suit.

Currently, GiveSendGo relies on Stripe, another major payment processor, to ferry funds from donors to recipients. According to Wells, discussions with Stripe are ongoing, and the company has imposed some conditions on the laissez-faire fundraising that GiveSendGo allows. “Stripe has said [they] don’t want Proud Boys processing through them, and we’re trying to respect that,” Wells told me. (A spokesperson for Stripe could not be reached for comment.) In the meantime, GiveSendGo is looking to develop its own payment processing capacity, free of any considerations beyond its founders’ theology.

Toward the end of our conversation, Wells returned to the question I’d asked earlier about the Ku Klux Klan. He had rid himself of hesitation: “If the KKK or any other group of people, if what they’re doing is within the law,” he told me, “I would consider it an honor to have them use the platform and share the hope of Jesus with them.”

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