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At the intersection of politics and religion, AP reports from Michael Flynn’s Christian nationalist road show

A woman is baptized during the ReAwaken America Tour at Cornerstone Church in Batavia, N.Y., Aug. 12, 2022. In the version of America laid out in the ReAwaken tour, Christianity is at the center of American life and institutions, but it’s under attack, and attendees need to fight to restore and protect the nation’s Christian roots. It’s a message repeated over and over at ReAwaken — one that upends the constitutional ideal of a pluralist democracy. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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Michael Flynn’s ReAwaken America cross-country tour has attracted lots of media attention, but journalists trying to cover it have had trouble getting in or found their access severely restricted once inside. Some that have attended have been ejected from the event, which whips up a hostile environment toward journalists.

So when correspondent Michelle Smith and photographer Carolyn Kaster started planning to attend its stop in upstate New York, they didn’t bother getting credentialed. Smith simply bought tickets.

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The decision to go as attendees made all the difference: The two were fully engaged in Flynn’s world for two days,documenting an event that is at the heart of an ascendent movement.

Working with just an iPhone,Kaster captured exclusive images showing the event’s political,religious and commercial overtones — including immersion baptisms. Meanwhile, investigative reporter Richard Lardner monitored the event’s stage on a livestream and provided reporting support from Washington.

The decision to go as attendees made all the difference: AP journalists were fully engaged in Flynn’s world for two days.

Smith and Lardner had been tracking ReAwaken events for more than a year; they knew what to expect onstage and,crucially,what to look for offstage away from the livestream cameras. The team spoke to experts in advance and identified particular elements to seek out,including what the booths were selling, what was happening at the baptisms and what was happening in the crowd.

The story,part of an AP investigation in partnership with PBS “Frontline,” detailed how Flynn and allies are using the ReAwaken America tour to recruit for the Christian nationalist movement, which has grown in influence within the GOP. Speakers at the events spread divisive rhetoric and conspiracy theories that target democratic ideas and institutions while urging people to take action.

At one point Flynn,whom Smith had interviewed once before,told the crowd “every place we go,there’s still some adversary,there’s some opponent,” and appeared to look straight at her. But he didn’t recognize either her or Kaster. Event security did expel a “Frontline” producer there with them.

The resulting text,photo and video package was a deeply reported look that went beyond the typical narrative of the event as a political sideshow, putting it into context with the greater movement.

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Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general who served as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, and a founder of the ReAwaken America Tour, gives a thumbs-up as he poses for a photo with a young supporter outside the tour’s tent during a stop in Batavia, N.Y., Aug. 12, 2022. – AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster

Anthea Butler,a leading expert in the Christian nationalist movement at the University of Pennsylvania,discussed the story in a Twitter Spaces session the day it ran. She and others in the field posted compliments on Twitter about the story and photos,saying the coverage captured the feeling of the rallies and the merging of Christian nationalism with MAGA politics.

Kaster’s photos from the Batavia,New York,tour stop, some of which were featured in AP’s Michael Flynn story last month,have seen wide use in stories about the Christian nationalist movement,from NBC to Rolling Stone and beyond. The team’s latest story got a shoutout in Politico Playbook and was picked up by many outlets.

For an up-close,insightful package on a rising Christian nationalism movement spearheaded by a former general close to Donald Trump,Smith, Kaster and Lardner earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.

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