Georgia prosecutors indicted Stephen Cliffgard Lee on five felony charges, claiming he is one of 18 co-conspirators who worked with Donald Trump to overturn Trump’s losing election results in the state.
But a handful of churches, conservative Christian media outlets and a pro-family group claim Lee is a devoted Christian, committed pastor and chaplain and “American hero” who is an innocent victim of a “weaponized” anti-Trump justice system, and they’re praying and raising funds for his defense.
Lee, a 71-year-old retired pastor with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, serves at Living Word Lutheran Church in Orland Park, Ill.
He has performed a lifetime of good works, including serving as a volunteer chaplain at sites of tragedy, such as 9/11’s Ground Zero, Columbine High School and Hurricane Katrina. In 1996, he founded Peace Officer Ministries, a national and international nonprofit for law enforcement chaplaincy.
Four of Lee’s co-defendants have pled guilty in Georgia, but Lee remains defiant, saying going to prison would be “a death sentence.”
“I’m not going to cooperate with evil,” he told the crowd at a fundraiser held at a Chicago-area church on Nov. 11. “I’m not going to do something that is going to eat away or destroy our First Amendment rights. … This is the Lord’s battle, and we’ve got to fight it.”
His attorney says Lee never has met or spoken with Trump. But on Dec. 15. 2020, Lee played a small role in one of Trump’s many legal dramas, traveling from Chicago to Atlanta to meet with a woman who found herself at the center of election lies promoted by Trump and his indicted attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Ruby Freeman was an unknown Fulton County elections worker until Trump claimed she and her daughter, Shaye Moss, another election worker, had used a suitcase stuffed with fake ballots and USB drives to swing the state’s votes to Joe Biden.
The women, who are Black, became the focus of social media mobs who repeated false claims from Trump as they threatened to kill them and called them racist names, forcing Freeman to move from her homes for weeks.
The two women were later cleared of any wrongdoing, but Trump has kept up his attacks.
Ruby Freeman was at the center of a storm of threats and harassment in December 2020 when Lee traveled from Chicago to Atlanta to pay her a visit, twice knocking on her door and twice calling her on the telephone.
When she didn’t respond, Lee figured it was because he was a white man, so he called in two Black reinforcements, one of them a man who led a group called Black Voices for Trump. Both have been indicted alongside Lee.
Why was Lee so intent on meeting with Ruby Freeman?
That’s what a police officer asked Lee. Body camera footage shows Lee, dressed in a clerical collar, explaining, “I’m a pastor, and I’m also with some folks who are trying to help Ruby out, OK? … And also get some truth of what’s going on.”
Lee’s conservative Christian supporters insist the man they call “America’s chaplain” was simply trying to offer her spiritual support. Prosecutors say he was trying to sway her testimony to support Trump’s claims of election fraud.
Lee also is receiving financial support from the Illinois Family Institute, a nonprofit that has working relationships with the American Family Association, Liberty Counsel, the Thomas More Society, and two groups affiliated with Focus on the Family: Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom.
Franchi spoke at an Illinois Family Institute fundraiser for Lee held at Families of Faith Ministries in Channahon, Ill. The Institute, which claims to be nonpartisan, operates a political-oriented nonprofit, Illinois Family Action, and a related PAC.
“We’re going to be supporting ‘America’s chaplain’ and religious liberty, here tonight,” said Franchi, according to an article on Lee’s evangelical supporters in The New York Times. “We’re going to be talking about the weaponization of government against religion.”
Christianity Today reported on a unique fundraiser the Institute uses to support Lee:
The Christian group has partnered with a company called Make Honey Great Again, which agreed to donate a portion of sales. Its honey comes in bottles shaped like Trump’s head.
“You may like or dislike the bottle design, but it’s filled with healthy, pure, raw honey and we hope the uniqueness of the packaging will generate awareness, prayers and donations for Chaplain Lee,” the Illinois Family Institute wrote.
Lee’s attorney, David Shestokas, framed the case as a test of fundamental American freedoms in his solicitation for donations on the platform GiveSendGo, which started as a Christian fundraising site before becoming a haven for antisemitic campaigns and “patriots” found guilty in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol:
There are five rights in the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition the government for redress of grievances The exercise of each of those rights is under attack in Georgia. This fight is not just Chaplain Lee’s. Your rights as an American are under attack as well.
Pastor Lee is an American Hero, not a criminal for pastorally knocking on doors as accused by District Attorney Fani Willis. It’s time for us to stop this political persecution and be there for him.
Lee’s attorney also claims his client is apolitical. “While the attacks on Chaplain Lee appear to be politically motivated, he himself is not,” said Attorney David Shestokas.
But Lee has endorsed Trump and other candidates and expresses a growing need to do something to “save” the country he loves. “We’re facing the extinction of America,” he said in 2021.
Illinois Family Institute has raised some $20,000 for Lee.
“I think it’s fairly evident to people that the government is being weaponized,” Illinois Family Institute Executive Director David E. Smith told Christianity Today. “It appears to me that Rev. Lee’s only mistake was knocking on a door. … This is a precedent that cannot be permitted to stand.”
Lee’s GiveSendGo campaign seeks to raise $100,000 and has raised more than $14,000 so far.
“Thank you for your courage in the face of evil!” wrote John Richardson, who donated $50. “God bless you!”
“May GOD bless you and give you the strength and resources you need to stand for the TRUTH and JUSTICE!” wrote an anonymous $50 donor.
Faithful America, an alliance of Christians who “are sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked by the religious right,” has more than 20,000 signatures on a petition asking the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod to revoke Lee’s ordination.
“There’s absolutely no reason for any denomination to let someone credibly accused of illegally undermining our democracy to remain in a position of moral or spiritual leadership,” says the petition.
The denomination has not acted on the petition.