It’s like a county fair, except everyone has a gun.
Here, the word “pandemic” is said with air quotes around it, and the politest name for a Democrat is ”pencil-neck geek.” Anthony Fauci is a known communist, and Jesus Christ is an assault weapons manufacturer. Here, LGBT stands for liberty, guns, beer and Trump.
This is the Rod of Iron Freedom Festival.
Rod of Iron Ministries and Kahr Firearms Group — both with ties to the ultra-rich World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church from Korea known to some as the “Moonies” — hosted the festival from Oct. 8-10 in Greeley. Just over 1,000 people live in this rural town in the northern Pocono Mountains, but more than 5,000 arrived for the weekend-long festival.
It sprawled across the lawn of the Tommy Gun Warehouse and boasted an impressive lineup of speakers: Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for President Donald Trump; Dana Loesch, the former National Rifle Association spokeswoman; Pastor Sean Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and messenger of Jesus Christ. They and other GOP figureheads rallied behind Trump and the Second Amendment at the third annual Rod of Iron Freedom Festival.
To many here, they represent the last line of defense in a fight for America’s liberty.
“There are dark forces out there trying to destroy our republic,” warned Rick Saccone, a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor. “Frankly, we have a nation to save.”
It’s why thousands of people, some from as far as Florida and Texas, flocked to Greeley for the weekend. They are the avowed champions of faith, family and freedom, and in few other places can they find an in-person community as large or as tolerant of fringe ideologies as this one.
Here, opinions normally reserved for anonymous online forums are said aloud. They range from the mundane to the alarming, and emerge in outbursts from the crowd and between strangers in line for funnel cake: The Deep State is real, but the pandemic is fake. Critical race theory is the scourge of America, and Black Lives Matter activists are secret communists. The Biden administration wants conservatives dead. Trump won the 2020 election.
The theories have been debunked, but guest speakers repeated them on stage beneath the festival’s main tent anyway, appearing to grow bolder with each answering scream of approval. Their effect on the crowd was electric.
Someone placed a fire pit in front of the stage Saturday afternoon to cut through the chill of an overcast day. To the festival-goers nearest it, the flames framed each speaker’s face and lent weight to their threats of impending doom. None were more gripping than those of Pastor Moon, who walked to the podium wearing a crown of bullets.
The America he described is a terrifying one: Pedophilia, satanic cults and dangerous human-animal experiments are the norm; D.C. bureaucrats are the new Nazi leaders, and the U.S. dollar is on the brink of collapse; the Deep State exists, and corporate executives are trying to “utterly kill America and eradicate freedom from the face of the earth.”
It sounds bad. Still, Moon warned of worse to come should Americans fail to fight back against their “evil, vile and wicked” rulers. This is where the rod of iron — the festival’s namesake — comes in.
It’s referenced in the Bible as a tool from God used to smite and rule over nations, Moon said. To him and his followers, the rod is the AR-15, and it’s the key to saving America from tyranny.
“Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession,” reads Psalm 2:8-9. ”You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery”
Jesus is not the “effeminate, castrated” man taught about at Sunday school, Moon said. He’s an assault weapons manufacturer.
“Is that amazing or what?” said Charlie Cook, a firearms instructor and gun rights advocate, as Moon left the stage. “Man, oh man, oh man.”
Behind each rallying cry was a sales pitch: Buy the speakers’ books, listen to their podcasts, subscribe to their YouTube channels and donate to the NRA, all in the spirit of saving America from tyranny. Speeches like these occupied the first half of each day while vendors in smaller tents prepared fried Oreos and hot dogs for lunch.
Quiet moments on the lawn were rare. At one point, dozens of leather-clad veterans, bearded and grinning, ripped through the festival on motorcycles. A man in a green kilt played bag pipes. Somewhere else, a recording of “Stars and Stripes Forever” played. Vendors hawked bullet-shaped thermoses for $20 each, and mugs that read “Thou shalt kill sloth.”
The festival followed a packed schedule — it was impossible to see everything. Attendees hurried from the Liberty Tent to Freedom Tent to listen in on seminars like “The Theft of Manhood” and ”From Hell to the Grail,” then rushed back to the mainstage in time for a Concealed Carry Fashion Show. There, armed men and women posed on stage while moderator Amanda Suffecool guessed where their guns might be hidden.
Elsewhere, a group called Friends of the NRA sold $20 raffle tickets for the chance to win a 9mm gun: a Smith & Wesson, a Glock, a SIG Sauer or a Springfield Armory Hellcat.
*If gun is not legal in your state, you will receive $450 cash instead, a poster said in small print.
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Keith Parker and his wife, Rama, sat at their own tent yards away. They own a small business called ResistForty6 and sell T-shirts adorned with pointed, if crude, responses to popular liberal taglines.
“Danger: Toxic Masculinity,” one said. Another: ”Biden Loves Minors.”
“The jokes write themselves,” Parker said. “I just put them on shirts.”
He held each one in front of his chest and explained the inspiration behind it. “Biden Loves Minors” is a jab at the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s Parker’s best seller by far. He makes them in sizes small enough for children to wear, and some at the festival do.
A salesman with grey hair and a matching goatee, Parker is quick to smile. He riffed with passersby about the “empty dimwits” elected to office and earned their nods of approval.
“Elected, or got installed. Whatever,” he said.
The jokes are punctuated by moments of earnestness. He and his wife Rama, a server from New Jersey, would rather not be there, Parker said. But after witnessing what they believe to be a fraudulent election, they no longer feel they have a choice.
“We’re here to dissent while dissenting’s still legal,” Parker said. “That’s not as funny now as it was when I said it a few months ago.”
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On the final day of the festival, families shuffled under the mainstage tent to escape a light drizzle. Countless others were already there, waiting to hear Steve Bannon, arguably the festival’s most renowned guest. He was running late. Retired CIA officer and emcee-for-the-day Charles Faddis shifted from foot to foot while technicians worked to get Bannon on the phone.
“Steve, if you can hear me,” Faddis said. “We’ve got a group of very fired-up patriots, and they’re really tired of hearing me tap dance and stall.”
Bannon answered the phone at last, his voice patched through to speakers on stage. He didn’t say much — or, if he did, it was lost to poor cell reception. Attendees leaned forward in their seats to hear him better.
“We are winning,” Bannon told them. “It’s going to be a long, nasty fight, but we’re going to win this thing.”
His voice wavered in and out over the course of the call, but the crowd seemed to know when they were supposed to cheer. The 2020 election was stolen, Bannon said, and its consequences have been catastrophic. He promised that things will get better if people continue showing up for rallies and listening to his podcast, the War Room. He spoke for three minutes, then hung up.
The conversation ended faster than it had been scheduled to, so Faddis stalled some more. It isn’t just the Democrats conspiring against America, he said into the mic. It’s the Republicans, too.
“We are being betrayed by the people that supposedly are on our side,” he said. “What do we do now?”
Immediately, people in the crowd began to shout: Vote ’em out. Hang them. Assassination! Put them in jail. Tar and feather them.
After three days spent here, mentions of assassination are no longer shocking, and the presence of guns in front, behind and beside you feels normal. Now, glimpses into attendee’s lives beyond politics — reminders that life exists outside of this place — are more startling.
Like the heart-shaped bumper sticker on one attendee’s car that said ”I love my rescue,” right beneath another that said ”#QANON.” Or the parent who straightened the fairy wings on her daughter’s back and wondered aloud if fairy wings are washing-machine safe.
They made their way back to the parking lot Sunday evening and stepped carefully over the rutted tire tracks left by a thousand cars. The lot sat on a hill overlooking the lawn, and from there, the Rod of Iron Freedom Festival looked small. Not even the sound of the guest speakers’ voices carried this far.
The pop of gunfire from a nearby shooting range did, though. Trump’s face grinned from a sticker on a car window, and beneath it, a taunt: “Miss me yet?”
Hannah Phillips is the public safety reporter at Pocono Record. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.