The first time Pastor Steven Anderson told me I was going to hell, we were sitting alone in his church hall in Phoenix, Arizona.
At that point, I’d been filming him for two-and-a-half weeks for a documentary I was making about American hate preachers. I ended up tracking him over six months.
Pastor Steven Anderson is one of America’s most notorious hate preachers. He’s been banned from coming to the UK with the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, branding him “unconducive to the public good”. But this doesn’t stop him from broadcasting to an international audience on YouTube, where his sermons have been viewed 29 million times.
In one of his sermons, filmed at his Fundamentalist Independent Baptist church, Steven said that the world could be AIDS-free by Christmas if only we “executed the homos like God recommends”.
Steven, who is in his mid-30s, married with nine children, also believes that women shouldn’t vote and has suggested that the victims of France’s Bataclan terror attack deserved to die
Despite preaching sentiments that are strikingly similar to those promoted by Islamic extremists the constitutional right to free speech in America means that Steven need not fear being arrested. In fact, Steven believes his extremity is what attracts people. “I think what makes our church special is just how the preaching is totally unfiltered, uncensored. There’s no watering it down, no sugar coating the message.”
Steven’s approach seems to be working. His church, Faithful Word, began in his Arizona living room 10 years ago and has now grown into a 300-strong congregation – three times the national average. He plans to open three new churches over the course of the next year.
I first met him at a “soul-winning marathon” in Atlanta, Georgia. He’d travelled 1500 miles to lead a group of over 100 people spreading the gospel door-to-door. It was clear Steven was a celebrity to them. There was an excited atmosphere as people lined up to have their photograph taken with him.
He appeared to be amiable and friendly, nothing like his firebrand online persona.
“As our country becomes more degenerate, and as our country goes down the drain morally, then people are more willing to listen to someone like me,” he said as we drove through the suburbs of Atlanta.
We arrived in a dilapidated downtown area. Steven said they usually “soul-win” in poor parts of town because they find they can convert more people there. I watched him approach a young African-American woman with five kids to talk to her about Jesus Christ. She wasn’t interested, but said he could read the children “a bible story”.
25 minutes later Steven was still there, alone with the children who were sat in a circle on the grass. He told them he was going to help them.
“Repeat after me. ‘Dear Jesus’,” Steven said.
“Dear Jesus”, the children chorused.
“I know that I’m a sinner.”
“I know that I deserve to go to hell.”
Afterwards, Steven told me he believed he’d at least saved the eldest children from hell.
Faithful Word is a low building on the corner of a business park set against South Mountain, an outcrop of desert hills spiked with hundreds of cacti.
As I stood outside, I was struck by the number of young people and children entering the church. The congregants were friendly at first. But then the questions started: “What do you believe?” “If you were to die today are you 100% sure you would go to heaven?”
Steven took the stage.
“Let me ask you something, is our government for homosexuality or against homosexuality?” he thundered. “There’s no question about it. In the month of June, our government celebrates for an entire month, a month of sodomy. June is LGBT month.”
Steven paused before continuing. “Now, to me LGBT stands for Let God Burn Them.”
The congregation broke into laughter.
I realised I was probably the only person there with gay friends, who had attended gay marriages, who didn’t wish all gay people were dead.
Later, I asked him for his views on the American election. He told me doesn’t support either candidate. “99% of politicians are the scum of the earth,” he said. “Politics is like a magnet for the worst type of people.”
As shocking as I found Steven’s words at first, after going to five or six sermons, his views just became part of regular life. It was only after I came back to the UK and started looking through my footage that I realised anew how extreme he is.
Many Americans, including most Christians, are appalled by the extremity of Steven’s views. I met people, gay and straight, that have protested against Steven’s sermons, including practicing Christians who passionately reject his interpretation of their faith. None of that discourages his supporters, though.
Steven and his followers reject modern America. They feel persecuted by the liberal majority, and this persecution galvanizes them to keep up what they see as their righteous fight against evil. The more people attack their beliefs, the angrier and more determined they become.
I wondered if I could understand Steven’s motivation better by spending time with his wife and children.
He has been married to Zsuzsanna for over 15 years. When we met she was pregnant with her ninth child and was home-schooling the other eight.
Steven grew up attending a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, but I was surprised to find out that Zsuzsanna was from Germany (she’d met Steven while he was evanglising in Munich) and had at one time been Agnostic.
We spoke in the kitchen of their one-storey home.
“He would always give me the gospel,” she said. “At some point it just clicked with me, I just understood the gospel and I got saved. We dated for two weeks, eloped on the last day of my vacation in the United States.”
Zsuzsanna abandoned university to marry Steven, but she seemed unfazed by this. In fact, when we talked about working women and the fact that Hillary Clinton is running for president she told me it was a “curse” for a country to be ruled by a woman. We talked about marriage and whether divorce can ever be justified.
“Now what should a woman do if her husband’s beating her up?” she said.
“Go to a safe place. But you need to try to reconcile with him, I mean you can’t just say ‘Well I’m jumping ship’. It’s not a reason for divorce. I wouldn’t even recommend long-term separation for this.”
While I was making the documentary I spent a lot of time one on one with Steven trying to challenge his views, but he had an answer for everything.
“I mean it’s just the same thing I’ve heard a million times,” he said when I objected to his homophobia.
He leaned in and said to me, “I would just give you one last opportunity to be saved”.
I told him that, as it happened, 11 other people had already said that to me.
“Well hell’s gonna be pretty hot for you if you don’t get saved after hearing it 11 times. That’ll be the warning that I would give you.”
Steven and his family get death threats on an almost daily basis. He played me some of the voicemail messages he receives in his back-office just before I left Phoenix for the last time.
The scratchy voice of a man echoed out from Steven’s computer, “Talk about God striking down? He should strike down on your church and burn it to a crisp.”
Steven looked through the lists of voicemails and picked another.
“This was a classic,” he said.
An angry woman shouted: “Just wait until we bring our AR-15 [assault rifle] in and kill you, and kill all the people who believe in killing the LGBT.”
I watched Steven for any sense of remorse or fear, or even concern for his congregation or family. But he appeared totally relaxed about these threats.
“Look, I’m not going to just let the whole world go to hell, and let my whole country go down the toilet,” Steven told me.
“I have to preach the word of God. Somebody has to do it. I will never stop. I don’t care what the cost is. I’m ready to lose everything.”
On one occasion, I asked Steven if he liked the power of being a pastor. “I definitely like the power to influence masses of people, absolutely,” he said. “I want to do something big with my life, you know, I don’t want to be someone who accomplishes very little. Yeah I do like that.”
When Steven was banned from coming to the UK I rang him up to find out what happened. He told me he’d been travelling to Botswana to open a new church, but had been turned away while catching a connecting flight at Heathrow.
“It’s a shame,” he said. He’d been planning to ring me up to see if I wanted to get some fish and chips.