Turning Point USA CEO Charlie Kirk is cheerleading the far-right boycott of Target over the retailer’s Pride collection — which included trans-friendly youth apparel and other LGBTQ-positive gear — for what Kirk decries as “their support for grooming kids.”
Kirk’s condemnation of the retailer coincided with TPUSA’s second-annual Pastors Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, this past week, where Kirk also denounced Target, telling a crowd of hundreds of religious leaders: “If you love God, you must hate evil.”
Yet in delivering these fevered messages about morality and child welfare, Kirk had an odd benefactor, a man whose criminal history opens up TPUSA to charges of hypocrisy.
Rolling Stone has learned that one of the TPUSA summit’s corporate sponsors is a Christian fashion company that is led by a registered sex offender, Shawn Bergstrand, who served time in federal prison for attempted “coercion and enticement” after trying to persuade “a minor female” to “engage in sexual activity.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, TPUSA spokesman Andrew Kolvet said that TPUSA Faith “was not aware of this incident” but emphasized that, as an “exhibit sponsor,” Bergstrand was not a speaker, organizer, or “professing doctrine from the stage.”
“One of the core tenets of the Christian faith is forgiveness rooted in repentance. After discussing the issue with him, we believe [it] was critical to bringing him to faith,” Kolvet added. “He doesn’t hide from what happened, he instead posts his testimony online on his company website. TPUSA Faith will not toss away a repentant, decent person because of a mistake that happened over a decade before, or because a leftwing outlet wants to write a hit piece on the amazing work our team is doing.” Kolvet included a reference to Colossians 3:13, a Bible verse that reads, in part, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
In today’s conservative movement, nothing animates activists like the supposed liberal indoctrination of children. The religious right, in particular, espouses unhinged rhetoric about how youth are being “groomed” into trans- and LGBTQ ideology by Luciferian leftists.
Riding this wave of populist anger, Kirk and TPUSA have made a hard pivot from the organization’s stated aim, of preaching free-market economics to students, to embrace the cause of Christian nationalism, and marshaling church leaders to the frontlines of GOP politics.
At the Pastors Summit, Kirk responded to Rolling Stone’s coverage of his group’s new crusade. “First of all, it’s not my Turning Point,” Kirk insisted of his organization. “It’s the Lord’s Turning Point.” He added: “I am both a Christian and a nationalist, but most importantly, I’m a Christian.”
One of the sponsors for this summit — alongside firms like Patriot Mobile and American Christian Credit Union — is Rightside Up, a Christian “lifestyle apparel” company that sews tags reading “BSITL” (“Be Strong in the Lord”) into its t-shirts and other clothing. The company’s website declares: “We all have a life story, and it doesn’t matter where we’ve been. It’s where we are going that counts!”
The company’s CEO, Bergstrand, has a prison conviction in his life story. He’s a registered sex offender in North Dakota, a designation the state’s registry indicates will remain active until 2030.
Bergstrand was convicted in 2014 for attempted “coercion and enticement.” The details of the criminal complaint are sealed, but a redacted indictment shows that Bergstrand was originally charged with attempting to “entice and coerce a minor female … to engage in prostitution and sexual activity.” (A contemporaneous news report on Bergstrand’s arrest includes other, disturbing allegations that do not appear in the federal court record.)
Bergstrand quickly reached a plea deal that removed mention of prostitution. The criminal “information” in Bergstrand’s guilty plea states that in June and July of 2013 he “did knowingly attempt to persuade, induce, entice and coerce a minor female” to “engage in sexual activity.”
Bergstrand did not respond to requests for comment, but his address on North Dakota’s sex offender registry matches the registration address for Bergstrand and Rightside Up in a corporate registry maintained by North Dakota’s secretary of state. Bergtrand’s photo on the offender registry also matches video of the apparel CEO from RightsideUp’s website.
Despite facing a maximum of 20 years in jail, Bergstrand received a sentence of one year in prison, and five years of supervised release. He was discharged from supervision more than a year early in 2018.
In promotional videos for Rightside Up, Berstrand speaks, obliquely, of his life struggles. “At one time in my life, I lost absolutely completely everything,” he says. But he touts the apparel company as his way to get right with Jesus. “God gives us second chances, third chances, fourth chances,” he says. “It’s up to us what we’re going to do with it.”
Bergstrand’s association with TPUSA was brought to Rolling Stone’s attention by Matthew Boedy, a professor at the University of North Georgia who has also written about TPUSA’s odd leap from economic to religious dogma.
“I’m all for second chances and paying your debt to society. Even perhaps creating a brand based on how you overcame your own terrible decisions,” Boedy says, referring to Bergstrand. “But for Turning Point and Charlie Kirk to highlight this particular person — whose crime involved a child and attempted sexual acts — while decrying ‘groomers’ and sending mobs to stores who sell products they don’t like, is beyond hypocritical.”
“It’s even more outrageous that this business was promoted to a group of pastors who likely had no idea of this person’s story,” he adds. “I can only hope Kirk practices what he preaches and takes responsibility.”
On Saturday night, Kirk responded to Rolling Stone‘s report, writing that he wanted to “set the record straight” in a post on Twitter, and added that he had never met Bergstrand. “I’m told from the team that coordinates exhibitors that he’s a nice person who did something wrong over a decade ago, and unlike Target, he repented and the experience led him to his faith. Good for him. That’s the Gospel,” Kirk wrote in part.
This article was updated at 9:55 p.m. ET to include Charlie Kirk’s response.