Fundagelical Watch

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Religious Right Isn't Going Away

Sorry, Frank Rich and David Kirkpatrick, the Fundagelical Right, as I prefer to call it, is here to stay, maybe not in it's Bush era status, but probably in a far nastier form. You see, there's a history of what happens when politicized fundagelicals lose to liberals, moderates and sensible conservatives. They are not good losers. They get ugly, really ugly, show their true colors and continue to poison American political culture.

On the surface, there's a glaring contradiction between the books published last year by two journalists (Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming and Chris Hedges' American Fascism) versus David Kirkpatrick's "The Evangelical Crackup" and Frank Rich's "Rudy, the Values Slayer," both published in Sunday's New York Times. Both Goldberg and Hedges see the specter of fascism in the Christian Right and warn that in a national crisis, we could be faced with a real totalitarian threat. Both cite Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and Fritz Stern's The politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the German Ideology (both classic studies of fascism) in ways that send chills up your spine when you look at today's Fundagelical Right.

Kirkpatrick and Rich, on the other hand, see American evangelicals morphing into something far less threatening while the old guard Religious Right leaders like Robertson, Falwell, Dobson, Perkins and Kennedy are either dead, ready to retire, or no longer the great power brokers they once were. The hard-liners are now out of touch with their own constituency, which is disillusioned with the Iraq war and with the Bush presidency in general. Now evangelicals are flocking to more inclusive leaders like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, who are still against abortion and anti-gay, but who also talk about the need to address other issues like poverty, AIDS and global warming. (Clearly the new "inclusiveness" refers to the number of policy areas it's OK to talk about and not who is OK since the homophobia continues unabated.)

I suspect Goldberg, Hedges, Kirkpatrick and Rich are all correct. The apparent contradiction is a superficial one. While the declining influence of the Fundagelical Right within the Republican Party may gladden hearts on both sides of the political spectrum, in the long run the danger is still going to be there.

Let's take a quick tour of twentieth-century fundagelical history.

Remember that embarassing 1925 Scopes Trial that supposedly sent fundagelicals back to their churches and out of politics until Jerry Falwell came along in 1979? Well, it's a myth. First of all, fundamentalist Protestants as fundamentalist Protestants had never been an organized pressure group in American politics. There was nothing to retreat from. They may have cheered William Jennings Bryan, and they may have been bitterly disappointed with the results of the Scopes Trial, but there was no organization to fall apart and no political party with a clear stand on evolution to desert.

What did happen after 1925 was that the most extremist elements of fundamentalism gained unprecedented influence among American Protestants.

The leader of this movement to the fringe was Gerald B. Winrod, a Wichita-based preacher, publisher and politician. Sometimes called the Protestant Father Coughlin , Winrod attracted hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers in the 1930's with his tent revivals, his radio programs and his monthly magazine The Defender, which had a circulation of over 110,000 by 1938.

I'm currently writing a book on Winrod's career, and his exploits are instructive about what happens when the Fundagelical Right loses in the arena of electoral politics.

You see, Winrod didn't slink away to save individual souls privately in a Wichita tabernacle after the Scopes Trial. Instead he founded the Christian Right in America. In 1925 he started an organization called Defenders of the Christian Faith, and the next year he began publishing The Defender. Already a star on the revival circuit from California to New England, Winrod quickly became active in politics nationwide. He lobbied for anti-evolution bills not just in Kansas but also in Minnesota, California and several other states. In all cases the legislation went down to defeat. He backed Herbert Hoover in 1928 because Al Smith was a Catholic, but then decided that Hoover was soft on prohibition, so he actively campaigned for Prohibition Party presidential candidate, Georgia congressman W.D. Upshaw, in 1932. Winrod actually believed that he had enough influence in fundamentalist circles in New York and Pennsylvania that he could help Upshaw win those states and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where, he thought, Upshaw had a real chance.

Needless to say, Winrod was bitterly disappointed with the 1932 election results, and what he did with that disappointment is what is instructive about the Fundagelical Right when it loses. Starting with the 1933 issue of The Defender, Winrod blamed everything political that did not go his way on an international Jewish conspiracy operating through the secret society of the Illuminati. He published and promoted The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and English writer Nesta Webster's books on the Jewish Illuminati conspiracy. Naturally, when Winrod finished a distant third in the 1938 Kansas Republican senatorial primary, he blamed the Jews, and he did the same when the United States entered World War II after Pearl Harbor.

What is remarkable is that throughout the 1930's, as Winrod became more and more obsessed with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, he became more and more popular as a speaker at churches and revival meetings all over the country. For a period of time, only Father Coughlin and Charles Fuller had larger national radio audiences. It is safe to say that in many ways Winrod was the most influential leader within American fundamentalism from 1933 until WWII. Twice a year he was the biggest draw at Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple in L.A.

Winrod's influence began to wane in July, 1942, when he was named the lead defendant in the only sedition trial conducted by the United States government during WWII. Since 1934 Winrod had been a staunch advocate of Hitler's policies and had been constantly in touch with key German Nazi leaders. The sedition trial took place in federal district court in Washington, dragged on for seven months (Winrod was one of 30 defendants) and ended abruptly in a mistrial when the presiding judge died suddenly in November, 1944, an event Winrod, of course, attributed to Divine Providence. The case was never retried.

After the sedition trial, Winrod became increasingly marginal within the broader fundagelical world, although he continued pushing his conspiratorial anti-Semitism right up to his death in November, 1957. He died of an untreated case of the flu that had developed into pneumonia because he refused to see an M.D. since he believed the American Medical Association was controlled by Jews who wanted to destroy him.

Interestingly enough, though, his most committed fundagelical followers did not desert him while he was dealing with the sedition charges. His ledger books from 1941 through early 1946 reveal steady and substantial growth in his publishing business. Between 1941 and 1946 advertising revenue remained constant and contributions more than doubled. Total revenue for those years rose 47%. The faithful apparently kept sending in their hard-earned money.

I wish that were the end of the story, but of course it's not. During the 1950's and 1960's the Reverends Billy James Hargis and Carl McIntire rallied politicized fundagelical movements around many of the same conspiratorial theories Winrod had made popular in that community. Starting in 1958, many were promoted by the John Birch Society. I remember seeing copies of The Protocols and pamphlets arguing (as had Winrod) that Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish for sale in a Birch Society American Opinion Bookstore as late as 1973.

And the story doesn't stop there. After failing in his bid to become the Republican nominee for president in 1988, Pat Robertson wrote a book in which he explains his defeat (and all the country's problems) by invoking the same Jewish Illuminati myth popularized a half century earlier by Winrod. There are passages in Robertson's The New World Order (1991) that are not very well disguised paraphrases of Winrod's writings, although Winrod is never actually cited. Robertson does, however, cite Nesta Webster and Eustace Mullins, both notorious anti-Semites. Gary Kah, an author popular among American fundagelicals and a frequent guest on Trinity Broadcasting shows, did cite Winrod's Adam Weishaupt: Human Devil in his 1991 En Route to Global Occupation. (Weishaupt founded the Illuminati in 1776).

So, here we are, back in our own times. If Dobson, Perkins, Robertson, et al. lose their political influence over the next four to eight years, what do you think they will do? Sing "Kumbaya" with Rick Warren? Probably not.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Meanness Counts

It's difficult to assess what the Family Research Council's "Values Voters Summit" last weekend means for the Fundagelical Right in the 2008 presidential election. The speakers who paraded across the stage in front of approximately 2000 attendees were certainly a who's who of the Hard Right, fundagelical or not. All the Republican presidential candidates appeared. I watched most of it on C-SPAN, despite warnings from my wife and my cardiologist.

What disturbed me most was a certain militaristic sub-text, including the frequency with which speakers (many of whom had never had anything to do with the military) entered and left the stage to loud martial music. The scariest moment was when the Reverend Harry Jackson, Senior Pastor of Hope Christian Church in Bowie, Maryland proudly proclaimed that "We are the Navy Seals of the Christian movement!" My worst fear is that if this country ever suffers a crisis of stability, whether from a terrorist attack, an economic collapse, natural disaster, or whatever, that's exactly what these guys will be--commandos ready to take over. I trust Rev. Jackson was speaking metaphorically, but I hear far too many military metaphors in fundagelical rhetoric. (This is something, by the way, noted in both of the two best books I have yet read on the Fundagelical Right: Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming and Chris Hedges' American Fascists. Goldberg and Hedges are on to what the fundagelicals are really up to--power, and power over us all.)

The straw poll conducted by the conference was even more unreliable than most straw polls, which is saying it was really, really unreliable. Huckabee was a 5 to 1 winner over second place Romney among attendees who actually voted on site. The problem was that you could also vote online, and that vote had been open since August, when the Family Research Council invited people to pay one dollar, join up and vote. FRC membership grew from 5,000 to 8,500 between August and October.

Romney won the online vote with 1,595 votes, thirty more than Huckabee. No one else was even close. Giuliani came in next to last and John McCain was dead last. Complicating things was that about 600 attendees voted online.

The straw poll (or polls) settled nothing. The Fundagelical Right remains as fragmented as ever over whom to support. I don't know how this will all shake out, but I'm going to make one prediction. The candidate who appears the meanest and most likely to win will, in the end, get the most fundagelical support. Despite all the odds against him, that just might be Giuliani, although Romney is making a real go of it with his doubling Gitmo bit.

But what about Mike Huckabee? He's the natural choice. He's a Baptist minister and is the most personable, likable and articulate of all the Republican candidates. And, he's with the Fundagelical Right on all their push-button issues, always has been. Why isn't there a big push for Huckabee?

I think the answer is that he's not mean enough (and may not be mean at all). There is even evidence that he did some compassionate things as governor of Arkansas. I lived and worked in the fundagelical community for sixteen years, and, believe me, meanness counts. You need to know how to smile sweetly, speak often of Jesus and be the meanest SOB on the block to get anywhere in that world. Just look at the hate that spews from the likes of Robertson, Dobson, Lou Sheldon, and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association.

Despite his showing in last weekend's straw poll, don't count Giuliani out as the choice of many fundagelicals. A mayor who fostered a police culture resulting in random shootings of innocent people and ramming a stick up a guy's butt--now there's a real leader. Mike Huckabee doesn't stand a chance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Oral Roberts University Scandal

It seems that some top officials at Oral Roberts University have some explaining to do. Last week university president Richard Roberts took a leave of absence after announcing in chapel that the Lord had told him to proclaim his innocence.

Allegations include:

1. Three professors (who have filed wrongful termination suits) were fired for reporting to the Board of Regents that university employees were being pressured to participate in political activities in violation of tax codes for non-profit organizations.

2. Outrageous sums of contributors' money have gone to renovating repeatedly (ll times in 14 years)the Roberts' home.

3. The Roberts have used the university jet for private trips.

and, most intriguing of all,

4. Richard's wife Lindsay is conducting an ongoing "relationship" of some sort with and underage boy. The two have spent the night at the university guest house at least 9 times and have been photographed late at night 29 times in Mrs. Robert's sports car. (I'm sure this is simply an innocent matter of spiritual guidance.)

All this, and a lot more (see here for lots more salacious details) adds up to a heap of trouble for yet another Christian Right institution, so many of which seem to consider themselves above the mundane requirements of a fallen world (and of the God they claim to believe stands ready to redeem it).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

R.I.P., D. James Kennedy

D. James Kennedy, Senior Pastor at the 10,000- member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and founder of the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, passed away at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on September 5. He never recovered from a massive heart attack suffered in late December. I missed the news until this past weekend because I was in the hospital on September 5 recovering from my own heart attack.

Not as well-known as Robertson, Falwell and Dobson, Kennedy was nevertheless one of the most powerful leaders of the Christian Right. He devoted the majority of his sermons, televised weekly on the Trinity Broadcast Network, to attacking abortion, homosexuality, the separation of church and state, and evolution among other threats to a Christianized America. He was more openly influenced by the Reconstructionist vision than most prominent Christian Right leaders.

I often watched Kennedy on TBN and was most struck by his dishonesty. He was clearly a very smart guy, but, for example, he would distort American history and basic science in ways that were infuriating.

The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ closed down in April, but its remnants have now joined forces with the Family Research Council. It will be interesting to see what happens to Coral Ridge Ministries, including its weekly TV show (which is still on the air running old Kennedy sermons). Its fate may tell us something about how much Christian Right groups have real organizational viability and to what extent they are personality cults. Given the fascist tone to so much of the fundagelical movement and the centrality of cults of leadership in the fascist mind set, the answer is important.

Despite all that, my hope and prayer for the late Rev. Kennedy is that he now understands how little of God's grace his narrow brand of Calvinism ever allowed him to see.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Purity Balls

From the Now That's Just Creepy file:

In a chandelier-lit ballroom overlooking the Rocky Mountains one recent evening, some hundred couples feast on herb-roasted chicken and julienned vegetables. The men look dapper in tuxedos; their dates are resplendent in floor-length gowns, long white gloves and tiaras framing twirly, ornate updos. Seated at a table with four couples, I watch as the gray-haired man next to me reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out a small satin box and flips it open to check out a gold ring he's about to place on the finger of the woman sitting to his right. Her eyes well up with tears as she is overcome by emotion.

The man's date? His 25-year old daughter. Welcome to Colorado Springs' Seventh Annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball, held at the five-star Broadmoor Hotel. The event's purpose is, in part, to celebrate dad-daughter bonding, but the main agenda is for fathers to vow to protect the girls' chastity until they marry and for the daughters to promise to stay pure.

That's how Glamour magazine describes the lastest thing in the fad-prone fundagelical world. Never mind that, as the article points out, 88% of fundagelical abstinence pledgers end up having sex before marriage anyway, are more likely than non-pledgers to have oral and anal sex and are less likely to use condoms when they do.

Purity balls? They remind me of what Peggy Bundy's Wanker County cousin Effie said in Episode 606 of "Married with Children."

There's nothin' but sin in the city anyways. I say if you're gonna gyrate naked on tables for money, you should do it for the family.

Back to Work

It's been eight months since I posted an entry on Fundagelical Watch. First, I was consumed with working on my book on Gerald B. Winrod (1900-1957), who founded the Chrstian Right in this country. It's a myth that fundagelicals withdrew from politics after the 1925 Scopes Trial, a myth perpetrated by a lazy media and an indifferent academia. Second, since July I have been struggling with the return of prostate cancer and then a heart attack seven weeks ago.

I'm still recovering, so I don't promise a new post every day, but I will be making frequent comments about the Christian Right, who continue to be a great source of humor as well as a serious threat to American democracy.