1.Not Dead Yet
David Kirkpatrick's cover story in Sunday's Times magazine is all the rage this week. In it he asks The Question that has surfaced periodically for the past 30 years: Is the Christian right dead?
Like a spate of other not-so-revelatory pieces this fall about the moderation of evangelical Christianity, Kirkpatrick's piece ignores the essential role the press played in creating the myth of the conservative evangelical monolith in the first place. In the wake of the 2004 election -- just three short years ago -- much of the media coverage glorified that mythology by presenting "values voters" (read: biblical conservatives) as the homogenous soul of American evangelicalism. Now, as the (always present, but not as loud) centrist wing of evangelicalism emerges with a more structured response to the divisiveness of the Christian right, and as Christian right leaders are very publicly disagreeing over presidential candidate endorsements, The Question emerges once again.
The Christian right is not dead. The Christian right leadership is divided over a field of less than perfect candidates (deja vu), a phenomenon that no more spells the demise of a Christian right political movement than the abysmal candidacy of Michael Dukakis spelled the end of liberalism. To write them off because they're not living up to their political mythology in this presidential race is to stick our heads in the sand and act surprised when, two years from now, they organize crusades to bring down our next Democratic president.
2. Grassroots Versus Grasstops; Think Micro, Not Macro
Conservative evangelicalism of the dominionist variety is an authoritarian beast, and its followers, although they will frequently doubt the wisdom of their leaders, do not doubt what they believe to be the inerrancy of the Bible. A powerful and widespread commitment to biblical literalism is the enduring feature of the Christian right in this country.
Of course the Christian right political apparatus is well-funded and powerful, and has leveraged the voting power of its constituency to stack the courts with like-minded judges, fill our federal agencies with political appointees loyal to their biblical mantras, Christianize our armed forces, alter the legal landscape on the First Amendment, and masquerade as representatives of American Christianity with the help of the same media that are now dancing on their political graves. But none of that would be possible without the ingrained belief of the shock troops that these leaders are performing God's work for them in Washington, in their statehouses, in the courts, and at their school boards. Of course there's pushback. But the movement remains just as motivated and determined as ever.
I was immersed in grassroots biblical conservatism in doing the reporting for my book. What I've witnessed over the past year leads me to -- regretfully, for sure -- not share Pam Spaulding's optimism that anti-gay political movements are fading. Spaulding points to a couple of poorly attended anti-gay events as evidence. But I've covered numerous events, not billed as "family" or anti-gay, at which anti-gay organizers were speakers, or where such anti-gay rhetoric is just part and parcel of the rest of the event -- whether it was a faith-healing service, a commemoration of "Christian nation," a teen evangelism event, or just a regular Sunday service.
3. Leadership in Transition, with a Deep Bench
Even if they can't come together over a presidential candidate this year, you can't assume that everyone is going to give up and go home. The Christian right has a deep bench of leaders, whose own networks enable the movement to expand its audience.
To be sure, the Christian right's political leadership -- in short, its various cults of personality -- is in transition. As I've reported before, for several years James Dobson has been bringing more charismatic and neo-Pentecostal figures into the Arlington Group circle, including Harry Jackson (a biblical conservative), who is writing a book with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins on where the movement goes from here. At the FRC Values Voters Summit a couple of weeks ago, I asked an insider whether he thought Jackson represents the future of the movement. "The future?" this person replied incredulously. "He's the present."
4. Evangelical Leadership Still Conservative, and Leaning Huckabee
This week a survey reveals a majority of the 100 board members of the National Association of Evangelicals (not all of whom align with the Christian right) find Mike Huckabee the best candidate of all the Republican and Democratic hopefuls (and Hillary Clinton the worst). "Huckabee is a clear first choice but there is concern that he is too far behind in the polls to catch up," said NAE president Leith Anderson in a press release. "If he does well in the Iowa caucuses or early primaries then Evangelicals may suddenly rally to his support."
Huckabee, giddy from his performance at the Values Voters Summit, took some hits from secular conservative outlets, including John Fund in the Wall Street Journal, who reported that vintage movement queen bee Phyllis Schlafly complained that as governor Huckabee "destroyed the conservative movement in Arkansas, and left the Republican Party a shambles."
Ouch! And that after Huckabee told Schlafly last month that her pro-Goldwater conspiracy theory book, A Choice, Not An Echo, is what led him to become a Republican.
5. Christian Right Influences Democrats
McClurkin represents the ugly face of homophobia in biblical conservatism, as demonstrated in his personal story that childhood molestation "caused" his homosexuality, which was then "healed" through faith. The "healing" of homosexuality is a perpetual theme, particularly in conservative Pentecostal and charismatic churches where it is believed homosexuality, like any work of the devil, can be cast out of a person. What else emerges from McClurkin's biblical literalism? The "Christian nation." At an America for Jesus rally on the National Mall in 2004 (organized to gather Christians to “reclaim” American culture) McClurkin, along with notorious “ex-gay” Ted Haggard, begged for a revival. “You cannot extract God from the very fabric of the society that He built,” said McClurkin. “Stop running from the very one that calls us into being as a nation. Turn back to God and allow Him to bring about change." Once again, the hold of biblical literalism animates politics: McClurkin believes God can heal his homosexuality and heal the nation from other unspecified sins (although homosexuality is a big one). Rod Parsley, who also preached at the same rally, writes in his most recent book, Culturally Correct, that the blame for all of modern American society’s problems is traced back to the Enlightenment. Think McClurkin’s godly nation is the democratic and pluralistic one you hear about in Obama’s aspirational speeches? Think again.
McClurkin is also a regular on the prosperity gospel preaching circuit, showing up at Parsley's Dominion Camp Meeting and on Trinity Broadcasting Network's "Praise-A-Thons," week-long pleas for money for the network's $300 million operation that lavishes enormous salaries and perks on the network's owners, the Crouch family. In the gospel of wealth, faith has everything to do with one's financial condition, and one receives abundance by demonstrating obedience to God by tithing to one's high-living pastor. That's not traditional Christianity, nor, Obama should be advised, is it in any way a progressive ideal.
And McClurkin is not Obama's only prosperity gospel pal; Obama has called prosperity televangelist T.D. Jakes a role model for Christians. (To find out more about the prosperity gospel and Republican politics, get yourself a copy of God's Profits when it comes out in January.)
Although inclusion is the centerpiece of his campaign, Obama made a terrible mistake including McClurkin. McClurkin is not only infuriating to the LGBT community and its allies, but the prosperity gospel is a controversial doctrine that many Christians consider heretical. And although Obama was seeking to reach out to the black community, within the black church, the prosperity message is hotly debated -- Obama’s own Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is a critic. So this whole McClurkin incident should be an object lesson on religious pandering: most Americans may very well be Christians, and indeed many of them believe it to be a faith of inclusion and good works, but some purveyors of a supposedly Christian message are most certainly not singing from the same songbook.
Contact me at tapthefundamentalist AT gmail DOT com.
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