April 2007 Church & State | Featured

At the first major conclave of Religious Right foot soldiers since the 2006 elections, a sense of solemnity pervaded the sanctuary of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, also known as the pulpit of D. James Kennedy, the ailing televangelist pastor whose multi-million-dollar religious enterprise is based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Gathered together on March 2-3 for the annual “Reclaiming America for Christ” conference, participants heard from a range of speakers, by turns inward-looking, triumphalist or bellicose.

Hospitalized since a near-fatal heart attack on Dec. 28, Kennedy was absent from the conference, over which he has presided almost every year since the first one in 1995. The roster, however, was filled with speakers who made frequent use of the buzzwords reflective of Kennedy’s ministry, particularly the use of the terms “salt” and “light,” derived from the Gospel of Matthew, to denote the two ways in which Kennedy asserts Christians must act in the world: as “salt” — to arrest the decay of society — and “light” — to reveal the path to everlasting life through the born-again Christian experience.

The conference is the product of the Center for Reclaiming America, one of several distinct components that are part of Coral Ridge Ministries, which took in some $38 million in 2005, according to the organization’s own tax filings. While great pains appear to have been taken to demonstrate adherence to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law that grants exemption from federal taxes to non-partisan religious institutions, the political underpinnings of the event were apparent in the resumes of the speakers.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is a former GOP representative in the state legislature of Louisiana; Richard Land, chair of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, reportedly speaks weekly with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove on an advisory conference call; Phyllis Schlafly helped launch the Republican right via Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; Brad Bright worked as an aide to GOP Senator William Armstrong (Colo.); Rick Green of Wallbuilders served as a Republican representative in the Texas legislature; and Barbara Collier, national field director for the Center for Reclaiming America, served as the Broward County co-chair for the 2004 Bush-Cheney ticket. (When Americans United received word that U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black was slated to address the conference, AU Executive Director Barry Lynn sent a letter to Black’s office, asking him to reconsider, and the chaplain withdrew from the conference.)

If there was an overarching theme to this year’s event, it was that America cannot be “reclaimed” from the grip of the evil forces that now engulf it until religious revival sweeps the land. Several speakers seemed to berate the faithful for not being holy enough.

“Demons in the holes of hell know more scripture” than many Christians, said Brian Fisher, executive vice president of Coral Ridge Ministries. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Land fingered divorce as a culprit.

“We’ve become more like the culture,” Land said, “than the culture has become like us…. God is not going to send revival, God is not going to send an awakening, as long as the divorce rate inside the church is the same as the divorce rate outside the church — and it is. What do we have to say to the world when we get divorced as often as the world does?”

At the same time, Land — who penned a 2002 letter to President George W. Bush signed by D. James Kennedy and other Religious Right leaders that urged the invasion of Iraq — exhorted believers not to retreat from the world.

“We’re to be close enough to the world that they can see the light and feel the heat,” Land said. “There’s no room in being obedient to the command to be salt and light for us to withdraw from the world and say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to get involved in that stuff, we’re not going to get involved in public policy, we’re not going to get involved in politics; that’s dirty worldly stuff. We’re just gonna, we’re just gonna, we’re just gonna withdraw and have a closed meeting of the saints and sorta go into a spiritual holding pattern until it’s time to go up and be with Jesus.’ That is not what the Lord had in mind….”

Despite a bullet-pointed sheet from Land in the conference literature that called for Christians to become “good stewards of the environment,” in his speech he tarred today’s environmentalists with the brush of communism.

“[A]ll the pinks,” Land said, “have become chartreuse; that’s the environmental crowd.” In an America run by “secularists,” Land’s hand-out reads, “[h]uman life would become more commoditized.” There would be clone farms and polygamy, all part of “a neo-paganist triumph.”

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The culture warriors who sauntered between sessions among the modern buildings and tropical landscaping of Coral Ridge Presbyterian could easily pass for any of the thousands of suburbanites who find their way to Ft. Lauderdale to board one of the giant cruise ships that grace the harbor. Conference organizers counted some 1,300 souls in attendance, mostly middle-aged and elderly, dressed with precision in office-casual attire. Nearly all were white.

Even in March, the air was warm and humid, with winds sometimes blowing hard enough to bend the tops of the palm trees that surround the elegant white church building in which the speakers addressed the troops. The church sanctuary is a full-blown and roomy television studio, complete with state-of-the-art video cameras, including one on a crane to offer the sort of panoramic shots we’ve become unconsciously used to seeing on television. Two other cameras — one in the balcony and another on a dolly in the center aisle, offered alternative angles at the director’s command.

While most speakers addressed the crowd from the stationary mic in the pulpit, others, like Brian Fisher, strode the stage wearing the clip-on Lavelier microphone typically used by guests on television talk shows. The speakers were dwarfed by their own images, broadcast on giant video screens mounted on either side of the stage. A third screen, in the center, was used by some for PowerPoint slides.

Meals were available in the fellowship hall, a separate building that houses a sizable bookstore and an auditorium from which one could watch the conference proceedings on yet another giant video screen while enjoying a snack. Outdoors, elaborate landscaping complete with falling water and shaded benches, offered a resting place, so long as you didn’t mind the ubiquitous security guards watching your every move. Around the building’s perimeter and in the parking lot, as well as in the sanctuary, large and serious-looking men sporting tell-tale curlicue ear wires made their presence known. The parking lot was dotted with Florida’s bright-yellow “Choose Life” license plates, an anti-abortion accessory for the righteously appointed automobile.

Inside the sanctuary, speakers veered between messages calling for humility and loving outreach to claims of anointment and condemnation. On the first day, Christine Schneeringer of Worthy Creations Ministry made an earnest appeal for the church to be more welcoming to gay people who are seeking to turn from “their unwanted same-sex attractions.”

Schneeringer, a self-described former lesbian who came to the church via Exodus, the ministry of the “ex-gay” movement, told a chilling story about being at a Sunday school class with fellow church members who had no idea that she had lived as a lesbian. One classmate, Schneeringer said, told her that she had no compassion for homosexuals. The other, Schneeringer continued, said, “Well, I don’t have any compassion on homosexuals (sic) and I think AIDS is God’s judgment on them.”

Adding that, in the context of the church, “the homosexual is the modern-day leper,” Schneeringer explained that repentant homosexuals are “on our side” and trying to “surrender to God and crucify their fleshly desires….”

The very next day, however, had apparently been reserved for the opposite viewpoint, expressed by Perkins of the Family Research Council and Ann Coulter of, well, Ann Coulter.

The premise of Perkins’ address was that the church has failed through complacency.

“How else,” he asked, “do you explain the courts that have rejected 5,000 years of human history by taking the oldest God-ordained institutions known to man, marriage and family, and redefining them according to the twisted desires of about one percent of the nation’s population?”

On the matter of gay rights, Coulter’s contribution was to describe, from the pulpit, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards as “a faggot,” a remark that did not go over as well at Coral Ridge as it had the day before at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C.

Both stirred the pot against Muslims, as well, with Coulter repeating her post-9/11 remark that the leaders of Muslim countries should be forcibly converted to Christianity, and Perkins complaining that the Muslim call to prayer is “now broadcast over American cities.” (The use of the word “broadcast” is a bit of a stretch; it’s most commonly announced over a mosque’s own public address system, much like the digital loops of chimes played in the bell towers of modern churches.)

Perkins read the call to prayer aloud, implying it to be something to which a Christian should take offense since it declares that there is no god but Allah. (He omitted the fact that Allah translates from Arabic to English as the word “God.”) Then he repeated it in Arabic.

“Allah akbar,” he said, derisively. “That’s what Islamic terrorists say before they cut off your head.”

Noting that the call to prayer is “broadcast” five times a day while “Christians have a hard time getting a manger scene put up one time a year,” Perkins asked, “How is it that in our nation where Muslims account for about 6 million of the 300 million living in this country, and Christians comprise 100 million, that Muslims can control the public policy and we cannot? I suggest to you that it is because Christians have become apathetic to our role in shaping the policy in our nation, and it could have deadly consequences, not only for the unborn, but for the living as well.”

But Perkins’ invitation to rage was no mere commiseration of resentment; it was a call to action. He did, however, qualify his call.

“I am not here to call the church to partisan action,” Perkins explained. “I am not here advocating for a political party. I am here advocating for Christian citizenship.”

Lest any of the assembled miss the point, Perkins offered up the story of Phineas, grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron, from Numbers 25. Phineas was rewarded by God with an “everlasting priesthood” for killing an Israelite and his Midian lover because God had forbidden the mixing of the men of Israel with the women of that tribe.

The story is, essentially, the vindication of the criminalization of “miscegenation” — a sentiment consistent with Perkins’ past courting of such racist groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens, America’s largest white supremacist organization, according to journalist Max Blumenthal. (Perkins bought, on behalf of political client Senator Woody Jenkins, a phone-bank list from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.)

Coulter’s rhetoric was no less violent. In describing the murders of doctors and health care personnel who worked at abortion clinics, Coulter said the victims had been shot, “…or, depending on your point of view, had a procedure performed on them with a rifle.”

Perkins use of the Scripture was only slightly less menacing than Coulter’s flippant analogy.

“We read that Phineas arose and he took action…,” Perkins said.

“Not only is prayer required…I warn you that if you begin to pray for our nation that, at some point in time, you’re gonna be prayin’ and you’re gonna feel a tap on your shoulder and hear, ‘Son, daughter, I’ve heard your prayer; now I want you to do something about it.’”

Just in case his message should be misconstrued, however, Perkins offered this caveat: “Now, let me be clear, in case the media’s here,” he said, “I’m not advocating you go home and get a pitchfork out of your storage shed and run into your neighbor’s house.” Phineas, the Bible tells us, used a javelin.

Throughout the weekend, conference speakers strove to grapple with their movement’s roots in the segregationist South by making claim to the legacy of the abolitionists, many of whom were prominent Christians. In the revisionist history given of the nation’s founding, Wallbuilders’ Rick Green made a point of acknowledging the contributions of a number of African-American Revolutionary War fighters, an acknowledgment barely heard even in liberal circles during Black History Month.

Speakers went to a lot of pains to demonstrate acceptance, but the legacy of the Confederacy constantly lurked in the shadows, General Robert E. Lee apparently being the most acceptable symbol of such. Brad Bright told a story about a little boy whose father “admired General Lee greatly.”

The Southern Baptists’ Land made a point of telling attendees that he had 19 ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and 17 who fought for “the Union side.” In his office in Nashville, he said, he keeps a bust of Abraham Lincoln. In his study at home, he added, hangs a portrait of Robert E. Lee, “in his colonel’s uniform when he was in the Union army.” In fact, back when Lee was part of it, it wasn’t yet known as “the Union army.” Back then, that branch of the military was known as the United States Army.

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But fiery rhetoric alone is hardly enough to “reclaim” America, it seems, for some nuts-and-bolts sessions on messaging and organizing were offered, as well. Bright, in particular, offered some solid how-to advice on what he called “reframing” — using your opponent’s response to your provocation as a platform for your own agenda. Jesus, he told us, never got off-message; neither did Peter or Paul (though he neglected to mention that Peter and Paul had rather different messages, hence, a major falling-out).

But the \xfcber-message offered by Bright, son of Bill Bright, the late founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, is that the key to success lies in having the correct view of God. In a 2005 Baylor University study, Bright contended, American believers were found to regard God in one of four ways: authoritarian, benevolent, critical or distant. If you knew which of these views a person had of his or her Maker, Bright said, you could predict the way he or she would vote.

Indeed, though he did not say it, the Baylor study, “American Piety in the 21st Century,” shows that a solid majority of evangelical Christians believe in an authoritarian God, and that believers in that model of God adhere not only to right-wing positions on social issues, but — with the exception of African-Americans — were also far more likely than others to support the war in Iraq.

In a similar vein, Frank Wright of the National Religious Broadcasters laid out several stages of debate. When your argument is dismissed because the matter has been settled by accepted science, he explained, you know you are really getting somewhere.

That’s what happened with the subject of climate change, he said. The debate got shut down just as “climatologists started to make progress against the prevailing global warming orthodoxy by showing that the data and the conclusions were somewhat suspect.” However, like Bright, Wright did offer pointers on how to leverage opposition to one’s viewpoint into a platform for advancing it (“what Dr. Kennedy calls the judo technique,” he said).

Wright also spoke darkly of a possible “resurrection” of the Fairness Doctrine, the 20th-century law repealed in 1987 that required media conveyed over a public trust, such as the television spectrum or radio waves, to offer balanced information on matters of public importance.

“It would literally say,” warned Wright, “that a Christian programmer, broadcaster, would have to give up half of their time away to opposing viewpoints….”

A boon to the nuts-and-bolts portion of the program was surely Phyllis Schlafly’s multimedia presentation on how she and the “ladies” of Eagle Forum stopped the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, an act that brought about the founding of the “pro-family movement,” she said.

If Schlafly’s appearance at the opening night’s Salt and Light Awards Dinner — among the winners were Allen and Leslee Unruh, who ran the failed campaign in South Dakota to maintain that state’s ban of abortion — was a high point, the big name on the closing night proved disastrous.

In her remarks to those who pledged to reclaim the nation for Christ, Ann Coulter equated the lives of aborted fetuses with those of the doctors and abortion clinic workers who were murdered by anti-abortion terrorists.

“Those few abortionists were shot or, depending on your point of view, had a procedure with a rifle performed on them,” Coulter told her audience, which responded with laughter.

“I’m not justifying it,” she continued, “but I do understand how it happened…. The number of deaths attributed to Roe v. Wade — about 40 million aborted babies and seven abortion clinic workers — 40 million to seven is also a pretty good measure of how the political debate is going.”

If those remarks went over reasonably well, Coulter’s re-use, from the Coral Ridge pulpit, of an anti-gay epithet to describe Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards brought forth a gasp from the packed pews. The reaction prompted her to say she had taken her last question and scurry off the stage.

Americans United’s Lynn wrote to conference organizers, taking objection to the use of such language in a religious setting. At press time, Americans United had yet to receive a response. In the recap of the conference on the Web site for Coral Ridge’s Center for Reclaiming America, there’s not a mention of Coulter to be found.

The last anyone heard from conference organizers about their choice of Coulter as a keynote speaker was from Center executive director Cass, who told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, the day before the conference, “[Coulter is] a polarizing person. Some have told us they think her style is too caustic, though they agree with her positions. Others love her style.”

Absent a response to AU’s letter, one can only assume that Cass and D. James Kennedy “agree with her positions.”

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Adele M. Stan is a regular contributor to The American Prospect Online, and to Prospect’s weblog, TAPPED.