September 2011 Church & State | Featured

To most people, the Statue of Liberty is the quintessential symbol of American life. Ensconced in New York Harbor, “Lady Liberty” has held her torch aloft for generations of immigrants seeking freedom on these shores.But to John Benefiel, an Oklahoma pastor affiliated with the Heartland Apostolic Reformation Network, the Statue of Liberty means something else – something sinister.“You know where we got it from?” Benefiel asked during an August 2010 sermon. “French Freemasons. Listen, folks: That is an idol, a demonic idol, right there in New York Harbor…. It’s a statue of a false goddess, the Queen of Heaven. We don’t get liberty from a false goddess, folks. We get our liberty from Jesus Christ and that Statue of Liberty in no way glorifies Jesus Christ.”Benefiel also believes that Washington, D.C., is under a curse from God because it is named for Columbia, a Pagan goddess. During the same sermon, Benefiel said he would “divorce Baal” from the nation’s capital and called for renaming it the “District of Christ.” (In fact, the “Columbia” in D.C.’s name refers to Christopher Columbus.)Such unusual views pop up in the far corners of the American religious scene from time to time, but usually the people who hold them are marginalized. Not Benefiel. He has friends in high places, among them Texas Gov. Rick Perry.Perry tapped Benefiel and a host of other Religious Right extremists to organize a day-long, fundamentalist-themed Christian rally Aug. 6. If Perry thought the prayer-and-fasting event would be non-controversial, he was soon to learn otherwise.Opposition to the worship service at Houston’s Reliant Stadium – dubbed “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis” – began spreading as soon as Perry announced it in early June. It grew quickly. Critics asserted that Perry had joined forces with radical religious leaders to promote the event, and they blasted it for its exclusionary theology and intolerance.But critics did more than just complain. They organized. The day before the Perry event, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn traveled to Houston to speak at a press conference criticizing the governor’s injudicious mixture of religion and government. That evening, Lynn spoke at a rally held at Houston’s Mount Ararat Baptist Church that – in contrast to Perry’s event – was designed to showcase inclusion, diversity and broadly based religious liberty for all.Speaking to a crowd of over 300 at the “Family, Faith & Freedom” celebration, Lynn slammed the Perry prayer service for its fundamentalists-only perspective.“I’m not really here to be angry tonight, but I am here to issue a reprimand to those who are trying to manipulate our constitutional rights and protections,” Lynn said. “The Constitution does not allow the endorsement of religion. It does not allow the exclusion of certain faiths or people who share no religious faith from full fellowship in the American community. So it certainly does not allow the day-long prayer rally literally initiated by the governor and orchestrated by some of the fringiest folks on the American religious scene today.”Joining Americans United in sponsoring the rally were the Houston AU Chapter, the Texas ACLU and progressive allies.Other speakers at the celebration were the Rev. William Lawson, a civil rights leader and founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston;Imam Qasim Khan, president and CEO of Shades of White, an Islamic organization working toward world peace; Mini Timmaraju of the (Hindu) Vedanta Society of Greater Houston; the Rev. Ellen Cooper Davis, pastor of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church; Dr. Ariel Thomann, founding member of Humanists of Houston; and Paul Asofsky, president of the Texas ACLU’s board of directors, who read a statement by Rabbi Steve Morgen, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Yeshurun.It’s still a little uncertain what motivated Perry to initiate his controversial gathering, nicknamed the “Prayer-a-palooza” by some. On The Response’s website, Perry lists a litany of problems plaguing the nation and says America can’t solve them without God’s help. “Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism and a multitude of natural disasters,” wrote Perry. “As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”To plan and promote the event, Perry turned to an array of Religious Right organizations, many of which sit far on the fringes of American life. Chief among them was the American Family Association (AFA), an organization whose rhetoric is so extreme it has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.Founded by the Rev. Donald Wildmon in the late 1970s, the AFA originally focused on derailing salacious television programming. The spread of cable made that more or less a non-starter, and as the ’80s progressed, the group took on other issues, attacking church-state separation, gays, feminists and other targets of the far right.These days, Wildmon’s son Tim oversees a sprawling Tupelo, Miss.-based empire with an annual budget of $21.4 million. AFA staffers never hesitate to employ the most lurid rhetoric possible. AFA issues analyst Bryan Fischer has become notorious for outrageous statements. In October of 2009, Fischer told attendees at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit that Adolf Hitler invented church-state separation. That was just a start. Since then, Fischer has gone on to assert that Native Americans deserved to lose control of the continent because they were Pagans and sexual deviants, called gay sex a form of “domestic terrorism,” advocated for the reintroduction of blasphemy laws in America, insisted that grizzly bear attacks on humans are a sign that “the land is under a curse” and claimed that Muslims have no right to build mosques in this country because the First Amendment protects only Christians.In the wake of the horrific July 22 mass shooting in Norway by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, Fischer wrote a blog asserting that Breivik, who opposed Muslim immigration and wanted Norway to re-embrace its Christian roots, had a point. According to Fischer, Breivik’s “analysis of cultural trends in Europe and the danger created by Islamic immigration and infiltration is accurate…. Breivik’s angst was caused by the presence of so many Muslims in Norway and Europe, which he correctly observes is leading to ‘cultural annihilation.’”Given the opportunity to condemn Fischer for the comments, Perry refused. He issued a statement to The Washington Post saying simply that he “believes there is no justification for such a horrendous act of violence.”But the AFA looks positively mainstream compared to some of Perry’s other prayer partners. One of the organizers of the stadium event was the International House of Prayer, a controversial congregation based in Grandview, Mo. The church’s founder, Mike Bickle, has been criticized for stressing the need to convert Jews to charismatic forms of Christianity and for a portrayal of Jesus that emphasizes militancy and violence. He also believes he has been to Heaven – twice.Bickle once gave a sermon arguing that TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey is the forerunner of a satanic “Harlot Babylon” end-times religion. “I believe that one of the main pastors, as a forerunner to the Harlot movement – it’s not the Harlot movement yet – is Oprah,” Bickle said in an undated sermon posted on the website. “She is winsome, she is kind, she is reasonable, she is utterly deceived, utterly deceived. A classy woman, a cool woman, a charming woman, but has a spirit of deception and she is one of the clear pastors, forerunners to the Harlot movement.”Bickle’s church is close to Lou Engel and other Pentecostal evangelists who promote a theology known as the “Seven Mountains” movement. Adherents of this doctrine believe they must conquer seven “mountains” of modern life to establish a proper “Christian” reign – government, education, media, arts and entertainment, the family, business and religion.The Texas Observer reported last month that Perry has growing ties to the “Seven Mountains” crowd. According to the magazine, two Texas pastors, Tom Schlueter and Bob Long, visited Perry in his office in late September of 2009 to report that they had received a prophecy that Texas had been proclaimed “The Prophet State.” As such, they said God expected Texas to lead the nation to revival. Naturally, the governor would have a special role to play.The Observer’s Forrest Wilder wrote that Schlueter claimed he had received a prophetic message from another pastor, Chuck Pierce, and that Pierce had commanded him to “pray by lifting the hand of the one I show you that is in the place of civil rule.”Wilder reports that Schlueter, Long and others are part of the New Apostolic Reformation, a little known but militant Pentecostal faction. “Believers fashion themselves modern-day prophets and apostles,” Wilder wrote. “They have taken Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on ecstatic worship and the supernatural, and given it an adrenaline shot. The movement’s top prophets and apostles believe they have a direct line to God. Through them, they say, [God] communicates specific instructions and warnings. When mankind fails to heed the prophecies, the results can be catastrophic: earthquakes in Japan, terrorist attacks in New York, and economic collapse. On the other hand, they believe their God-given decrees have ended mad cow disease in Germany and produced rain in drought-stricken Texas.”The movement has an ominous political goal. As Wilder puts it, “The new prophets and apostles believe Christians – certain Christians – are destined to not just take ‘dominion’ over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the ‘Seven Mountains’ of society, including the media and the arts and entertainment world. They believe they’re intended to lord over it all. As a first step, they’re leading an ‘army of God’ to commandeer civilian government.”Researcher Rachel Tabachnick, who has doggedly followed the New Apostolic Reformation and posted videos of many of its leaders on YouTube, calls the group “the biggest international religious movement you never heard of.”Tabachnick warns that movement leader Peter Wagner oversees “an international network of apostles and prophets who believe they are unifying the church to take control over government and society, and bring about the return of Jesus. The apostles have a 50-state communications and mobilization network of ‘prayer warriors,’ which is becoming increasingly enticing to right-wing politicians.” In addition to the New Apostolic Reformation crowd, the leadership team of Perry’s Response was studded with figures whose views are far outside the mainstream. Among them were “Christian nation” pseudo-historian David Barton and TV preacher John Hagee, who has been scored for making anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-gay remarks.Other members of The Response team may not be household names, but they also hold very extreme views. As a group, they tend to be obsessed with abortion, homosexuality and secularism, blaming gays and a lack of adherence to their religion for just about every bad thing in American life.In what might have been an effort to draw attention away from these extreme groups, Response organizers recruited some better-known Religious Right leaders to endorse the prayerfest. These included James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Richard Land, top lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention.Perry may have belatedly realized that he had signed on with a rowdy crew. As the event approached, he began saying that he wasn’t sure if he would even speak at the rally. The morning of the event, he limited his participation to a scripture reading and prayer. (Perhaps stung by the avalanche of criticism, Perry insisted during his prayer that God “is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party.”)Other public officials seemed wary as well. Perry had invited all 49 other governors to attend his event, but only Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) showed up. (Florida Gov. Rick Scott put in an appearance by videotape.) The governors might have been scared off by the event’s exclusionary tone. The primary religious leaders behind the effort tend to come from the margins of Christianity. Some of them also see themselves as the potential saviors of America. Bickle and Engle are aligned with “Joel’s Army,” a group that cites a passage from the Old Testament Book of Joel as a clarion call for Christians of their stripe to take dominion over America. (The passage in question, Joel 2:15-16, reads, “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber.”)Non-Christian, mainline Christian and non-theist groups spoke out against this alarming attempt to mix church and state, noting that this theology is favored by only certain types of American Christians, certainly not a majority.Perry’s backers were not fazed. In fact, they responded that non-Christians should feel free to attend the worship service – and get saved.Eric Bearse, a spokesman for The Response who formerly worked as Perry’s communications director, told the AFA’s American Family Radio that the event would be evangelistic in tone. “A lot of people want to criticize what we’re doing, as if we’re somehow being exclusive of other faiths,” Bearse said. “But anyone who comes to this solemn assembly, regardless of their faith tradition or background, will feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ in that assembly hall, in that arena. And that’s what we want to convey, that there’s acceptance and that there’s love and that there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.”Allan Parker, president of the Justice Foundation and an early organizer of the Perry event, sent a revealing message to supporters. It read, “This is an explicitly Christian event because we are going to be praying to the one true God through His son, Jesus Christ. It would be idolatry of the worst sort for Christians to gather and invite false gods like Allah and Buddha and their false prophets to be with us at that time. Because we have religious liberty in this country, they are free to have events and pray to Buddha and Allah on their own. But this is time of prayer to the One True God through His son, Jesus Christ, who is The Way, The Truth, and The Life.” (Other organizers might have realized that Parker had been a little too candid. He was dropped from the planning committee, and his email was scrubbed from the internet.)As the Perry rally approached, some in the media began to wonder if the event had a political dimension. They noted that at the same time Perry was promoting the event, he was toying with the idea of jumping into the presidential race.Perry did succeed in lining up support from Religious Right heavy hitters, but turnout was less than spectacular. Reliant Stadium seats 71,500 people, but attendance got nowhere near that. From the stage, Dobson announced that 22,000 people were present.AU’s Lynn did a round of media interviews prior to the event. Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” alongside FRC’s Perkins, Lynn blasted the Religious Right leader for aligning with extreme groups. During the segment, Matthews aired a collection of clips featuring the prayer rally organizers saying extreme things. Among them was Benefiel’s sermon about the Statue of Liberty and various over-the-top statements by Fischer. When Matthews asked Perkins to respond, a clearly uncomfortable Perkins could only reply that rally organizers held a range of views, and that he did not agree with all of them. (Not surprisingly, Perkins did not point out that the AFA’s Fischer has spoken twice at Perkins’ Values Voter Summit.)AU’s Lynn attended Perry’s rally. In a statement issued to the media, Lynn observed, “Gov. Perry achieved his goal today. He drove almost every major Religious Right leader and group into his corral. If he decides to run for president, the Perry brand will be everywhere he wants it to be.”Lynn said the event also shows that the Religious Right is getting geared up for more political intrigue in the coming months.. “The Religious Right wants to take dominion over American government so they can impose their narrow perspective on everyone,” Lynn observed. “The event today is likely to reenergize that movement as we head into the 2012 elections.”