The Christian Right has often sought to stay the hand of God, angry with our failings as a nation, by `standing in the gap' at large prayer rallies and pleading for mercy. They have made a special point of doing so in the run up to national elections since 1980, praying for godly government and righteous candidates, and this year is no exception. The beneficiaries are almost always Republicans and this year is probably no exception in that regard as well. But there is also an ominous element that mostly transcends parties and is on vivid display as we enter the fall campaign season.
When Politics Means the End of the World (as we know it)by Frederick Clarkson
On Labor Day weekend, Lou Engle, head of the fiery neo-Pentecostal group, The Call, is leading a worship service in a sports arena in Sacramento, California and a "solemn assembly" at the state Capitol the next day. These events were initially billed as a tenth anniversary of The Call's first youth rally on the national capital mall which drew a claimed 400,000 people. Since then, the Sacramento event has been repositioned as the kick-off of a major Christian Right fall political campaign initiative. Engle says it will be the "hinge of history" opening the door to "the greatest awakening" and "returning our nation to its righteous roots."
There are several important dimensions of this effort. One is that this is an effort at reaching and mobilizing evangelical young people into Republican politics, particularly in California; another, is that it represents a new stage in the long term cooperation between conservative Catholics, fundamentalists and the neo-Pentecostals. And finally, the militant rhetoric of Engle's armies of activists is escalating, and their organizational infrastructure seems to be increasing, especially in cyberspace.
Before we discuss these, there is one additionally remarkable aspect of this. The eminence grise of this initiative appears to be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose organization Renewing American Leadership (ReAL) is apparently the force behind a series of Christian Right events being organized under the rubric of "Pray & Act." This is politically important, but as Gingrich's role becomes more public, it may also become morally dissonant, since Gingrich is well known (and has been recently highlighted in the news) as a thrice-married serial philanderer. This certainly makes him an unlikely guide for a religious political movement whose leaders believe that the fate of America hinges on the health of heterosexual marriage. (His recent conversion to Catholicism not withstanding.)
"If our society goes down the tubes," neo-conservative Catholic Robert P. George (one of the movement's premier thinkers and strategists) speculated in an essay featured on the ReAL web site "... it will not be in the end because of bad economic decisions... It will be because we let misguided but determined people undermine the institution of marriage and destroy the innocence of our children."
In March, Gingrich recruited Rev. Jim Garlow, a principal organizer of the successful effort to pass the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, to chair ReAl, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that says it seeks to advance and defend, among other things, the Judeo-Christian tradition. The board also includes longtime Gingrich political operative and founding director, Rick Tyler, and Christian nationalist historical revisionist, David Barton (a former longtime vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party). By April, Garlow had announced Pray & Act -- a 40 day fast and preparation for political action campaign -- and the project was featured on the ReAl Web site, and almost nowhere else.
At this writing, details are still emerging, but the list of Religious Right leaders involved is impressive, and their intention to lead people from a state of fervent prayer to acquiring state power is unambiguous.
Official endorsers of Pray & Act includes neo-Pentecostals who are, like Engle, leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation (much discussed here at Talk to Action) such as Bishop Harry Jackson, Cindy Jacobs, and Samuel Rodriguez; as well as conservative Catholics like Robert P. George and Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone of Maine; and as such notable Christian Rightists as Jim Garlow, Richard Land, Charles Colson, Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins, and Jim Daly (James Dobson's successor as head of Focus on the Family.
The Call, Sacramento is now billed as the National Preparation for Pray & Act and will be webcast on God TV on September 3rd. The second event is also a "youth rally" billed as a Seven Day Countdown Event on September 12 at Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Washington, DC, which will also run on God TV. The launch on September 19th in Washington, DC will be webcast from the website of the American Family Association, as will the closing ceremonies on October 30th from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a few days before the election.
These events may fairly be seen in the context of the ongoing transition of the Religious Right as the founding generation of movement leaders passes from the scene. R.J. Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Bill Bright, and John Giminez (among others) have died. Pat Robertson, Don Wildmon, James Dobson, and Beverly LaHaye are in varying stages of passing the torch; and each of their designees are coalescing via Pray & Act, which in turn is appealing to and seeking to register young people to vote.
For decades, movement leaders have sought to defuse historic tensions between conservative factions of fundamentalism, Catholicism, and Pentecostalism (among others). This is understandably no easy task, and Pray & Act signifies a potential new milestone in the effort. If so, much of the credit will go to the development of The Manhattan Declaration, whose principal author was Robert P. George. Not only did it signal a new level of cooperation, it even attracted an unprecedented level of public support from top Catholic Bishops and Cardinals. The manifesto itself has lent itself to a common agenda to guide their coalitional politics. The first "act" that people are asked to take in the Pray & Act project is to join more than 400,000 others who have signed the Declaration since its release in 2009. The Pray & Act agenda, following from the Declaration, has been distilled down to three main matters which are in turn, the sole criteria for voting. People must vote "only for candidates who affirm the sanctity of life in all stages and conditions, the integrity of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and religious liberty and respect for conscience."
Ginning-Up an Elijah Generation
While the the Pray & Act events are timed to the heat of the political moment, Engle et al also have their eyes fixed on the future. Christians are entering the darkest of days, they warn, as a vast and terrible federal government and judicial tyrants seek to snuff faith itself from the land. For example, after a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University that alleged a student was expelled from the graduate counseling program because she refused to counsel clients about homosexual relationships, Engle claimed:
"The federal judge is declaring that Christian kids do not have a voice to stand for a moral truth [and their] biblical convictions on the issue of homosexuality and immorality in the nation. This is a profound moment." He characteristically then set the incident, in the context of persecution, and the end times: "To compromise for the sake of getting a grade, you're practicing to receive the mark of the beast."
What Engle says to like minded like-minded young people behind closed doors can be even more explosive. Casey Sanchez of the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that Engle he spoke about a supernatural end times force called Joel's Army during an appearance at a youth conference sponsored by the International House of Prayer in Kansas City:
"I believe we're headed to an Elijah/Jezebel showdown on the Earth, not just in America but all over the globe, and the main warriors will be the prophets of Baal versus the prophets of God, and there will be no middle ground," said Engle. He was referring to the Baal of the Old Testament, a pagan idol whose followers were slaughtered under orders from the prophet Elijah. "There's an Elijah generation that's going to be the forerunners for the coming of Jesus, a generation marked not by their niceness but by the intensity of their passion," Engle continued. "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force. Such force demands an equal response, and Jesus is going to make war on everything that hinders love, with his eyes blazing fire.""As Engle works to gin-up an Elijah generation to fill the ranks of Joel's army, his intentions can be surprisingly transparent. For example, the Call has sent forth a small traveling company of young activists on a three week promotion for Sacramento they called Jehu's Ride.
"In Elijah's revolution there was a turning when... Jehu was called to leadership as a king to throw down Jezebel, a wicked queen who led Israel astray from the commands of Lord their God. Jehu's company led the revolution to overthrow Jezebel and rode with such zeal a movement was started that swept the nation into freedom."This takes on an additional, alarming dimension if viewed in light of his his prediction that the effort to stop abortion and gay marriage may require acts of Christian martyrdom, and suggested that a second American civil war may be required, as was detailed on The Rachel Maddow Show, on MSNBC. The occasion was a stadium rally in San Diego organized by The Call prior to the 2008 vote on Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.
When a federal court recently found Prop 8 to be unconstitutional, he declared that the ruling signals that "democracy is crumbling."
It is into that gap that Engle is leading an eleven person team of out-of-state evangelists to hit California's state college and university campuses in September and October in search of young warriors who will emphasize "purity" over "prosperity." This is part of a growing effort by The Call, and perhaps the wider Christian Right, to target California for further religious and political development. Engle has for some time been saying, as California goes, so goes the nation
Past & Prologue
In a promotional video for The Call, Sacramento, Pat Robertson wondered how America can keep God's blessing when it has "slaughtered 50 million unborn babies, taken the bible and prayer out of public schools, and protected by law what god calls an abomination in our land. That which is evil is being called good and that which is good is being ridiculed and banished from the public square. This is a desperate hour for our country... "
If all this sounds familiar, it may be because Robertson and his allies among Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians have been proclaiming such things for decades. In 1980, they initiated a broad scale politicization of their previously largely apolitical constituencies with a massive "prayer rally" on the Mall in Washington DC. The Washington Post acquired a memo revealing the political intentions of the rally organizers headed by the late John Giminez, but the event went ahead anyway. Rally coordinator Ted Pantaleo later said "I think president Reagan was elected as a result of what happened up there." As I reported in my 1997 book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Giminez maintained in the run up to the 1988 WFJ rally that it too, was apolitical, but that the event was necessary because "AIDS... abortion, the prayer ban in the public schools and a swing towards liberalism devoid of moral standards must be submitted to prayer and repentance to avoid Divine Judgment." There were similar WFJ events in 1992 and 1996, as well as state level rallies. But The Call seemed designed to build on the success of the less political Promise Keepers men's movement rallies, which, like WFJ were by then losing steam, as well as to pick up the election year rally franchise. According to Right Wing Watch, Engle stated: "The praying church deals with the demonic realm, so that God raises up one and brings down the other," "I directly attribute [George W. Bush's election] to the prayers of the saints."
This year's effort signals a further trend towards dominionism in this element of evangelicalism. This is epitomized by a recent blog post Engle wrote about Sacramento:
"The rebellious generation of the 60's seized its moment, and history crashed into the deep abyss of drug addiction, sexual immorality, hatred for authority, and a rejection of the law of God. For 40 years we have been falling headlong into a black moral morass in America and all through the West. We are reaping the waves of destruction in every sector of our post Christian society. Can America survive another 40 years? We are declaring NO! A thousand times NO! Unless a massive spiritual shift occurs at this moment... But God has a prescription for such a massive shift and it is revealed in the power of the great transitional 40-day fast. God in His sovereign control over the parade of history delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. Longing to release a moral code that would give foundations for righteousness, for time and eternity, God summoned Moses to a 40-day fast on Mount Sinai. In that fast all of history changed and the law of God was delivered from heaven to earth. And if America is going to return to God it must recover that law again as its foundation for truth."
The notion that the law of the land should be what the Christian Right deems to be the law of God is generally the basis of dominionism, and certainly of Christian Reconstructionism. This takes on added significance in light of the controversy about Engle's alleged support for the death penalty for homosexuality as called for in pending national legislation in Uganda, and his acknowledged support for criminalization.
Engle continues, saying that the 40 day fast may lead to "the most significant election cycle in history." He bases this on the idea that it has been about 40 years since events of the 60s led us astray and that 40 day fasts in the Bible led God to show mercy to societies facing similar judgments and periods of punishment. "But it is not enough to pray," he concluded. "We must vote and act according to God's heart and mandates."
Before that can happen, Engle has a rally to organize. He is facing inevitable comparisons to The Call 2008 rally in San Diego which featured a turnout that while not disastrous, was far less than advertised. The stadium held 70,000 people, but crowd estimates ranged from a low of 5,000 to a high of 33,000 by the organizers who took into account that people came and went over the course of 12 hours. Fair enough. (Turn out might have mattered more in retrospect if they had lost on Prop 8.) This time Engle seems more realistic about The Call's capacity to deliver a crowd. Sacramento's Raley Field holds a prudent 15,000 people for the Friday evening worship; and the permit for the rally at the Capitol is for 50,000, but there has never been a rally that big, and so a smaller but telegenic crowd is far more likely.
Since none of the Fall events are promoted as mass rallies, it could be that the mass rally capacity of The Call has run its course. Nevertheless, the main feature of all of the events is the web cast, which if well-staged, could be more impressive than sparsely attended rallies, and launch the Christian Right into the cyber age of politics. The September 12th broadcast is a 15 minute video which organizers intend for "churches to be able to down load and show in church." The September 19th National Pray and Act Service will be webcast across American from Washington, DC. Event organizers say: "Churches are encouraged to watch on big screens in their auditoriums. In addition, individuals can watch from their computers and iPhone." The October 30th cybercast of the closing ceremony of the 40 day fast, will originate from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in DC, but so far, there is no indication that they will make any effort to draw a crowd.
This is a major departure from the days of mass rallies from Washington for Jesus, through the Promise Keepers and The Call. Fashions in protest marches and styles of mass rallies come and go. And whatever else happens in Sacramento and the other events of Pray & Act, we are certainly entering the era of cyber organizing by the Religious Right. Talk to Action