A historian of Christian martyrdom attends a Christian Right strategy session in the “War on Christians.
By Elizabeth A. Castelli
A ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., was the setting last week for a conference called “The War on Christians and the Values Voter in 2006,” sponsored by Vision America, an organization committed to the project of “restoring the original American vision.” As Vision America’s president, Rick Scarborough, put it in his welcome letter to participants, “The goal of this conference is to contribute to a genuine revival of the Christian faith in America and to advance a proper understanding of the role of the church in American life.” There to help 400 Christian conservative activists achieve this understanding was Tom DeLay along with fellow Texan Senator John Cornyn and a stageful of conservative Christian powerbrokers, among them Rod Parsley, Phyllis Schafly, and Gary Bauer. Senator Sam Brownback was scheduled to speak but couldn’t make it, forcing former presidential candidate Alan Keyes to fill his time.
Several interlocking narratives and rhetorics are at work in the Vision America program. One critical piece of the puzzle is a traditionalist, triumphalist historical narrative in which the United States was given to Christians by God to establish a providential nation based on biblical precepts. (No apologies — nor even passing reference — to the land’s prior occupants.) Founded as a city upon a hill (the oft-repeated image deriving from John Winthrop’s 1630 shipboardspeech to the English colonists he was bringing to the new world) and as a refuge for puritans escaping religious persecution, “America was not an accident,” as one speaker at the conference put it.
The historical narrative moves inexorably forward, touching upon the Civil War — but with no mention of the now-inconvenient role of literal biblical interpretation in the feverish defense of slavery. Indeed, by contrast, these contemporary conservative Christians cast themselves as the rightful heirs to abolitionism (and the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement and so on). The story passes silently over the closing years of the 19th century and opening years of the 20th — years when American empire was, some would argue, coming into its own — and moves quickly instead into World War II (“when the New World rose up to save the Old,” as one conference speaker put it), the Cold War, and America’s inevitable contemporary global role, “thrust upon it by history and providence.” The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution? Christian documents. The destiny of America? To be a Christian nation in possession of — possessed by? — a special, divine commission. It is, as we learn, a military commission: “God has,” as one speaker at the conference put it, “given us our marching orders.”
Braided together with this narrative of the story of America as a Christian nation is the story of Christianity as a religion of persecuted innocents and of otherworldliness. Being “in the world but not of it,” this form of Christian identity holds the world suspiciously at bay and views “the culture” as a teeming, miasmic monstrosity poised and ready to pounce. Children (including teenagers) are especially menaced by “the world” and “the culture” — the public schools, the mainstream media, the Internet, sexuality tout court – and require constant vigilance and protection from the mounting threat. Public institutions — the schools, the courts — are not to be trusted. Even many church youth groups are suspect: According to Rebecca Hagelin, the author of Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad, youth ministers who use the website myspace.com to reach out to their congregants, in the hopes of meeting them where they are, are simply saying to teens: “Meet me at the pornography store, and we’ll talk about Jesus.”
Ungodly alliances abound — between homosexual activists and Hollywood, between “radical secular fundamentalists” and “Islamofascists,” between pornographers and their liberal defenders, between promoters of “tolerance,” a dirty word in the parlance of the conference, and the liberal media and professoriate. In this narrative, America is on the verge of a moral collapse — not because of rapacious capitalism or imperial overreaching or the bankrupting militarization of the country for a war without end — but because of homosexuality and other forms of sexual excess, Hollywood, radical secularism and radical feminism, and most sinisterly, because of “judicial activism.”
Whereas the left, whether religious or secular, decries the embeddedness of the current administration in the values and commitments of conservative Christianity, the participants in “The War on Christians and the Values Voter” seemed convinced that Bible-believing Christians are not being taken seriously by the politically powerful, despite the presence of so many of them at the conference. The rhetoric here moves back and forth between incommensurate claims — Christians are persecuted and powerless, on the one hand, but constitute an irresistible and unbeatable majority, on the other. Aligning its point of view with that of God and its actions with God’s will, this movement must refuse to engage in political compromise because there can be no compromise when absolute truth or God are invoked. Hence the increasing intemperance of its rhetoric, the exuberance of its commitments, the unshakability of its resolve.
It is a movement that resoundingly denies that it is theocratic, dismissing such a characterization as one aimed at provocatively and cynically linking right-wing politicized Christianity to radical Islamism. At the same time, it is a movement that argues that political, social, and moral life must be solely grounded in scripture — that there is no tension between the Bible and the founding documents of American political institutions, and that the separation of church and state demands an unacceptable compromise since, “if Jesus is your Lord, he is the Lord of everything,” as one conference preacher put it.
The conference focused on the American political and cultural scene, but speakers repeatedly cited the often dire situation of Christians around the globe as an apt analogy for the American situation. Scarborough’s welcome letter made the connection: “Every day brings new evidence that Christianity, worldwide, is under assault. This conference will not only document that assault, but will also provide tools and solutions for counteracting that assault, while bringing hope to those who participate or benefit from the information which will be dispersed. . . . May God be pleased to bring new life and renewed energy to the Values Voters of America as we resolve at this conference to continue our fight to restore this nation to the vision of those who made America… ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’”
Speakers repeatedly juxtaposed “Christianity under assault worldwide” and the American political and cultural situation. For example, Lt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a Navy chaplain who has been disciplined for praying in Jesus’ name (in violation of Navy protocols) at public Navy-sponsored events, was a panelist in the first session of the conference, “Christian Persecution: Reports from the Front Lines.” Klingenschmitt made a striking and explicit argument from analogy by opening and closing his PowerPoint presentation with two paired photographs: a photograph of himself and one of Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert who had recently been on trial in Afghanistan for having abandoned Islam. In Klingenschmitt’s analysis, he and Rahman are the same in every way that matters: both persecuted Christians, both equal victims of the suppression of religious freedom, both casualties in the war on Christianity.
Other speakers were more modest in their efforts to connect the situation of American conservative Christians to the circumstances of Christians in other parts of the world, reminding the audience that Christians in China, North Korea, or “the deepest, darkest recesses of the Middle East” are, indeed, worse off. But such admissions also became the ground for dire prophecies: “Things aren’t so bad here…yet,” Tristan Emmanuel, a Canadian activist and author of Christophobia: The Real Reason Behind Hate Crime Legislation, commented from his post as the moderator of the Christian persecution panel. Yet, when Tom DeLay, the former majority leader of the House of Representatives who is currently under indictment for violations of campaign-finance laws, arrived on the second day of the conference to a standing ovation, Scarborough asserted that DeLay’s criminal indictment was simply the result of his being “the target of all who despise the cause of Christ” — in short, DeLay is clearly another persecuted Christian. (Scarborough punctuated DeLay’s speech with the comment, “God always does his best work just after a crucifixion,” implying that DeLay’s prosecution is just such an act of imperial violence and judicial activism.)
The War on Christianity as a Culture War
Meanwhile, Judaism was folded into Christianity by the persistent invocation of “Judeo-Christian ethics.” On the panel, “Jews Confront the War on Christians,” Don Feder, a former Boston Herald columnist and author of A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America, declared that the choice for the future is simple: “between America under Judeo-Christianity or no America at all.” Why are so many Jews so unrepentantly liberal? “Tragically,” he explained, the Jewish community was the first to become secular in America, resulting in a terrible alliance between liberalism and secular Judaism. But, he assured participants during the panel on Hollywood, “the people in this audience are more Jewish than Barbra Streisand.” As for the larger framework of struggle, the war, according to Joseph C. Ben-Ami (of the Institute for Canadian Values and a former aide to the right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper), is not a war against religion but “a religious war” in which Judeo-Christian ethics are pitted against neopaganism.
Homosexuality was singled out for special opprobrium, not only on the panel devoted explicitly to unmasking “the homosexual agenda” (“The Gay Agenda: America Won’t Be Happy”), but throughout the entire conference. On the panel on Christian persecution, for example, two of the four speakers devoted their time to the Christian struggle against homosexuality. Tom Crouse, a Massachusetts pastor who has inaugurated a “Mr. Heterosexuality” contest in his town, spoke of his persecution by officials who billed him for the increased police presence required at his contest when “rabid homosexual activists” showed up at the event. (Crouse also characterized persecution as “a blessing and a joy,” and advised the audience that, “If you are not persecuted,” you have to ask yourself, “are you living a Christian life?”) Meanwhile, Michael Marcavage of Repent America testified about the arrests of several Christian protestors who sought to interrupt a gay event in Philadelphia in order “to show the love of God to those who are lost and damned to hell for all eternity.”
The panel on Hollywood predictably attacked Brokeback Mountain and the recently released V for Vendetta, but also featured an especially peculiar excursus: an analysis of The March of the Penguins, which was praised for not featuring a single gay penguin.
“The gay sensibility,” one speaker informed the audience, is ironic and characterized by the excessively performative use of “air quotes.” Indeed, irony itself is a gay invention, a coping mechanism for gay people who recognize that they don’t really fit in with normal society. Moreover, Chris Carmouche of Grasstops.com, the moderator of the Hollywood panel, singled out academic programs in theatre, film, and performance studies as hotbeds of secular and sexual deviance: Students in such programs, he asserted, “want to attack your values.”
Conference presenters and audience members seemed convinced that a well-organized, well-financed cabal of homosexual elites are plotting a cultural takeover. Marshalling a wide array of arguments against homosexuality (“it’s unhealthy,” “it’s all lust and perversion,” “it’s disgusting”) and gay marriage (“it’s an attack on the family because that’s where faith is passed on — the goal is simply the destruction of religion” or “it’s an attack on biblical truth and therefore on God”), some speakers advocated for the reintroduction of the concept of “shame” into the culture. Meanwhile, Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition urged the abandonment of the terms “homosexual” and “gay” in favor of adopting terms such as “sodomites” and “the perverted ones.” Some speakers read graphically explicit material found on gay websites to the conference, apologizing profusely for the shock and disgust they knew they would be generating but insisting that it was necessary for the participants to confront this material. By the end, one was left with the distinct impression that the organizers and participants in the conference spend far more time than the average gay person thinking about, talking about, and fantasizing about gayness.
Striking for anyone with some knowledge of the history of Christianity are the remarkable parallels between the rhetoric of contemporary conservative Christians and that of their second- and third-century predecessors. Making connections between religious deviance, sexual deviance, and cultural spectacle is nothing new in Christian rhetoric: Such arguments are the legacy of Christian apology going back to Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Tatian, and others. (Jennifer Wright Knust, a historian of early Christianity, documents this rhetorical legacy engagingly in her recent book, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity) In ancient Christianity, as now, the efforts to connect religious deviance (idolatry, paganism, heresy) to sexual deviance (whether non-procreative sex or, in more extreme versions, any sexual practice at all) and to the dominant forms of entertainment and media (theatre, the circus, arena games) were aimed at producing an idealized and sanitized portrait of Christian orthodoxy. The sex panic of contemporary culture wars is a clear echo of a centuries-old Christian rhetorical strategy.
Fighting Back: Impeaching Judges
But if one experiences a kind of historical echo in many of the arguments put forward at this conference, one also has to acknowledge that there is something both distinctively American about the project here — with the constant invocations of a biblically inspired golden-age history for the country — and particularly alarming about the intemperate targeting of the judicial branch of the federal government in the service of this process of “restoration.” The keynote speeches by Phyllis Schlafly (who said she hoped that her book on “the imperial judiciary,”The Supremacists, would be like Tom Paine’s Common Sense in its impact and used like Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life to mobilize local study groups geared to action), Tom DeLay, and Alan Keyes all zeroed in on the judiciary and reserved for it their most intemperate rhetoric. On the panel, “The Judiciary: Overruling God,” Representative Todd Akin (R-Missouri) mused, “we haven’t impeached a judge in a while, it might be fun!” and outlined the strategy whereby conservative activists are beginning to generate lists of potentially impeachable offenses “as a warning” to judges: “Anything is an impeachable offense that Congress says it is, I guess,” he observed.
Beginning with the premise that there is a war on Christianity, conference organizers and participants were eager to issue calls to arms in response. “We are under spiritual invasion!” intoned Rod Parsley, an evangelist from Ohio. “Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! LOCK AND LOAD!” (The audience responded to these imperatives with a raucous and exuberant standing ovation.) Parsley also claimed that those Christian churches not sharing the perspective of the Christians represented at the conference constitute “the devil’s demilitarized zone,” naïvely and fatally embracing “peace at any price.” Meanwhile, Laurence Wright, a Lutheran pastor and co-president of Vision America, announced that the time of a peaceful and contemplative Christianity is over; that Christians have been AWOL (“absent without Lord”) in the battle; and that “We must attack the evil now where it is strongest” in order to restore America, the city high on a hill.
But what of the biblical Jesus and his message of nonviolence and nonresistance? As Rick Scarborough explained it at the end of the panel on persecution, all of those demanding gospel values — submission, tolerance, turning the other cheek — are fine in one’s private life, but they have nothing to do with the public mission of the church. As for those who draw attention to the gospel’s message of nonviolence, this is simply a matter of “the Left using our own tradition against us.” (Such hermeneutical maneuvers, which produce a biblical message that is inevitably and completely in tune with conservative political convictions, later came to be exercised by one speaker who interpreted Jesus’s “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” by lifting it out of its gospel context in a story about paying taxes and repositioning it in contemporary American society as a positive prooftext for Christian involvement in politics. But I digress…)
Perhaps the most explicit call to arms came from Ron Luce, the president and founder of Teen Mania, a Christian revivalist youth ministry, and the author of Battle Cry for a Generation, a multimedia campaign that deploys military images and language to recruit soldiers in Christ’s army. Toward the end of his speech, Luce invoked the biblical story of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. (In the story, the Levite’s concubine is gang-raped by men who wanted to do sexual violence to the Levite. When the Levite’s host refuses to deliver the Levite to the assailants, he offers them his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead. When the assailants reject such an exchange, the Levite simply expels the concubine from his host’s house, leaving her to be raped repeatedly throughout the night. The following morning, upon finding the concubine’s dead body on his host’s doorstep, the Levite dismembers her and sends her body parts out to the twelve tribes of Israel as a provocation to revenge.) “I kind of feel like the Levite,” Ron Luce confessed. And then he uttered a battle cry of his own: “CUT UP THE CONCUBINE! CUT UP THE CONCUBINE! CUT UP THE CONCUBINE!”
From Demonization to Condescension
To a person, the conference speakers and panelists divided the world up into simple binary oppositions, and most were content to demonize everyone who does not stand with them in this “with us or against us” war. The occasional invocations of Christian love, offered usually as a conciliatory afterthought, echoed dimly in a room reverberating with loud and unwavering bellicose righteousness. One speaker offered condescension instead of simple demonization: Janet Parshall, a Christian broadcaster who called herself a “war correspondent in Babylon” and who declared that there has been a war against Christians “since the garden,” modulated the rhetoric slightly in two different ways. First, she upped the ante, arguing that the war is not against Christians per se but “against absolute truth and God.” Then, she sought to complicate the identification of the enemy by suggesting that people who possess “opposing worldviews” are not themselves “the enemy” but rather “they have been captured by the enemy.” What was implied here was that all holders of “opposing worldviews” — secularists, non-Christians of all stripes, gay men and lesbians, feminists, among others — are best understood as prisoners of war, captives in thrall to their captor, victims of an epistemological Stockholm syndrome and in need of liberation and deprogramming.
The Values Voters’ Contract with Congress: A Declaration of American Renewal
The take-away message of the conference was without question the need to mobilize “values voters” to take the battle to the ballot box. The message is grounded in the assessment — all of the dire statistics quoted throughout the conference that Christians are in crisis in America notwithstanding — that the majority of Americans share the viewpoint of the organizers and participants in this conference. “The Values Voters’ Contract with Congress” brings these viewpoints into a one-page declaration of commitments; all conference participants were urged to sign the contract and to demand that their representatives do the same.
The Contract opens with expansive and general claims, identifying its signatories as “citizens of the United States of America” and “subjects of the sovereign Creator” who is “acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence as the Supreme Ruler and Judge of the World.” Linking American citizenship and Christian subjectivity/subjection, Christian identity with American identity, and the founding document of the nation with the power of God, the Contract goes on to identify “our faith in God” as the motivating force behind the actions for which the Contract calls: joining together “to defend government of, by, and for the people against the greatest assault it as ever faced: the destruction of our constitutionally-mandated republican form of government by judges who legislate from the bench and thereby subvert our liberty and our entire way of life.” The document’s authors highlight certain words (“We,” “God,” “marriage,” “parents,” “life,” “liberties,” “property,” “decency,” “just taxes,” “national borders,” and “Judicial Restraint and an end to Judicial Activism”) and set them in an Old English font with a distinctively archaic appearance, in what must be an effort to emphasize the terms individually and to connect them thematically to each other and typographically to an idealized and distant past — that American golden age to whose restoration Vision America is committed.
Within its small print, the Contract switches tone from the lofty to the politically pedestrian: it calls for, among other things, the support of a range of legislative initiatives (e.g., the Pledge Protection Act, the Constitution Restoration Act, the Marriage Protection Act, among numerous others) and opposition to hate crimes legislation, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the consideration of international law in the adjudication of cases before US courts. It closes with a grand pledge, also set in an Old English font, which returns to the exalted tone with which the Contract begins: “Above every consideration of selfish passion, ambition, or interest, we hold to the ultimate intention of our Constitution — to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. For this purpose, and in support of the beliefs and actions we have herein declared, we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our faithfulness. So help us God.”
Critics of the conference and the individuals and groups that promote its point of view have suggested that “The War on Christians and the Values Voter in 2006” is simply a right-wing political project cynically framed as a project to protect a persecuted religious group. Such an analysis fails to recognize the sincerity of the 400 people who were gathered in that ballroom in Washington — not that sincerity ought to serve as a bulwark against challenge and critique, to be sure. The menacing part of this project is not that it is political rather than religious, but that it is unapologetically a form of political religion. Which is what makes the calls for Christian militarization, for putting on the armor of God, for rising up in righteous revolution against “the culture” — however metaphorical at this point in time — particularly alarming. Students of Christian history will be well attuned to this kind of rhetoric and its materialization and embodiment in the actions of the righteous. Early Christian historian Michael Gaddis, for example, offers a brilliant and textured analysis of these dynamics in late ancient Christianity in his recent book, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ”: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire. As Gaddis illustrates, righteous Christian violence in the fourth and fifth centuries — violence against non-Christians and “heretics” — was justified in the first instance by reference to the persecution of Christians. With God on their side, everything is permitted.
The broader threat of this movement is likely not an armed Christian militia marching on Hollywood, the ACLU, or a gay commitment ceremony in your local mainline liberal Protestant church. Rather, it is the targeting of the independent judiciary with incendiary threats of impeachment and calls for a religious revolution. Claims of religious persecution, whether sincere or cynical, notwithstanding, the current executive and legislative branches of the federal government are well-populated — even dominated — by people sympathetic to the views and aspirations of this radical, right-wing theopolitical movement. The judicial branch of government, meanwhile, maintains some level of independence from this movement, and it is this independence that generates the vitriol, the threats, and the calls for a Christian revolution. Such a state of affairs should give all of us pause: When the powerful claim to be powerless and use this claim and a purportedly divine mandate to authorize a no-holds-barred attack on political institutions, we are on dangerous ground, indeed.
Elizabeth A. Castelli, an associate professor of religious studies at Barnard College, is author of Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture-Making, and co-editor of Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence. She was a 2003-4 visiting fellow at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, where she researched “The Persecuted Church: Towards a Genealogy of a Political Program.” Her last article for The Revealer was “Shockwave!”