Romney's in a Cult and Ryan's a Satanist? The GOP's 2012 Religion Woes
Back in 2011 a series of attacks from leading conservative evangelicals darkly warned that Ayn Rand devotees, Paul Ryan included, might be worshiping at the altar of crypto-satanism. Now, within the last 24 hours, a flurry of mainstream media articles cover a controversy erupting after evangelism superstar Billy Graham prayed with (and in effect endorsed) candidate Mitt Romney and observers noticed that an article on the website of Graham's flagship Billy Graham Evangelistic Association identified Mormonism as a "cult".
Yes, really: This year, the Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower is championed by one candidate conservative evangelical Christians suspect of worshiping odd, fecund Gods who live, love, and multiply on strangely-named foreign planets, and by another candidate enthralled by an economic philosophy that helped birth Anton LaVey's Church of Satan.
This train wreck wasn't supposed to happen.
A few months ago, despite ongoing, savage swipes from prominent fundamentalist pastors who called Mormonism a "cult", the Republican Party sloughed off evangelical right challengers in the 2012 presidential primaries, along with its "anyone but Mitt" syndrome, to pick a Mormon as the GOP standard bearer in the 2012 presidential election.
Then, Mitt Romney doubled down on the "cult" issue by picking, as his vice presidential running mate, a Congressman who as recently as 2010 (in official campaign ads no less) had praised a libertarian philosopher accused, in mid 2011 by a leading hard-right Catholic journal, of promoting a thinly-veiled form of satanism.
For a party that not too long ago under George W. Bush had managed to artfully wrap its bloodier instincts in the evangelical cloak of many colors that was "compassionate conservatism", Paul Ryan's radical budget - that provoked ire from across the Catholic political spectrum - and Mitt Romney's apparent disgust at the mooching "47% percent" of America - threatened to open up a rift between religious conservatives who see some sort of proper role for government in mitigating the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism, and secular conservatives who envision anarcho-capitalism as the road to a glorious, Ayn Rand-inspired utopia in which the "producers" would finally relegate the mooching masses to their proper, subordinate status in great chain of being.
It didn't help that Paul Ryan's plan for privatizing Social Security was, at base, a rehash of the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian Piñera Plan cooked up under the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet - whose military regime helped refine torture methods later employed in Iraq at Abu Ghraib and has become known for "disappearing" thousands of its citizens, often by pushing them out of helicopters into the sea.
This is the dilemma - will modern American conservatism continue to pay at least lip service to traditional Christian social justice teaching, or will it break with that moral touchstone and remake itself as a party which cleaves to a Hobbesian social contract that reduces American society to an atomized struggle of all against all, nasty, brutish, and short?
Leading up to the 2012 electoral cycle, the eminence grises of the evangelical right tried to ward off the looming amoral libertarian menace of Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ron Paul Ron Johnson, and the growing Randian horde in Congress and the Senate:
In early 2011, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who was well-placed to known which way the wind was blowing, launched, from his perch as an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post, a withering preemptive attack against rising Ayn Rand worship within the GOP:
Rand's novels are vehicles for a system of thought known as Objectivism. Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible.
More firepower was, it seems, needed and soon the late Chuck Colson, beloved by evangelicals since his noisy Born Again conversion (and book) weighed in, in a scathing review of the 2011 movie adaption of Ayn Rand's book "Atlas Shrugged".
Colson lambasted followers of Ayn Rand as "cranks and crypto-cultists" and noted, too, that some "powerful committee members on Capital Hill indoctrinate their staffers with her tracts" - in a not-too-subtle reference to Congressman Paul Ryan's repeated declarations that Atlas Shrugged was required reading in his office.
But even that wasn't enough, apparently, so a searing June 2011 article, The Fountainhead of Satanism, published in the hard-right neoconservative Catholic journal First Things, posed the question - what if prominent U.S. congress members had been requiring their staffers to read Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey's book The Satanic Bible and were giving out the book as a Christmas gift? Wrote author Joe Carter,
"to be a follower of both Rand and Christ is not possible. The original Objectivist was a type of self-professed anti-Christ who hated Christianity and the self-sacrificial love of its founder. She recognized that those Christians who claimed to share her views didn't seem to understand what she was saying.
Many conservatives admire Rand because she was anti-collectivist. But that is like admiring Stalin because he opposed Nazism.
Few conservatives will fall completely under Rand's diabolic sway. But we are sustaining a climate in which not a few gullible souls believe she is worth taking seriously. Are we willing to be held responsible for pushing them to adopt an anti-Christian worldview? If so, perhaps instead of recommending Atlas Shrugged, we should simply hand out copies of The Satanic Bible. If they're going to align with a satanic cult, they might as well join the one that has the better holidays."
In the comment section attached to his article, Carter openly acknowledged that his article referred directly to Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.
A little later, in July 2011, compassionate conservatism's uber-guru Marvin Olasky tried to pin the ruckus on liberals, claiming in an article at his World magazine that,
"For nearly a decade Democrats have sought a religious wedge issue that could separate big chunks of white evangelical voters from their Republican home. Now they've found it, and are thrusting at the Social Darwinist/Ayn Rand underbelly of American conservatism."
But Olasky couldn't conceal his revulsion at Rand's inversion of the traditional Christian moral ethos, and called conservatives, including Paul Ryan by name, to account:
"I read Atlas Shrugged recently and respected its support for innovators who pour themselves into their businesses and its disdain for bureaucrats who think entrepreneurialism is easy and automatic. I also was amazed at the viciousness of Rand's view of Christianity, leading up to its conclusion, where the book's hero traces in the air the Sign of the Dollar, a replacement for the Sign of the Cross.
...this, sadly, is the book that a budget expert I admire, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recommends-apparently without caveat-and tells his staffers to read. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is also a Rand fan...
...Ryan and others, if they want support from Christians, cannot merely react to the left's criticism with a shrug: They should show what in Rand they agree with and what they spurn. The GOP's big tent should include both libertarians and Christians, but not anti-Christians."
But that's precisely what Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan did; like Rand's Atlas, he shrugged.
When controversy surfaced over his past praise for Ayn Rand's ideas (which in 2005 Ryan credited as inspiring his decision to go into politics) Paul Ryan spoke out, denouncing Rand's atheism but little else.
Now charges of cultism are swirling around Mitt Romney and, unlike the attacks against Paul Ryan and the Randians back in 2011, they may be less than fair:
In classic sociological and anthropological definitions, cults tend to revolve around one or several charismatic figures, and are organized in concentric rings, with an inner circle of acolytes around those charismatic figures and outer rings of followers with successively less devotion, access, and perceived authority.
In that view, most religions (Christianity included) begin as cults, and the ones that successfully evolve into religions (such as Christianity and Mormonism) eventually develop fixed doctrine, established ecclesiastical hierarchy, and so on.
If anything, the conservative evangelical Christian animus against the Mormon Church has much to do with the fact that Mormonism has long been one of the fastest growing religions in the U.S. and the world.
So it's less than surprising that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association would try to tar Mormonism, a business competitor, as a "cult" - a term that since the 1970s has in American culture, especially in evangelical culture, picked up dark connotations; for many evangelicals, even cults which do not feature overt Satan worship are halfway there nonetheless.
When casual visitors to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website punch the word "Mormon" into the website's search engine, what search results will they get? - The first hit is a BGEA page on which Billy Graham himself explains that,
"A cult is a group that claims that it, and it alone, has the truth about God and offers the only way to salvation. Members reject what Christians have believed for almost 2,000 years, and substitute instead their own beliefs for the clear teachings of the Bible.
Often, they add to the Bible by claiming that the books their founder wrote or "discovered" are from God, and have equal authority to the Bible. In reality, however, those books deny what the Bible says about God or Jesus, or about the way of salvation."
It's no secret that Momonism's founder Joseph Smith did indeed discover new scripture.
The less than obvious but fully absurd aspect of this is that, while Graham's definition could be seen as applying to Mormonism, it also pegs a fast-rising tendency within conservative evangelical Christianity itself, the New Apostolic Reformation - a tendency whose apostles and prophets dominated The Response, the August 2011 religious rally that kick-started Texas Governor Rick Perry's failed bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
in August 2011, NPR's Fresh Air dedicated an entire hour long segment to the New Apostolic Reformation - who were the religious leaders up onstage at Perry's event? Few seemed to know.
Then, in early October, Fresh Air host Terry Gross interviewed NAR guru C. Peter Wagner himself - the low-key, elderly academic who has played a key role in shaping and organizing the emerging NAR.
If the New Apostolic Reformation had been competing* with Mormonism for sheer doctrinal color, Wagner hardly could have done better - during the interview Wagner told Gross that the early 2011 tsunami which ravaged Northern Japane, and the Japanese economic downturn of the 1990s, both may have been caused by what Wagner described as a sexual tryst between the Japanese emperor and a "sky goddess" who, according to Wagner, may have been a succubus.
Of course, Republican politicians vying for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination who had noteworthy ties to the New Apostolic Reformation didn't prevail - and so the Japanese emperor and the succubus did not become a presidential campaign issue.
Rather, Republican success or failure in the 2012 presidential election may hinge on internecine doctrinal disputes within conservative evangelicalism, disputes that will help determine evangelical voter turnout -- Is Mitt Romney a cultist? Is Paul Ryan a crypto-satanist? And more importantly, for evangelicals who agree with one or both propositions, does politics trump theology or does theology trump politics ?
Reports from my sources suggest that, efforts from party fixers and evangelical kingmakers notwithstanding, the latter may prevail.
As usual, mainstream media won't likely acknowledge the intensity of these conflicts roiling the depths of American religious conservatism. But if I'm wrong, you heard it here first.
*There are many similarities between the Mormon Church and the New Apostolic Reformation - for example both have apostles and prophets, who talk to God on an ongoing basis and thus can, in effect, write new scripture (Wagner is quite direct about this).