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Actor Stephen Baldwin Takes Christian Indoctrination to the Xtreme

Original investigative report: How a media-savvy, tough-talking duo are putting their knowledge of youth culture in the service of the paranoid Christian Right.
 
 
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Actor Stephen Baldwin has a message for the millennial generation: Jesus is cool, Jesus is rad, Jesus will kick your butt, Jesus will help you kick the butts of secular liberals. Yet while Baldwin seeks to be the hip new face of evangelicalism, promoting the Jesus of skateboarders and cool kids, beneath his radical chic is the ideology of the old men behind the Cold War-era John Birch Society and Christian Crusade.

Together with Christian activist and radio host Kevin McCullough, Baldwin launched a youth-targeted for-profit Christian media company, Xtreme Media, LLC, and the radio program Xtreme Radio with Stephen Baldwin and Kevin McCullough. The aim of Xtreme Media, according to Baldwin, is to create "a content reality we want to utilize to fire up the conservative movement to stand up and push back louder and more ferociously."

Addressing a 2008 religious-right conference, the annual Values Voter Summit sponsored by FRC Action, Baldwin -- the baby of the Baldwin brothers acting family first put on the Hollywood map by brother Alec -- explained that he uses "extreme sports" to recruit young evangelicals "because I believe the way to ensure a better America in the future is make more Christians." At religious right conferences across the nation, Baldwin struts before young and not-so-young audiences, deploying his uber-masculine Christianity as a rebuke to the Hollywood liberals he claims are ruining America.

"We are the hands of the Lord Jesus in this realm," he told the Values Voters. "And I don't know about you -- I'm not tryin' to be dramatic -- I'm puttin' some boxing gloves on mine."

Packaging Paranoia for a New Generation

While Baldwin is the better-known face of Xtreme Media, Kevin McCullough is the brains behind the enterprise, as Baldwin readily admits. Clad in jeans, a backwards baseball cap and sunglasses, McCullough strutted through the XPAC lounge at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference, where a few dozen young people mingled in conversational groupings of sofas and arm chairs. Others played video games -- Guitar Hero, XBox and Wii were all available -- or took advantage of the "blazing fast" wi-fi. The CPAC crowd included a sizable contingent of younger activists, thanks to the heavily subsidized $25 admission fee for college students (compared to $175 for everybody else).

McCullough, who Baldwin says inspired him to become a Christian, is a celebrity in his own right within his own sphere. A prolific writer and sought-after speaker on the Christian right and Tea Party circuits, his radio show, now co-hosted with Baldwin, is syndicated by Fox News Radio, the American Family Association and Christian media giant Salem Communications, which also owns Townhall.com, where McCullough blogs. (Just before CPAC, Salem acquired HotAir.com from Michelle Malkin.) McCullough is also a Fox News contributor, and was a keynote speaker at the 9/12 Tea Party march on Washington. He is the author of two books, MuscleHead Revolution: Overturning Liberalism with Commonsense Thinking and The Kind of Man Every Man Should Be: Taking a Stand for True Masculinity.

In the XPAC lounge -- a made-over meeting room in Washington, D.C.'s Marriott Wardman-Park hotel, where CPAC took place -- McCullough told me that he and Baldwin hatched the idea for XPAC "on the back of a napkin" at last year's CPAC. "[In] about five minutes," he said, "we drew up the whole concept." The concept being a place for CPAC attendees under 30 to get "plugged in and have some fun." And, apparently, to get some "worldview" education in the process.

McCullough's outreach to millennials at CPAC demonstrates how Christian right education organizations, particularly XPAC cosponsor Summit Ministries, have created generations of warriors against the "worldviews" of communism, socialism and secular humanism that compete, they say, against a "biblical Christian worldview." Summit offers conferences to high school and college students "to counteract the alarming trend" of Christian youth "adopting the false humanistic philosophies of our day," as described in its promotional DVD distributed in the XPAC lounge. McCullough, who speaks at Summit's youth-focused conferences, personally solicited Summit's sponsorship of the XPAC lounge, according to John Stonestreet, Summit's executive director.

The "worldview" education plied by Summit does more than produce Christian right activists; as the conservative movement becomes more radicalized, this training also dovetails with the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement and its allied agitators. Rev. David Noebel, who founded the Manitou Springs, Colorado-based Summit Ministries in 1962, has a long history as an anti-communist propagandist, launching his career with Rev. Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade, conceived by Hargis as a "Christian weapon against Communism and its godless allies," and which had close ties with the John Birch Society. Noebel was a member of the society until at least 1987, according to Jean Hardisty, founder of Political Research Associates, a think tank that monitors right-wing movements.

Once regarded as a relic of anti-Communist paranoia, the John Birch Society has enjoyed a resurgence since the election of Barack Obama, resurfacing as a cosponsor of this year's CPAC. In its heyday during the 1950s and '60s, the Birch Society advanced the idea that water fluoridation was communist plot, opposed the use of federal law enforcement to enforce civil rights statutes and spread rumors of a worldwide Jewish banking conspiracy. Birch Society founder Robert Welch, who keynoted Christian Crusade events in the 1960s, contended in the 1950s that President Eisenhower was an agent of the "communist conspiracy," which he claimed reached "into all of the legislative halls, all of the union labor meetings, a majority of the religious gatherings, and most of the schools of the whole world."

Today, the Birch Society advocates "a strong belief in personal freedom and limited government, plus a sense of duty," according to its Web site. Although the society refuses to release membership numbers, its leaders claim that "tens of thousands" belong to Birch Society chapters.

On a recent edition of the webcast, "Worldview Matters," Noebel gave a long explanation of why he believes Barack Obama to be a "Fabian socialist," an assertion that echoes the Birch Society's conspiracy theory about Eisenhower.

McCullough, who speaks at Summit's youth-focused conferences, also promotes the canard of Obama's alleged socialism, attacking the "wickedness" of his "worldview," and insisting that Obama's worldview does "not espouse any form of Christianity."

In Christian right circles, Noebel, like Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling Left Behind post-apocalyptic fiction series (and with whom Noebel coauthored the 2000 book, Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium), represents an apocalyptic strain of evangelicalism, relying heavily on conspiracy theories about Satanic forces in conflict with Christian values. Noebel, LaHaye and leaders of the Birch Society "present a package of ideas that are taken quite seriously. The leadership [of the Christian right conservative movement] often believes it but knows better than to admit it," said Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates.

Noebel did not respond to an interview request.

A Worldview of Trouble

Summit Ministries' core program is its two-week "worldview" training for 16- to 25-year-olds, which Noebel has described as preparing "the next generation for Christian leadership" because it is "hard to keep Christian leaders if we keep losing them at universities" where there is "a tremendous struggle for their hearts and minds and very being."

The aim of worldview education is to undermine public education and academia, and Summit and McCullough -- like the broader conservative movement -- portray academia as a den of hedonistic liberals bent on discriminating against red-blooded American Christians. High school and college students attend two-week long Summit conferences "to help train them in dealing with the world of ideas before they go to college -- especially those that attack the Christian worldview in particular," Summit's John Stonestreet told me. "We just find it's extremely difficult to be a conservative, really difficult to be a Christian conservative in the university."

He added, "One of the worst barriers to real education is this idea of tolerance, that the best thing you can do is not offend someone. The fact of the matter is that truth does offend."

Praise is heaped upon Summit by Christian right leaders like Chuck Colson, James Dobson and Rod Parsley, who relied heavily on Noebel's writings in his 2007 New York Times bestseller, Culturally Incorrect: How Clashing Worldviews Affect Your Future. Dobson, who sent his son Ryan to Summit at age 17, credits Noebel as "the man who perhaps is most responsible for Ryan's development as a cultural warrior, except his dad, of course." Ryan Dobson also teaches at Summit, and has called his experience there "the best thing that ever happened to me" because "it gives you power."

Currently, according to Stonestreet, Summit is working with the Christian right legal powerhouse Alliance Defense Fund on its Speak Up project, which aims to confront "pervasive" and "illegal discrimination against Christians" on college campuses. "The battle of ideas is really the battle over definitions," Stonestreet told me. "That's what worldviews do, worldviews redefine words."

Noebel's seminal textbook, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today's Competing Worldviews, as well as Summit's related teaching materials, are widely used in Christian academies and homeschool curricula. He argues that his teachings shape the belief system of young Christians so they can "participate in the great collision of worldviews in the twenty-first century." Noebel maintains that abandoning the only true worldview, biblical Christianity, "has dire consequences" for society.

Even as religious right organizations like Focus on the Family attempt to portray themselves as less divisive than the old guard of the religious right -- an effort that is belied by their own actions and public pronouncements -- conservatives are tapping into the same paranoia and panics upon which Noebel built his career. Little known outside Christian right circles, Noebel has deeply influenced the religious right in a way that makes activists receptive and responsive to the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement.

"If you raise a whole generation of conservative Christians on a textbook that basically says there is a struggle between biblical Christianity and Marxism-Leninism-secular-humanism, and only option one is proper," said Berlet, "you are going to end up with the political situation we have: It's produced a whole network of grassroots organizations populated by people who really believe it and are really urging Republicans to stand up against Marxism, Leninism, secular humanism and the Satanic new world order."

The Roots of the Xtreme Worldview

Noebel cut his teeth as a Christian right activist in the 1960s as an organizer for Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade.

In 1961, the New York Times reported that Hargis planned a "secret fraternity" with other right-wing organizations and members of Congress "to coordinate their anti-communist efforts," including a proposal by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then a Democrat, to outlaw the Communist Party. Over the course of his career, Hargis took aim at targets as disparate as the National Council of Churches and Henry Kissinger (referred to as a "mystery man of power" in an undated fundraising letter contained in the Christian Crusade FBI file), accusing them of being communist agents.

The following year, speaking at the Christian Crusade convention, Hargis unleashed a tirade against the "Liberal Establishment," which he called the "greatest threat to freedom, New Testament Christianity, and constitutional government," and which he claimed "works feverishly to enslave us all." At that convention, Hargis revealed plans for a "Christian Crusade Anti-Communist Youth University to train people to fight communism," located at the foot of Pikes Peak -- the current location of Summit.

In 1974, Noebel forced Hargis out of American Christian College -- the predecessor organization to Summit -- after revelations that Hargis had sex with male and female students. Before his ouster, though, Hargis had been a notable player in merging anti-communist extremism with a right-wing Christianist movement, thus playing a largely unrecognized role as a harbinger of the religious right. (The scandal, reported in Time magazine, made Hargis a sort of Ted Haggard of his time.)

Throughout his career, Noebel has engaged in conspiracy-theorizing about communism, homosexuality and rock music. His pamphlets, "Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles" and "Marxist Minstrels" argued that rock music was a secret communist plan to make teenagers mentally retarded. In the Beatles pamphlet, published by Christian Crusade in 1965, Noebel urged readers to "throw your Beatle and rock and roll records in the city dump. We have been unashamed of being labeled a Christian nation; let's make sure four mop-headed anti-Christ beatniks don't destroy our children's emotional and mental stability and ultimately destroy our nation as Plato warned in his Republic."

Now, instead of taking popular culture head-on, it seems that Noebel, through Summit's alliance with Xtreme Media, is gambling on the Baldwin-McCullough formula of bending the trends popular among the young for use as weapons in the old battle against "secular humanism."

A Chip on the Shoulders of Some Christian Soldiers

Fifty years ago, said Berlet, "in order to gain control of the Republican Party, conservatives first had to get rid of the John Birch Society because of their apocalyptic conspiracy theories." Now, he added, Buckley-style conservatism "has been overthrown in a rebellion of apocalyptic conspiracy theorists who can't tell the difference between a centrist Democrat and Stalin."

Hargis and his ilk were the very extremists forced out of the conservative movement by William F. Buckley in the 1960s. But more than two decades after the fall of communism, that sort of conspiracy-minded agitation, which fuels birtherism -- the false assertion that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. -- and propaganda claims that Obama is a secret Muslim or that the Democratic Party is socialist, has been seeing a resurgence through Tea Partiers and at CPAC.

After this year's CPAC, William F. Jasper, writing in the Birch Society magazine, The New American, ridiculed the conference's old establishment, singling out "the Bush-Cheney wing of the Republican Party and the neoconservative scribblers at National Review" and "Buckley and his 'well-fed Right' at National Review [who] would go on to suppress, mutilate, ignore, and humiliate many of the leaders and luminaries of the conservative movement, betraying many who had befriended and helped them," including, according to Jasper, JBS founder Welch and MSNBC pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.

Last year, Noebel, along with Birch Society Chairman John McManus, spoke at the 35th anniversary celebration of the Conservative Caucus, the far-right advocacy group founded by Howard Phillips, a major architect of the religious right. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Conservative Caucus helped orchestrate and perpetuate the smear campaigns claiming Barack Obama was anti-American, Muslim and socialist. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex. -- who won this year's CPAC presidential straw poll -- was the keynote speaker.

In a March 2009 article, "The Socialization of America," Noebel's red-baiting rant echoed his old anti-communist agitating, updated for the Tea Party era. Insisting that Keynesian economics amounted to socialism, Noebel maintained that the House of Representatives "crawls with a large, well-organized assembly of socialist organizations." Calling the interconnections between the AFL-CIO, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus "staggering," Noebel concluded, "These organizations and their members quite literally comprise a Socialist Red Army within the very contours of the House of Representatives."

Still, Berlet cautions against dismissing Noebel and his allies as crackpots. "These are not dumb people," he told me. "They are highly motivated and well-read."

Get The Hell Out of the Way!

Without using the word "worldview" in his speech to CPAC, McCullough cast the challenge facing conservatives under 30 as "the most demanding philosophical challenge that has been asked of a generation of their age. Unfortunately, the enemy that they must fight is a philosophical one that has educated our children in public schools, that has taken over the college classrooms, that has passed law after law in our legislatures."

The speech was a call to arms for under-30 conservatives to overthrow the older generation of conservatives that had failed to win the "fight [that] is the greatest of our lifetime for the principles that made America uniquely American."

Mocking Washington political operatives for their "mediocre existence in public policy," rather than engaging in that "philosophical" battle, McCullough commanded the CPAC audience to let the under-30 conservatives take the reigns from the CPAC elders. "Get with them, encourage them, empower them," he barked, "or get the hell out of the way!"

WATCH SARAH POSNER DISCUSS THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT WITH ED KILGORE ON BLOGGING HEADS TV

Sarah Posner is associate editor of
Religion Dispatches and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters .