Public Stoning: Not Just for the Taliban Anymore
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Two really devilish guys materialized in Toccoa, Ga., last month to harangue 600 true believers on the gospel of a thoroughly theocratic America. Along with lesser lights of the religious far right who spoke at American Vision's "Worldview Super Conference 2006," Herb Titus and Gary North called for nothing short of the overthrow of the United States of America.
Titus and North aren't household names. But Titus, former dean of TV preacher Pat Robertson's Regent University law school, has led the legal battle to plant the Ten Commandants in county courthouses across the nation. North, an apostle of the creed called Christian Reconstructionism, is one of the most influential elders of American fundamentalism.
"I don't want to capture their (mainstream Americans') system. I want to replace it," fumed North to a cheering audience. North has called for the stoning of gays and nonbelievers (rocks are cheap and plentiful, he has observed). Both friends and foes label him "Scary Gary."
Are we in danger of an American Taliban? Probably not today. But Alabama's "Ten Commandments Judge" Roy Moore is aligned with this congregation, and one-third of Alabama Republicans who voted in the June primary supported him. When you see the South Dakota legislature outlaw abortions, the Reconstructionist agenda is at work. The movement's greatest success is in Christian home schooling, where many, if not most, of the textbooks are Reconstructionist-authored tomes.
Moreover, the Reconstructionists are the folks behind attacks on science and public education. They're allied with proselytizers who have tried to convert Air Force cadets -- future pilots with fingers on nuclear triggers -- into religious zealots. Like the communists of the 1930s, they exert tremendous stealth political gravity, drawing many sympathizers in their wake, and their friends now dominate the Republican Party in many states.
Titus' and North's speeches, laced with conspiracy theories about the Rockefellers and the Trilateral Commission, were more Leninist than Christian in the tactics proposed -- as in their vision to use freedom to destroy the freedom of others. That's not surprising -- the founder of Christian Reconstruction, the late fringe Calvinist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony, railed against the "heresy" of democracy.
A Harvard-bred lawyer whose most famous client is Alabama's Judge Moore, Titus told the Toccoa gathering that the Second Amendment envisions the assassination of "tyrants;" that's why we have guns. Tyranny, of course, is subjective to these folks. Their imposition of a theocratic state would not, by their standards, be tyranny. Public schools, on the other hand, to them are tyrannical.
North is best known to Internet users for his prolific auguring that a Y2K computer bug would cause the calamitous end of civilization. In the days prior to the advent of this millennium, North urged subscribers to his delusional economic newsletters to go survivalist and prepare for the end. Many did so, dumping investments and life savings, a big oops.
"I lost a million and a half dollars when I sold off real estate," one of North's fans, a home-schooling advocate from Florida, told me during a lunch break between lectures touting creationism and damning secular humanism. But my lunch companion still anted more than pocket change to hear North make more prophesies in Toccoa. "I believe Gary North on Bible issues," he explained. I suggested that false prophets often pocket big profits, but I was talking to deaf ears.
Hosting the "Creation to Revelation... Connecting the Dots" event was a Powder Springs, Ga., publishing house, American Vision, whose pontiff is Gary DeMar. The outfit touts the antebellum South as a righteous society and favors the reintroduction of some forms of slavery (it's sanctioned in the Bible, Reconstructionists say) -- which may explain the blindingly monochrome audience at the gathering.
The setting was the Georgia Baptist Conference Center, a sprawling expanse of woods, hills and a man-made lake in the North Georgia mountains. Four decades ago, the Southern Baptists officially declared, "no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state" and "the church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work."
Times change. The Baptists lust for power, and they demand the state to do their bidding. I guess that explains the denomination's hosting of theocrats no less rigid and bloodthirsty than the Taliban's mullahs.
DeMar christened the gathering with invective against science.
"Evolution is as religious as Christianity," he said, a claim that certainly must amaze 99.99 percent of the scientific community. Science is irrelevant to these folks.
Everything they need to know about the universe and the origin of man is in the first two chapters of Genesis. They know the answer before any question is asked. DeMar's spin is what he calls a clash of "worldviews." According to DeMar and his speakers, God sanctions only their worldview. And that worldview is a hash of enforcing Old Testament Mosaic law (except when it comes to chowing down on pork barbecue), rewriting American history to endorse theocracy and explaining politics by the loopy theories of the John Birch Society. (Christian Reconstructionism evolved, so to speak, from a radical variation of Calvinism, AKA Puritanism, and the Bircher politics of such men as the late Marietta, Ga., congressman, Larry McDonald.) For most of the four-day conference, DeMar turned the Bible over to others to thump. North blamed the Rockefellers and the Trilateral Commission for the success of secularists. Titus told of Jesus making a personal appearance in the rafters of his Oregon home.
At the heart of what was taught by a succession of speakers:
- Six-day, "young earth" creationism is the only acceptable doctrine for Christians. Even "intelligent design" or "old earth" creationism are compromises with evil secularism.
- Public education is satanic and must be destroyed.
- The First Amendment was intended to keep the federal government from imposing a national religion, but states should be free to foster a religious creed. (Several states did that during the colonial period and the nation's early days, a model the Reconstructionists want to emulate.)
- The Founding Fathers intended to protect only the liberties of the established ultra-conservative denominations of that time. Expanding the list to include "liberal" Protestant denominations, much less Catholics, Jews and (gasp!) atheists, is a corruption of the Founders' intent.
Education earned the most vitriol at the conference. Effusing that the Religious Right has captured politics and much of the media, North proclaimed: "The only thing they (secularists) have still got a grip on is the university system." Academic doctorates, he contended, are a conspiracy fomented by the Rockefeller family. All academic programs (except, he said, engineering) are now dominated by secularists and Darwinists.
"Marxists in the English departments!" he ranted. "Close every public school in America!"
Among North's most quoted writings was this ditty from 1982: "[W]e must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation...which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God." Titus followed that party line when he proclaimed that the First Amendment is limited to guaranteeing "the right to criticize the government," but "free expression is not in the Constitution." When I asked him if blasphemy -- castigating religion -- was protected, he shook his head.
Like North, Titus sees public education as decidedly satanic. Also, welfare. He contended the Founding Fathers -- and Americans today -- owe their "first duties to God. It's not just worship. It's education... welfare to the poor. Welfare belongs exclusively to God. Why do schools fail? They're trying to do the business of God. Medicaid goes. Education goes. The church gets back to doing what it should do." And what should the church be doing According to these self-appointed arbiters of God's will, running our lives. And stoning those who disagree.
At the Toccoa conference, DeMar organized several debates -- and he commendably invited articulate opponents of his creed.
One was Ed Buckner, a retired Georgia State University professor, unabashed atheist and a member of the Atlanta Freethought Society. He debated Bill Federer, who makes a living trying to prove America's founders intended this to be a Christian nation.
Buckner offered to concede the debate if Federer could disprove any one of four points: Americans don't agree on religion, human judgment is imperfect, religious truth can't be determined by votes or force and freedom is worth protecting. Federer ran from the challenge, and instead offered a litany of historic quotes showing that most of America's founders believed in God.
Federer never got the point that if, as he argued, government should endorse his faith today, tomorrow officials might decide to ban his beliefs.
The other debate featured University of Georgia biologist Mark Farmer versus Australian "young earth" creationist Carl Wieland. Farmer, religious himself, tried to explain that no evidence had ever damaged evolutionary theory -- at best, creationists point to gaps in knowledge.
"Yes, we don't know the answers to everything," Farmer told me. "That's what science is all about, finding answers."
It would be easy to dismiss the Reconstructionists as the lunatic fringe, no more worrisome than the remnants of the Prohibition Party. But, in fact, they have rather extraordinary entrÃ©e and influence with top-tier Religious Right leaders and institutions.
James Dobson's Focus on the Family is now selling DeMar's book, America's Christian Heritage. Dobson himself has a warm relationship with many in the movement, and he has admitted voting for Reconstructionist presidential candidate Howard Phillips in 1996.
TV preacher Robertson has mentioned reading North's writings, and he has hired Reconstructionists as professors at Regent University. Jerry Falwell employs Reconstructionists to teach at Liberty University. Roger Schultz, the chair of Liberty's History Department, writes regularly for Faith for all of Life, the leading Reconstructionist journal.
Southern Baptist Bruce N. Shortt is aggressively pushing his denomination to officially repudiate public education and call on Southern Baptists to withdraw their children from public schools. Shortt's vicious book, The Harsh Truth about Public Schools, was published by the Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation.
There are big theological differences between the Religious Right's generals and the Reconstructionists. Traditional Christian theology teaches that history will muddle along until Jesus' Second Coming. That teaching is tough to turn into a political movement. Reconstructionists preach that the nation and the world must come under Christian "dominion" (as they define it) before Christ's return -- a wonderful theology to promote global conquest.
In short, Dobson, Robertson, Falwell and the Southern Baptist Convention (the nation's largest Protestant denomination) may not agree with everything the Reconstructionists advocate, but they sure don't seem to mind hanging out with this openly theocratic, anti-democratic crowd.
It's enough for Americans who believe in personal freedom and religious liberty to get worried about -- before the first stones start flying.
John Sugg is senior editor of Creative Loafing Newspapers. He was the recipient of the 2005 Society of Professional Journalists "Green Eyeshade" award for serious commentary, and he has won more than 30 other significant awards.