The Christian Right Goes Back to Bible Boot Camp
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It's been a rough season for the Christian right. Even for an eschatological movement, these are dark days. First came former Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives David Kuo's public admission that evangelicals were often derided as "nuts" and "goofy" within the inner sanctums of the Bush administration. Then, weeks before losing their shotgun seat in the 109th Congress, the booming voice of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard, was silenced in a scandal involving a gay hooker, massage oils, methamphetamine, and a string of Denver hotel rooms booked under false names.
But even before all that hit the fundamentalist fan, the movement was contending with a quieter, more systemic crisis: functional Biblical illiteracy among the flock. That's right, religious conservatives aren't so religious, after all.
This alarm was sounded by George Barna, chief pollster and CEO of the Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif.-based Christian polling and communications outfit. In August of 2005, Barna reported that less than ten percent of born-again Christians held what he termed a "Biblical worldview." Based on his survey, very few grasped the nuances of scripture or believed in "Absolute Truth" any more than their secular counterparts; the "Body of Christ" had been infected with the virus of relativism, a wasting disease.
"Although most people own a Bible and know some of its content," reported Barna, "our research found that most [professed evangelicals] have little idea how to integrate core biblical principles to form a unified and meaningful response to the challenges and opportunities of life."
The prolific Barna dashed off a book in response to this worrying discovery. Entitled "Think Like Jesus" -- and marketed as "one of those books that really ticks off Satan" -- it quickly sold out in Barna's online bookstore. A second edition of "Think Like Jesus" soon went to press to further aggravate the Lord of Darkness.
Barna's poll and subsequent call to think like Jesus caught the attention of Dr. James Dobson, patriarch of the two most important religious right groups, the $140-million-a-year Focus on the Family, and its more politically minded spin-off, the D.C.-based Family Research Council. Dobson called Barna's report on Christian America's disappearing Biblical worldview "very distressing news" and felt that it warranted a muscular response, one befitting the massive resources at his disposal. The result is Focus on the Family's " The Truth Project: An In-Depth Christian Worldview Experience," a slick and intensive two-day training conference that kicked-off a North American tour last month at a megachurch outside Atlanta. It has since visited sell-out audiences in six cities; there are already 10 events planned for 2007.
Partly because the testimonials sound so scripted -- "The presentation in Boston was wonderful and definitely worth my 12 hour round-trip drive!" -- it's hard to say if The Truth Project is really the transformative Christian experience Focus claims it to be. It is, however, an open window into how the country's largest religious right group sees the world -- and how it would like everyone else to see it. The Truth Project is also a testament to the extent to which the religious right leadership understands it is fighting a desperate and rearguard culture war. How can an Army of Light be expected to conquer Satan when the troops not only march out of step, but can't even clean or load their religious rifles? The training conferences are a natural activity for conservative Christian activists at the dawn of the 110th Congress: a retreat from the front lines to regroup and retrain infantry who the generals fear are going AWOL, even as they maintain nominally Christian identities.
Toward this end, Focus on the Family has developed what is essentially a two-day multimedia Bible boot camp, with more than a whiff of a Holiday Inn get-rich-quick seminar. Held in churches instead of hotels, the seminars explain how to attain "Truth," not financial independence. This Truth comes in the form of a neatly packaged immutable Christian worldview to be taken home and shared with your neighbors. Attendees also receive a 12-DVD set of the lectures; meals are not provided.
The seminar is scripted and presented by Dr. Del Tackett, an energetic yet predictably dull senior executive at Focus on the Family and an adjunct professor at New Geneva Theological Seminary and Summit Ministries. Before joining Focus, Tackett spent 20 years in the Air Force and was director of technical planning for George H. W. Bush's National Security Council. The Truth Project website describes him as a "visionary and a teacher."
Sitting on stage next to Tackett during the length of the seminar is a serious question of adolescent construction: "Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?"
Or, as a secular humanist might put it: In your heart of hearts, do you guys honestly buy, or even understand, all this Bible crap?
Barna and Dobson are convinced that the vast majority of evangelicals do not, a fact with spiritual and political implications.
"Only by understanding the immutable truth claims of Christ," says Dobson in The Truth Project's promotional video, can Christians successfully defend against the "postmodern worldview" in which "God does not exist," "the family is defined as any circle of love," and "homosexuality is the moral equivalent of heterosexuality."
"If we capture and embrace more of God's worldview and trust it with unwavering faith," says Dobson, "then we begin to ... form the appropriate responses to questions on abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, stem-cell research and even media choices." But the real prize is bigger than any one issue. By fully embracing Truth, religious conservatives can "recapture Western Civilization," which they "invented but have lost."
The questions that will ultimately lead to recapturing the flag of civilization is born-again boilerplate: Is absolute truth defined by the Bible? Did Jesus Christ live a sinless life? Is God the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe, and does He still rule it today? Is Satan real?
Over the course of his 12 lectures, Del Tackett explains that we know the answers to be yes. We know because the Bible tells us so. In fact, the Bible tells us everything we could ever want to know -- if only we read it correctly. Most of The Truth Project thus involves parsing Scripture and teasing out its life lessons for 21st-century Christians. This text analysis is often ridiculous, with Tackett probing the possible double meanings of Biblical diction, as if the King James Bible had been transcribed directly from the mouth of God, and was not an artistic creation of a team of 17th-century scholars in Oxford and Cambridge.
If the seminar's content is vapid, The Truth Project is still no ordinary Sunday school slide show. No corners were cut in production of the video clips that accompany the lectures. With its nature montages and flashy editing, The Truth Project includes the first religious films ready for IMAX distribution.
Even more striking than the production values, though, is how little knowledge Tackett assumes on the part of his committed born-again audience. Even John 3:16 is reviewed as if for the first time. Once they are explained, Tackett holds basic Biblical Truths up against the Lies of secular culture and the lying liars who tell them. His bete noir throughout is Carl Sagan, the legendary poster-boy of humanism and scientism. Tackett is so obsessed with Sagan that he not only shares an affinity for turtlenecks and corduroy sports jackets, but one suspects he imagines himself to be Sagan's God-fearing equivalent, and the Truth Project his answer to Cosmos, Sagan's famous book and PBS series. Clips from Cosmos are followed by bitter rebuttals from Tackett, who bristles at Sagan's contention that the earth is made of "star stuff," spinning without much purpose in a universe lacking an all-knowing Creator offering redemption through acceptance of his carpenter son. Alongside Sagan, other recurring villains include Charles Darwin and John Dewey.
In a lecture entitled "The State," Tackett explains the proper relationship between ecclesiastical and earthly authority, leaning heavily on the Book of Romans. ("Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind," 12:2.) After drawing a circle with the words God, King and Citizens in the center, Tackett swerves into a rambling exegesis of the books of Daniel and Samuel. When he finally returns to his triangle (God-King-Citizens) inside the circle, he is dragging coils of disjointed scripture that he says prove the King is never in charge -- "God is in charge." And when the King forgets that God is in charge? Then "the state becomes the most monstrous of spheres" and "mass graves" cannot be far behind. To back this up, Tackett supplements the Bible with quotes from the Black Book of Communism and an 1828 edition of Webster's dictionary, which defines politics as that realm dealing with "ethics and morals."
The Bible also contains a few policy recommendations. Tackett points to a mention of a 10 percent tax in the Old Testament, seeing in this a divine recommendation for a flat tax. Apparently Steve Forbes had a direct line in to God, after all. Tackett also locates Biblical grounds for opposing the welfare state and the rise of supranational institutions. It goes without saying that all "freakish sexual behavior," including homosexuality, is to be resisted with the utmost strenuousness.
Tackett blames the sad state of the nation on a long and vicious secular assault on America's Christian foundations by men like Dewey and Sagan. The good news is that America can once again reflect the Godliness of its founders, if only we will let it.
"The people who came here," explains Tackett, "came with a mature and comprehensive Biblical worldview." He gushes over how, as late as the early 20th century, American schoolchildren learned their catechisms along with their multiplication tables. He also provides an orgy of selective quotation from America's overwhelmingly Deist founding fathers, as well as genuinely Christian revolutionary B-listers like Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster. But Tackett can never quite bring himself to describe even the firebrand Sam Adams as a "revolutionary"; all are simply "founders." Tom Paine does not appear anywhere in this history lecture, entitled, "The American Understanding."
If America has turned away from its blessed orgins in Christ, it is because we have forgotten the Bible -- that all-encompassing, simplifying book. It is because we have lost our Biblical worldview, in fact, that we even need things like modern laws at all. "We've had to modify and amend the Constitution," says Tackett, incredibly, "because we're no longer governed internally."
"When we throw God out, our laws become waste paper," he continues. Christianity is the foundation of this country, not the Constitution."
That's Focus on the Family politics in a nutshell: Pilgrims without the Progress.
Perhaps the most tortured and convoluted lecture is the one entitled "Labor," encapsulating society and the economy. Just as Tackett cannot bring himself to utter the word "revolution" in discussing the American Revolution, he also never says "capitalism" when discussing the American economy and its heavily degraded public sphere, as if the hypersexualized culture he so loathes has no relation to barrage advertising or an economy based on mass gratuitous consumption. The Truth Project devotes much energy to warnings about the greedy state becoming a monster, but the modern corporation makes not even the briefest cameo. Except for the "freakish" sex it permits and the Satanic trappings of the welfare state, we live in a "glorious social system [that] God has given us."
Whatever the lecture on labor lacks in intellectual seriousness, it more than makes up for in humor. Tackett, a former manager at Kaman Sciences Corp. and ITT Industries, sees in his fellow Christians a management wet dream. Just as the book of Genesis begins with God hard at work -- "forming out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air" -- Tackett believes a Biblical worldview should lead naturally to a positive, can-do, union-free work ethic.
After explaining the Biblical injunction to work and enjoy it, he imagines two businessmen having lunch. One says to the other: "I wish I could hire a Christian! They are so joyful, creative, excited and trustworthy! When I leave the office, they work even harder!"
Why, they're just like magical minimum-wage worker elves!
And however meager the fruits of their joyful Christian labor, teaches Tackett, evangelicals should avoid class envy or joining in demands for "redistribution rights." They should also avoid buying pirated CDs. It's all in the Bible, you see, the only book you'll ever need. But it is a book that can be supplemented on occasion. Say, by a set of The Truth Project DVDs. But unlike George Barna's "Think Like Jesus," they are not available in stores.
Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist in Washington, D.C.