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The Secrets of the Christian Right's Recruiting Tactics

A look at the cult-like recruiting tactics of the Christian right, including the manipulative and highly successful practice of "love bombing."
 
 
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There is a false, but effective, fiction that one has to be born again to be a Christian. The Christian right refuses to acknowledge the worth of anyone's religious experience unless -- in the words of the tired and opaque cliché -- one has accepted "Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior."

The meltdown, often skillfully manipulated by preachers and teams of evangelists, is one of the most pernicious tools of the movement. Through conversion one surrenders to a higher authority. And the higher authority, rather than God, is the preacher who steps in to take over your life. Being born again, and the process it entails, is more often about submission and the surrender of moral responsibility than genuine belief.

I attended a five-day seminar at Coral Ridge in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where I was taught, often by D. James Kennedy, the techniques of conversion. The callousness of these techniques -- targeting the vulnerable, building false friendships with the lonely or troubled, promising to relieve people of the most fundamental dreads of human existence from the fear of mortality to the numbing pain of grief -- gave to the process an awful cruelty and dishonesty. I attended the seminar as part of the research for my book "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." Kennedy openly called converts "recruits" and spoke about them joining a new political force sweeping across the country to reshape and reform America into a Christian state.

"I would always go in first, introduce myself, Jim Kennedy," he told us. "I'm checking the lay of the land and I will look around the living room and see if there's something there that I can comment about. Frequently, there will be a large picture somewhere and where did they put it, this picture ... why would they put it over the fireplace? Significant."

"In Fort Lauderdale you don't find too many fireplaces," he added, smiling, "but there's some kind of central focus. Maybe ... golf trophies ... I'm over here looking at these golf trophies ... painting ... I say... beautiful painting, did you paint that? The first rule about looking at trophies, don't touch them ... did you win all those trophies? So we have a little conversation about golf, but I know enough about golf to have this conversation ... now what have I done? I'm making a friend."

"Compliment them on whatever you can," Kennedy said, "discuss what they do, you're going to find out what are their hobbies, maybe right there in the living room. Then you're going to ask them about what they do, where they're from, how long they've been there ... something to discuss with them ... in doing this, you have made a friend."

We are told to "emphasize the positive" and "identify with your prospect." We are encouraged in the green "Evangelism Explosion" instruction manual to use sentences such as "It is wonderful to know when I lay my head on my pillow tonight that if I do not awaken in bed in the morning, I will awaken in paradise with God." We are told to paint graphic pictures of personal tragedy that God has helped solve, such as: "I had a Christian son killed in Vietnam, yet my heart is filled with peace because I know he has eternal life. Even though he was killed by an enemy mortar, he has a home now in heaven, and one day we'll be reunited there." We are instructed to pepper our testimonies with words like love, peace, faithfulness, forgiveness, hope, purpose and obedience and remember to talk about how we have found, in our own conversion, "courage in the face of death."

Kennedy warns us not to carry a large Bible, but to keep a small one hidden in our pocket, saying "don't show your gun until you're ready to shoot it."

The conversion, at first, is euphoric. It is about new, loving friends, about the conquering of human anxieties, fears and addictions, about attainment through God of wealth, power, success and happiness. For those who have known personal and economic despair, it feels like a new life, a new beginning. The new church friends repeatedly call them, invite them to dinner, listen to their troubles and answer their questions. Kennedy told us that we must keep in touch in the days after conversion. He encouraged us to keep detailed files on those we proselytize. We must be sure the converts are never left standing alone at church. We must care when no one else seems to care. The converts are assigned a "discipler" or prayer partner, a new friend, who is wiser than they are in the ways of the Lord and able to instruct them in their new life.

The intense interest by a group of three or four evangelists in a potential convert, an essential part of the conversion process, the flattery and feigned affection, the rapt attention to those being recruited and the flurry of "sincere" compliments are a form of "love bombing." It is the same technique employed by most cults, such as the Unification Church or "Moonies," to attract prospects. It was a well-developed tactic of the Russian and Chinese communist parties, which share many of the communal and repressive characteristics of the Christian right.

"Love bombing is a coordinated effort, usually under the direction of leadership, that involves long-term members flooding recruits and newer members with flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark," the psychiatrist Margaret Thaler Singer wrote. "Love bombing -- or the offer of instant companionship -- is a deceptive ploy accounting for many successful recruitment drives."

The convert is gradually drawn into a host of church activities by his or her new friends, leaving little time for outside socializing. But the warmth soon brings with it new rules. When you violate the rules, you sin, you flirt with rebellion, with becoming a "backslider," someone who was converted but has fallen and is once again on the wrong side of God. And as the new converts are increasingly invested in the church community, as they cut ties with their old community, it is harder to dismiss the mounting demands of the "discipler" and church leaders. The only proper relationship is submission to those above you, the abandonment of critical thought and the mouthing of thought-terminating clichés that are morally charged. "Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior" or "the wages of sin are death" is used to end all discussion.

Rules are incorporated slowly and deliberately into the convert's belief system. These include blind obedience to church leaders, the teaching of an exclusive, spiritual elitism that demonizes all other ways of being and believing, and a persecution complex that keeps followers mobilized and distrustful of outsiders. The result is the destruction of old communities, old friendships and the independent ability to make moral choices. Believers are soon encased in the church community. They are taught to emphasize personal experience rather than reasoning, and to reject the reality-based world. For those who defy the system, who walk away, there is a collective banishment.

There is a gradual establishment of new standards for every aspect of life. Those who choose spouses must choose Christian spouses. Families and friends are divided into groups of "saved" and "unsaved." The movement, while it purports to be about families, is the great divider of families, friends and communities. It competes with the family and those outside its structure for loyalty. It seeks to place itself above the family, either drawing all family members into its embrace or pushing those who resist aside. There were frequent prayers during the seminar I attended for relatives who were "unsaved," those who remained beyond the control of the movement. Many of these prayers, including one by a grandmother for her unsaved grandchildren, were filled with tears and wrenching pain over the damnation of those they loved.

The new ideology gives the believers a sense of purpose, feelings of superiority and a way to justify and sanctify their hatreds. For many, the rewards of cleaning up their lives, of repairing their damaged self-esteem, of joining an elite and blessed group are worth the cost of submission. They know how to define themselves. They do not have to make moral choice. It is made for them. They submerge their individual personas into the single persona of the Christian crowd. Their hope lies not in the real world, but in this new world of magic and miracles. For most, the conformity, the flight away from themselves, the dismissal of facts and logic, the destruction of personal autonomy, even with its latent totalitarianism, is a welcome and joyous relief. The flight into the arms of the religious right, into blind acceptance of a holy cause, compensates for the convert's despair and lack of faith in himself or herself. And the more corrupted and soiled the converts feel, the more profound their despair, the more militant they become, shouting, organizing and agitating to create a pure and sanctified Christian nation, a purity they believe will offset their own feelings of shame and guilt. Many want to be deceived and directed. It makes life easier to bear.

Freedom from fear, especially the fear of death, is what is being sold. It is a lie, as everyone has to know on some level, even while they write and rewrite their testimonies to conform to the instructors' demands. But admitting this in front of other believers is impossible. Such an admission would be interpreted as a lack of faith. And this too is part of the process, for it fosters a dread of being found out, a morbid guilt that we are not as good or as Christian as those around us. This dread does not go away with conversion or blind obedience or submission. This unachievable ideal forces the convert to repress and lose touch with the uncertainties, ambiguities and contradictions that make up human existence.

We were instructed to inform potential converts that Jesus came to Earth and died "to pay the penalty for our sins and to purchase a place in heaven for us" and that "to receive eternal life you must transfer your trust from yourself to Jesus Christ alone for eternal life." We were told to ask the convert if he or she is willing "to turn from what you have been doing that is not pleasing to Him and follow Him as He reveals His will to you in His Word." If the covert agrees to accept a new way of life we are to bow our heads and pray, with the convert repeating each line after us.

"Lord Jesus, I want You to come in and take over my life right now. I am a sinner. I have been trusting in myself and my own good works. But now I place my trust in You. I accept You as my own personal Savior. I believe you died for me. I receive You as Lord and Master of my life. Help me to turn from my sins and to follow You. I accept the free gift of eternal life. I am not worthy of it, but I thank You for it. Amen."

And when it is over the new believers are told "Welcome to the family of God." They are told to read a chapter a day in the Gospel of John and that they will be visited again in a week to talk about the Bible. They are encouraged to pray, because God "promised to hear and answer our prayers." They are told to find "a good Bible-believing church and become a part of it." They are told to join a Christian fellowship group. They are told to witness to those in their family. With this, the process of deconstructing an individual and building a submissive follower, one who no longer has any allegiance to the values of the open society, begins.

Chris Hedges, who graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." He is a senior fellow at The Nation Institue and a Lannan Literary Fellow.

 
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