The Passion of the Evangelicals

Long before "The Passion" became a multimedia ministry, I whipped "Christ" with black leather strips while onlookers gasped in "Gethsemane." I held gyrating bodies that glowed with the Holy Spirit. I witnessed death and rebirth -- beginning with my own -- and then bore witness all my waking hours, with all my energy, with as much money as I could spare.

I ended up campaigning for Ronald Reagan.

I was a Christian militant, a soldier of the Passion grateful for the opportunity to carry a flag dyed with the blood of Jesus, blood that still inspires street-corner Christian guerrilla theater, mass speaking in tongues in baseball stadiums and zealotry in voting booths.

Today, eager to see bloody spectacle mixed with apocalyptic desire, millions flock to the opening of Mel Gibson's gory mytho-bio-pic, "The Passion of the Christ." Many rightly fear both the film's anti-Semitic aspects and the boost it gives to right-wing evangelicals and their anti-gay and anti-abortion agendas. But "Passion" is ultimately as much about the elections as it is about Jesus and Jews, government and gays. The film's election-year release boosts the esprit de corps and organizational ability of right-wing evangelicals in this age of multimedia, wedge politics and born-again presidents.

Back when ultra-conservative Catholic Mel Gibson launched his career as the leather-clad Mad Max, I was relinquishing sex, Santana and Satan. I recall the evening that, soon after being born again, I helped bring God to the voting booth. After several hours of winning souls that Saturday in October in San Francisco, our pastor, Joel, had us all get on our knees to pray for the re-election of Ronald Reagan. Projectors displayed Christ's teachings on white walls above the small wooden stand Joel used as a pulpit in our storefront church on 23rd and Valencia streets in San Francisco. Reagan was right with God because he was right with abortion -- he was against it.

Our technology and methods were crude, but our prayer and commitment were cutting edge. Twenty years later, America is 46 percent evangelical, thanks largely to the guerrilla theater, door-to-door ministering and relentless organizing initiated by thousands of evangelical churches. Already well-developed local radio and national television chains such as Trinity Broadcasting Network provided airwave support to our work on the ground. Most Americans are still asleep to the fact that we're in the middle of a Great Awakening similar to the evangelically and politically driven movements that have swept the country at various times since preacher Jonathan Edwards stirred Colonial passions.

Now, in the Great Awakening of the multimedia age, Gibson's "Passion" merges with mainstream and Christian media to align God's people with the only candidate the faithful can pray and vote for: George W. Bush. Mass faxing, e-mail blasts and innovative evangelical Web use combine with Christian radio, television and publishing conglomerates (Salem Radio network, for example, has more than 1,500 affiliates) to saturate the faithful with the good news of "The Passion." Simultaneously, entertainment news shows -- Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight segments about how makeup artists made Christ's face bloody, for example -- and "real news" coverage promote the film for free to the 54 percent of Americans who are not yet born-again. That the film is in Aramaic and Latin may attest to the fact that, today, images are gaining ever more importance over words and text in the social and electronic networks of the evangelical empire. The complexities of democracy and debate remain outside these networks.

Gibson's film is being used to increase the bandwidth of born-again America. The promotion by Christian news networks of George W. Bush -- who announced his support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages the day before the opening of "The Passion" -- is just a flick of the remote away from watching Bush's spokesperson speak on the six o'clock news about the president's desire to see the film. The same marketing information that is bringing "Passion" promotional material to diverse doorsteps nationwide (the film is being heavily promoted in Spanish) can be used to drop campaign flyers on those same doorsteps.

Two Christian groups have offered a pair of complimentary tickets to the film to all 535 members of Congress.

After discovering the manipulation of my passions for political ends, I committed apostasy and left my evangelical church. But as one who contributed to the current Great Awakening, I can tell you that the passion of the faithful drives them to influence everything, from the space between our bodies to an outer space on the verge of militarization, as technology and apocalypse merge. "Passion" and the forces behind it need to be fought with passion and intelligence. I see a lot of intelligence among those opposed to the evangelical right, but not the passion that changes destinies.

Roberto Lovato lives and writes in Los Angeles.


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