The Lack of a 'Vision Thing'
It would be fair to expect that my recent weekend visit to my parents' pink house on a quiet street in San Francisco was going to be rather tranquil. It wasn't. During my stay, I watched as my 80-year-old mother and father sat forlorn while their wooden house shook to the sounds of the youthful Christian soldiers singing and praying in the storefront church next door.
It is a scenario that plays out for my parents several times a week, and their efforts – pounding on the walls, screaming "Quiet!" at the churchgoers, pleading gently, and then not so gently, with the mustachioed pastor – always end in despondency.
The walls dividing my parents and the Baptist battalion next door shake loudly to a born-again beat from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday – and every Tuesday and Thursday night too. Despite the fact that this church is wrecking the serenity of my parents' remaining golden years, I can relate to the motivation this faithful flock has to meet so often and pray at such heavenly volumes.
A former born-again believer myself, I have seen the capabilities of a religious militancy that believes it can move mountains. I've also witnessed how this same militancy in the thousands of evangelical churches across the United States has swayed the results of presidential elections, silently aligning the cold strategy and tactics of electoral politics with a vision that extends beyond election day and into the next life.
When I looked in on the Sunday sermon next door I felt no surprise that the calls on the faithful to embrace Jesus and the apocalypse were paired with a push for a Bush second coming and the pastor's scintillating defense of the White House-sponsored Federal Marriage Amendment, which the mustachioed shepherd called "muy urgente" – very urgent. The church service brought me back to my experiences of mixing of politics and faith during the Reagan era. At that time, I was unaware of how the exceptionalism embodied by Reagan's vision of the United States as a "shining city on a hill" blended seamlessly with the ancient ideas I was taught about Christianity and the salvation of the earth. Reagan just made sense to me, and I left it at that.
My experiences with the evangelical church started in the early '80s. I was supremely grateful to the leadership of the Open Door Alliance church for helping me escape the unhealthy – even deadly – lifestyle of a 20-year-old living in recession-ridden barrios in Reagan's "shining city." The rocket-fuel combustion of gratitude for being taken in and the apocalyptic faith I grew to adopt – many of us were convinced that the end was nigh – fired me up during bi-weekly bible study sessions, which made clear that I stood on the side of the good, true Christians, and not among the fallen faithful.
Shortly after my conversion experience (I grew up Catholic), I spent all my time participating in discussions, sermons, and mentoring by deacons and pastors. I was introduced to "practical" examples of how to interpret reality – including political reality. At that time, abortion was the filter through which we understood our place in the "worldly" process of elections.
Following training ostensibly designed to bring me closer to the rapture, I found myself transported to new – and radically political – heights in advanced study groups. We spent our time praying for the presidential candidate who was "right" on abortion, the presidential candidate who we heard about in services and on Christian radio, the presidential candidate we saw praying with Christian pastors on the covers of mainstream magazines.
Convinced that I needed to take up spiritual arms in a world slouching towards Satan, I attended mass events where members of various regional churches "volunteered" to register new voters for the 1984 presidential race. Before long, many of us were writing checks to televangelists like our spiritual hero and Reagan supporter, Jimmy Swaggart, one of the pioneers of televangelism whose inspired, working-class message delivered thousands of souls – and more than $500,000 in daily commitments from televised sermons.
Worked into an evangelical frenzy, I believed, truly believed, that the anti-Christ worked through abortion rights advocates and the politicians that supported them. I saw it as a holy battle fought through the ballot box. Though I wasn't told which party to register with at religious events or at sermons, our biblical training made it clear which levers Jesus would pull at the ballot box.
Sacred time and election time were synchronized. Our lives moved to the beat of the Beatitudes – and, increasingly, so did the political process.
Twenty years later, the synchronization has been digitally remastered using new technologies, and distributed by Christian media conglomerates like the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Combined with the overwhelming numbers of politically-driven tax free evangelical organizations found in neighborhoods across the country, the exponential growth of the Message has had a multiplier effect on the spiritual economy of the country. While Protestant politics stretch across the spectrum from the radical right to progressive, the most prominent broadcast pulpits are dominated by fanatical conservatives. The so-called "spiritual revolution" is on a parallel track with the revolution in digital media.
Aided by the consolidation of the Christian media conglomerates, the prolific growth of Christian web sites, and the mainstreaming of the Message through movies like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and multimedia ministries like that of Tim Lahaye, author of the apocalyptic blockbuster Left Behind Series, the evangelical message has gone way beyond bringing the issue of abortion to the ballot box. Internet pornography, school prayer, judicial appointments, and gay rights, to name a few, are now the subjects of Sunday service, church-sponsored letter-writing drives to legislators, and the strings to which fundraising are attached. As a result, religious fanatics in America have managed to get their views on culture and society written as law.
The militancy and timing of the evangelical message has spilled into America's military conflicts. The perpetual wars that began with operation "Infinite Justice" (later changed to "Operation Enduring Freedom") fit perfectly with the millennial pursuit of "everlasting life" that informs sermons, pamphlets, and religious media. The daily newscasts about Iraq and the Middle East have, for millions of God-fearing Americans, become visual reminders of their role as a voting bloc in the war of the apocalypse. They believe themselves to be supporters of providentially sanctioned war – and warrior Presidents.
To their – and progressives' – detriment, and despite good intentions, neither media genius Michael Moore nor the flaccid fighters of the Democratic Party have articulated a competitive historically-rooted vision of the future that can negate this religious militancy. The urgency of the evangelist message behind and beyond the pulpit is anchored by a scorched earth approach to changing the world. It has no equivalent or competing force among those opposing the Bush agenda. At a time when global and local politics are again being defined by powerful extremists of various faiths – including a fervent Christianity – bent on rapturous redemption through war, the lack of a long-term vision uniting those in opposition to the evangelical Bush supporters leaves them, and the country, extremely vulnerable.
A powerful long-term unifying alternative vision or, God forbid, an ideology, which influences and interprets struggles of daily life as much as it aligns electorates in the short-term and policy in the long term, is absent. Meanwhile, the forces leading opposition to the Right's religious wing are leading the well-meaning, peace-loving of this country toward the steep cliffs of short-term electoral thinking. While this may be seductive in the face of the current political climate, propping up the Kerry campaign as "the lesser of two evils," the alpha and the omega of the "anybody but Bush" solution, it condemns liberals and progressives to a perpetual post-electoral defense against those feeding the hearts and minds of fearful yet faithful legions who are rewarded with the mirage of a clear, if apocalyptic future.
The inability of the anti-Bush forces to understand the depth of evangelical militancy may result in a fate similar to that of my parents who are thinking of moving away from their church next door. Similarly, on those days when polls spike in Bush's favor, more than a few people respond with "I'm leaving the country if he wins" when they're asked for their "plan B." Lacking another realistic alternative and being reservedly committed to the Kerry campaign, many liberals and progressives are trapped between a muddy rock of mainstream Democratic Party politics and the millenarian hard place of a Bush second coming.
Conservatives' evangelical foot soldiers, powered by their "Plan A" (as in "apocalyptic"), are a dangerous force. Those who aren't in support of the fanatic Christian agenda will have to address their lack of a "vision thing," or else my parents' wall will become only a small section of the long wall separating the evangelical elect from the damned majority.