April 20, 2010

(The Awakening Conference was sponsored by the Freedom Federation and held April 15-16 at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. Truth Wins Out’s founder Wayne Besen reports live from the event )
RevivalIf the Religious Right fringe one day establishes a theocracy in America, no one will be able to credibly claim that they did not explicitly broadcast their dubious intentions. Having just spent two days at “The Awakening” conference at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, one message was unmistakable: Many key Religious Right figures vehemently reject separation of church and state and believe America is a fundamentalist Christian nation.

“The Bible is the government of the people, by the people and for the people,” thundered Cindy Jacobs of General’ International from the stage. “I believe there is an awakening to do just that.”

What’ frightening is that many leaders on the Religious Right hold a basic belief system that is seemingly incompatible with democratic forms of government. Their central tautological argument is that liberty originated from God and so the only way to be truly free is through a theocratic system that honors the creator of freedom.

Huh? Exactly.

According to this mindset, God has ordained the faithful to be in positions of leadership, rendering any form of government that does not elevate these “chosen ones” or reflect their extreme views as illegitimate.

The Saturday night rally began with a surprising controversy. Lou Engle (pictured), the constantly rocking, intense, mustachioed cleric of The Call with the booming voice of a professional wrestler declared, “We are here to honor all denominations. There will be no tongues tonight.”

This left many in the audience offended, and well, tongue-tied. In a huff, several people stormed out of the main chapel. Sensing a gaffe, Engle soon reappeared on-stage and happily declared, “I apologize, we can speak in tongues!”

EngleAt this heavily advertised event, there was no shortage of the paranoid and prejudiced. But, one pleasant surprise was that attacks on LGBT people were on the decline. The crowd was more riled about President Barack Obama’ healthcare plan, which the Family Research Council’ Tony Perkins referred to onstage as “a socialistic time bomb.”

The big news at the conference came from Engle. While sitting in the audience during the “LGBT Agenda” breakout session, he spoke up and conceded that the next generation of evangelical Christians is largely supportive of LGBT rights (but not abortion). Engle said that when he preaches against gay people, the Christian youth often “rage against him.” Engle, a giant in right wing circles, said that the far right has lost on this issue barring a miracle, such as an intercession at a 500,000 strong youth rally. When he floated this idea to the activists on-stage, The Liberty Counsel’ Matt Barber said they should privately discuss such a rally after the forum.

Good luck with that idea, considering the breakout session at Falwell U. drew only 15 people. Virtually everyone in the small crowd was a hardcore anti-gay activist from groups such as Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX). Clearly, gay bashing was an issue that was not motivating many young people, as it has been in the past. (Although, it seems Engle’ group, The Call, may already be testing his intercession plan in Uganda)

I was not “undercover” at the event as right wing sources have erroneously claimed. After all, I had signed up under my own name. But, I was trying to keep a low profile so I wouldn’t get thrown out of the conference. To not look conspicuous, I grew some facial stubble and used no hair gel.

The plan worked until Barber1-300x225The Traditional Values Coalition’ Andrea Lafferty (daughter of Lou Sheldon) spotted me at the LGBT Agenda breakout session, which made me as comfortable as a fly landing on a porcupine.

She asked me if I had any questions. I looked around the room and saw no movable middle in this bunch, so I declined. I preferred to plead the 5th to ensure I could attend the big revival that was planned that evening.

While the sheer number of anti-gay attacks had decreased from conferences I had attended in past years, the remaining rhetoric was vicious and vile, as our desperate opponents see they are losing the battle of public opinion.

Lafferty, for example, said if we pass The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill in congress to protect LGBT Americans from job discrimination, we are on a slippery slope to protect those who have sex with amputees, children and animals.

She seemed to have an unusually acerbic reaction to transgender people. Lafferty said, “they are actually she-males…. We need to talk about how truly troubled they are…. Do we want them in the classroom?”

The Liberty Counsel’ Matt Barber chimed in, saying that transgender Americans are the “ultimate act of rebellion against God.” He justified persecuting LGBT people claiming, “The ultimate act of hatred is to help someone foster a self-delusion.”

Barber defended teenage bullies in school by saying, “Kids need to have a First Amendment right to defend Traditional Values.” As far as legislation or policies opposing school bullying against LGBT students, Barber said, “The government picking sides is de facto viewpoint discrimination.”

Just to let everyone know his heart and soften his vitriolic presentation, Barber kindly added, “We are not homophobic.”

At the breakout session, Rena Lindevaldsen, A law school professor at Liberty University, revealed the anti-gay lobby’ strategy to defeat ENDA, saying the key message is, “letting people see how the kids are affected…it’ an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Lafferty secondGroup-short1-300x225ed this strategy by saying that the Religious Right will show how, “ENDA will affect every public school in America.” She backed up her point by asking in utter horror, “Imagine having a transgender gym teacher.”

After the seminar, I photographed Barber, Lindevaldsen and Lafferty (left). As I left the room, Lafferty pulled me aside to introduce herself. With a friendly smile she shook my hand and told me that the demeaning lies against LGBT people “weren’t personal attacks.”

During the evening revival, Bishop Harry Jackson explained why he fought against marriage equality in Washington, DC, saying, “If you redefine marriage you have to redefine the family. There is a generation that wants to pervert children at 7, 8, and 9 years old.”

During his speech, Jackson claimed that he was a college athlete who smoked marijuana and took psychedelic drugs. One evening, when a man he was getting high with pulled a bayonet on him, Jackson realized he was “in a room of crazy people.” He alleged that this experience was his “first step toward the Lord” and helped lead to his successful marriage.

Surely, some of the students in the revival crowd in Lynchburg must have wondered why family life, faith and stability were good and necessary for Jackson, but not for LGBT people in the District of Columbia. They must have questioned why he felt his marriage depended on discrimination that kept other people from experiencing the same joy and happiness he gained from his own relationship.

If Lou Engle is wondering how his movement lost the current generation of youth, it is because of the hatred and hyperbole of people like Lafferty, Barber and Jackson. Their biblical bromides and disjointed Jeremiads are simply incongruous with reality.

Many teenagers, including evangelicals, have friends who come out of the closet at early ages. They listen to the slurs and the slander at such conferences and know, based on real life experience, that they are hearing lies. Such cognitive dissonancEx-Gay-Singer-298x300e is costing evangelical leaders credibility and explains why the anti-gay seminar earlier in the day was a bust.

But make no mistake — while homophobia is in decline, it is still a potent issue to be exploited and milked for every last ounce of remaining value. The Family Research Council’ Tony Perkins said that the Obama Administration’, “forcing the military to embrace homosexuality must stop” and said that the President was using America’ armed forces as “guinea pigs for a social experiment.”

A noticeably effeminate African American “ex-gay” singer, Eddie James, danced on-stage during the revival to proclaim he had left homosexuality. There was also a young student who claimed she was “raped by a woman and a man”, ended up in a homosexual relationship and was eventually “delivered from homosexuality.”

A teenager who said a man molested him followed her. As a result of the trauma, he thought he was destined to be bisexual. He then loudly professed that had “broken the spirit” of homosexuality.

Of course, there are countless heterosexuals who were sexually abused as children, as there are many LGBT people who grew up in model homes. Dishonestly, anti-gay activists continue to conflate the two issues of abuse and sexual orientation.

But, this whole charade unfolding onstage represented the underbelly of evangelicalism. At its worst, it exploits such vulnerable and desperate people such as these abused youth in a shameless bid to make a circumstantial case in support of its ideology. Watching these two young people, who were obviously still in pain, yet paraded like carnival acts, seemed like crass opportunism and emotional exhibitionism. There was nothing conservative or pro-family about this cruel sideshow.

ItEmpty-House-300x225 was clear by the amount of effort put into the stage set that conference organizers were expecting a packed house. Indeed, the main revival hall was nothing short of Biblical Broadway and Holy Hollywood. It featured rock concert lighting and two mammoth screens projecting the Big Show. There was a seven-piece band that included a violinist who was wearing a yarmulke. Eight lively crooners, including the ex-gay activist, fronted the band. Despite the glitz and a “who’ who” of right wing stars, the revival hall was at least a quarter empty (See Pic, Left). The organizers of the conference must have been disappointed by the sagging turnout — particularly with midterm elections around the corner.

Still, the people in attendance were excitable and enraptured by the high-energy, high-tech circus that spared few of the predictable targets. Despite a notable attempt to be inclusive of minorities, Liberty University’ Rev. Johnnie Moore expressed his desire that, there would be revival in the Muslim world and that “Hindus would trade in their idols” for Jesus Christ.

Dr. Ergun Caner, Dean of the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School, said, “The greatest threat to America’ survival is nominal Christianity…we need a fire to awaken the church.”

Perhaps, these reasonable and rational (or nominal) Christians may represent a threat to Caner’ unthinking brand of reactionary fundamentalism. But, how are they a threat to America? When I open up the newspaper each morning, the root of much worldwide instability and pain comes from angry fundamentalists and zealous ideologues from various religious sects. I can’t remember the last time I read an article about “nominal” Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or Jews harming anyone.

Moving along, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, boldly predicted that, “You will see Roe vs. Wade overturned.” There was general unanimity that the far right was outperforming the left in winning the battle for hearts and minds on the abortion issue. I tend to think they are correct, with pro-choice forces lazily depending on the existence of Roe vs. Wade, or using tired slogans, instead of making powerful arguments in favor of legalized abortion. If they do not change this imbalance soon, the fundamentalists will seize a decisive advantage on this issue.

In terms of abortion, new arguments were made that were not heard at past right wing conferences that I had attended. Throughout the two-day affair, virtually every African American preacher attacked abortion as “the Crowd-Engle-300x225leading cause of death in the black community.”

It was also jarring to see a “patriotism deficit” in a group that is accustomed to wrapping itself in the flag. When I began covering right wing conferences in the early 90′, the participants luxuriated in America, sang patriotic songs and worshipped the Republican Party with gusto.

With Obama in office, this gathering was seemingly not as enamored with America. Overall, the speakers and crowd were fervently anti-government (you know, the people who run this country) and held the GOP in contempt for not being extreme enough to satisfy the true believers. Energized by the Tea Party, many people in Lynchburg pledged not to automatically give their votes to Republican candidates without assurances that they would champion rigid conservative positions on social issues.

“We are not Republicans or Democrats,” shouted Engle, summing up the mood, “But subjects of a higher king.”

Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, echoed Engle’ admonition to the GOP saying, “Our loyalty belongs to Jesus Christ, not to any party.” Land added in a breakout session that, “The black community has been used and exploited by the Democratic Party.” He continued that, “the goal is to make sure Christians are not exploited by the Republican Party.”

While conventional wisdom has the energy on the far right helping Republicans, it could easily backfire and split the GOP. Republicans are playing with fire by thinking they can control the combustible right wing activists that I observed.

Speaking of Dr. Land, he succinctly explained how the Religious Right viewed its role by claiming it was, “a purifying agent” and “a moral disinfectant in society.” An enjoyable storyteller with a mellifluous voice and a deep southern drawl, Dr. Land also spoke of a moralistic foray into an Adult Bookstore, where nosey church members harassed patrons.

“We went to the worlds largest adult bookstore. I don’t know why they call it an adult bookstore since they are childish and puerile. We were there for two hours with cameras. I want you to know that during those two hours, nobody went in and no one came out. Now, cars circled the block, waiting to see if we were going to leave. And there were guys inside looking out of the glass door, looking to see if we were going to leave. But, while we were there with the camera, nobody went in and nobody came out. Because men like darkness better than light because their deeds were evil.”

Of course, Dr. Land never considered that the men frequenting the store wanted their anonymity and privacy and had no desire to become poster boys for “sin” in Southern Baptist churches. Additionally, under his logic, porn stars are beacons of light because they very publicly engage in wild sex acts. There is also the reality that many Americans would rather be filmed at an adult bookstore than be videotaped coming out of Dr. Land’ church, which has been spewing hateful political pornography for decades. Whether it is supporting slavery, gay bashing or demanding that women submit graciously to their husbands, the Southern Baptist Convention has enthusiastically embraced things far more shameful than naughty pictures.

crowd-prayFinally, there is the possibility that the men in the Peep Show did not want to come outside because they were members or employees of Land’ church. If fundamentalists have proven one thing over the years, it is that they do not always practice what they preach.

By far the most revealing aspect of my visit to the conference occurred at the breakout panel discussion, “Pastors and Political Activity.” Rev. Rick Joyner, of Morningstar Ministries, personified the gloom and doom of the right when he declared, “Our country has fallen to one of the lowest states of depravity that the Bible says a nation could.”

Joyner is a big supporter of “The Oak Initiative”, which wants fundamentalists to control the “seven areas of dominant influence”, which are listed as: Government, business, media, arts and entertainment, education, family services, and the church.

Joyner is fond of military references and believes that only a few well-organized men can accomplish the goals of the Oak Initiative. “One hundred people can impact a city of one-million,” Joyner said. “Let’ concentrate on those twelve who are true force multipliers.”

Joyner’ militaristic words became a bit chilling, when he said he was collaborating with retired Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin. In October 2003 The Los Angeles Times published a controversial story quoting a Boykin speech about hunting down a terrorist in Mogadishu:

“He went on CNN and he laughed at us, and he said, ‘They’ll never get me because Allah will protect me. Allah will protect me.’ Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his,” said Boykin. “I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

The panel became particularly interesting when the topic turned to public education. Dr. Land proclaimed that he would not, “put my first grader in the hands of pagans.” Vision America’ Dr. Rick Scarborough complained about the difficulties of getting into public schools claiming that fundamentalists have been “shut out by the ACLU”.

Logo-Freedom-300x196A brash twenty-something young man sitting with friends who looked like over-the-hill skateboarders, spoke up during the Q&A period and claimed that the panelists were not trying hard enough. He claimed that through his youth ministry, “we’ve been to 330 schools and only two asked us to leave.”

Upon hearing this, Scarborough cheered these youth and said, “We need more special forces like yourself”, and then spoke of the importance in engaging in “guerilla warfare”. Joyner chimed in that fundamentalists should “come in undercover.” For example, a fundamentalist could go in to speak “as an athlete”, but really be in the schools to push a sectarian message.

The panel included a nasty swipe by Dr. Land at mega-church pastor Joel Osteen, who appeared to quietly mutter that Osteen was “that simpleton from Houston.” He also blamed weak-kneed Catholics for electing Barack Obama. “It was the Catholic pro-lifers who caved,” and voted for Obama.

Before he left to catch a plane, Dr. Land offered one more nugget of advice. “Winning this war is a generational process. It took two generations to get into this mess and it will take us one generation to get out.”

LU-Mountain-300x225I’d like to add a brief note on Virginia’ controversial Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is articulate and hugely popular in right wing circles (he got one of the few standing ovations at the conference). He is worth watching and has a shot to be on the shortlist for the GOP vice presidential pick. Cuccinelli and Mitt Romney would make a compelling ticket because both men are attractive, and Cuccinelli would help dispel lingering suspicions about Romney’ Mormon religion.

Having covered religious extremism for nearly two-decades, I can say without hesitation that today’ religious right, because of changing times, shifting demographics, the global economic meltdown and the election of Obama is more delirious and desperate than ever. This paranoia is exploited and exacerbated by a right wing media bubble that makes these individuals feel like a silent majority suppressed by evil outside forces.

There are fringe elements that believe wresting control of the federal government is the only way to “reclaim America.” Fighting against a hostile fundamentalist takeover, in my view, is the most important role of the LGBT movement. If they ever gain total control, LGBT people will lose everything. Many of these individuals have no respect for our love or our lives.

While such a hostile takeover is unlikely, (particularly with more supportive Christian youth) we must remain vigilant and continuously monitor America’ religious extremists to ensure their frightening vision of America never comes to fruition. As I drove out of town on Jerry Falwell Parkway, I hoped progressives would be the ones who had the “awakening”. If the people at this conference had their way, all of America would be forced to drive on an interstate highway named after the late founder of The Moral Majority.