America's religious right: God's own country

They hate gays and abortion, and love George W Bush. They worship in churches the size of shopping malls, and dominate the nation's - and the world's - political agenda. But is the Christian backlash finally starting against America's religious right? By Robert Lanham
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The Independent US

When I met Ted Haggard in his New Life Church office last autumn, he was on his way to Denver, Colorado. He often caught flights out of the city, which was a short drive from his home in Colorado Springs, the mountainside town commonly referred to as the "evangelical Vatican", given its enormous born-again community and its abundance of "Welcome to Bush country" bumper stickers.

While I drank a Starbucks cappuccino I'd purchased in the food court of his 14,000-member megachurch, we discussed his friendship with George Bush, his belief that pro-business capitalism was "scriptural", and his best-selling book, The Jerusalem Diet: The "One Day" Approach to Reach Your Ideal Weight - and Stay There.

His ongoing methamphetamine-fuelled affair with a gay prostitute who lived in Denver wasn't mentioned that day, but Haggard did cite his belief that "the homosexual agenda" was a devastating "sin" that was dangerous to the future of America.

Before his fall from grace, Haggard was the poster child of America's religious right, a nationalistic stepchild of Protestantism that is staunchly conservative, xenophobic, politically active, predominately Caucasian and, like Haggard, curiously preoccupied with gay culture.

I found Haggard's obsession with abortion and same-sex marriage - and the religious right's for that matter - quite odd. Especially given the enormous, sword-toting, homoerotic angel statue I'd seen in Pastor Ted's church lobby.

The day I met Haggard, he stated unequivocally that he was "a right-wing religious conservative" whose "only disagreement" with George Bush concerned "what type of truck to drive". The pastor spoke with the President weekly to discuss policy.

Given that 79 per cent of the 26.5m evangelicals voted to re-elect Bush, much of the evangelical community apparently shares Haggard's sentiments. And like Haggard, most have also placed abortion and gay marriage at the top of their list as issues about which Christians should be most concerned.

Despite a rapid-fire onslaught of scandals that has blown away the careers of several of the religious right's darlings - Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed and Mark Foley come to mind - the "values voters'" loyalty to the Republican, pro-business, pro-family platform to which Haggard subscribed has scarcely been shaken. Exit polls indicated 70 per cent of all white evangelicals voted for Republican Congressional candidates in America's recent midterm elections, a decline of a mere 2 per cent from 2004. The Congressional balance has tipped to the left, but most evangelicals appear to be as conservative as ever.

To say the United States is a religious country is an understatement. According to polls, an estimated 47 per cent of American adults claim to be "born-again" or evangelical. Fifty-nine per cent believe that the Apocalypse prophesied in the book of Revelations (omega) will come true. There's a $25m (£12.7m) Christian museum being built in Kentucky, which will teach children that their ancestors played with dinosaurs in the days of Noah. An exhibit in this soon-to-open Creation Museum will feature a life-sized triceratops fitted with a riding saddle.

But the reach of the religious right extends well beyond the Wal-Mart-sized megachurches speckling the heartland. Much of the political leadership on Capitol Hill claim to be evangelical as well. George W Bush, after all, reportedly became born-again after being meeting Arthur Blessitt, a travelling preacher who carried a 12ft cross across the United States. In 2004, 42 Senators received perfect scores from the Christian Coalition, meaning they voted the way the religious right wanted them to 100 per cent of the time. There's even an evangelical college on the outskirts of Washington - Patrick Henry College, the so-called "Harvard for Homeschoolers" - that has been securing high-level staff jobs in Congress and the White House for its graduates. Students at Patrick Henry are all obliged to sign a statement of faith that claims non-Christians will be "confined in conscious torment for eternity".

Still, worry as secularists may, the US hasn't become more religious. According to most reports, church membership has actually remained constant for the last several decades. The change that has taken place among evangelicals is their dramatic shift to the right politically, with church attendance being the number-one indicator of party alliance in the US. According to a Gallup Poll, people who attend church at least once a week are nearly guaranteed to vote Republican.

Clearly the Haggard scandal was the perfect opportunity for evangelicals to abandon partisanship and reposition their focus away from sexual issues. Their opportunity to embrace a broader social agenda that included moral issues such as poverty, Aids, and the environment. Some already have.

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren has long been up to the challenge. A vocal advocate of broadening the religious right's social agenda and breaking out of the pro-family shell, Warren's been conducting HIV tests at his church to encourage evangelicals to get involved with the global Aids pandemic. Frustratingly, instead of following his lead, many conservative evangelicals criticised the pastor earlier this month for inviting Democratic Senator Barack Obama to address the pandemic at his church, since Obama is pro-choice.

At the same time, North Carolina's Baptist State Convention has stayed the pro-family course by continuing to obsess over homosexuality. It has passed stringent new guidelines in regard to homosexuality that stop just shy of ousting pastors who've ever listened to an Elton John song.

Most tellingly, a few days after the Haggard scandal broke it was announced that the disgraced pastor was to undergo an intensive anti-gay "restoration" programme, overseen in part by HB London, a representative from the pro-family ministry Focus on the Family. London's credentials include having written the book Love Wins Out, which teaches that homosexuality is a sickness that can be cured. (Incidentally, the founding director of Focus on the Family's own "ex-gay" programme, John Paulk, was the subject of another scandal several years ago when he was spotted in a gay nightclub.)

Those who try to remedy the religious right's pro-family tunnel vision, like Warren, are often met with staunch resistance from its established leaders. The president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, Joel Hunter, stepped down this month, citing his frustration at the group's refusal to adopt a broader social agenda. In his letter of resignation he wrote "I wanted to expand the issues from only moral ones - such as opposing abortion and redefining marriage - to include compassion issues, such as poverty, justice and creation care."

Hunter told the New York Times that the leadership at the Christian Coalition told him that getting proactive about global warming, poverty, and Aids "just isn't for us" because "it won't speak to our base".

Evidently, the Jesus who the religious right prays to is more concerned with boycotting Hollywood for releasing Brokeback Mountain than with feeding the hungry or global warming.

This dramatic shift to the right among evangelicals in America formally began in the late 1970s when fundamentalist Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell founded the Christian political action committee The Moral Majority, to mobilise Christians away from Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed evangelical president who many Christians loathed given his comparatively liberal stance on "values" issues such as abortion and women's rights.

With his iconic rally cry "get 'em saved, get 'em baptised, get 'em registered," Falwell's Moral Majority emerged on the political scene and began recruiting tens of millions of conservative voters from the nation's churches, a trend that continues today.

At the time, Falwell's decision to politically mobilise the church was a bold one. Many evangelicals believed that politics should be the domain of politicians, not fire-and-brimstone pastors. However, Falwell found encouragement from key Republican insiders such as Paul Weyrich, the so-called father of the religious right. In addition to being a socially conservative Catholic, Weyrich was the founder of the Heritage Foundation, the think-tank that is credited for creating the blueprint for the pro-business, trickle-down tax ideology that has come to define the Republican Party.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first President to come to power with the help of what has come to be known as the religious right. And pro-business Republicans and the religious right have been dancing hand-in-hand ever since. Explaining this curious alliance, Mark Noll, the author of America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, claims that (omega) the politically conservative evangelical movement that began in the 1970s is an "American brand of Protestant Christianity". He's right. After all, Jesus didn't give too many sermons on trickle-down economics and, if he were to return today, he'd assuredly be more concerned with the war in Iraq than the "war on Christmas".

"The best public contribution of religion," writes Jim Wallis in his best-selling book God's Politics, "is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan."

The unofficial spokesperson for the evangelical left in America and head of the social justice organisation Sojourners/Call to Renewal, Wallis's message is that equating your faith with the pro-family movement, Bush's pre-emptive war policy, and the divisive goals of the religious right is dangerous to Christianity.

"How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American?" asks Wallis, noting that the Bible mentions helping the poor 3,000 times. Notably, there are precisely zero Bible passages about abortion, waterboarding, or a citizen's God-given right to own a semi-automatic weapon.

Wallis's message has begun to resonate with some progressive Christians who feel that their faith has been hijacked by the religious right and conservative evangelicals who are more obsessed with banning "demonic" Harry Potter books than social activism.

When George Bush, for instance, visited the Michigan-based Christian university Calvin College last year to deliver a speech, he expected to be met by a receptive crowd of the religious right. Instead, just prior to the speech, a professor at Calvin surprised many by publishing a letter in the local paper in protest at Bush's visit. Even more surprising, given the College's conservative evangelical credentials, the letter was signed by a third of Calvin's staff and over 100 members of its student body. "As Christians," the letter stated, "we believe [the Bush] administration has... launched an unjust and unjustified war... has taken actions that favour the wealthy... has fostered intolerance and divisiveness... [and] we believe your environmental policies have harmed creation."

On the day of Bush's commencement, approximately a quarter of the student body wore badges attached to their gowns that cited Wallis's signature phrase: "God is not a Republican or a Democrat."

Acknowledging the dissenting voice among evangelicals that Wallis has come to embody, John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says there is "an enormous amount of debate" among evangelicals about the narrow agenda of the religious right.

"People like Wallis who want a broader agenda," says Green, "believe that evangelicals can be influential on a lot of different social issues. Those who believe the agenda should stay narrow are afraid that getting involved in protecting the environment or helping the poor will dilute their strength on what they regard as the important issues: abortion and same-sex marriage."

Green says that it's too soon to know which side will prevail, but says: "The leaders who want a broader agenda have not yet moved a majority of the rank-and-file evangelicals to their side."

When Ted Haggard was outed by his own John in November, the illicit details of his decades-long dance with "devastating sin" were forced out of the closet. He quickly resigned his post as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a 30m-member coalition of evangelical churches. He was asked to step down as pastor of New Life Church.

The tell-all confessions provided by his former lover - Haggard apparently fantasised about gay orgies and allegedly took methamphetamine before having sex with his wife - were undoubtedly devastating to Haggard's wife and five children.

As icing on the cake, Haggard's muscle-bound lover, Mike Jones, even criticised Pastor Ted's skills in the bedroom on the Michelangelo Signorile radio show. "I can't say he was very good at it," said Jones.

The day the scandal broke, I decided to contact a New Life congregant I'd met while visiting Colorado Springs, a 30-year-old evangelical I'll call Anthony. I was curious to see how Anthony and the New Life congregation were responding to the fall-out. Anthony, who shared Haggard's pro-family politics and had even equated gay sex with bestiality, had previously confessed to me that he considered Haggard to be his spiritual mentor. Could Haggard's betrayal open the door for more acceptance of homosexuality at New Life, I wondered?

When I contacted Anthony, he told me Haggard's accuser was assuredly a phony. An opportunist who was simply playing politics. After all, many states were about to vote on whether to officially define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

As the facts began to unfold and Haggard confessed to being "a deceiver and a liar", I contacted Anthony again and quickly found a reply in my inbox.

Evidently, Haggard's confession and prompt resignation had forced Anthony to accept the hypocrisy of his spiritual guru. He opened his email to me by apologising for Haggard's actions. I felt this unnecessary; it was not Anthony who had lied.

"The reason why there was so much shame associated in this," his email went on, "is because it was a homosexual encounter."

What about Haggard's wife and children, I wanted to ask? What about the shamefulness of his hypocrisy? Still, I knew such questions were pointless. Like most evangelicals I'd met at New Life Church, Anthony's "pro-family" tunnel vision had caused him to lose perspective of the larger picture.

The 2008 presidential elections are still a long two years away, but the front-running candidates are already beginning to position themselves. Given the power of the religious right in America, that includes trying to appeal to white evangelicals.

Moderate Republican Senator John McCain has expressed interest in running. Even though McCain has traditionally been critical of the religious right (he referred to Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance" in 2000), he's begun to embrace some of their more controversial players. This year, McCain delivered the commencement speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and even hired the debating coach from this fundamentalist Christian university as an advisor.

The presumed Democratic presidential frontrunner, Senator Hillary Clinton, has been working to appeal to the religious right too. Recently, Clinton has been voicing support for Bush's faith-based initiatives and softening her language on abortion, which she recently called a "sad, even tragic choice to many, many women". Hillary is apparently ignoring Falwell's claim the only thing that would better "motivate conservative evangelical Christians to vote Republican" would be "a run by the devil himself".

The religious right's current candidate of choice is Republican Senator Sam Brownback, a Roman Catholic who is giving "prayerful consideration" to a bid in 2008. The loyally pro-family candidate for "foetal citizens", Brownback has called abortion the contemporary "holocaust". Brownback opposes gay marriage, assisted suicide, stem-cell research, and famously washed the feet of one of his aides, a symbolic reference to Christ. Most strikingly, Brownback is the co-sponsor of the proposed Constitution Restoration Act. This theocratic piece of legislation is an attempt to bar the federal courts from making rulings on cases that involve faith, such as prayer in school. The bill confirms "God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government."

So when Brownback shared a stage with Democrat Senator Barack Obama (who, like Brownback, had just confirmed his interest in potentially running for president in 2008) at Pastor Rick Warren's Aids conference earlier this month, Obama's attendance stirred controversy, but no one protested Brownback's invitation to speak at the event.

Brownback greeted Obama with a teasing, "Welcome to my house," acknowledging the Democratic party's perceived religion deficit.

"There is one thing I've got to say, Sam," retorted Obama. "This is my house, too. This is God's house."

Whether the evangelical community will come to agree with Obama, or any Democratic politician for that matter, is something only God can predict.

Robert Lanham is the author of 'The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right' and 'The Hipster Handbook', and is the founder of the blog

God squad: the religious right's key players

James Dobson, The Protestant Pope

The founder of the Colorado Springs-based ministry Focus on the Family - which receives so much mail it has its own postal code - Dobson is the US's most powerful evangelical leader. The ministry's pro-family videos, newsletters, books, and radio show reach more than 200m people daily. Tellingly, Dobson was privy to inside information on Bush's Supreme Court nominees weeks before most members of Congress. Not to be outdone by the Rev Jerry Falwell, who accused the Teletubby Tinky Winky of being gay, Dobson has publicly questioned the sexuality of SpongeBob Squarepants.

Tim LaHaye, The evangelical Stephen King

The Religious Right's patron saint of Armageddon paranoia. His best-selling books have sold 62m-plus copies and have popularised the concept of the "Rapture" - the belief that Christians will soon be whisked away into heaven while the non-Christians are all left behind. After the Rapture, LaHaye instructs, the antichrist will rule the earth and reside in a temple Saddam Hussein supposedly built in Iraq using an endowment given to him by a "sun worshipper". This co-founder of the Moral Majority also authored a sex manual that argues that Christian women are "more orgasmic".

Pat Robertson, The Tourettes-vangelist

This former presidential candidate is the host of the world's most-watched Christian show, The 700 Club. When he's not founding influential evangelical groups, Robertson calls for the assassination of world leaders, as he recently did for Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. His Christian charity, Operation Blessing, receives $14.4m annually in federal funding, under Bush's faith-based initiatives plan. Recently, Robertson was scrutinised for claiming that his patented "age-defying protein shake" enabled him to leg-press 2,000 pounds. Robertson's latest project - the construction of a Christian theme park in Israel - was placed on hold when he infuriated Israeli leaders by claiming that Ariel Sharon's stroke was "God's punishment".

Roy Moore, The Ten Commandments Judge

Alabama's so-called "Ten Commandments Judge" (below) caused a stir when he defied a court order to have the 5,000lb Ten Commandments monument removed from his courthouse. Protestors camped outside for days to protest the removal of "Roy's Rock". When Moore's fanclub finally left in defeat, "the limestone steps had to be pressure-washed" reports Atlantic Monthly, "to remove the smell of urine." Moore has become the unofficial spokesperson for Christian "Dominionism" in America; the belief that government should be based on biblical law.

John Hagee, The Zionist Goy

In his best-selling book Jerusalem Countdown, the Rev John Hagee argues for the necessity of a pre-emptive military strike on Iran to fulfil the biblical prophecies needed to bring about the Second Coming of Christ. A televangelist with an audience of millions, Hagee says Christians have a "biblical mandate" to protect Israel, insisting that the increased violence in the Jewish state is a sign that the Rapture is imminent. In 2006, Hagee founded the political lobby, Christians United for Israel, and has since enlisted many of America's top evangelical leaders as members.

Flocking in: the evangelical megachurches

Radiant Church Surprise, Arizona; members: 6,000

Radiant spends $16,000 annually on Krispy Kreme donuts. Pastor McFarland told the New York Times: ''We want the church to look like a mall, so you come in and say, 'Dude, where's the cinema?' "

Brentwood Baptist Church Houston, Texas; members: 12,000

Has its own McDonald's, complete with golden arches and a drive-thru.

Saddleback Church Lake Forest, California; members: 22,000

(below) Pastor Rick Warren wrote the best-selling non-fiction book in the US's history: The Purpose Driven Life. Bar codes are assigned to babies in the nursery to avoid losing them.

The Potter's House Dallas, Texas; members: 28,000

Led by the influential African-American pastor, TD Jakes, it has its own publishing house, daily talk show, a prison ministry that broadcasts to over 260 prisons, and a recording studio that has produced a Grammy-award-winning record.

Lakewood Church Houston, Texas; members: 30,000

The largest megachurch in the US (top). Joel Osteen's church meets in the former home of the Houston Rockets and has already outgrown the arena. Plans have been discussed to "franchise" the church in other cities.