Fear, persecution and self-defense dominated the message this week as hundreds of evangelicals gathered in Colorado Springs for a national conference on Christian political strategy.
The four-day event, called “Breaking the Silence,” was organized to prompt activists to stand up, speak out and defy the godlessness they said reigns in the U.S.
The conference’s program said it all. It featured a photo of a stubble-faced white guy with duct tape over his mouth. As organizers see it, he symbolizes the modern-day follower of Jesus: muted, martyred and oppressed.
The image is a powerful – if not fully accurate – rhetorical flourish from a religious community that has built a century-old, multibillion-dollar media empire replete with television networks, movie studios, multimedia production companies and publishing houses. And that’s just the entertainment side of things.
On Tuesday, Mark Cowart, pastor of the Springs-based Church For All Nations, where the conference took place, stood before about two hundred attendees and tried to harness their sense of persecution into political action.
“We’re not victims. We’re victors,” went his battle cry.
At least, that’s the plan.
Cowart and others aim to galvanize the Christian right against what they see as government tyranny, the power of Satan, and the spirit of the Antichrist in seats of power and influence throughout the U.S. That evil has run deep since 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated, said traveling preacher Alex McFarland. As he sees it, the country has been plummeting toward hell ever since.
Who, exactly, is responsible for our collective downward spiral? The spotlight this week was on “squeaky wheel” gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender activists who are apparently kissing in the sanctuary, schtupping in church restrooms and hoodwinking activist judges in court. Also, atheists, Muslims, abortionists, big government and the news share the blame for what the silence breakers see as a conspiracy to muzzle them.
At the conference, A-list evangelical speakers outlined lots of ways Christians can set out to heal the country: Hang out with elected officials, run for office, volunteer, vote, befriend homosexuals and lure them away from sin through love and kindness, pray for the country’s leaders (even for President Barack Obama, butt of several jokes about the coming of the Antichrist), support Israel, flaunt the wonders of heterosexual marriage on Facebook, wage legal battles for “religious freedom” in court and build up armed security teams at churches to combat anti-Christian terrorists.
While the specter of last month’s Charleston church shooting fueled the crowd’s anxiety this week, the issues of white supremacy and white anger hardly came up.
Instead, the silence breakers are focusing their ire on the IRS for allegedly targeting pastors who preach about electoral politics at church. Never mind the agency isn’t actually targeting those preachers.
Other items on the agenda include continuing the push to ban abortion – a practice they equate to the Nazi Holocaust – and committing to “disciple” the nation, silence-breaker speak for spreading not only faith in the Bible but political conservatism, too.
“There is an army of God rising up,” Cowart said Monday to a chorus of amens from the crowd.
As this week’s speakers made abundantly clear, that army is staunchly heterosexual, proudly politically incorrect, devout to Fox News and ready to war with big-government, Muslims, atheists, homosexuals, Ivy League intellectuals and anyone else who doubts the fundamentalist vision of the Bible.
For this group of evangelicals, patriotism and religion are inseparable. They want to save the nation by saving Christianity by saving the family by stopping “sodomites” and encouraging family dinners, active fathers and more unplugged time shared between children and married moms and dads – just two of them, of course (and, for goodness sake, they’d better dang well be opposite-sexed).
Rallying behind what the conference’s speakers refer to as “religious freedoms” is at the top of their to-do lists. The crowd here expressed grave concern about the bakers and florists and photographers who, living out “Bible-based” principles, discriminate against same-sex couples by refusing to provide services for their weddings.
As speaker after speaker told it, the church is especially threatened by the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court marriage ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.
In a speech Monday, longtime Colorado-based attorney and GOP politico Mike Norton described Obergefell as “the beginning of the end of this nation.” Norton represents and organizes for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal support group founded in the early 1990s to combat what he called the American Civil Liberties Union’s attacks on religious freedom.
Norton and his colleagues (some of whom, he said, consider the five liberals on the Supreme Court to be communists) have been instrumental in organizing Freedom Pulpit Sunday, a day in October when pastors around the country preach about politics. ADF videotapes Freedom Pulpit Sunday sermons and sends them to the IRS in hopes of sparking a legal case that can test out the legality of Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law proposed by then Sen. Lyndon Johnson that blocks nonprofit organizations from political advocacy on specific bills and candidates.
As Norton told it, the law is an affront to the First Amendment and blocks preachers who want to talk about abortion, homosexuality and other “great and controversial issues of our time.” He also said that the law has never been challenged.
So far, fishing for trouble hasn’t worked as a political strategy. Despite all the talk of Uncle Sam persecuting preachers, the IRS has been leaving them alone, Norton said. The ADF, which is hankering a court fight to challenge the Johnson Amendment, can’t seem to drum one up.
Norton, a skilled litigator and calculating strategist in the religious freedom movement, talked about a future filled with more than just legal victories. He said he hopes this week’s conference will help “light a flame of revival throughout this great nation.”
Speakers at “Breaking the Silence” have a long and rich history of evangelical Christian political rhetoric to draw from.
Norton cited 18th Century preacher Jonathan Edwards as an inspiration, and became teary eyed quoting the personal dictates the revivalist minister lived by: “Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.”
During a speech Monday, McFarland evoked the memory of populist Presbyterian politician William Jennings Bryan who fought evolution and Darwinism during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
The silence breakers imagine a not-so-distant future in which ministers will be threatened with jail time if they refuse to officiate weddings for same-sex couples – never mind that nothing in current law suggests that would be the case. They fear believers will be killed in ISIS-like attacks by secular and Muslim terrorists.
Several speakers noted how Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” that the United States was a Christian nation. That letter means a lot to members of this movement, many of whom see themselves as civil rights activists and fear that they, like King, they will be imprisoned for their beliefs.
But unlike MLK, the Silence Breakers are organizing church deacons, pastors and parking attendants to take up arms in churches to be prepared to fight off violent terrorists agitated by congregations’ anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-Islam politics.
There are some objections from within the evangelical ranks to the militarization of the church, said Vaughn Baker, a former police officer turned church security strategist, on Tuesday. Some worry armed security compromises the core mission of the church. They don’t want to stand in the way of martyrdom, which helps build new recruits. Besides, some argue, the faithful should be pacifists like Jesus.
Baker doesn’t buy that argument.
“I don’t think Jesus was a pacifist,” said Baker to a flurry of amens. “Let’s wait and see when he comes back if he’s a pacifist. Because he won’t be.”
Photo credit: Breaking the Silence program