The FundamentaList (No. 23)

1. The Pervasiveness of Conservative Religion in American Politics

Last month, I published a book about the history of the prosperity gospel, its rise through televangelism, and the televangelists' cozy relationship with politicians, particularly with the Republican Party. But as I make the rounds on radio programs to promote the book, I'm repeatedly asked this question: Is the religious right's influence on the wane?

Sigh. And, uh, about that book I wrote? Ho-hum, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and all that. Don't we already know televangelists are crooks?

Well, if that's so evident, why are there more televangelists -- and money -- around now than in Bakker's and Swaggart's heydays? (Not to mention the question of how both Bakker and Swaggart have made comebacks, albeit to smaller but devoted audiences.)

The answer lies in the pervasiveness of a conservative, fundamentalist, anti-government, anti-enlightenment, anti-secular streak that runs straight through our country -- and not just through the Bible Belt. It stands by as religion is corrupted by money, as the televangelists have exploited their tax exempt status, political connections, and standing as "men of God" for maximum profit. Yet, even those who won't defend the prosperity gospel will defend the evangelists from supposed government intrusion into church affairs -- which is why real change in the tax law isn't coming down the pike anytime soon.

2. Televangelist Spotlight: Benny Hinn

This week Sen. Charles Grassley's office received a package of financial information from televangelist Benny Hinn, one of the six targeted by the senator's probe. "Sen. Grassley and his staff will evaluate whether the material responds sufficiently," said his spokesperson, "but are encouraged by the demonstration of cooperation." Huckabee pal Kenneth Copeland's response "is far short of answering the questions, a point that Sen. Grassley's staff has conveyed to the Copelands' representatives. Sen. Grassley's investigators continue to keep open the lines of communication with the ministry, while also considering additional steps in the congressional review."

Three televangelists -- Paula White, Creflo Dollar, and Eddie Long -- have not responded at all to the inquiry.

Hinn has managed to survive exposés of his antics at his "miracle crusades" and other events by deflecting fact-based reporting as the sins of the secular media. In response to a 2002 NBC Dateline investigation that questioned the flow of money from donors at Hinn's "crusades" to Hinn's personal use, Hinn told his followers that "the secular media will never deal fairly with the cause of our precious Master, Jesus," and the money keeps flowing not just from the U.S., but from around the world.

Hinn has just returned from a trip to Australia $800,000 richer, according to Courier Mail. Brisbane "was a goldmine for the flamboyant televangelist who left with cash, cheques and the bank account and credit card details of more than 50,000 Australians fans. Some attendees, who traveled from as far away as Hong Kong and Perth, handed over gold earrings and wedding rings instead of cash."

3. "A Time of Schism in the Religious Right."

That's a headline from the Boston Globe. Here's the lede:

A holy war is about to break out inside the Christian Right, and the way it is resolved may change the character of American politics. ... On one side are crusaders who believe that opposition to gay rights and abortion still provides the path to the political promised land. On the other are equally ardent warriors who have wearied of the relentless drumbeat against homosexuals, abortion providers and feminists and believe that economic issues provide the movement with its brightest future. In short, this battle comes down to a small question with big implications: Should hardliners soft-pedal their own message?

See if you can guess who is being discussed in this paragraph:

Now ________ is trying to steer the movement away from its traditional issues. [He] argues that it "has limited its effectiveness by concentrating disproportionately on issues such as abortion and homosexuality."

I'll give you a hint: the article was written in 1993.

While you ponder that, consider this headline from the New York Times: "Demise of the Fundies:"

________ is finished. Oh, his campaign will continue right through to the convention . ... We have long expected him to wind up with a couple of hundred delegates, 10 percent of the convention, and they will be first in the hall in the morning, festooned with hats and signs, the object of much photographic attention. ... The Fundies peaked in Iowa, a state that has no status as a weathervane, and ________ 's strength has dribbled off ever since. The base is neither enlarging nor shrinking; it just sits there, becoming less threatening.

Talking about Mike Huckabee, right? No, Pat Robertson, as written off by none other than William Safire in the pre-Brooks/Kristol days of 1988. Safire predicted the fall of the religious right (well, in fairness, the movement never had a rise in Safire's view) because although Robertson's campaign sputtered out after winning the Iowa caucuses, he insisted on making a fool of himself by soldiering on through the primaries in order to make a point at the convention.

4. Where Does Huckabee Fit In?

Give me a brokered convention, says Huckabee. Not necessarily because he wants to be McCain's running mate, but to make a point that he has the political clout to run again in 2012, should McCain prove electorally or morbidly unlucky, or to set the stage for him to be... you got it, the next Pat Robertson.

Except, supposedly, without the "relentless drumbeat against homosexuals, abortion providers and feminists" that went away 15 years ago, right? After all, many of the evangelical leaders, like Randy Brinson, Joel Hunter, and Ron Sider, who are calling for a change in tone and tactics, have been extolling Huckabee's virtues, while he simultaneously cuddles with James Dobson and Grassley target Copeland, who has pledged holy war with Senate investigators. But don't worry, we're making progress in beating back the religious right!

Which brings me back to the Globe piece. The leader being discussed there was Ralph Reed, Robertson's successor at the helm of the Christian Coalition in the wake of all its trouble with the Federal Elections Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, and who later became an emissary in Jack Abramoff's crooked scheme to double-cross his old Christian right pals in order to bilk his Indian tribal clients. So you can see how much Reed did to get the religious right to back away from that nasty anti-gay, anti-abortion rhetoric.

5. What's Happened in Those 15 Years of Backpedaling?

The religious right has already gotten a lot of what it wanted -- reactionary, turn-back-the-clock judges on everything from abortion to gay rights to civil rights to separation of church and state, the so-called "partial birth abortion ban," and constitutional bans on gay marriage in 26 states. Now a lot of that conversation is being cloaked in new language -- but it's not any less divisive. Abortion is being portrayed as a "black genocide" and therefore a "civil rights" issue. In blue-as-can-be Montgomery County, Maryland, a group innocuously called Citizens for Responsible Government is trying to overturn a county law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination because they claim it could require innocents to take a shower with a transgendered person. In California, a similar group persuaded the state Republican Party to seek to overturn an anti-discrimination law they claimed constitutes "homosexual indoctrination."

What about those old tactics? In Florida, an anti-gay group has succeeded in getting a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot in November, and similar efforts are underway in Pennsylvania and Arizona. (All three states have statutes banning gay marriage, but these efforts aim to make the discrimination a constitutional, rather than just a statutory, mandate.)

The official position of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) on homosexuality remains anti-gay and based on the Bible, not science:

The NAE believes that God created us male and female. Furthermore, the biblical record shows that sexual union was established exclusively within the context of a male-female relationship ... Homosexual activity, like adulterous relationships, is clearly con¬demned in the Scriptures [citing 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, and I Corinthians 6:9-10] ... Individual Christians, ministers, and congregations should compassionately proclaim the Good News of forgiveness and encourage those involved in homo¬sexual practices to cease those practices, accept forgiveness, and pray for deliverance as nothing is impossible with God ... We further call upon pastors and theologians, along with medical and sociological specialists within the Christian community to expand research on the factors which give rise to homosexuality and to develop therapy, pastoral care and congregational support leading to complete restoration.

Am I missing something, or has there been a vast evangelical outcry condemning this position in favor of a position rooted in science, not harmful fantasies that LGBT people can be "cured" of their "sin?" If there's a concerted effort to change the NAE position, I'd love to hear about it.

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