1. The Elitism Wars.
While the storm of righteous indignation over Barack Obama's supposed elitism continues to engulf the presidential campaign in silly recriminations about who's the snob and who's the real American, the religious right is experiencing its own internal civil war over authenticity, on a number of fronts.
First up, a forthcoming "Evangelical Manifesto," which is under wraps until May 7 but was discussed publicly by Warren Smith, the editor of the Christian site The Charlotte World and a frequent contributor to Marvin Olasky's World magazine. Smith likes divulging secrets -- he penned the piece for the World describing how John McCain's March appearance at the closed-door Council for National Policy fell flat with religious right activists. He is also the spokesperson for Ministry Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group critical of the televangelists under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee.
Smith maintains that some top-tier names in the evangelical world are drafting a new manifesto calling for reform of the evangelical movement, but that big names in the religious right political leadership are being excluded from the drafting and signature collection process. I couldn't get anyone to talk to me on the record about Smith's piece or the manifesto, but one knowledgeable participant insisted that his piece was "inaccurate", and that the manifesto represents "an inclusive movement, not a club." Given that the people Smith claims have been excluded are major conservative political players, if he is right that they are not invited, perhaps it's their politicizing of religion that is causing the rift with their fellow evangelicals.
Smith suggests that the process represents a struggle over who's going to emerge as the evangelical power elite:
This unfortunate and unseemly power struggle should not be ignored in evaluating this "Manifesto." The list of people who have not been asked to sign it, or who have chosen not to, is as revealing as the list of those who have, or will. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins both told me they had not seen the "Manifesto." Tom Minnery, executive vice president of Focus on the Family and the organization's "point person" on public policy issues said neither he nor James Dobson has been asked to sign or give input. Other conservative evangelical leaders who often speak out on political issues have been kept out of the process. That list includes Rick Scarborough of Vision America, former White House speechwriter and Beverly LaHaye Senior Fellow Janice Crouse. Also shunned, at least so far: the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, Ohio-based Phil Burress of Citizens For Community Values, Faith2Action's Janet Folger, home school guru Michael Farris, and Concerned Women For America President Wendy Wright.
In other words, the list of names Smith claims were excluded represents the generals who issue the orders to the foot soldiers in the religious right's politicized culture war.
2. Second Front: Huckabee Against the Religious Right Establishment?
Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee (who was supported by many of the people Smith says were excluded from the drafting of the manifesto, although snubbed by some of the others) complained last week in a conference call with 6,000 supporters that his presidential campaign was stymied by the failure of the religious right leadership to back him early.
He certainly was not issuing any recriminations to the conference call's host, Stephen Strang, the founder and president of Strang Communications, which publishes a number of popular evangelical magazines, including the mainline evangelical New Man and the charismatic Charisma, both of which endorsed Huckabee last summer. You don't have to be Pentecostal to love reading Charisma, Huckabee chimed in during the call. Huckabee must know: Pentecostals and charismatics are the fastest growing religious group in the country and the world. Put your finger on their pulse, and you'll feel the heartbeat of the fastest growing part of the evangelical grassroots.
Huckabee asserted that his campaign was driven by people like himself, motivated by anxiety that they "were losing the country to almost a ruling class." (But he's not bitter, mind you.) His campaign's supporters were people who "felt invisible" to that ruling class, which Huckabee charged is "completely unaware" of the struggles, hopes, and aspirations of ordinary Americans. (Does "ruling class" mean the Republican Party? Wall Street? James Dobson? Not clear.) Huckabee accused the religious right leadership, many of whom told him they were waiting until he got some "traction" before jumping in and endorsing his presidential bid, of "worship[ing] at the altar of electability."
Enter HuckPAC, the political action committee Huckabee announced yesterday, which will raise money for Republican candidates. We'll see how much a candidate who struggled to raise money for his own campaign can help other candidates -- and whether he really is the David against the GOP Goliath.
3. Third Front: Pentecostals Under Siege?
Meanwhile, Huckabee pal (and fundraiser) Kenneth Copeland has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate him. Yes, you read that correctly, he's asking for an IRS investigation because that mean old Baptist Chuck Grassley might divulge Copeland's church secrets to the entire world, whereas the IRS would be legally bound to keep any investigation secret. A Copeland ministries press release charged that Grassley is targeting beleaguered Pentecostals, with the suggestion that Grassley no longer understands his party's evangelical base:
Noted historian and Dean Emeritus of the School of Divinity at Regent University, Dr. Vinson Synan, believes the fact that Senator Grassley is only targeting those Pentecostal churches who preach the "Word of Faith" message and not any other churches, raises significant concerns. "It appears the inquiry is aimed at publicly questioning the religious beliefs of the targeted churches, their ministers, and their members while ignoring televangelists of other denominations. This violates the fundamental tenet of the First Amendment that the government should not single out any religion because of its beliefs. It also raises the question of religious bias against the Pentecostals and Charismatics who now number almost 70,000,000 Americans according to a recent Pew Survey."
Also defending Copeland is Doug Wead, the former Bush family advisor who directed religious outreach for both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns as well as his father's. Wead flew to Texas last week to tape five segments of Copeland's television program, which were supposed to air this week but were postponed. In an e-mail to me, Wead, a Pentecostal himself, lambasted the Grassley investigation on similar grounds, writing that he was "especially irritated when one religious group uses power to hurt another group," and recalling that "Baptists used to attack us when I was a Pentecostal kid growing up, publishing books saying we were all going to hell and demon possessed."
But as I reported in greater detail in my book, God's Profits, Wead has a long history and friendship with Copeland and other scandal-plagued televangelists, coming to the defense of Jim Bakker in the 1980s, Robert Tilton in the 1990s, and Benny Hinn in the 2000s. When Bush was contemplating his presidential run in 1998, Wead recommended to Karl Rove that Bush befriend Copeland, calling him "arguably one of the most important religious leaders in the nation."
So here's Wead, the ultimate insider, accusing a fellow Republican of trying to take down a televangelist because of religious bias against Pentecostals, when the Pentecostal in question has been invited into high level Republican circles for decades. The Grassley investigation is "a disaster for the GOP," Wead insisted in his e-mail to me last week,
because the Baptists and the Pentecostals are all the party has left of its evangelical base, and it can't risk losing the Pentecostals to the Democrats. It seems unlikely, but Wead tried to convince me.
"I think it was Napoleon who said, never interrupt an enemy who is in the process of defeating himself.' [Senate Finance Committee Chair Max] Baucus would be wise to let Grassley be the leader of this and let the Republicans divide over it."
4. It's Not the Pentecostalism, It's the Money.
Of course Grassley has repeatedly said his investigation is not about doctrine, it's about the televangelists' possible use of tax-exempt donor funds for personal luxuries. Wead laughed that off as well, telling me that Copeland's "'mansion' doesn't even have a swimming pool" and that they had to drive 20 minutes to the nearest restaurant -- an Applebees.
Judge for yourself -- watch this CBS News investigation and see the Copeland compound, including his 18,000 square foot home, owned by his church, at about the two minute mark:
5. Religious Freedom Under Siege at the Air Force Academy
After the Air Force Academy paid three speakers who claim to be ex-Muslim terrorists-turned-fundamentalist-Christians to speak against Islam in February, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which battles against the Christianization of the U.S. military, sought an event of its own.
Featuring MRFF's president, Mikey Weinstein, Ambassador Joe Wilson, and writer Reza Aslan, last week's event was designed, according to Weinstein, to show that "we are losing the war on terror" because of the type of Islamophobia presented at the February event. They were scheduled to show a segment from the forthcoming film Constantine's Sword, which showed Weinstein's exposure of aggressive proselytizing of fundamentalist Christianity in the military when Bill Donohue of the Catholic League protested. The film, based on former priest and writer James Carroll's book about the historical and religious roots of anti-Semitism, is deemed by Donohue -- like so many other things -- to be anti-Catholic.
"We wanted to show a segment dealing specifically with New Life Church and the Academy... there was nothing in [the segment] about Catholicism," Weinstein told me. But Academy officials "begged" Weinstein not to show the film after pressure from Donohue. The film, which was shown at film festivals last year, opens in New York next week.
Contact me at tapthefundamentalist AT gmail DOT com.