1. Third Parties and the Fourth Estate
Would James Dobson or Tony Perkins have had as many Google News hits this week had the press not fallen for the story that the dynamic duo was ready to dump the GOP in favor of certain failure and irrelevancy? Out of the circus that ensued after the Salt Lake City meeting last week, they got a massive, free get-out-the-vote drive. If Perkins and Dobson can't get their message out through their e-mail lists, radio shows, newsletters, and church networks, they surely can shout their significance from the rooftops of CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. Their intended audience was their own constituents and the Republican Party as a whole: Take us seriously, or the White House will once again be occupied by a Clinton.
There's no better way to motivate this crowd than by threatening them with insignificance. But before that narrative veered out of their control and became conventional wisdom, Perkins quickly reined it in with an appearance on Face the Nation Sunday. The widely leaked pact to pursue a third-party candidacy, he said, was "a proclamation of principle" rather than a "declaration of intent."
Mission accomplished. When Perkins' and Dobson's followers show up in Washington next week for their Values Voter Summit straw poll, their marching orders are loud and clear to settle on a candidate who can win, and start piling on the cash.
2. Dobson's Big Tent
James Dobson may be the most public face of the religious right -- and surely with the deaths this year of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy and the fade-to-black trajectory of Pat Robertson's political career, he has been taking up more space and airtime on the Christian right stage. But while Focus on the Family is huge, well-funded, and well-connected, focusing on Dobson as the singular face of the religious right, as much of the press typically does, is a big mistake.
The movement's efforts to diversify itself -- carried out, in part, by Dobson himself -- have made the movement's leadership more diffuse and its following more diverse. When now-disgraced Pastor Ted Haggard was a regular confidant of the White House, he reached out to neo-Pentecostal and charismatic churches (Haggard himself grew up Pentecostal and attended Oral Roberts University), and Dobson brought charismatics like Bishop Harry Jackson and Pastor Rod Parsley -- both of whom also have large African-American followings -- into the Arlington Group, the coalition of influential religious right leaders.
Dobson may be trying to leave a legacy, and it's a smart strategic move to bring in charismatics and neo-Pentecostals -- they comprise the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the United States and the world. Young conservative charismatics are being exposed to events like Teen Mania, which feature Christian rock bands, rather than just a dour old man who advocates spanking.
3. Big Scandal Alleged at Oral Roberts University
The epicenter of the neo-Pentecostal world was rocked by a lawsuit last week, in which three former professors at Oral Roberts University (ORU) allege that they were terminated for bringing financial and political improprieties by the Roberts family to light.
The suit charges that the family of Richard Roberts (son of televangelist Oral and now ORU president) has diverted university and ministry money for its own use -- including a private jet used for luxury vacations, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of clothing for Roberts' wife Lindsay, luxury cars, meals prepared by a personal chef. The professors also allege that Richard Roberts used university employees to run his personal errands and do his daughters' homework, and that Lindsay Roberts used cell phones provided to her at university expense to send hundreds of dollars worth of text messages to underage males late at night. According to ORU's tax returns, the couple together earned nearly $700,000 annually in compensation and benefits from their positions with ORU, the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, and its related company, Traco Advertising.
Roberts, heir to his father's university and fortune, told ORU students that the suit is about money and a promised that he is "not intimidated by blackmail and extortion."
Sure it's about money. Oral Roberts was the mastermind of seed-faith theology, through which televangelists plead to their followers to "sow a seed" (i.e., give money to the televangelist) in order to "reap a harvest" (i.e., get a "supernatural return"). It's a fundraising method, used by televangelists Rod Parsley and John Hagee, among many others, which has become a fixture in thousands of charismatic and neo-Pentecostal churches. (God's Profits is about this phenomenon and its relationship with GOP politics.)
There is a political component to the suit as well. One of the plaintiffs, a professor in the ORU's government department, developed a pilot program with the Republican National Committee for using students at Christian universities to work on campaigns for Republican candidates. The suit alleges that Roberts forced the professor, Tim Brooker, to use university funds to enact a similar program on behalf of Roberts' favored Republican candidate in a Tulsa mayoral race.
The plaintiffs' lawyer, Gary Richardson, maintained that the use of university funds to run the Tulsa campaign ran afoul of ORU's tax-exempt status, but that the use of ORU students in the RNC program was legal. The RNC-run program recruited student volunteers from Brooker's Christian Faith and Government class and took them to Colorado for a week to canvass for Republican Bob Beauprez during his 2002 Congressional campaign. Brooker told the ORU alumni magazine in 2003 that "the political director and volunteer director for the RNC extended this opportunity to our students because they felt they could be trusted with this important work, and because our state does not have a hotly contested congressional race that requires a large number of volunteers." The students, the magazine reported, spent several hours with Colorado Governor Bill Owens and had a private policy briefing with Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO). (Beauprez defeated his Democratic opponent by 121 votes.)
With regard to the alleged financial improprieties, Richardson told me that since he filed the lawsuit, "I've never seen such activity in my whole career of people calling and saying they have information. ... It's unbelievable."
4. Does Shalom Mean Peace to Christian Zionists?
Billye Brim, a regional director for Hagee's Christians United for Israel (CUFI), writes in this month's issue of Charisma magazine that Christians are obligated to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. She translates the Hebrew word "shalom" to mean "the peace that comes from being whole," and interprets it to require Jerusalem to be the "undivided" capital of Israel.
Brim's fellow CUFI Regional Director Robert Stearns held his annual Day to Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem this past Sunday at the city's Haas Promenade. Stearns claimed that thirty to forty million Christians around the world were participating in the Day of Prayer in their churches and more were watching on television. Typical of Christian Zionist events, the Day of Prayer celebrated Christians acting as modern-day Esthers saving the Jews from destruction, especially from the "ghost of Hitler [which] expresses itself through Ahmadinejad."
While a handful of Jews defied rabbinical orders to stay away from missionary events, participants were mostly charismatic Christians motivated by biblical prophecy. Among them was Apostle Chuck Pierce, who gave what Stearns called a "prophetic exhortation." In language that is typical of what's known as the New Apostolic Reformation movement -- an offshoot of neo-Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement through which preachers have proclaimed themselves to be apostles or prophets -- Pierce predicted, "We are actually releasing into the atmosphere here an anointing that will cause every plan of the enemy this year to be defeated over us."
5. Promise Keepers 2.0
I wandered down to the National Mall on Saturday, curious to see how the next phase of the Promise Keepers movement was faring. Ten years ago, Promise Keepers boasted that a million men descended on the Mall for its Stand in the Gap Conference. For the 10th anniversary, another group took over the organizing, and there was a much smaller turnout.
Men there told me that with the Promise Keepers organization focusing more on local events, poor turnout for a national event might be expected. But Promise Keepers and its progeny were important, one told me, because they gave men opportunities to get together and talk about "real stuff" and not just about sports.
As the speaker on the stage posthumously inducted Jerry Falwell into the Stand in the Gap Hall of Honor, another participant cheerfully explained to me how the Bible commands men to be the leaders of their families, but that they shouldn't dominate their wives. He resorted to a sports analogy to further explain his leadership relationship to his wife. The quarterback calls all the plays, he said, but isn't necessarily the MVP.
There is even a uniform for the team: I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that read "Property of Jesus."
Next week: John Hagee's big weekend with Rod Parsley and T.D. Jakes, and a new effort to marry progressives and evangelicals.