"Megachurch" Madness

History warns us that when large religious groups start imagining themselves to be oppressed by a pernicious and cunning minority, bad things can happen. So it was with a growing sourness in my stomach that I watched the luminaries of the Christian right take the stage at a Tennessee “megachurch” Sunday evening for “Justice Sunday II.”

The ostensible purpose of the gathering (which I watched via webcast) was to muster support for the Bush administration's judicial appointees -- especially but not exclusively Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. But as speaker after speaker hammered on the theme of oppression of Christians by a shadowy liberal establishment, it became clear that, like many of the sermons, books, and articles written by leaders of the Christian right, the real purpose of “Justice Sunday II” was to reinforce a sense of victimhood among the broadest possible swath of American Christians.

In the imaginary world painted by the leaders of “Justice Sunday II,” conservative Christian Republicans may control the White House, the Congress, and several seats on the Supreme Court, but they remain oppressed and victimized. Speakers invoked Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Susan B. Anthony, all in service of the meme that Christians in America are being silenced, persecuted, and prevented from practicing their religion.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who emceed the event, whipped up the crowd with bizarre and patently false claims like, “They've said that our children don't have a right to pray.”

And he introduced speakers who generally paid less attention to questions of judicial appointments than to messages designed to convince listeners that Christians are being repressed by powerful forces in society (read: liberals) against which they must begin to take action.

Taking the prize for the most shameless appropriation of imagery from past civil-rights struggles was Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who raged against “the left” that had forced Christians to “sit in the back of the bus” when it has come to governing the country.

“It's time we moved to the front of the bus and that we took command of the wheel!” he thundered. “That's what I want to see.”

One segment of Donohue's Coughlin-esque rant is worth quoting at length, because it captures the paranoiac anger at a group of vaguely defined “others” that infected many of the evening's speakers.

Continuing with the bus metaphor, Donohue said: “I'm tired of being told that somehow if you have a religious-formed conscience, that somehow you're a second-class citizen. Leave the driving to these guys. We see what they've done. As far as I am concerned, if we are going to make some progress in this country, we have to discover what our roots are. We're not imposing any kind of strict construction idea that everybody has to go walk to church on Sunday. They make us out like we're the theocrats. All we are are decent people who simply say this: that religion is a focal point in our lives. Ninety-four percent of the American people believe in God. Eighty-five percent of this country is Christian. It's not a matter of shoving our ideas down somebody's throat. It's a matter of us saying we want to stand up and we want to be counted. And saying we're tired of being second-class citizens to these people and we are not going to take it any longer.”

Donohue's “these people” made an appearance in most of the speakers' presentations, sometimes as “activist judges,” other times as just plain liberals, but always in the role of persecutors of people of faith.

“Although they try to intimidate us, Christians are not second-class citizens who need to keep their thoughts to themselves,” said Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, sounding for all the world as though he actually believed that some powerful “they” had decreed such a thing. “We, like everyone else, have a right to speak in the public square,” he added, again sounding as though he believed that someone had made assertions to the contrary.

Former Georgia Senator Zell Miller exhorted the crowd with, “When they make it harder for us to pray, we just pray harder.”

Most of the speakers made a perfunctory claim that they were not advocating an attempt to force their particular Christian beliefs on the nation. But Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor to a conservative African American church in Bowie, Maryland, must have missed that memo, and it was hard not to take his remarks as reflective of the real agenda of “Justice Sunday II”'s organizers.

“I believe that what God is doing today is calling the black church to team with the white evangelical church and the Catholic Church and people of moral conscience, and in this season we need to begin to tell both [political] parties, ‘Listen, it's our way or the highway,'” he said, to loud applause.

“You and I can bring the rule and reign of the cross to America, and we can change America on our watch together,” he called out. “Do you believe it?”

By its roar of approval, it was clear the crowd did.

Rob Garver is a freelance journalist who lives in Springfield, Virginia.