In 1999, some Christian conservatives were so demoralized at having failed to remove Bill Clinton from office that they were ready to drop out of politics. Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich went so far as to declare that Christian conservatives had lost the culture war and should withdraw from secular society.
But defeatism seemed barely a distant memory at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale one blustery Friday morning last month at the opening of the Rev. D. James Kennedy's national Reclaiming America for Christ conference. In a ceremony that subtly blended religious and patriotic rhetoric, six young men clad in dark-green military uniforms, carrying flags and faux carbines, marched reverentially up the center aisle of a sanctuary decked out in red, white, and blue bunting. Two theater-size video screens flashed a recurring montage of a rural, steepled church, the Statue of Liberty, and the U.S. Capitol. The roughly 500 men and women rose to their feet from the pews and pledged allegiance to the American flag and then to the Christian flag. A robust-voiced woman belted out the national anthem, and the recorded strains of God Bless America wafted in the air as the color guard marched out.
The restless crowd of mostly white, would-be activists rustled excitedly in the church's wooden pews in anticipation of seeing some of the stars of the Christian right.
Supporters of the movement have never seemed more hopeful of realizing its goal, which is nothing short of establishing a Christian theocracy in the nation's courts, schools, state legislatures, Congress, and the White House. For them, as 2003 nears an end, victory appears oh so nigh.
"If you listen, you can hear the rustlings of the long-slumbering giant called the people of God," proclaimed one speaker brimming with the spirit.
Coral Ridge Presbyterian, an imposing rectangular building with a modernistic 300-foot steeple looming over Federal Highway, has become the epicenter for the Christian right's most ardent generals and foot soldiers, thanks mainly to the coalition's steadfast leader. For 30 years, the 73-year-old Kennedy has been broadcasting The Coral Ridge Hour on Sunday mornings (with a combined listening and viewing audience of about 3.5 million) in front of his 9,000-member congregation. They're engaged in a "cultural war," they say, but their campaign is far broader than that. For the faithful, America was founded as a Christian nation, so their fundamentalist brand of that religion must be the mortar that binds the U.S. Constitution.
Powerful forces are at work here. Kennedy talks fervently about going beyond the destruction of the Berlin Wall to battering down "the even more diabolical 'wall of separation' that has led to increasing secularization, godlessness, immorality, and corruption in our country."
American government must operate through the tenets of fundamental Christianity, loyalists to the cause insist. The core value system seems to break down something like this: George Bush, good; Democrats and gays, bad. Prayer in school and at government functions, good; Roe v. Wade, bad. Living by the principles of Christianity, good; going for the jugular in a political campaign, also good.
Kennedy has been at the helm of this Christian army since 1994, when the first Reclaiming America conference featured Vice President Dan Quayle. A year later, Kennedy opened the Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington, D.C., and in 1996 founded the Center for Reclaiming America in Fort Lauderdale.
Judging by the rhetoric flying around his church recently, Christian Utopia shapes up as a Taliban-like society in which gays and lesbians are driven underground or even forced into "treatment" for their "illness" by commandment-spouting judges; capital punishment is routine and speedy (some hardliners even take the position that, not to worry, God will sort out possible innocents from the guilty in the hereafter); pregnant women have little autonomy over their own bodies -- and Scripture, brothers and sisters, is the immutable authority on everything from zoning laws to foreign policy.
"The amazing thing about Kennedy is that he teaches a theology of hate and fear," contends Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "He's one of the premier gay bashers on the Christian right today. His theology, when taken to the extreme, divides families. He would like to see his version of Christianity favored by the government and be the basis on which the law is built.
"The problem with our side, the progressives, is that we've gotten lazy. We're used to letting these crazy ideas get passed and then letting them go to court and get struck down. In five or six years, if things keep going the way that they are, we're not going to have that trump card anymore. People need to understand that this is serious."