United States of Jesus

What a difference four years makes.

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."

Indeed, the fundamentalist faithful are no longer political outsiders. Take Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a speaker at the Reclaiming America conference. In 2001, Bush appointed Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, of which he is now chairman. Land has the ear of Karl Rove, the president's closest adviser. In other words, he's essentially part of the administration.

"Here's how it's supposed to work," the 57-year-old Land says in explaining the Christian's role in government. "When people get saved and their lives turn around, they begin to have a different perspective.

"We then can, as citizens, go forth and say, we want pro-life congressmen, and we want pro-life senators, and we want pro-life presidents, and we want pro-life legislators." Many have been "bamboozled" by the liberal idea of separation of church and state and the notion that morality can't be legislated. "Nonsense," he says.

Gay Rights? Gay Wrongs

So what are the most pressing issues facing Americans today? The economy? An extended occupation in Iraq? A growing federal deficit? Health care?

None of the above, insofar as Kennedy's cohorts are concerned.

"We must teach Christians that they should vote for political candidates that follow the biblical positions on the political issues," says O'Neal Dozier, who founded the Worldwide Christian Center in 1985 in Pompano Beach. He instructs conference-goers: "The major political issues that you should teach the biblical positions on are abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, income tax of citizens, affirmative action, right to bear arms, and public school prayer."

Dozier's congregation is mostly Republican and mostly black -- an anomaly in Democrat-heavy Broward County. In 2001, Jeb Bush appointed him to the 17th Judicial Nominating Committee, which is the board that recommends lawyers for judicial seats in Broward County. A former linebacker with the Chicago Bears, Dozier received a law degree from John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Appearing much younger than his 54 years, he sports a dark blue suit as finely sculpted as his flattop coiffure.

Dozier freely mixes politics and religion in the pulpit.

"I do not teach people to become Republicans, even though I am a Republican," he says. "I do not teach people to become a Democrat. I teach them to know and understand the issues at large. And I know they're going to do the right thing in the voting booth. We want to be very, very careful as Christians not to 'cancel out our salvation' as we enter into the voting booth. Many Christians are doing that. They're praising God on Sundays, then on election Tuesdays, they are 'canceling out their salvation' because they are siding with the enemy, with the devil."

Dozier expounds on a few "issues at large." Homosexuality is clearly foremost in his mind. Quoting from the Old Testament book of Leviticus, he declares that it is "an abomination," which he defines as "something so nasty and disgusting that it makes God want to vomit."

"Why is it one of the paramount of sins?" he poses. "Well, it is a very bad kind of sin because it really hurts society in so many ways." God, however, found a way to punish the homosexuals through HIV-AIDS, he says. "It is a type of judgment for such a sin as this one, homosexuality."

Then there's the matter of the death penalty.

"Listen, God is 100 percent for capital punishment," Dozier pronounces slowly and emphatically. "Oh, yeah, God knew some were going to slip through, a few innocent ones. He knew that. But you cannot have a society without capital punishment." Murmurs of accord rise from Dozier's audience. "You're right," calls out one woman.

Dozier sees one sure way to ensure that these lofty ideals become the immutable law of the land: take over the world's economy. "We ought to be the ones in charge of economics on this Earth," he says. "Secondly, we as Christians must take control of the government. We should be the ones in charge of the government. Wouldn't you agree with that?" Everyone nods and mutters in agreement.

They could bring an end to abortions, special protections for homosexuals. "We should take control of every facet of society," he says.

"The best thing our president has done..." Dozier pauses and then waxes rapturous. "I love that man; I love President Bush. Thank God for President Bush!" The crowd claps wildly. Dozier talks about Bush's drive for faith-based initiatives that would provide federal tax dollars to church-run programs for the poor, elderly, and ill. "Do you know what it would mean for Christ if the church could have the money to take care of the poor?" he asks. "That means that the poor would come to the church and the poor would see Jesus as their God and not the government as their god."

Charlie Falugo, a salt-and-pepper-haired Miamian, says, "I don't know how to reach my black brothers and sisters who are Christian. I feel very sensitive about that, because it might seem that I'm pushing a party, and I'm not." How can he change the minds of blacks who are Christians, he asks, "but politically they keep putting the other... you know... in office?"

It starts with the pastors, Dozier quickly answers. "This is what I say to my congregation: 'If you are Christians, then you must adhere to the Bible.' I have in my church, many, many people who used to be..." -- the name of that other party is somehow never uttered -- "...lost, but now they have been found."

Those Democratic Devils

Many America "reclaimers" take great care not to employ partisan language. Still, the Reclaiming America conference is a Grand Old Party. This is a place where the terms Republican and conservative are all but synonymous.

Atlanta political activist Phil Kent is there flogging his book, The Dark Side of Liberalism, to anyone who will listen. "I've gotten Ken Starr, my friend, to endorse the book," Kent crows of the former Bill Clinton independent prosecutor who is also a friend of Kennedy's and a former conference speaker. "I've got ten chapters of public policy: courts, immigration, media, environment. The last chapter is where do we go from here, how we need to venerate our heroes, control of our borders, illegal immigration. I talk about Jesus being the ultimate hero."

He's also handing out fliers called "Defending a Christian General," referring to Jerry Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense, who came under fire for disparaging Islam. In one instance, Boykin told an audience that a Somalian warlord boasted that Allah would protect him from capture. "Well, my God is bigger than his god," Boykin said. "I knew my God was a real god and his was an idol." Kent's defense is thus: "This is true!" Concerns by "left-wingers, atheists, and candidate [Howard] Dean" that Boykin would inflame "our radical Islamic enemies" is a "joke," according to Kent.

Clinton certainly remains the ultimate bugaboo for many. Land can't resist going after him a few times from the pulpit. "National leadership that has character is a sign of God's blessing," he says. "The lack of that leadership is a sign of God's judgment. I firmly believe that William Jefferson Clinton was a judgment of God on the United States of America for our sin and our degradation."

Rank-and-file members freely declare their allegiance to the Republican Party and especially to George Bush.

With a little urging, John Hope shares his political opinions while waiting to be served his beef au jus during an evening banquet the first night of the conference. The 64-year-old Hope hails from the small town of Rockville, South Carolina, where he's a building contractor and chairman of the local zoning board. He's dressed casually in a polo shirt, and, in a formidable Southern accent, flirts a bit with the young women serving the table.

"He's come under a lot of flak -- mostly from the press, the liberals, the Clintonians, the Hillaryites," he says of George W. Bush. "But most people admire him. Christians, and even people who are agnostics, recognize that the world was ready for a Christian president who would practice his religion in office. I think we were blessed. I think it was by the grace of God that he is in office."

Whether he agrees or disagrees with, say, Bush's invasion of Iraq or his dismantling of environmental regulations is irrelevant, Hope says, because the president is a born-again Christian.

Hope comes from a religious tradition that didn't mix politics with the church. But his epiphany came in the late 1970s, when the Christian Coalition "infiltrated" local Republican rallies. "That was my wakeup call," he recalls. "It didn't take me long after that. Within a year or two, I was involved with the Christian Coalition, and I was hootin' and hollerin' and raisin' sand right along with 'em."

Hope has been emboldened by past conferences. When he became chairman of the zoning board, one of his first acts was to begin meetings with a prayer. There was silence, he said, but no objections. He's continued the practice since. His home church has a strong tradition of keeping religion and politics separate, but Hope continues urging his fellow parishioners to mix it up.

HWJV: How Would Jesus Vote?

Bowtied and dark-suited, Tygh Bailes is a dead ringer for a college-age George Will. His political views are also strikingly similar to those of the conservative pundit. The baby-faced Bailes, however, doesn't write about conservative politicos; he builds them. Bailes is a grassroots campaign consultant for the Leadership Institute, whose mission is to "identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in the public policy process." Before he joined the institute, he had worked on the campaigns of Oliver North and Virginia Republican U.S. Sen. George Allen.

Bailes presents conservative Christians a straight-up secular primer on "The Real Nature of Politics and Elections," or tips on handing your candidate the keys to the gates of elected office. Bailes recognizes that in front of him is the best promise for the Republican Party: conservatives driven to do God's work.

First of all, forget your Sir Galahad Theory of Politics, which holds that "I will win because my heart is pure." Remember Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement who was trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964? Well, it was his Galahadian campaign slogan that did him in: "In your heart you know I'm right."

Sixteen years later, supporters of Ronald Reagan, whose political beliefs differed little from Goldwater's, had concluded that "being right is not sufficient to win," Bailes says. "Political success is determined by the number and effectiveness of the activists on the given sides." Those who use their time, talent, and money most efficiently (including using a public relations veil to downplay a candidate's stands on such social issues as abortion and homosexuality) will win. It's an anomaly of the modern American electorate that winning most local races comes down to courting roughly 4 percent of the registered voters -- the small group that is registered and not aligned with a party. That's the group from whom candidates should seek votes.

That tactic certainly has worked for Christian conservatives in the San Diego suburbs. Their takeover of the Grossmont Union High School District School Board is a model of Christian political strategy. Gary Cass, a local pastor, had launched a petition drive in the mid-1990s to oust the School Board president, who supported adding "sexual orientation" to the district's antidiscrimination policy. The drive failed, but Cass established an antigay constituency, and it helped him gain a seat on the board in 1998.

Cass, who regularly attended Kennedy's conferences in South Florida, says he began holding "Reclaiming San Diego for Christ" conferences. "I thought being right would be enough," Cass says. "It wasn't. That's when we decided to get involved in politics." He was elected to the county's Republican Central Committee, which helps select and groom candidates. He encouraged other conservative Christians to run for seats on the central committee. By the fall election of 2002, Christians had gained sway over the county's Republican Party, which was using school boards and city councils to build "farm teams" for recruitment of candidates for higher office.

Voter turnout was extremely low in the 2002 election, and, just as Bailes advises, Republicans did their best to court that tiny wedge of undecided voters. Cass and two of his congregants, this time emphasizing fiscal restraint more than hot-button social issues, were listed as endorsed candidates on the GOP voting guide. All three won, giving the conservatives a "4-1 super majority" on the School Board, Cass says.

God's Gavelers

Winning elections is all well and good, but that goal clearly takes a back seat to gaining control of the judiciary. How can that be achieved? "One case at a time," says Mathew Staver, who in 1989 founded Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal defense law firm based in Orlando. A former pastor, Staver is one of the pioneers of what he calls the religious liberty legal litigation movement, which began only in the 1990s. Lantern-jawed with short dirty-blond hair, Staver calls the judicial system the "epicenter for the battle over our religious freedoms, the sanctity of human life, and our traditional family values."

The litigation movement has made headway, especially in schools. Last year, Liberty Counsel won a lawsuit on behalf of the Child Evangelism Fellowship in California, which sponsors an after-school religious program called the Good News Club. The suit was filed over a policy by the Los Angeles Unified School District that allowed Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings for free on school property but charged a fee for church, community, and business groups. A federal judge ruled that the fees discriminated against the Good News Club and were a violation of the First Amendment.

To some, this might seem a benign victory, but it's merely the means to a greater end for theocrats.

"Now, every one of those schools has become an open door for evangelism," Staver declares, "so that right after the last bell on a public school, you can now begin a Good News Club, which I describe as a high-powered Sunday School program that not only teaches morals and character and values and respect but most of all introduces young people to Jesus Christ who will change their mind, renew their mind, and restore the culture. Every public school in America is an open area for evangelism, and every school should have a Good News Club or an after-school Christian club to reach these young people in America."

Liberty Counsel plans to give the ACLU a run for its money. Staver recalls the case of a high school commencement speaker who planned to talk about "what Jesus had done for her." School officials forbade her to talk on that subject. Staver called the school's superintendent, who said the ACLU could file a lawsuit over the issue. When Staver learned that it had been five years since the ACLU had last contacted the school, he gave the administrator a choice: fear the absentee ACLU or see him in federal court tomorrow. The school relented.

Gay rights are the "biggest threat to our religious freedom," Staver says. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this year that overturned a Texas law that criminalized sodomy drives Staver and Co. bonkers. To understand why, he says, you have to go all the way back to the creation of Adam and Eve. "Somehow in that relationship as husband and wife, as a unit, together, they are in his image," he explained. Any other arrangement is dangerous. He analogized it to radioactive material, which is beneficial if it remains inside the nuclear reactor but destructive if it leaks out. Same deal with human sexuality: Take it out of the radioactive container of marriage and you've got an adulterous and homosexual China syndrome that "produces destruction and death."

It's time to get Jesus into the judicial mix, Staver says. "Now we're working to establish Liberty University School of Law, which will open its doors in August 2004," he announces. "We are going to teach lawyers to think in a biblical, Christian world view. They will indeed expand this area of litigation." Those students will in turn one day become instructors at other law schools, and, most important, they'll become judges, he promises.

Kennedy followers, however, might not have to wait that long. The president has nominated some of the most conservative judges for important federal benches, and the Senate's slim majority of Republicans is ready to put gavels in their hands. The confirmation of several of the most right-leaning has been held up by Democrats through filibuster.

Among them is Justice Priscilla Owen of the Texas Supreme Court, whom Bush nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Owen was originally rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee when Democrats were in the majority. When Republicans regained control after the 2002 election, the president renominated her. Owen has been strongly anti-abortion as a member of Texas' highest court and put forth an argument that would have made it virtually impossible for a minor to receive the court's permission to receive an abortion without her parents' permission.

Another nominee, Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr., also warms the hearts of theocrats. Speaking about Roe v. Wade, Pryor told the Wall Street Journal in 1997, "I will never forget January 22, 1973, the day seven members of our highest court ripped the Constitution and ripped out the life of millions of unborn children." He endorsed a state bill that would have allowed anti-abortion lawyers to represent the state against minors who sought permission from the court to have an abortion without parental permission. He's argued for the use of the death penalty for mentally retarded Death Row inmates.

The end game, of course, is to pack the U.S. Supreme Court with the ideological likes of Owens and Pryor. Staver evokes Martin Luther King Jr. when he waxes lyrical over that day: "I have a dream that we'll have not only lawyers and attorneys that understand Jesus Christ and the gospel but will serve on the Supreme Court of America."

Upon this Rock

Given the Kennedy followers' fixation with the judiciary, it's no surprise that former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is the most anticipated speaker at the Reclaiming America conference. They've been rallying around him since 2001, when he covertly placed a 5,300-pound granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building. Three groups, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed suit to remove "Roy's Rock." Kennedy's ministry, which filmed the covert installation, has been selling videotapes to help Moore with his legal expenses. (Pryor also has been one of Moore's most vociferous defenders.)

A federal court ordered the monument removed, but Moore refused. The U.S. Supreme Court declined Moore's request to review the case, and last week a state judicial ethics panel removed Moore from the Alabama Supreme Court for not complying with the court's order.

It's not just Moore's views on blending church and state that make him a hero to theocrats. Moore also hits a sweet spot with his radical views on gays. In denying a gay parent custody of a child in one court case, he wrote that homosexuality is "an inherent evil, an act so heinous that it defies one's ability to describe it," though he went on to do so: "abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature." Government has the power "to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution," he wrote.

Moore looks almost bashful as the crowd stands and claps at length as he takes the podium. He looks younger than he usually appears in television news clips. He's calm, almost high-spirited as he describes the "40 years we've wandered in the desert." That's roughly how long ago Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote the court's decision that said organized school prayer violated the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.

As for his own mission to blend Christianity and government, he says: "It's not about me. It's not about the monument. It's not about religion." The issue instead is: "Can the state acknowledge God?" As far as Moore is concerned, government must recognize God because American institutions, especially the courts, were founded on the belief in a higher authority than the state. Thus, he reasons, there exists a "moral law" the state cannot alter.

As for critics who say a Christian government would infringe on the rights of, say, Buddhists and Hindus, Moore says that's not a problem because God has guaranteed the right to worship. "Because God said that relationship is between you and me, not government," he says. "Because God said you don't judge by what people think; we judge by what they do. It doesn't matter if you're a Jew or an atheist; if you've stolen, you get punished."

Moore's idea of what to do with his rock: "Offer the monument to Congress, and let them display it in Congress. Why is that important? When we put it in Congress, the people will restore the balance of power and will tell the federal courts that they don't have the last word."

What Happened?

The gathered believers will no doubt take Moore's recommendation seriously. Kennedy knows that. Not one to hog the spotlight, Kennedy lets others do most of the talking, but he does set a fire under the faithful during his one lengthy sermon. His optimism is undiminished. "We're told by the media what this world is like," he says, but it's not the truth. "Under the surface, it's much more beautiful." With about 200,000 conversions to Christianity each day around the world, the numbers are on the believers' side, he asserts. "I think that's something to really be encouraged about. What's going to happen ten or 15 years from now?"

Some election Tuesday not far in the future, he predicts, America will experience a sea change. "And the media are going to look up and say, 'What happened?' And the answer will be," Kennedy says as he points his finger at the multitude gathered, "you happened."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson