Freedom Writer - September 1995
By Liz Gore
I spent five summer days with crowds of well-behaved evangelists who
gathered in Denver, intent upon reaffirming their "commitment to Jesus
Christ, who alone can bring stability to our homes and to our nations."
These stability-seekers came from far and wide to convene the International
Congress on the Family, another high-tech zeal-inspiring event made
possible by Focus on the Family, one of the largest and wealthiest
Religious Right organizations in the country. Co-sponsored by the
American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), approximately
2,500 conservative Christians attended, 97% of whom were from the
United States. The majority were practicing counselors — psychologists,
ministers, crisis pregnancy center staff, etc. A well-orchestrated
showcase for polished pandering and canned charisma, the event brought
the likes of James Dobson, Bill Bennett, Kay James, and Phil Gramm
to center stage.
Enthusiastic and eager, many attendees told me they were drawn by
the opportunity to experience the affirming camaraderie of like-minded
Christians. As mental health professionals, AACC members are out to
convince believers and non-believers alike that the path to emotional
health is to be found in finding Christ. In attending to the difficult
task of guiding patient-clients toward Biblical enlightenment, it
seems Christian counselors often feel isolated among their less-blessed
secular peers. "Psychology has half of the equation," they say. "Christian
counselors have the other half."
Conference-goers were motivated by at least one reactionary truism:
Christianity and the family are institutions under attack. The consensus,
underscored at every rhetorical turn, was painfully familiar. Judeo-Christian
civility is being eroded by a cancerous litany of anti-family forces,
including sex addiction, rap music, feminism, communism, single mothers,
inattentive fathers, suicidal generation X-ers, academics with deconstructionist
tendencies, homosexuals, and anyone perceived to undermine parental
Participants chose from over 100 workshops conducted on such topics
as sexuality, contemporary Christian thought, and social issues. Among
the offerings were seminars like "Cult-proofing Our Children and Families,"
"Making Anger Work for You and Your Family," "AIDS: America's Tainted
Sexuality," and "Family Public Policy: Can It Be Christian?"
Most seminars were strategy sessions for strong marriages and God-centered
families. I scribbled lots of notes, intent to share Religious Right
secrets with my progressive friends who are ill-informed about practical
applications of moral absolutism. Here are a few excerpts: 1) feminists
who challenge Biblical manhood are attempting to "wash away 2,000
years of scholarship," 2) the problem with gays and lesbians is that
they are unable to enjoy the "transformative experience of parental
love," 3) single mothers are guilty of an "utterly pernicious dismissal"
of their children's fathers, and 4) the women behind the UN Conference
for Women in Beijing are after nothing less than the "total destruction
of gender and the family."
As the days went on, a subtext of Christian militancy reared its spite-filled
head. While preaching that salvation lies in resisting "Wrong" for
the (Biblical) "Right," speakers warned of the evils of tolerance.
This oft-repeated equation sanctifies easy condemnation of discomforting
social 'ills' like divorce, homosexuality, single motherhood and welfare.
An unusual instance of discord surfaced on day two of the conference.
When Phil Gramm's 'surprise' appearance yielded a predictable anti-choice,
anti-welfare, anti-NEA diatribe, some listeners were offended, apparently
unimpressed by Gramm's unsolicited recitation of unflinching partisanship.
James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, apologized to all
the following day, confessing he had not realized Gramm's speech would
be 'so political.'
The seminars, held in small groups of 15 to 250 people, were punctuated
by more politically-charged plenary sessions attended en masse. Keynote
speakers extolled the imperative that conservative Christian ideology
be expounded beyond the homefront to the public policy arena.
Among the most well-received were former drug czar and Secretary of
Education William Bennett; former professional pro-lifer Kay Cole
James, currently the Secretary of Health and Human Resources of Virginia;
and Slovenian preacher and professor Peter Kuzmic.
William Bennett's opening address provided an excellent lesson in
contemporary conservative resistance to social change. At the heart
of our collective troubles, Bennett inveighed, is a pervasive uncritical
acceptance of 'modernity.' Popular culture and its vehicle, television,
have inculcated in vulnerable viewers a dangerous desire for happiness.
Shortsighted, this pleasure quest has numbed our intellectualism,
distracted our youth from pursuit of God's will, and resulted in moral
devolution of tragic proportion.
It doesn't sound all bad, does it? Bennett's much-touted aversion
to exploitation by advertising and entertainment corporations is hardly
objectionable. But in addition to television and Time Warner, he took
special care to include public education among his hit-list of nihilism-infected
enemies of virtue. Schools, he says, harbor educators who breed immorality
by encouraging collectivism, exhorting kids to have sex, and undermine
parental authority along the way. The battle is over culture, and
the war is a civil one. Bennett's praise for Ronald Reagan underscored
his belief that the public sector is enemy territory.
Fashioning a self-styled irony that defies analysis, Kay James used
her personal experience as a government official to affirm Bennett's
contention that solving social problems is not the purview of Uncle
Sam. Enchanting the crowd with anecdotes of public sector ineptness,
she proclaimed that the proper role for Christians is to "keep the
government from doing any harm." In their efforts to eliminate poverty
and racism, James explained, liberal policy makers of the last 30
years have actually caused America's urban decline and social disconnectedness.
To substantiate her case, she invoked examples of the "unintended
consequences of...misguided compassion." The eternal beneficence of
the welfare state, James proffered, offers single women an immoral
incentive to give birth. Herself a survivor who once benefited from
public assistance, she condemned 'other' welfare recipients for their
chronic self-perceptions of victimhood.
The world according to Kay James may amount to little more than skillful
scapegoating, but at least it sounds familiar. The award for politicized
evangelism with the most shock value goes to Peter Kuzmic, visiting
professor of theology at Wheaton College in Illinois. The sole international
keynote speaker at this 'international' congress, Kuzmic explained
that the relentless hell-torn atrocity of Bosnia has been needlessly
compounded by a global dearth of morally-fortified political leadership.
Devising an end to the chaos, he exalted, is the natural province
of the "last remaining superpower." The U.S. must demonstrate the
courage to redefine its global mission in order to rightfully assume
an expanded position of leadership, he pleaded. As members of the
"international family of God," evangelicals are summoned into the
political fray to ensure against a triumph of secular priorities.
"There is much discussion about the First Amendment," Kuzmic declared.
"What about the first commandment?"
Kuzmic left little doubt that his New World Order epiphanies are the
product of divine inspiration. God's loyalties lie with the United
States and not with the United Nations, he preached, declaring the
UN unfit as an "effective instrument of peace and justice in the world."
It was God's hand that destroyed communism, Kuzmic assured, the same
hand that now offers the opportunity for global salvation. The triumph
of capitalism has brought a much-guarded respite from communism's
relentless persecution of Christians, he relayed. Evangelism is free
to flourish as never before.
Kuzmic's rallying cry for the Christianization of the world is unabashedly
imperialist. The moral of his story is that conservative Christians
are called to reap the harvest of a miraculous convergence: the interests
of God and the interests of the United States are one.
James and Kuzmic warned their listeners that heeding the call for
participation in the public policy process presents great challenges.
The political arena is "no place for wimps and whiners," James touted.
Kuzmic's resolve to ready his missionaries took a more militant tone.
"Do not retreat! Do not flee!" he ordered, declaring "Our God is
a global God!" American evangelists must move "away from the mirror
and...over to the window," he harkened, his thick Slovenian accent
swelled with the authority of a self-appointed exile determined to
halt the "radical secularization" of his homeland.
While the foot soldiers of the Radical Right may feel daunted by the
burdens of theocratic activism, consolation for the politically
weary abounds. In conformity-minded forums like the one I attended,
just about anything can be appropriated to fortify the righteousness
of followers who fault the separation between church and state for
what they see as America's epidemic of moral decline. The inspiring
words of Gary Collins, president of the American Association of Christian
Counselors, are a case in point.
"Research, history, scripture, and common sense are on our side,"
he shouted to a crowd already primed for an exaltation of applause.
"We don't have to defend what we stand for!"
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