Saturday, September 20, 2008

What goes around...

-- by Sara

Right now, the GOP has to be rueing the day they ever brought up Jeremiah Wright.

And, you know, they can't blame anybody but themselves. They started it. There used to be a gentleman's agreement -- at least among white Protestant politicans, which was almost all of them -- that you didn't drag people's private religious beliefs into the campaign arena, any more than you'd drag in the sordid details of their family lives (including health issues, mistresses, addicted wives, pregnant daughters, and gay sons). Even public people were assumed to be entitled to some level of a private life, and that protection definitely covered their religious views, affiliations, and activities.

That custom, if it still existed, would have made the above clip a political non-issue. If a vice-presidential candidate wanted to credit her governorship to a faith-healing witch hunter from another country far away -- well, the press was well-trained to ignore such aberrations, and look the other way.

But, of course, the religious right went ahead and broke that agreement, and then spent the next 30 years making the Godliness of its candidates a centerpiece of their politics. And now, finally, that strategy has come all the way back around and bit them squarely on their wide, rosy butts.

Six months ago, they couldn't stop talking about Jeremiah Wright, and what his "radical" (code for: angry black ghetto thug) theology said about the presidential potential of his parisioner, Barack Obama. Now, of course, they have no interest at all in talking about Thomas Muthee and what his truly bizarre brand of neo-Pentecostalism might say about Sarah Palin's intentions for the country. Double standard? Of course.

But we shouldn't let them off that hook. Since they brought up the subject, let's go ahead and have that conversation. All of it.

For example, while we're at it, we should be taking stock of this new SPLC report examining the strength and numbers of the "Joel's Army" movement. While this group has been a concern of right-wing watchers for the past few years, I got my first public sighting of them last summer -- at the Northwest Washington County Fair, of all places. The military mothers' group had put together a big scrapbook showing all the county's service men and women, with a page for each one with personal histories (high school attended, parents' names, deployment dates, etc.) and photos. It was a very popular and moving exhibit. My husband and I went through it twice.

What struck me was that better than half of the troops from this rural ag county were either homeschooled or had attended Christian schools. Some families had two and three sons serving. A few photos showed them in battle dress, Bibles in hand; or in other religious contexts. Being aware of Joel's Amry, I couldn't shake the impression that some of these families had bred these kids for military service the way most middle-class families groom their kids for college. I was looking at at least a few of the faces of this new army of Christian warriors, young men (and a few women) who joined the military not just out of patriotism or job experience, but also to gain the skills they expected to need someday to take the country for Jesus -- by force.

The SPLC report expresses deep concern over the size and intensity of the Joel's Army movement:
LAKELAND, Fla. — Todd Bentley has a long night ahead of him, resurrecting the dead, healing the blind, and exploding cancerous tumors. Since April 3, the 32-year-old, heavily tattooed, body-pierced, shaved-head Canadian preacher has been leading a continuous "supernatural healing revival" in central Florida. To contain the 10,000-plus crowds flocking from around the globe, Bentley has rented baseball stadiums, arenas and airport hangars at a cost of up to $15,000 a day. Many in attendance are church pastors themselves who believe Bentley to be a prophet and don't bat an eye when he tells them he's seen King David and spoken with the Apostle Paul in heaven. "He was looking very Jewish," Bentley notes.

Tattooed across his sternum are military dog tags that read "Joel's Army." They're evidence of Bentley's generalship in a rapidly growing apocalyptic movement that's gone largely unnoticed by watchdogs of the theocratic right. According to Bentley and a handful of other "hyper-charismatic" preachers advancing the same agenda, Joel's Army is prophesied to become an Armageddon-ready military force of young people with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian "dominion" on non-believers.

Todd Bentley healing

"An end-time army has one common purpose — to aggressively take ground for the kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Dread Champion," Bentley declares on the website for his ministry school in British Columbia, Canada. "The trumpet is sounding, calling on-fire, revolutionary believers to enlist in Joel's Army. … Many are now ready to be mobilized to establish and advance God's kingdom on earth."

Joel's Army followers, many of them teenagers and young adults who believe they're members of the final generation to come of age before the end of the world, are breaking away in droves from mainline Pentecostal churches. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they base their beliefs on an esoteric reading of the second chapter of the Old Testament Book of Joel, in which an avenging swarm of locusts attacks Israel. In their view, the locusts are a metaphor for Joel's Army.

Despite their overt militancy, there's no evidence Joel's Army followers have committed any acts of violence. But critics warn that actual bloodletting may only be a matter of time for a movement that casts itself as God's avenging army.

Those sounding the alarm about Joel's Army are not secular foes of the Christian Right, few of whom are even aware of the movement or how widespread it's become in the past decade. Instead, Joel's Army critics are mostly conservative Christians, either neo-Pentecostals who left the movement in disgust or evangelical Christians who fear that Joel's Army preachers are stealing their flocks, even sending spies to infiltrate their own congregations and sway their young people to heresy. And they say the movement is becoming frightening.

As Bruce Wilson at Talk2Action has recently pointed out, three of the four churches Sarah Palin has attended share affiliations with the New Apostolic Movement, of which Joel's Army (as well as the now-defunct "Jesus Camp") are a part. It's a tenuous link of circumstantial evidence -- but it's no more tenuous or circumstantial than the arguments the right has been using all along to tie Obama to various radicals. Palin has spent her life in these churches, and (unlike Obama) has publicly admitted her political debt to a "witch-hunter" whose beliefs are much farther from the Amerian mainstream than Wright's ever were.

By their own standards and rules of evidence, Sarah Palin's association with New Apostolic churches and her admitted personal associations are serious issues that cast a long shadow on her intentions for this country. If the GOP ticket wins, there's a one-third chance that the world's most powerful country -- including the biggest army the world has ever seen -- will end up in the hands of a woman who believes that God put her where she is; and subscribes to a religion that is overtly and unapologetically raising its children to destroy American democracy.

The odds of their success are small. Two-thirds to three-quarters of all fundamentalist-raised kids leave the faith before the age of 40, most in the first decade after they leave home. Odds are good most of these young warriors will find more peaceful lives on other paths.

But they are already leaving their mark on our military (as both Mikey Weinstein and Andrew Bacevich have reported); and we'd best not understimate the fresh appeal extremist movements can have in the wake of economic collapse or military defeat. With the prospect of both looming in our future, it's probably just as well that that old gentleman's agreement is no longer in place to protect the likes of Sarah Palin.

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