Wednesday, August 15, 2007

American Fatwa

-- by Sara

I've argued before that we need to be keeping a weather eye on the Southern Baptist Church. With 16.6 million members in 43,000 congregations around the country, the SBC is far and away the largest Protestant denomination in America. And that wouldn't be a bad thing, necessarily -- if only its leaders would stop coming out in favor of things like torture, bigamy, hate crime, fetal experimentation on gay fetuses, and bombing family planning clinics. Even more alarming is their focus on pressing this agenda under the banner of "spiritual warfare," which is increasingly expressed in rhetoric more appropriate to a shooting war.

This week, we have Dr. Wiley S. Drake, pastor of the Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, CA (right next to Disneyland), and the second vice president of the national SBC. Drake's mini-empire also includes a regional morning radio show, "Crusader Radio," that broadcasts out of his church; and he proudly serves as the official chaplain of the Minuteman border patrol group as well. He's also announced his intention to pursue the national SBC presidency over the next few years.

Last October, Drake got in big trouble with the national SBC for printing up church letterhead identifying himself as the SBC's 2nd VP -- which he subsequently used to announce his endorsement of Republican Dick Mountjoy in his bid for the U.S. Senate. "Looking back, I shouldn't have done it," Drake told the AP. "But no one told me what I should or shouldn't do."

Apparently, SBC seminaries no longer teach their candidates for ministry how to keep themselves, their congregations, and the national church out of major legal trouble. Either that, or Drake knows where the church-state separation line is -- but just doesn't care. (High-social dominance authoritarians typically don't care about other people's rules or consequences. I'm not saying Wiley's a high-SDO; but, as you'll see, he does fit the pattern.) Either way, the SBC's top lawyer acted quickly to ensure that Drake got a fast, clear education on where that line falls. Ostensibly, he now knows -- very clearly -- what he "should or shouldn't do." And that should have been the end of the story.

But, of course, it wasn't.

Last week, Drake got out his church letterhead again, and announced his endorsement of Mike Huckabee for the GOP presidential nomination -- an endorsement he repeated on his radio show, just in case anyone missed it. “I announce,” wrote the pastor, “that I am going to personally endorse Mike Huckabee. I ask all of my Southern Baptist brothers and sisters to consider getting behind Mike and helping him all you can. First of all pray and then ask God, what should I do to put feet to my prayers.

“Do what God tells you to do,” Drake continued. “I believe God has chosen Mike for such an hour, and I believe of all those running Mike Huckabee will listen to God." On his radio show, Wiley elaborated on the theme: "Mike Huckabee is a son of God; he loves the Lord, and I believe, no matter what the constituents say or the Party says, he is a man of integrity who fears God, and in the finality of things will say, ‘Okay, God, what do you want me to do?’ And I believe he will listen to God."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State struck back quickly. Yesterday, they filed a formal complaint with the IRS, documenting Wiley's actions as a clear breach of tax laws that prevent churches and ministers from endorsing political candidates.

And this is where the story turns strange -- the unique kind of strange you only get to see when you've got SBC theocrats hanging on the ropes.

Wiley's retort to AU was swift, ferocious -- and bizarre. Caught dead to rights, he didn't even try to respond to particulars of AU's IRS complaint. Instead, he immediately launched into the kind of wild-eyed, paranoid magical thinking you'd expect from any embattled cult leader. Which is to say: In a press release issued yesterday, he ordered his flock to petition God, who in turn would avenge this attack by smiting AU's staff with poverty, starvation, scattered familes, and death.

Today, AU put forth a second press release describing the language he used:
Instead of responding to Americans United’s concern of illegal activity, Drake issued yesterday afternoon a plea to his supporters to join in “imprecatory prayers” (curses) every morning for Americans United and its staff.

“In light of the recent attack from the ememies (sic) of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer,” Drake said, in an Aug. 14 press statement issued from the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. “Especially against Americans United for Seperation (sic) of Church and State.”

Drake singled out two Americans United staff members whose names appeared as contacts on the press release. The pastor’s missive said the imprecatory prayers should “specifically target” Americans United Communications Director Joe Conn or Communications Associate Jeremy Leaming.

In a section of his press release called “How To Pray,” Drake includes a long list of biblical citations that call on God to smite enemies. For example, the alleged enemies of God “shall be judged,” “condemned,” and “his days be few….” Additionally, supporters should pray that the enemy’s “children be fatherless, and his wife a widow,” and “his children be continually vagabonds, and beg; let them seek bread also out of their desolate places.”

“Let there be none to extend mercy unto him,” Drake quoted, “Neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.”
Quite a curse to bring down on a couple of underpaid political staffers who simply pointed out that you were breaking the law.

It would tempting to just write this off as more five-year-old logic -- this kid is furious at being caught red-handed; and because AU dared to tattle on him to the grownups at the IRS, he's gonna get Big Daddy to beat them up and show them who's really the Boss of Everything. But to those who've actually read the scriptures Drake purports to teach, his behavior is inexplicable. Jesus was very clear that his followers should "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" -- that is, give civil authority its due, even as they focused on the life of the spirit. Today's would-be theocrats, of course, would rather abolish the civil government entirely and put God in its place.

Beyond that: the murderous anger and hatred Drake encourages toward those who would challenge his right to break the law is just over the top, even for the SBC -- and that's saying something. If Wiley really believes that God answers prayer, then he has publicly called for the execution of AU's staff, as well as the persecution of their families. (When Muslim ayatollahs do this, we call it a "fatwa.") And if, in hindsight, he tries to claim that he was just shooting off his mouth -- after all, every reasonable person knows that God doesn't really do that kind of thing -- then that, too, will speak volumes about the authenticity of the faith he professes.

As we've seen so many times before, being an authoritarian theocrat means that the laws of this country don't apply to you. The Constitution doesn't matter in the least to people who recognize only a higher authority. Wiley and his brethren in the SBC clergy are Dominionists who want us to hand over our liberties and give them our complete obedience and trust so that they can govern us according to Biblical principle.

This episode, once again, shows why no patriot would (or should) ever grant these people that kind of absolute trust. We've just had (another) clear preview of what their brand of "moral authority" looks like in practice -- vindictive, angry, petulant, out of touch with the real world, and far more given to fascist fury than anything resembling Christian love and humility. America is, if nothing else, a "no-fatwa" zone. If people like Drake are God's idea of what his handpicked regents should be, we're clearly better off continuing to rely on our own imperfect judgment in choosing our leaders instead.

Update: David Dayen at Calitics points out that Drake's fatwa got one of the staffers' names wrong:
Here's the rub: Drake asked his followers to "target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing." Except, Jeremy's last name is "Leaming."

So, here's the theological question of the day: if a bunch of people pray for God to punish some guy named "Jeremy Learing," who had nothing to do with this incident, does it still count? What, if anything, happens to Jeremy Leaming?
Good question. Will Drake's God still deliver mis-directed hate mail?

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