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 authority.
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!"
Liz Gore is a research associate for the Institute for the Study of the Religious Right in Los Angeles, California.