"Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism"

Across the United States, religious activists are organizing to establish an American theocracy. A frightening look inside the growing right-wing movement.

Published May 12, 2006 1:48PM (EDT)

A teenage modern dance troupe dressed all in black took their places on the stage of the First Baptist Church of Pleasant Grove, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Two dancers, donning black overcoats, crossed their arms menacingly. As a Christian pop ballad swelled on the speakers, a boy wearing judicial robes walked out. Holding a Ten Commandments tablet that seemed to be made of cardboard, he was playing former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore. The trench-coated thugs approached him, miming a violent rebuke and forcing him to the other end of the stage, sans Commandments.

There, a cluster of dancers impersonating liberal activists waved signs with slogans like "No Moore!" and "Keep God Out!! No God in Court." The boy Moore danced a harangue, first lurching toward his tormentors and then cringing back in outrage before breaking through their line to lunge for his monument. But the dancers in trench coats -- agents of atheism -- got hold of it first and took it away, leaving him abject on the floor. As the song's uplifting chorus played -- "After you've done all you can, you just stand" -- a dancer in a white robe, playing either an angel or God himself, came forward and helped the Moore character to his feet.

The performance ended to enthusiastic applause from a crowd that included many Alabama judges and politicians, as well as Roy Moore himself, a gaunt man with a courtly manner and the wrath of Leviticus in his eyes. Moore has become a hero to those determined to remake the United States into an explicitly Christian nation. That reconstructionist dream lies at the red-hot center of our current culture wars, investing the symbolic fight over the Ten Commandments -- a fight whose outcome seems irrelevant to most peoples' lives -- with an apocalyptic urgency.

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On November 13, 2003, Moore was removed from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court after he defied a judge's order to remove the 2.6-ton Ten Commandments monument he'd installed in the Montgomery judicial building. On the coasts, he seemed a ridiculous figure, the latest in a line of grotesque Southern anachronisms. After all, Moore is a man who, in a 2002 court decision awarding custody of three children to their allegedly abusive father over their lesbian mother, called homosexuality "abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature's God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated," and argued, "The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle." He's a man who writes rhyming poetry decrying the teaching of evolution and who fought against the Alabama ballot measure to remove segregationist language from the state constitution.

To the growing Christian nationalist movement, though, Roy Moore is a martyr, cut down by secular tyranny for daring to assert God's truth.

It's a role he seems to love. The battle that cost Moore his job wasn't his first Ten Commandments fight. In 1995, the ACLU sued Moore, then a county circuit judge, for hanging a Ten Commandments plaque in his courtroom and leading juries in prayer. As Matt Labash recalled in an adulatory Weekly Standard article, "The conflict's natural drama was compounded when the governor, Fob James, announced that he would deploy the National Guard, state troopers, and the Alabama and Auburn football teams to keep Moore's tablets on the wall."

That case reached an ambiguous conclusion in 1998, when the state supreme court threw out the lawsuit on technical grounds. By then, Moore had become a star of the right. Televangelist D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries raised more than $100,000 for his legal defense fund, and Moore spoke at a series of rallies that drew thousands. His right-wing fame helped catapult him to victory in the 2000 race for chief justice of the state supreme court.

Moore installed his massive Ten Commandments monument on August 1, 2001, and from the beginning, he and his allies used it to stir up the Christian nationalist faithful. He gave videographers from Coral Ridge Ministries exclusive access to the courthouse on the night the monument was mounted, and on October 14, D. James Kennedy started hawking a $19 video about Moore's brave, covert installation on his television show.

As the controversy over the statue ignited, Moore's fame grew. At rallies across the country, he summoned the faithful to an ideal that sounded very much like theocracy. "For forty years we have wandered like the children of Israel," he told a crowd of three thousand supporters in Tennessee. "In homes and schools across our land, it's time for Christians to take a stand. This is not a nation established on the principles of Buddha or Hinduism. Our faith is not Islam. What we follow is not the Koran but the Bible.This is a Christian nation."

By the time he was removed as chief justice, Moore had sparked a movement, and his monument was an icon. In the days before officials came to cart the Commandments away, hundreds flocked to Montgomery to rally on the courtroom steps. Some slept there and imagined themselves the nucleus of a new civil rights movement.

Thomas Bowman, a bearded Christian folk singer from Kentucky who wears a knit Rasta hat, wrote an anthem called "Montgomery Fire" celebrating the demonstrations: "We had love in our hearts that no man could ever remove / but with the whole world we watched as they hauled the Commandments away." When I met him a year later at First Baptist, he referred to the protesters, romantically, as the "ragamuffin warriors" fighting for God against the atheist state. During the controversy, he said, he'd felt the Lord's call, and driven six and a half hours from Louisville. In Montgomery, he met others like him, who'd felt compelled to take a stand against secularism.

"The opposing side, the anti-God side, the do-whatever-you-want side, the judicial side, just kept pushing and pushing and pushing for the last forty years," Bowman said. "They keep moving that line back." Finally, he said, God called on Christians to defend themselves.

After the Commandments were removed, a group of retired military men from Texas who called themselves American Veterans in Domestic Defense spent months taking the monument -- now affectionately called "Roys Rock" -- on tour all over the country, holding more than 150 viewings and rallies in churches, at state capitols, even in Wal-Mart parking lots. Moore also found powerful supporters in statehouses and in Congress who proposed laws to radically restrict the power of federal courts to enforce the separation of church and state. In solidarity, another Alabama judge, Ashley McKathan, had the Ten Commandments embroidered onto his robe. Christian homeschool catalogues offered copies of a video titled "Roy Moores Message to America." When Moore suggested he might run for Alabama governor, state polls showed him with a double-digit lead.

A few days before Bush's second inauguration, The New York Times carried a story headlined "Warning from a Student of Democracy's Collapse" about Fritz Stern, a refugee from Nazi Germany, professor emeritus of history at Columbia, and scholar of fascism. It quoted a speech he had given in Germany that drew parallels between Nazism and the American religious right. "Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics," he was quoted saying of prewar Germany, "but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured [Hitler's] success, notably in Protestant areas."

It's not surprising that Stern is alarmed. Reading his forty-five-year-old book "The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology," I shivered at its contemporary resonance. "The ideologists of the conservative revolution superimposed a vision of national redemption upon their dissatisfaction with liberal culture and with the loss of authoritative faith," he wrote in the introduction. "They posed as the true champions of nationalism, and berated the socialists for their internationalism, and the liberals for their pacifism and their indifference to national greatness."

Fascism isn't imminent in America. But its language and aesthetics are distressingly common among Christian nationalists. History professor Roger Griffin described the "mobilizing vision" of fascist movements as "the national community rising Phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it" (his italics). The Ten Commandments has become a potent symbol of this dreamed-for resurrection on the American right.

True, our homegrown quasi-fascists often appear so absurd as to seem harmless. Take, for example, American Veterans in Domestic Defense, the organization that took the Ten Commandments on tour. The group says it exists to "neutralize the destructiveness" of America's "domestic enemies," which include "biased liberal, socialist news media," "the ACLU," and "the conspiracy of an immoral film industry." To do this, it aims to recruit former military men. "AVIDD reminds all American Veterans that you took an oath to defend the United States against all enemies, 'both foreign and domestic,'" its Web site says. "In your military capacity, you were called upon to defend the United States against foreign enemies. AVIDD now calls upon you to continue to fulfill your oath and help us defend this nation on the political front, against equally dangerous domestic enemies."

According to Jim Cabaniss, the seventy-two-year-old Korean War veteran who founded AVIDD, the group now has thirty-three chapters across the country. It's entirely likely that some of these chapters just represent one or two men, and as of 2005, AVIDD didn't seem large enough to be much of a danger to anyone.

Still, it's worth noting that thousands of Americans nationwide have flocked to rallies at which military men don uniforms and pledge to seize the reins of power in America on behalf of Christianity. In many places, local religious leaders and politicians lend their support to AVIDD's cause. And at least some of the people at these rallies speak with seething resentment about the tyranny of Jews over America's Christian majority.

"People who call themselves Jews represent maybe 2 or 3 percent of our people," Cabaniss told me after a January 2005 rally in Austin. "Christians represent a huge percent, and we don't believe that a small percentage should destroy the values of the larger percentage."

I asked Cabaniss, a thin, white-haired man who wore a suit with a red, white, and blue tie and a U.S. Army baseball cap, whether he was saying that American Jews have too much power. "It appears that way," he replied. "They're a driving force behind trying to take everything to do with Christianity out of our system. That's the part that makes us very upset."

Ed Hamilton, who'd come to the rally from San Antonio, interjected, "There are very wealthy Jews in high places, and they have significant control over a lot of financial matters and some political matters. They have disproportionate amount of influence in our financial structure."

We were standing outside the Texas Capitol building on a sunny Saturday morning. A few hundred people from across the state had turned out for the rally, which began at 10 a.m. Three or four men in military uniforms sat with their wives on chairs at the top of the Capitol steps. Next to them sat an old man dressed as Uncle Sam in a tall Stars and Stripes top hat, a red, white, and blue suit, and a pointy white beard. Four other men supported tall, coffin-shaped signs labeled with the names of objectionable Supreme Court rulings.

The crowd was full of teenagers who'd come on church buses and families with young children. A white-bearded man in a leather biker vest dragged a ten-foot-tall cedar crucifix painted red, white, and blue. One woman wore a T-shirt with a photograph of Moore's monument. Another held a handwritten sign saying:

Ban Judges
Not God
God Rules

Rick Scarborough, one of the headline speakers, called for a "million Roy Moores" who will "stand up, speak up, and refuse to give up." A former football player at Stephen F. Austin State University, Scarborough is a thick man with white hair, black eyebrows, and a surprisingly high voice. In recent years, he's positioned himself as a comer in the Christian nationalist movement, riding church/state controversies to ever higher prominence. In 2002, he left his post as pastor of Pearland First Baptist Church -- where he had mobilized members of his flock in that Houston suburb to try to take over the city council and school board -- to form Vision America, a group dedicated to organizing "patriot pastors" for political action. The same year, Jerry Falwell christened him as one of the new leaders of the Christian right. The courts that martyred Moore are Scarborough's bête noire, and as 2005 progressed, he emerged as one of most vehement right-wing denunciators of the federal judiciary.

Also speaking was John Eidsmoe, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who wore full military dress. A professor at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, a Christian school in Montgomery, Alabama, Eidsmoe has authored a number of Christian nationalist books including "Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers," which argues that Calvinism inspired America's founding document. He's a proponent of a Confederate doctrine called interposition, which holds that states have the right to reject federal government mandates they deem unconstitutional. "Implementation of the doctrine may be peaceable, as by resolution, remonstrance or legislation, or may proceed ultimately to nullification with forcible resistance," he wrote in a manifesto titled "A Call to Stand with Chief Justice Roy Moore."

When the speeches were finished, the four black-coffin signs were knocked down and four white doves were released from behind them, to awed gasps and cheers from the crowd. Moore's monument sat on the back of a flatbed truck parked several yards away. An American flag flew on one side. On the other was a flag with a fierce-looking eagle perched upon a bloody cross.

Roy Moore and Rick Scarborough are Baptists, D. James Kennedy is a fundamentalist Presbyterian, and John Eidsmoe is a Lutheran. All of them, however, have been shaped by dominion theology, which asserts that, in preparation for the second coming of Christ, godly men have the responsibility to take over every aspect of society.

Dominion theology comes out of Christian Reconstructionism, a fundamentalist creed that was propagated by the late Rousas John (R. J.) Rushdoony and his son-in-law, Gary North. Born in New York City in 1916 to Armenian immigrants who had recently fled the genocide in Turkey, Rushdoony was educated at the University of California at Berkeley and spent over eight years as a Presbyterian missionary to Native Americans in Nevada. He was a prolific writer, churning out dense tomes advocating the abolition of public schools and social services and the replacement of civil law with biblical law. White-bearded and wizardly, Rushdoony had the look of an Old Testament patriarch and the harsh vision to match -- he called for the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, and unchaste women, among other sinners. Democracy, he wrote, is a heresy and "the great love of the failures and cowards of life."

Reconstructionism is a postmillennial theology, meaning its followers believe Jesus won't return until after Christians establish a thousand year reign on earth. While other Christians wait for the messiah, Reconstructionists want to build the kingdom themselves. Most American evangelicals, on the other hand, are premillennialists. They believe (with some variations) that at the time of Christ's return, Christians will be gathered up to heaven, missing the tribulations endured by unbelievers. In the past, this belief led to a certain apathy -- why worry if the world is about to end and you'll be safe from the carnage?

Since the 1970s, though, in tandem with the rise of the religious right, premillennialism has been politicized. A crucial figure in this process was the seminal evangelical writer Francis Schaeffer, an American who founded L'Abri, a Christian community in the Swiss Alps where religious intellectuals gathered to talk and study. As early as the 1960s, Schaeffer was reading Rushdoony and holding seminars on his work. Schaeffer went on to write a series of highly influential books elucidating the idea of the Christian worldview. A Christian Manifesto, published in 1981, described modern history as a contest between the Christian worldview and the materialist one, saying, "These two world views stand as totals in complete antithesis to each other in content and also in their natural results -- including sociological and government results, and specifically including law."

Schaeffer was not a theocrat, but he drew on Reconstructionist ideas of America as an originally Christian nation. In "A Christian Manifesto," he warned against wrapping Christianity in the American flag, but added, "None of this, however, changes the fact that the United States was founded upon a Christian consensus, nor that we today should bring Judeo-Christian principles into play in regard to government." Schaeffer was one of the first evangelical leaders to get deeply involved in the fight against abortion, and he advocated civil disobedience and the possible use of force to stop it. "It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God's Law it abrogates its authority," he wrote.

Tim LaHaye, who is most famous for putting a Tom Clancy gloss on premillennialist theology in the Left Behind thrillers that he co-writes with Jerry Jenkins, was heavily influenced by Schaeffer, to whom he dedicated his book "The Battle for the Mind." That book married Schaeffer's theories to a conspiratorial view of history and politics, arguing, "Most people today do not realize what humanism really is and how it is destroying our culture, families, country -- and, one day, the entire world. Most of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things of life.

"We must remove all humanists from public office and replace them with pro-moral political leaders," LaHaye wrote.

As premillennialists grew to embrace the goal of dominion, they made alliances with Reconstructionists. In 1984, Jay Grimstead, a disciple of Francis Schaeffer, brought important pre- and post-millennialists together to form the Coalition on Revival (COR) in order to lay a blueprint for taking over American life. Tim LaHaye was an original member of COR's steering committee, along with Rushdoony, North, creationist Duane Gish, D. James Kennedy, and the Reverend Donald Wildmon of the influential American Family Association.

Between 1984 and 1986, COR developed seventeen "worldview" documents, which elucidate the "Christian" position on most aspects of life. Just as political Islam is often called Islamism to differentiate the fascist political doctrine from the faith, the ideology laid out in these papers could be called Christianism. The documents outline a complete political program, with a "biblically correct" position on issues like taxes (God favors a flat rate), public schools (generally frowned upon), and the media and the arts ("We deny that any pornography and other blasphemy are permissible as art or 'free speech'").

In a 1988 letter to supporters, Grimstead announced the completion of a high school curriculum "using the COR Worldview Documents as textbooks." Since then, there's been a proliferation of schools, books, and seminars devoted to inculcating the correct Christian worldview in students and activists. Charles Colson accepts one hundred people annually into his yearlong "worldview training" courses, which include meetings in Washington, D.C., online seminars, "mentoring," and several hours of homework each week. "The program will be heavily weighted towards how to think," Colson's Web site says. It's intended for those who work in churches, media, law, government, and education, and who can thus teach others to think the same way.

Those who don't have a year to spare can attend one of more than a dozen Worldview Weekend conferences held every year in churches nationwide. Popular speakers include the revisionist Christian nationalist historian David Barton, David Limbaugh (Rush's born-again brother), and evangelical former sitcom star Kirk Cameron. In 2003, Tom DeLay was a featured speaker at a Worldview Weekend at Rick Scarborough's former church in Pearland, Texas. He told the crowd, "Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world. Only Christianity."

Speaking to outsiders, most Christian nationalists say they're simply responding to anti-Christian persecution. They say that secularism is itself a religion, one unfairly imposed on them. They say they're the victims in the culture wars. But Christian nationalist ideologues don't want equality, they want dominance. In his book "The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action," George Grant, former executive director of D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, wrote:

"Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ -- to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.
     But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice.
     It is dominion we are after. Not just influence.
     It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.
     It is dominion we are after.
     World conquest. That's what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less...
     Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land -- of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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