By Alan Bean
“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever, amen.”
Rick Perry used the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer to conclude his own prayer at yesterday’s The Response gathering in Houston. But after 2,000 years, the venerable old prayer is easily misconstrued. In the Roman empire, as many first century inscriptions make clear, Caesar was King of Kings and Lord of Lords. To declare that God, not Caesar, holds the keys to the kingdom was a subversive act.
When you see a would-be Caesar paying metaphysical compliments to God while 30,000 worshippers cheer lustily, there are two possibilities: (a) the Kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, or (b) a politician is using a currently popular version of God-talk to advance his political aspirations.
I’m going with (b).
A few weeks ago, I predicted that the religious rhetoric would be toned down on August 6th, and reports suggest it was. A couple of days ago, I predicted the event would draw closer to 50,000 people (at that time only 8,000 had pre-registered). The actual turnout was closer to 30,000. This suggests the controversy surrounding the event took its toll. Texas is an evangelical wonderland. Joel Osteen attracts over 20,000 people to his Houston church on a weekly basis. A well publicized event like The Response featuring, as it did, all sorts of evangelical heavy-hitters, should have filled 71,000 seat Reliant Stadium.
Still, 30,000 people is a respectable turnout; certainly enough to constitute a modest success. More significantly, the scaled-back rhetoric generally earned the Texas governor a pass from a theologically tone-deaf media. The lead article in this morning’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram featured a few innocuous quotes from key speakers, a few interviews with participants and protesters, and ended with a description of a worshipper wearing a T-shift with the least offensive message imaginable: “Love God, Love People”. Can’t argue with that.
Video clips from the event suggest an ethnically diverse crowd. This was partly because minority religious leaders like C.L. Jackson and Samuel Rodriguez were on board. But Rodriguez, who sounded downright progressive at last year’s Justice Revival in Dallas, sponsors a foundation with a strongly anti-gay, anti-liberal, pro-theocratic focus. Perry appeared on stage flanked by black Texas Baptist pastor C.L. Jackson (a recent defector to the Texas Republican Party) and Alice Patterson, a Texas evangelical who raised eyebrows recently with her comments about the “demonic structure” of the Democratic Party (apparently, the wicked Queen Jezebel has something to do with the Democrat’s demon problem).
Prominent among the invited speakers were representatives of a neo-Pentecostal movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. Forrest Wilder of the The Texas Observer recently dedicated a disturbing article to the NAR:
If they simply professed unusual beliefs, movement leaders wouldn’t be remarkable. But what makes the New Apostolic Reformation movement so potent is
its growing fascination with infiltrating politics and government. The new prophets and apostles believe Christians—certain Christians—are destined to not
just take “dominion” over government, but stealthily climb to the commanding heights of what they term the “Seven Mountains” of society, including the media
and the arts and entertainment world. They believe they’re intended to lord over it all. As a first step, they’re leading an “army of God” to commandeer civilian government.
This doesn’t mean that all the speakers associated with The Response are NAR people, but the group has taken a particular interest in the event, and Rick Perry clearly covets their support. The folks on stage at The Response were not widely representative of evangelical Christianity. Wilder believes the promotional video created for the Houston event was shaped by NAR themes:
“With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God’s help,” Perry says in a video message on The Response website. “That’s why I’m calling on Americans to pray and fast like Jesus did and as God called the Israelites to do in the Book of Joel.”
New Apostolic people are big on the often-ignored book of Joel.
It doesn’t matter that the American debt crisis was created by tax cuts, unfunded wars and post-recession stimulus spending–Perry thinks only God can fix the problem.
Why would a presidential hopeful want to be associated with a cult-like fringe group like the NAR? It’s simple, these folks are fired up. The Tea Party constitute a tiny slice of the electorate, but unlike your average voter, Tea Partiers are motivated by a shared ideology and a common rage. The debt ceiling debacle unfolded in all its sordid glory because a new crop of politicians didn’t dare deviate from their marching orders. Republican leaders who, in normal times, would have reached a sensible compromise early on, were forced to go along for the ride.
Rick Perry likes NAR folk because he needs a fervent political base. Here’s Wilder’s take:
Their beliefs may seem bizarre even to many conservative evangelicals. Yet Perry has a knack for finding the forefront of conservative grassroots. Prayer warriors, apostles and prophets are filled with righteous energy and an increasing appetite for power in the secular political world. Their zeal and affiliation with charismatic independent churches, the fastest-growing subset of American Christianity, offers obvious benefits for Perry if he runs for president.
The spiritual father of the New Apostolic Reformation is C. Peter Wagner, formerly famous as the 1970s church growth guru who championed the “homogeneous principle” that made megachurches churches segregated along racial and social class lines feel good about themselves. In recent years, it seems, C. Peter has gone radical. He believes that the first Apostolic Age lasted from the birth of Jesus to the year 2000. The second Apostolic Age began in 2001, and that means God has changed the rules. Latter day prophets who blow with the new spiritual winds pretty much get what they demand from God. Wagner claims that he put an end to mad cow disease by essentially demanding that God put an end to it. Other movement people claim they predicted the earthquakes in Japan.
Rachel Maddow of MSNBC has done much to bring public attention to Rick Perry’s religious friends, but if you would like to follow this religious phenomenon over the long term, sign up for updates from Talk to Action, a well-researched website that tracks the religious right. Talk2Action’s Rachel Tabachnick probably knows more about the NAR than anybody who is not directly affiliated with the movement. “It sounds so fringe but yet it’s not fringe,” Tabachnick says. “They’ve been working with Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Sam Brownback, and now Rick Perry. … They are becoming much more politically noticeable.”
What’s the appeal for those inside the movement, you ask. Where do I begin. For one thing you get to kiss all intellectual doubts about the faith goodbye. There can’t be any conflict between faith and science when the views of the scientific and academic communities are dismissed out of hand.
And then there’s the worship. If you belong to a tiny movement comprising God’s chosen remnant you feel really, really special. God is no longer distant–God’s in the room, God’s moving, God’s got big plans and you are smack in the middle of the action. If that doesn’t make you want to get out of bed in the morning, nothing will! The full supernatural panoply is active in the world: witches, demons, the Devil, angels, the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, you get to participate in healings and exorcisms; when you fast and pray, the supernatural power of Almighty God is unleashed in the world.
Compete with that, Presbyterians and Methodists!
Unlike old school southern evangelicals who wrestled with the demons of racial resentment, the New Apostolic Folk are heavily into racial reconciliation. This explains how a Latino Pentecostal leader like Sam Rodriguez can talk biblical justice with the folk at Sojourners and then link arms with an army of Republican theocrats.
According to Wilder: “A major emphasis among the New Apostles is racial reconciliation and recruitment of minorities and women. The apostolic prayer networks often perform elaborate ceremonies in which participants dress up in historical garb and repent for racial sins. The formula—overcoming racism to achieve multiracial fundamentalism—has caught on in the apostolic movement. Some term the approach the “Rainbow Right,” and in fact The Response has a high quotient of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans in leadership positions.
This helps explain the racially diverse audience in Houston yesterday–something you don’t see at a Republican convention or a Tea Party rally.
What’s going on here? Isn’t Rick Perry concerned that mainstream America will shrink back in horror when they hear some of his crazy friends saying crazy things?
First, the American media being what it is (under-staffed, under-resourced and overwhelmed) you shouldn’t expect to see a lot of in-depth journalistic inquiry into the NAR or any of the other exotic birds in Mr. Perry’s aviary. Second, this is not your father’s America. Back when the Oldsmobile was king of the road, American religionists had pretty much abandoned the political battlefield. Scientists reigned as the high priests of American society and economists still believed that Harvard graduates fiddling with interest rates and tax policy would eventually bring wealth and happiness to all. We are living in a very different world. The girls and boys with Ivy league credentials still exercise influence within the academic world, but their influence on Wall Street and on Capital Hill is rapidly eroding. The NAR may sound strange to you, me, and the folks in the academy, but the movement dovetails beautifully with the apprehensions of contemporary America. People are alarmed by gay rights, high debt, terrorism and religious pluralism. Just where, people ask themselves, is our country going? Who are we becoming?
C. Peter Wagner and friends provide answers that are exciting, entertaining and reassuring (unless you are gay, Muslim, Methodist or politically progressive). Rick Perry is betting that more people will be turned on by C. Peter and the boys than will be turned off . . . and that most of us won’t be asking too many questions.