A secretive organization that has courted political leaders and built international influence while undermining the constitutional division of the church and the state in the process is at the center of a new five-episode documentary series called “The Family.”
Since 1953, the National Prayer Breakfast has remained a fixture in American politics that has boasted attendance by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower on the first Thursday of every February. It has been hyped as an opportunity for the political elite of Washington, D.C., and visiting international dignitaries to put aside partisan differences and reflect on a higher purpose.
While the annual event is purportedly hosted by members of Congress, it is actually organized and run by an evangelical Christian organization called The Fellowship Foundation, or “The Family,” as it is referred to internally by its members.
The series, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, takes a look at the group that operates with its own higher purpose — quietly building its influence on global politics “in the name of Jesus.”
“The Fellowship isn’t about faith and it spreads very little. It’s about power,” said Jeff Sharlet, whose books, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy,” inspired the Netflix series.
“Internally, it is spoken of primarily as a ‘recruiting device’ with which to draw ‘key men’ into smaller prayer cells to ‘meet Jesus man to man,’” according to Sharlet. “Practically, the Prayer Breakfast has functioned from the very beginning as an unregistered lobbying festival.”
Citing 2006 documents, Sharlet estimates the number of dedicated organizers who handle recruitment at just 350. Those organizers, however, have built a network of prayer cells that the late Christian Right leader Chuck Colson pegged at 20,000-strong, calling it, “a veritable underground of Christ’s men all through government.”
Sometimes that has meant aligning with politicians who stray from Jesus’ example. In 2009, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford gave a press conference outside of C Street emphasizing his religious pedigree upon resurfacing after disappearing from his state for days to visit a mistress in Argentina.
So, while President Donald Trump may not have the most pious of track records, Sharlet says the Family has embraced the unique opportunity provided by the most fundamentalist Cabinet in recent American history to advocate evangelical policy.
“The Fellowship believes God uses who He wants, and that power itself is an indicator of who He has chosen — it’s a theology of more power for the powerful,” Sharlet explained.
“The fact that Trump, with his “art of the deal,” is especially well-prepared to embrace this transactional theology — Trump puts the Christian Right’s people in power in return of their support — seals the deal.”
President Donald Trump recently took his nationalist road show to the United Nations. During his speech to U.N. delegates, anti-globalist Trump, a pathological liar who daily lies to the American people, said:
Today I stand before the UNGA to share the extraordinary progress [lie] we’ve made. In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country [lie].
After Trump uttered these lies, many of delegates laughed at him, thinking, I am sure, is this man nuts? What’s astounding about his delusional rant is that it was a scripted speech. This wasn’t Trump talking out of his ass. His handlers wanted him to say this, knowing that it was a boldfaced lie.
America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.
My wife, oldest daughter, and I, along with several of our children and grandchildren, recently attended the Christmas Light Drive-Thru at the Defiance County Fairgrounds in Hicksville, Ohio. Attended by thousands of people from Northwest Ohio, Northeast Indiana, and Southern Michigan, the drive-thru is a mishmash of lighted secular and Christian displays. Thousands of dollars and man-hours go into putting on the largest Christmas light display in the area. Volunteers at the entrance held donation buckets for attendees to donate. Not knowing what awaited me beyond the entrance, I threw in a $5 bill.
While the trappings of secular Christmas were everywhere we looked, it became very clear to us that Jesus, along with Christian nationalism, were the true stars of the show. At both the entrance and exit, there were lighted American flag displays. Later in drive-thru, we passed a lighted memorial to the Twin Towers in New York (yeah, it struck me as bizarrely strange too). We later drove by a display that said that God gave the us two things: the cross Jesus died upon and the flag of the United States of America. This display, in particular, was a perfect example of how fused Christianity and right-wing political beliefs lie in the minds rural Midwesterners.
More than a few displays touted Christian clichés: Jesus is the Reason for the Season, Keep Christ in Christmas, to name two. My favorite display was one of a shirtless Santa lounging on a beach. After being assaulted by a barrage of Christian Christmas messages, Santa Bruce and Polly were ready for a trip to the beach too, along with a steady stream of alcoholic beverages.
There was nothing in the Christmas Light Drive-Thru that surprised me. I know rural Northwest Ohio quite well. It is, after all, the land of my birth and where I have spent most of my adult life. This is the land of conservative Christianity, right-wing politics, and Christian nationalism. Recent local outrage over Defiance College football players refusing to stand for the National Anthem revealed that Jesus and the GOP — God’s Only Party — are very much alive and well. Of the numerous letters written to the Defiance Crescent-News about the kneeling players, only three letter writers, including yours truly, supported their actions. The Christmas Light Drive-Thru, then, serves as a reminder of who rules the roost in rural Ohio — Jesus and right-wing politics. I am surprised that the Drive-Thru didn’t have a display of three wise men standing before a crèche while saluting an American flag flapping in the breeze over the white baby Jesus’ manger.
The people behind the Christmas Drive-Thru are decent, good people who simply in their actions reflect the tribal beliefs of most denizens of rural Northwest Ohio. I don’t find fault with the Christmas displays, except for the fact that there were no displays touting the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. I suspect the area’s whiteness and lack of religious diversity has a lot to do with why these “other” holiday themes were not represented. (And if any of the people behind the Christian Light Drive-Thru stumble upon this post, I would love to provide and pay for a Winter Solstice display next year.)
The Drive-Thru cost us $5 and an hour of our time. While it is not likely we will make a return visit, I certainly understand its appeal — a bright shining display touting the beliefs most locals hold dear. I know we are generations away from, if ever, locals seeing and understanding that both the Jesus and Santa on display at the Christmas Light Drive-Thru are myths. As long as the Jesus myth prevails, so will displays touting the rightness of rural, white, conservative Christianity.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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I am someone who is committed to social and economic progress for all Americans. I oppose racism, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia wherever they are found, including in the groups and political parties I support. Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia have left me increasingly feeling as if I am a stranger in this blessed land of ours. Nazis, KKK members, and white supremacists — some of whom were armed with assault rifles — marched in the streets as if we still lived in the 1950s. Counter-protesters pushed back at this vile and ugly display of Donald Trump/Steve Bannon-inspired white nationalism, but I was dismayed to see photographs of people who supposedly have much in common Martin Luther King, Jr. carrying firearms and resorting to violence to get their message across. During President Obama’s eight years in office, great strides were made in areas such as gays serving in the military and same-sex marriage. As a liberal, I thought, better days lie ahead. Thanks to Bernie Sanders and others who hold Democratic Socialist values, the plight of American workers will be improved, health care will be reformed and expanded, and the economic stranglehold the rich and corporations have on the working class will be broken. I naïvely thought that the influence of lobbyists and corporate donations on our political process would finally be ended. Instead, white and Evangelical America rose up and voted Donald Trump into office — the most inept, unqualified man to ever be elected president. Overnight, President Trump has rolled back decades of social progress, dumped billions of dollars of new money into the military-industrial complex, attacked minorities, and used the power of the Federal government to persecute and deport people who are in the United States illegally. Worse yet, President Trump has increased troop levels in the Middle East, threatened to attack Iran and Venezuela, and has us on the cusp of nuclear war with North Korea. And now it is increasingly likely that the President and/or people closely associated with him colluded with Russia to subvert our democratic process.
I find the current state of affairs to be quite depressing, so I try to do things that distract my mind from Trumpmania. Last Saturday, Polly and I, along with our oldest daughter, drove to Napoleon, Ohio to attend the Henry County Fair. We met our two oldest sons and their families at the fair. My sons love tractor pulls, and since Polly and I had never attended such an event, I thought attending the NTPA — (National Tractor Pullers Association) sanctioned tractor pull would be a delightful distraction. Little did I know that Christian nationalism would be front and center at the pull.
It comes as no surprise that the crowd was white. During the four-plus hours I sat in the stands, I saw all of one black person. An Asian family sat in back of us for a short while, but after having their fill of high-horsepowered machines, they got up and left. Prior to the start of the event, I expected the announcer would ask everyone to stand, remove their hats, place their right hands over their hearts, and face the flag as someone screeched out the Star Spangled Banner. While I personally despise the singing of the National Anthem (and God Bless America) at sporting events — a tradition dating back to the World Wars — I acquiesce, removing my hat and placing it over my heart. Unfortunately, minutes — long, painful minutes — before the singing of the National Anthem, the announcer launched into a diatribe better suited for the brown shirts In Charlottesville who were, at the same time, showing their support for nationalism, militarism, and Christianity.
First, the announcer had everyone stand, remove their hats, and place their right hands over their hearts, not for the singing of the National Anthem, but for the saying of a sectarian prayer to the Christian God. He demanded everyone conform, and then launched into a full-blown — are we at an Evangelical church? — masturbatory prayer to Jesus. The prayer was completed with the announcer saying, and all God’s people said AMEN. The stands reverberated with an orgasmic AMEN! with virtually everyone around me lending their vocal approval. No shock here. This is rural Northwest Ohio, the land of Christian God, guns, American militarism, and overt displays of nationalism.
Having attended countless sporting events over the years, I have had to listen to innumerable inane, stupid — and at times hilarious — Christian prayers. I was not, however, ready for what happened next. Once the prayer was finished, the announcer asked everyone to remain standing for the next ritual, the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance. Before leading the crowd in a profession of fealty to the United States and to the Christian God, the announcer went on a several minute-long harangue about how great America was, how awesome our military was, and how parents need to teach their children the importance of blind, nationalistic patriotism.
Once the Pledge of Allegiance was duly uttered, it was time for the singing of the National Anthem. I thought, finally escape looms near. Unfortunately, everyone in attendance was forced to listen to part three of the announcer’s Ain’t ‘merica Great sermon first, and then the appointed singer sang the National Anthem. Thinking my hell on earth was finally over, I started to sit down, only to find out that the announcer wasn’t done. Since there were Canadians in attendance at the tractor pull, it was deemed appropriate to play the Canadian National Anthem. Thankfully, no one was called on to sing O Canada.
As I always do when attending sporting events, I refused to remove my hat for the praying of the prayer to the Christian God. This God is not my God, and I find such displays of sectarianism at events open to the public offensive. As far as I could see in front of me and to the left and right, I was the only man who refused to uncover his head. The saying of the Pledge of Allegiance elicited the same response from me. I refuse to pledge my allegiance to America, its flag, or the Christian God. I know the saying of the Pledge has its roots in the anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s. As a Christian, I refused to say the pledge because my only allegiance was to Jesus. These days, I refuse because of the connection of the Pledge to nationalism and militarism.
I am sure some readers might wonder how, constitutionally, the announcer could get by with the sectarian prayer and sermonizing. Ohio county fairs are actually private events. Agricultural boards rent the fairgrounds from their respective counties and are free to do whatever they want. I learned this years ago when I got into a skirmish in Southeast Ohio with the Perry County sheriff and county fair officials. I had gone, along with a group of people from the church I pastored at the time, to the fairgrounds to hand out tracts and preach. The local sheriff, with whom I had a running battle, threatened to arrest me if I didn’t immediately stop what I was doing and leave the fairgrounds. I refused, threatening both him and the fair board with a lawsuit for violating my first amendment rights. They backed down, but a few weeks later I received a letter from the Ohio Attorney General informing me the Ohio fairs were private events and as such I could be arrested for trespassing if I continued to hand out tracts and preach. Ironically, Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) was permitted to have on fair property a train caboose-like vehicle they used to trap children into watching movies or other forms of entertainment so they then could be evangelized. (At the Henry County Fair, there was a man preaching and handing out tracts. He was allowed to do so unmolested.)
The tractor pull itself was quite entertaining, and both Polly and I enjoyed watching the loud, thunderous machines pull a weighted sled down the track. My sons informed me that this Saturday’s NTPA national event at the Wood County fairgrounds in Bowling Green, Ohio will even be worse when it comes to worship of the Christian God and the promotion of American exceptionalism and nationalism. Not only will there be a prayer and a pledge, there will also be the playing of numerous patriotic country songs. The songs of flag-wavers such as Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood will blare across the pull grounds, as men and women who proudly wear the redneck label thank God for horsepower and the smell of racing fuel. I’ll pass, thank you.
Last Saturday, Polly and I drove to Ontario, Ohio (near Mansfield) to meet her parents for a late lunch. While driving to Texas Roadhouse, we came upon a Donald Trump rally. The pictures that follow will clearly show that there is a symbiotic connection between Evangelical Christianity and the Trump presidency. These Evangelicals are certain that Donald Trump is God’s man, and only he can lead America to the Promised Land.
Last Saturday, Polly and I drove to Ontario, Ohio (near Mansfield) to meet her parents for a late lunch. While driving to Texas Roadhouse, we came upon a Donald Trump rally. The pictures that follow will clearly show that there is a symbiotic connection between Evangelical Christianity and the Trump presidency. These Evangelicals are certain that Donald Trump is God’s man, and only he can lead America to the Promised Land.
It was ten after four as I pulled into the Bryan High School parking lot. I arrived thirty minutes before game time so I could make sure that I had a first-row seat for the night’s slate of basketball games between the Swanton Bulldogs and the Bryan Golden Bears. Bethany, my daughter with Down Syndrome, was with me. Armed with pens and spiral notebooks, she spent the night drawing pictures and entertaining those who sat nearby.
I brought my camera equipment with me. I ALWAYS bring my cameras, feeling naked on those rare occasions when I leave them at home. I love watching high school basketball games. I am reminded of a time long ago — forty years ago now — when a young redhead boy sprinted up and down the court, hoping his meager effort would lead to a team victory. Never a great player, I still love the machinations of the game. Tonight’s varsity match was a blowout until late in the fourth quarter when Swanton mounted a comeback. A flurry of shots fell through the net, trimming Bryan’s lead to eight. I wondered, would Swanton find a way to snatch victory out of jaws of defeat? Alas, it was not to be. Swanton lost all three games — ninth grade, junior varsity, and varsity. My cousin’s son plays on Swanton’s ninth grade team. He, statistically, had a great game, but his fellow teammates did not.
I knew that tonight was going to be difficult me. It was Veteran’s Night — an opportunity for locals to recognize and applaud veterans for their service. Surrounding me were fans wearing Trump tee shirts and hats, along with hundreds of people wearing flag apparel. These are the same people who would be outraged if I burnt a flag, demanding my arrest for violating the “flag code.” Lost on them are their own violations of the code with their Trumpesque accoutrements.
The public address announcer let the crowd know that the pregame events would begin with the Bryan band playing God Bless America. Everyone stood to their feet as the band began to play America’s second national anthem. Those near me put hands over their hearts, and several of them lustfully sang the words made infamous by the terrorist attacks on 9-11.
I did not stand, silently voicing my disapproval of the insertion of Christianity into a secular public high school event. It is not easy for me to do so. I can feel the stares, and in the past I have had people rebuke me for not giving Jesus his due. I remind those who dare to challenge me that I am an atheist and a secularist. Why should I give reverence to a mythical deity or show my support for those who care little for the separation of church and state.
Once the Christian Tabernacle Choir® finished with their hymn of praise and worship to America’s God, it was time to move on to the patriotic portion of the pregame events. The announcer asked all the veterans in attendance to stand while the rest of us stayed seated. Dozens of veterans stood as people cheered and young millennials ran to them, giving them high fives and thanking them for their service. I did not clap, hoping that since we were seated no one would notice my lack of applause. Alas, I was quickly outed as the crowd rose to its feet, applauding and cheering those who were lucky enough not to return home in a body bag. Their raucous applause went on for several minutes.
I was the only person not standing. Across the way stood my uncle, a veteran of the Vietnam War. I am sure my refusal to participate in the night’s glorification of American militarism offended him. However, he knows that my refusal to do so is a matter of principle for me. I resolutely stand in opposition American imperialism and militarism. My refusal to stand is me saying that I oppose America’s continued involvement in violent, unwinnable wars in the Middle East. Without soldiers, politicians would not be able to stuff American exceptionalism down the throats of the world. Most of all I refuse to stand because I don’t want one more drop of blood shed in my name. I don’t want American men and women dying just so I can have the “freedom” to watch basketball games. I will gladly not watch another sporting event if it means no more violence, carnage, and bloodshed. How dare we cheapen military deaths with empty words about freedom and the American way of life. Enough! I say, to the endless violence and destruction.
After the veterans were seated, it was time for the playing of the National Anthem. As is my custom, I stood, removed my hat, and held it over my heart with my right hand. As the band played, I turned my gaze to the flag and quietly sang the Anthem. A tear trickled down my cheek as I pondered what has become of the United States of America, the land of the free and home of the brave.
I spent fifty years in the Christian church. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. I attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Bible College in the 1970s. Most my Christian life was spent either attending or pastoring Baptist churches. As young aspiring pastor, I was taught that there was a strict separation between church and state; that freedom of religion was absolutely crucial to the life of the American Republic and to the status of religion. Church and state were equal planes, each having their sphere of influence. Churches and preachers didn’t meddle in matters of state, and the government was expected to keep its nose out of church business. In the late 1970s, things began to change with the establishment of the Moral Majority by Paul Weyrich, Ed McAteer, and Jerry Falwell. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, scores of parachurch groups were started for the express purpose of reclaiming America for God. These promoters of American nationalism and exceptionalism flexed their muscles during the recent 2016 presidential election, delivering to Americans their next president, Donald Trump.
The last thirty years have brought a radical change in Evangelical thinking concerning the freedom of religion and separation of church and state. The impenetrable barrier between church and state that President John F. Kennedy spoke of in the 1960s is now considered a fabrication of liberals meant to destroy Evangelical, conservative Catholic, and Mormon Christianity. One presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, even went so far as to say that the separation of church and state is a myth; that the founding fathers never meant to exclude Christians and their religion from influencing and controlling government. These deniers of separation of church and state believe, to the man, that the United States has been uniquely chosen by God — a special nation above all others. Believing that the United States is a Christian nation, these theocrats spend their waking hours attempting to take over government at every level. Having trampled over the wall of separation of church and state, these warriors for God intend on returning America to what they consider its Christian roots. Now that Donald Trump has been elected president and God-fearing, flag-waving Republicans control Congress, we can expect to see a full-bore frontal assault on laws and policies meant to keep church and state separate.
While Evangelicals have discarded the notion of the separation between church and state, considering it myth, they continue to say that they support the First Amendment and the idea of freedom of religion. However, their idea of freedom of religion is far different from what has generally been understood in the past. The freedom of religion and separation of church and state go hand-in-hand. Can we have the freedom to worship or not worship as we please if the government gives preference to Christianity? As history clearly shows, any time religion and state are one, freedoms and liberty are lost and people die. Who is it that is clamoring for the national registration of Muslims and the banning of immigrants from non-Christian countries? Who is it that is demanding that prayer and Bible study be permitted in public schools? Who is it that wants creationism taught as science and the 10 Commandments posted on public school classroom walls? Who is it that is tirelessly working to overturn societal progress on same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and abortion? Who is it that is clamoring for the government to adopt a nationwide voucher program that will pay for students to attend private Christian schools? Evangelicals and their conservative compatriots in other sects, that’s who.
So when Evangelicals talk about the freedom of religion, remember what they really mean is freedom for THEIR religion, and their religion alone. While they with their lips say that they support the freedom of all religions, what they really mean is that they support your right to worship your God freely as long as it doesn’t interfere with or influence the American religion — Christianity — and its control of government. Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian religions will be tolerated only so far as they stay out of the way. According to theocratic Evangelicals, their God alone is the one true ruler over all, and the Bible is the standard by which we should not only govern our lives but our nation. And those atheists who have tirelessly worked to make sure the wall of separation of church and state is absolute? They will be expected to stop harassing fine Christian school officials and government leaders who only want to follow the dictates of God and the Bible. People who spent their lives working to change the legal system and its brutal punishment of the poor and people of color will likely see a return to the days of an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth. Again, appeals will be made to the Bible and its code of justice. It should not surprise anyone when Evangelicals call for re-criminalizing homosexuality, adultery, fornication, and marijuana use.
Remember these things the next time your Evangelical friends, family members, or coworkers say they support the freedom of religion. You might want to ask them what they mean by “freedom of religion.” Do they mean freedom equally for all religions? Do they mean freedom to not believe in any gods at all? Do they support the separation of church and state? If not, do they believe America is a Christian nation? Would they be okay with a Muslim president or the building of a mosque next door to their Baptist Church? If Christian prayers and Bible readings are permitted in public schools, would they be okay with Muslim prayers and Buddhist teachings being given the same level of support? As you ask these types of questions, you will likely find out that what your Evangelical acquaintances really mean when they say freedom of religion is “freedom for the Christian religion.” Believing that secularism equals socialism and communism, these worshipers of the Christian God want a culture that is dominated and controlled by Christian beliefs and philosophies.
Now that God’s Only Party (GOP) controls the federal government and most state governments, we can expect to see attempts to derail and destroy the social progress of the last fifty years. I suspect that savvy Evangelical parachurch groups will use state and federal courts to bulldoze the wall of separation of church and state, leaving its rubble as a monument to the days when social progressives thought they could challenge the authority of the Christian God. And it is for this reason that those of us who value religious freedom must not idly stand by while Evangelicals attempt to remake America into a new version of the 1950s. Don’t think for a moment that such monumental societal change cannot happen. It can and it will if we stand by and do nothing. It is time for us to quit whining about Bernie and Hillary losing. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States and he has a Republican majority behind him who is anxious to re-create America in the image of the capitalistic Christian God. If Trump succeeds in putting several Antonin Scalia-like justices on the Supreme Court, we can expect to see a rapid undoing of decades of social progress. Sensing that they might have a short window in which get their way, Evangelicals will be working overtime to make sure that Trump and Congress put God back on the throne of the United States of Christian America. Those of us who value and understand freedom of religion and the separation of church and state must do everything in our power to make sure that this does not happen.
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This is the one hundred and thirty-fifth installment in The Sounds of Fundamentalism series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a video clip that shows the crazy, cantankerous, or contradictory side of Evangelical Christianity, please send me an email with the name or link to the video. Please do not leave suggestions in the comment section. Let’s have some fun!
Today’s Sound of Fundamentalism is a clip of a speech given by Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 deeply wounded the psyche of Christian nationalists. Thinking that the United States had favored nation status with God, these white, middle-class, Republican, Evangelical Christians thought that our country was invincible. The Christian nation myth is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is almost impossible to get Evangelicals to see and understand the facts of the matter — that the United States is a schoolyard bully that uses violence and extortion to advance its globalist agenda. No, no, no, the United States is a Christian nation, says Evangelicals. We are a good, kind, and loving people who want what’s best for the world. Best being, of course, Christianity and capitalism. From its earliest days, United States has used violence to conquer all those who oppose her. One need only to look to the Middle East to see that the United States still thinks that bombs and bullets are the best way to settle any conflict. Even more troubling is the fact that millions of Americans plan on voting for a man who not only embraces the use of violence but wants to expand its use, going so far as to suggest that the United States needs to drop nuclear bombs on its enemies
These violence-loving Christians — thinking that the United States is some sort of global dispenser of God’s justice — are increasingly incensed over what they perceive to be a lack of fealty to their version of the Christian God. Ignoring the fact that the United States is a secular state, flag-waving Evangelicals demand that their God and their religion be given preferential treatment. Any pushback from atheists, humanists, secularists, or Christians who support the separation of church and state is viewed as persecution. Pretty soon the Christmas season will be upon us, and social media, along with Faux News, will be filled with stories about the “war on Christmas.” Businesses that don’t have their employees say Merry Christmas to their customers are viewed as anti-Christian. The same story is played out over and over throughout the year as Evangelicals whine, scream, and complain about the supposed secularist takeover of America. Again, facts don’t matter. Christians feel threatened by the restoration of the proper place of the separation of church and state in our government institutions, and instead of realizing that Christianity actually benefits from this, Evangelicals attempt to force God on people through public displays of Christian power. One such display is the singing of God Bless America at sporting events.
Last Friday, I attended the Wayne Trace-Tinora high school football game. A few minutes before game time, Wayne Trace’s marching band came on the field to play what I thought would be the Star-Spangled Banner. Imagine my surprise when they played, not the national anthem, but God Bless America. Fans on both sides of the field stood, removed their hats, and placed their hands over the hearts as the band played America’s new national anthem. I, for one, did not stand, nor did I take my hat off or put my hand over my heart. I find such displays of Christian nationalism to be offensive and I refuse to give my tacit support to anything that promotes the America-is-a-Christian-Nation myth.
After the playing of God Bless America, the band played the Star-Spangled Banner. At that moment, I stood, removed my hat, placed my hand over my heart, and quietly mouthed the words to the national anthem. While I’m not a big fan of singing the national anthem at sporting events, I recognize doing so is an attempt to express the common patriotic bond Americans have with one another. Personally, I wish they’d stop singing the national anthem, especially since in recent years its singing has often been used to advance militarism and display American military prowess. How else can we explain the use of military personnel to unfurl the flag or the Air Force jet flyovers as the anthem is being sung?
Several years ago, I attended a Sunday service at a Lutheran Church outside of Newark Ohio. As part of its worship service — I kid you not — the pastor led the congregation in singing the national anthem and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought, at the time, how ironic to see this in a Lutheran Church. Seventy-five years ago, such displays of Christian nationalism were common in Hitler’s Germany. Both the Lutheran and Catholic churches played a significant part in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. It is not beyond the pale of human imagination to see the same thing happening in the United States if Donald Trump is elected president. Like Hitler, Trump is not a Christian, but he is smart enough to see that Christian nationalism can be used to advance his political agenda. Evangelicals in particular have been manipulated and used by the Republican Party for the past 40 years. And once again, in 2016, they are being used to advance a pernicious agenda that could lead to World War III. And what will these God-fearing, flag-waving Christians do when war comes to the shores of the United States? Why, they will wave their flags, sing God Bless America, and with great pride pledge their allegiance to America’s Christian God.
By now, I am sure that virtually every reader of this blog knows about and has an opinion concerning San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick has been praised and brutalized in the press. I have been hesitant to give my opinion on the matter, fearing how some people might respond to my position. When it comes to the US military, law enforcement, the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, and political/social movements such as Black Lives Matter, most Americans have strong positive or negative feelings. I too have strong feelings.
First, I fully support Colin Kaepernick. He has a First Amendment right to protest, speak his mind, and refuse to swear allegiance to the flag of a country that he believes directly and indirectly supports the oppression of people of color. All Americans have the right to voice their dissent, and I applaud Kaepernick for his willingness to voice his on a national stage.
Second, while there is some debate about the legality of Kaepernick’s unwillingness to honor the American flag, whatever laws might be on the books, the US Supreme Court has made it clear in its ruling on the constitutionality of burning the American flag that acts of dissent and civil disobedience are protected First Amendment behaviors. I’m astounded by the fact that many supposedly educated people think Kaepernick should be publicly and privately punished for his dissent. The moment we stifle or outlaw dissent is the moment when we cease to be a nation that values freedom and liberty.
Now let me state very clearly how I personally view these matters. I realize that some readers will be incensed by some of the things I say in this post. That’s fine. People are free to voice disagreement or even be angry or hateful towards my viewpoint. All I can do is live according to the dictates of my conscience.
While I understand the need for a military, it troubles me deeply that the US military has been used to promote colonialism, imperialism, and American exceptionalism across the globe. I find it beyond offensive that American troops (along with the CIA and NSA) have been used to overthrow democratically elected governments, wage wars against political enemies, and expand the iron grip of American capitalism. American soldiers since 9/11 are directly responsible for the slaughter of innocent men, women, and children. This coming year I will be 60 years old. The United States has been at war somewhere in the world my entire life. We now rain unholy hell from the skies through a drone program that supposedly kills only the bad guys. We now know drone strikes do indeed kill terrorists, but they also cause what our political and military leaders like to call “collateral damage.” I wonder what we would think of the term “collateral damage” if it were our children, our wives, our parents, our grandparents, and our siblings that were being slaughtered with bombs shot from machines that are controlled by soldiers thousands of miles away?
Yesterday, President Obama authorized spending of $90 million for the use of eliminating 40-year-old bombs that were dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Laotian people have been killed because they accidentally stumbled upon American bombs. These bombs are a perfect reminder of the senselessness of war and our inability to find ways to settle differences without the use of violence. The United States remains the only nation on the face of the earth to have used nuclear weapons against civilian populations. Instead of realizing the danger of nuclear weapons and working towards total disarmament, the American government is now working on improving its nuclear arsenal. Is there no end in sight to such madness? Fifty years ago a Trappist monk by the name of Thomas Merton said the world was on the precipice of a nuclear holocaust. Nothing has happened in the intervening years that has changed this fact. The doomsday clock continues to tick. Which nation will it be that pushes the red button and obliterates the human race off the face of the earth? Naïve Americans like to think it will never be the United States, but history tells us that our leaders have been quite willing to slaughter vast numbers of people for political and economic gain. It’s time we stop living the lie, the one that we were taught in school, that Americans are basically good people. We’re not, and quite frankly we never have been. Only by ignoring our history can Americans look in the mirror and see themselves as a good people. Maybe there was a time when we had good intentions, but those days are long gone. Naked ambition and a thirst for political power and economic supremacy is now the engine that drives our political class. Unwilling to die themselves, our overlords use US military power to advance their agenda.
It sickens me every time I hear someone say — usually before the playing of the national anthem — that American soldiers are dying overseas so we can enjoy the freedoms we have here. Let me be blunt. This is bullshit. Our invasions of Iraq (both times) and Afghanistan, along with our military interventions in numerous countries across the globe have become the fuel that fires the hatred terrorists have for America. While I think the teachings of the Quran play a significant part in the bloodthirsty actions of Islamic terrorists, I refuse to turn a blind eye to the fact that the country of my birth is somewhat culpable for the rise of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations. The US military has killed countless civilians and used torture against combatants and noncombatants alike. Almost 8 years after President Barack Obama said he would close Guantánamo Bay, it remains open, an ever-present reminder of America’s use of torture and violence to advance its agenda.
I refuse to be cowed by demands that I blindly and without reservation support the US military. I do not support military interventionism, expansionism, or offensive wars. The US military should be used for defensive purposes only. So when someone tells me that US soldiers are fighting on my behalf, I say, not in my name! Not in my name! I have never asked soldiers to shed their blood or remain in some foreign land just so I can have the freedom to pursue the delusional American dream. I do not want one more person to die a meaningless, senseless death in wars that cannot be won. This does not mean that I am anti-military. It does mean, however, that I am anti-violence. When the Huns are at the gate, it’s time to fight. When Muslims are fighting against each other in the Middle East over whose religious beliefs are the right ones, the fight is theirs not ours.
I attend numerous sporting events each year, and I can’t remember the last time when the playing and singing the Star-Spangled Banner was not directly connected to American militarism. Wounded American soldiers are displayed for all to see as the national anthem is sung — supposedly as reminders of why we are singing the song. Sporting venues roll out huge flags that are manned by military personnel. Sometimes military jets fly overhead, reminding attendees that the United States is the meanest, baddest, and most powerful nation on the face of the earth. While the crowd claps and chants USA! USA! USA!, I quietly hang my head, waiting for the nationalistic masturbation to end. While I still stand, remove my hat, and even sing the Star-Spangled Banner, I do so not out of loyalty or respect, but because I am still grateful that I live in a land that affords me great liberty, freedom, and economic security.
I draw the line, however, on the Pledge of Allegiance. I refuse to pledge my allegiance to a country that plays an instrumental part in much that is wrong in the world. I am in no way saying that I want to live in some other country, but I’m also not willing to say that the United States is the single best country on the face of the earth. I refuse to pledge my allegiance to a God that does not exist or to a political and economic structure that now causes great harm not only to its citizens, but the world. As I do with public prayers and the singing of God Bless America, I refuse to participate when called on to swear my allegiance to the government bought and paid for by Wall Street. While I certainly plan to vote in November, I do so because I fear what a Donald Trump presidency might do to America. That a narcissistic psychopath could even be on the ballot tells me that our political system is broken. Bernie Sanders is right. We need a political revolution. Hillary Clinton is not the answer. She is a centrist corporate Democrat, who will have no problem continuing to use the military to advance America’s worldwide agenda and dominance. She is, sadly, more of the same.
On my more pessimistic days (this is not one of them) I think that our Republic is too far gone to be saved. We no longer have a representative form of government. An oligarchy controls the political process and the economy. Corporate influence and money has destroyed Congress’ ability to act in the best interest of the American people. Our political leaders are little more than whores and shills for whoever shoves the most money in their g-strings. Until lobbyists are run out of Washington DC, “he who has the most money” will win, thereby controlling the government. This is not a Republican/Democrat problem. It is systemic, and until we are willing to destroy the system, things will continue as they now are. What is needed most today is for tens of millions of Colin Kaepernicks to use their spheres of influence to effect lasting political change. I am willing to be one such person and I hope you are too.
Yesterday, I caught up on back episodes of the TV show Tyrant. One episode featured a Muslim cleric telling a group of school children that they were soldiers in God’s Army. These children were later killed in a government attack on a terrorist training camp. This same cleric forgot to tell these children that they would be used as pawns in the war against America and the government of the fictional country Abuddin. Killed in an attack on the terrorist camp, the dead bodies of these children were filmed so they could be used in anti-government propaganda videos. A horrific scene to be sure, one that is played out time and again in the Middle East.
As I listened to the Muslim cleric tell the children that they were soldiers in God’s Army, my thought turned to the Evangelical Junior Church staple song, I’m in the Lord’s Army. Everyone now:
Harmless kid’s song? Sure, but consider for a moment how much time and money Evangelicals spend indoctrinating their children. (Please see Do Fundamentalist Christians Indoctrinate Their Children?) Throw in Christian nationalism, American exceptionalism, Bible literalism, and “Second Amendment remedies” — why, it is easy to see that, in the future, some Evangelical churches will become training camps for youthful recruits for The Lord’s Army. Preposterous? Perhaps, but consider how easily fascist Donald Trump has turned countless Evangelicals into supporters of policies that could plunge the United States into civil war.
Earlier this year, armed Christians took over a government building, believing that God wanted them to take a stand against tyranny and attacks on personal and religious freedom. So-called Patriot Pastors are now defiantly breaking federal and state laws, believing that freedom of religion is under attack by liberals, secularists, humanists, and atheists. Calling for more “Christian” laws, scores of Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons now believe that the Separation of Church and State is a myth. Many of the domestic terrorist attacks over the past thirty-five years have been committed by Christians who have turned to violence to right perceived wrongs. White power groups such as the KKK — once thought to be buried beneath the rubble of the race riots of the 1960s — are drawing new soldiers to their war against multiculturalism and non-whites. These groups are almost always Christian.
Given the right circumstances and motivations, I can envision Christian churches, pastors, and parents encouraging children to be soldiers in the Christian God’s Army. One need only to watch how Westboro Baptist Church uses children to promote bigotry and hatred. Is it really a stretch to think that rabid Christians could turn to violence to advance their agendas? And even if you think I am out of my mind to think that such thing are possible, consider the fact that millions of American children are taught that there is no greater privilege than to give one’s life for Jesus. Be it in a life devoted to servitude or being martyred, these children are taught, “only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will pass” – Only One Life by C.T. Studd. (Please see The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss, A Book Review) Martyrdom is very much a part of the many Christian sects. What better way to prove one’s faith than to die for it?