Theocratic Doin’s A-Transpirin’

The Houston Chronicle (7/31) has an interesting report by writer Joe Holley on Texas Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming “Day of Prayer and Fasting,” officially called “The Response,” scheduled for August 6. Now I’m a bit skeptical about the “fasting” part of this. Take a look at any crowd of Texans, and you can tell that they are not really into the fasting thing. In Texas, “Caution: Wide Load” signs have to be worn by pedestrians. “A Day of Prayer and Bar-B-Q” will probably be more like it. But I’m sure there will be plenty of prayin’ an’ beseechin’ th’ Lord. The Governor says that America is in such an awful mess that government cannot help and only Jesus can save us now. An aide to the Governor says that the event will be so that people can humbly request divine help. Hmmmm. For some reason “Rick Perry” and “humble” just do not seem to go together.

Now the sponsors of the Perry Prayerpalooza are an interesting lot. The best known sponsor is The American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi. The AFA was founded in 1971 by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, a hysterical wingnut who started out campaigning against sex on TV (remember Sally Struthers’ shockingly short skirts on All in the Family?) but has since broadened his scope to encompass the whole religious right demonology (gay rights, feminism, and evil-lution). Other sponsors include IHOP, no, not your favorite pancake house, but the International House of Prayer (yes, the pancake chain is suing). IHOPrayer was founded by Mike Bickle, a self-trained evangelist (he don’t need no stinkin’ seminary degrees) who preaches that in these Last Days a Satan-inspired false religion has emerged, the religion of Harlot Babylon. And who is the prophet of this evil religion? Why, it is none other than Oprah Winfrey! (Seriously. I am not making this up. No one could.).

An affiliate of Bickle’s is Lou Engle, who travelled to Uganda last year to support pathological homophobes who want to impose the death penalty on gays. Holley also reports that:

Organizers of The Response also have enlisted the help of a loose association of ministers and activists calling themselves the New Apostolic Reformation…According to their writings, followers of the movement believe they are leading an army of God that will take over society and civilian government.

This confuses the issue for me. Is Perry going to run for president or ayatollah?

Woo. I’m scared enough to offer up a prayer of my own: “Jesus, protect me from your followers!”

Not to worry says Professor Barry Hankins, historian of religion at Baylor University. They don’t really mean it. Such hyperbolic language is just preaching in the apocalyptic tradition of The Book of Revelation, and should not be taken literally. Such talk is just cheerleading to fire up the troops, not a straightforward expression of actual aims or intents.

One often hears such apologiae for extremist language. It is a pretty clever argument. When someone takes offense at extremist language, this defense takes the burden off the speaker and places it on the allegedly obtuse literalism of the hearer. However, when people stand up in public and say with a straight face that they plan to take over the country, I do not think that I am guilty of hermeneutical naiveté when I interpret them as meaning that they plan to take over the country. Besides, such a defense is utterly hypocritical and amounts to little more than special pleading. Suppose that Christopher Hitchens, addressing a supportive crowd at the Center for Inquiry, called for taxing churches and removing the nonprofit status of all religious advocacy groups (like the AFA). Would Hankins reassure outraged evangelicals that Hitchens did not mean it and was just tossing some red meat to the humanist troops? After all, nonbelivers have their rather strident rhetorical traditions too (e.g., Paine, Ingersoll, O’Hair). If Hankins would take Hitchens literally, and he would, why shouldn’t we take the religious right’s spokesmen as meaning what they say?

Actually, I have a much simpler explanation than Professor Hankins’ as to why these people are saying these things. They are nuts. They are stark raving bay-at-the-moon mad. Has it actually come to the point in this country where a candidate for the presidency will openly and unapologetically consort with extremist lunatics? Yes. Yes it has.