Over the past four years, I’ve researched the darkest regions of the Christian right for the non-fiction film Silhouette City. The film tracks the movement of apocalyptic Christian nationalism from the margins of American society to its current presence in the mainstream of public discourse and policy. I began making Silhouette City because, in late 2001, I began to hear echoes of the Christian extremism from my childhood in Arkansas. In order to quiet the ringing in my ears, I immersed myself in the contemporary Christian right – the media, music, ministries, books, personalities and organizational apparatuses. Those familiar with the excesses of the movement (and their opponents) can be excused for collectively yawning in the face of yet another seemingly alarmist diatribe on the subject of crusading religionists, but apocalyptic Christian nationalism doesn’t simply lose its adherents because the media narrative has shifted.
As the economy continues to slide, the energy crisis becomes palpable and the occupation of Iraq appears indefinite, the potential grows for a major disruption of daily life. A significant percentage of the population (1) sees these looming crises through a specific lens: a belief that humanity is waging the opening skirmishes of a cosmic war between Good and Evil that will usher in the Kingdom of God. Such belief enables an ever-escalating sense of urgency – very real threats to the middle and lower classes (outsourcing, rising fuel and food costs, etc) combine with perceived threats (secularism, homosexuality, ethnic/religious others) to become overwhelming evidence of the tribulations that signal apocalypse.
While the middle class may be currently experiencing apocalyptic visions, in the late 1970’s and throughout the 80’s, these visions were common among the ranks of the lower classes – specifically, the rural poor. The militia movement arose in direct response to what we now see as the early stages of globalization – and, a fact that is often forgotten, the militia movement was a religious one. In April 1985, 200 FBI agents surrounded a compound occupied by the Christian survivalist group known as “The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord”. The Ozark-based CSA (the acronym was no accident) had been the focus of scrutiny since it’s founding in 1971 by James Ellison, a fundamentalist preacher. After receiving a vision of America’s imminent collapse, Ellison recruited a congregation of more than 100 survivalists to build a communal settlement on 224 acres of remote northern Arkansas land in preparation for the “coming tribulations”. Their Statement of Purpose explains:
“We believe in all of the Covenants God made with his people, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Israel to now! We believe the Two Edged Sword of God’s Spirit is coming in judgment to the earth, and that His Arm – that part of His body which will administer judgment – is nearing manifestation now.”
Ellison likened his plight to that of the biblical prophet Elijah, who railed against the decadence of his own time and whose physical trail (hiding in the town of Zarephath and on Mt. Horeb) became the name of Ellison’s community: Zarephath-Horeb. The group was founded on a utopian desire to emulate the early Christians and to be “as a City upon a Hill” – a shining example of Christian values to the outside world.
Their isolated utopian vision became steadily more exclusionary and puritanical. Convinced of their singular duty, they stockpiled arms and food, adopted a racist, anti- Semitic faith known as “Christian Identity” (originating in the Puritan worldview which foresaw the establishment of a `New Israel’ in America, realizing God’s design in confronting the wilderness), practiced polygamy and established the “Endtime Overcomer Training School” also known as “Silhouette City.” The school offered courses in marksmanship, paramilitary tactics, wilderness survival and “Christian martial arts”. Modeled on the FBI shooting range in Virginia used to train agents in hitting targets surrounded by innocent bystanders, Silhouette City featured pop-up silhouettes of Jewish leaders, ethnic minorities and federal agents. The group financed its activities by training would-be Christian warriors from throughout the country and by selling guns, survival gear and radical “Christian patriot” literature at gun shows. They prided themselves on their revolutionary dedication. One of their pamphlets, titled “Prepare War”, declares:
“The honor of ruling, of fighting, of overcoming (conquering), is one that changes us from glory to glory. Jesus tells us that at the end of this age He will send forth his armies, gathering those who would not have him reign over them, and will slay them before Him!…We desire a better America, a better world – free of the pollutions, bondages and perversities of this evil age…America, in Gaelic, means `The Kingdom of Heaven come to Earth.’ The Kingdom of God is now approaching.”
By fusing an overtly apocalyptic worldview with militant activity, the CSA provided the ideological/operational model for the militia movement – in fact, they devised a plan to destroy the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City over ten years before Timothy McVeigh committed the act (2). Although the group initially adopted a defensive posture, CSA’s apocalyptic ideology emphasized the need for active involvement in initiating the beginning of the end(times). The CSA represented the apotheosis of prevailing southern religious, political and military values – yet they adopted an oppositional attitude toward the dominant culture and were, therefore, perceived to be a threat to civil society. After a tense standoff, the CSA was forcibly disbanded by the FBI in 1985. Militia groups would continue to thrive throughout the 1990’s, but the viability of a violent, separatist uprising of the disenfranchised right was demonstrated to be futile and counterproductive.
The very next year, however, a much more patient and politically-savvy group of fundamentalists from around the country convened a “Continental Congress” in Washington DC. This group, the Coalition on Revival, was a theologically-diverse assortment of conservatives united by three basic beliefs:
1. A primal golden age of American Christian Nationhood (from the founding until the mid-twentieth century)
2. The loss of this golden age through the steady infection of secularist values
3. The need to reclaim Christian nationhood by any and all means necessary.
The group’s overriding goal was to achieve a fundamentalist hegemony in all spheres of secular life – an activity. they called “advancing the Kingdom of God” – but that could be more properly termed theocratic.(3) To this end, the COR advocated a “stealth” approach – revealing little, if any, of their true intentions when attempting to gain positions of power – and a set of blueprints for obtaining and exercising power in the various secular “spheres”.(4) The congress culminated in a “blood covenant” – a dramatic oath to advance the Kingdom even unto death, if necessary.
The Christian right has seen an exponential growth in influence since the mid-1980’s. It’s first major electoral milestone, the presidential bid of Pat Robertson in 1988, was intended to illustrate the progress achieved by the COR and other groups. However, his campaign coincided with a wave of sex and financial scandals involving prominent televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and the movement seemed to be in decline. The first of many subsequent waves of declarations about the “death of the Christian Right” occurred after this seeming defeat. (5) Instead, the movement spent the next few years re-grouping and nurturing the millions of citizens who were recruited and/or radicalized through the campaign. In the ascendancy of Bush II and in the religious fervor following the WTC attack, we saw how premature the supposed “death of the Christian right” actually was.
And yet, we find ourselves in an apparent return to 1988 – this time Ted Haggard can be substituted for Jimmy Swaggart and Mike Huckabee for Pat Robertson. The striking parallels seem to refute the notion of the movement’s decline and, instead, support a more cyclic progress. But the analogy also offers up another lesson – the overall arc of influence of this movement is increasing. After all, Haggard’s drug-fueled, homosexual prostitution scandal was much more lurid than Swaggart’s heterosexual prototype. Despite this fact, Mike Huckabee, an apocalyptic Christian nationalist, won the Iowa caucus, became the Republican frontrunner for a time and was treated as a serious contender for the nomination – far surpassing the brief but significant effect of Robertson’s campaign.
Over the past four years, I’ve researched the darkest regions of the Christian right. In that time, I and the others involved in the film (Natalie Zimmerman and Holen Kahn) identified two men whose influence and power seemed most threatening: John Hagee and Rod Parsley. I have followed these two men – their writings, their broadcasts and their public appearances – and I have seen the radical effect of their carefully constructed, yet utterly fantastical arguments in the sudden show of understanding in the eyes of their followers. I have seen the emotional effect of their showmanship – an intensity unmatched by any other ministry I witnessed. Both men preside over large influential ministries (each has a suburban megachurch of nearly 20,000 members), have popular television shows and growing political clout within the Republican establishment. The rhetorical excesses of John Hagee have been widely cited, but his nearly singular focus on the imminence of apocalyptic events has been largely absent from serious discussion. Hagee has been actively lobbying for a war with Iran – a conflict that he believes will trigger the biblical battle of Armageddon. His broadcasts routinely feature detailed, illustrations of end-time events and he often speaks fondly of the rapture that will precede the battle – giving him and the other chosen box seats from which to witness the carnage.
Rod Parsley, like Hagee (his friend and fellow Christian Zionist), is obsessed with the apocalypse. This erstwhile “spiritual guide” (as John McCain referred to Parsley before he was forced to renounce his support) has written that the faithful must “violently seize the Kingdom by force”. Parsley is the logical end product of a Christian right that has gained access to all “spheres” of life. Not content to methodically work behind the scenes, a new generation of leaders like Huckabee, Parsley and Hagee are aggressively clear about their mission. In his book, The Days before Eternity, Rod Parsley wrote:
“A revolutionary church is marching with the divine purpose to change the world…Change is not an option; it’s a mandate. Without changed hearts, the human race will rush maddeningly through the gates of hell.”
There is, of course, no god but God – and so this “mandated” change must be made through His grace alone:
“It is the Holy Ghost’s assignment to rescue every human on earth and bring him into fellowship with God …The Holy Spirit grieves over the millions upon millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other false religions that Satan initiated to deceive men into working their way to hell.”
In case the urgency of this battle against Satanic faiths isn’t understood, he adds:
” We are in the last day and the eleventh hour. We are in a revolutionary war… [God] is transitioning His people away from the milksop, milquetoast institution we’ve called the church into a remnant of overcomers who will do mighty exploits in their homes, in the church and on the job.”
Parsley, like the CSA, sees the struggle as one that will be undertaken by a “remnant of believers”, “overcomers” or “conquerors”. Also, like the CSA before him, Parsley sees his current struggle against Satan to the struggle undertaken by the prophet Elijah. But for Parsley, the isolation of Elijah was vanity.
“Remember, the Spirit of God had so mightily fallen upon this prophet that he personally killed four hundred fifty prophets of Baal…yet he ran off into the wilderness on a pity party, fearing for his life…So when Elijah cried on Mount Horeb that he was the only one left in Israel that served and loved God, the Lord immediately set him straight. God informed him of seven thousand others who were also working for him, and then He sent him on another mission to ensure that Elijah’s forward motion wouldn’t be stopped as the enemy planned.”
The ideological similarities between Parsley’s vision and that of the CSA are striking. Both employ warfare mythology to rouse the faithful into action. Where the CSA’s militant message was a literal call to battle, Parsley and his ilk work upon multiple levels – political, financial, and through the media. However, a militant faith sometimes requires literal militancy: “In this last day, governments that do not fear God or regard his people will attack our beliefs, but we can stand, unmoved by all, as we ceaselessly contend from God’s dimension in our purpose and will to fight.” Perhaps this is why people who share Parsley’s beliefs are actively attempting to transform the US Military into an Army of God.6 According to the newly-formed Military Religious Freedom Foundation, nearly 7,000 members of the armed forces have complained of religious harassment in the past three years of the Foundation’s existence.
Over the last twenty years, a militantly apocalyptic Christianity has traveled from the margins to the mainstream of American life. It is important to understand the raw force of it’s effect upon the minds of the parishioners, youth, politicians and soldiers who’ve been infected with such a terminal vision of (potentially) violent purification. I hope that the film we’ve made allows for that experience. Equally important, though, is an understanding of the collective failures that have given rise to such a movement. If the CSA was an early, rural, underclass symptom of the excesses wrought by corporate capitalism, privatization and the unwillingness of a nation to care for its own, the current Dominionist revival marches freely through the suburbs. The organizational apparatus is exponentially more powerful and their reach has extended into the highest levels of American power. Even though they sometimes appear fragmented and conflicted, the Christian right remains a massively potent political force. Movements of this kind, wielding such strong ideological certainty, have shown themselves capable of exerting previously unthinkable influence during chaotic disruptions of everyday life. They are ignored, dismissed and eulogized at our collective peril.
1. According to a 2006 Pew Research Center Poll, “About a third (34%) say that this will occur after the world situation worsens and reaches a low point, a view often referred to as premillennialism.”
2. According to former CSA elder Kerry Noble, the plan for the bombing of the Murrah Building was originally devised by Richard Snell, a CSA member who was executed for killing an Arkansas State Trooper on April 19, 1995 – the same day McVeigh detonated the bomb in Oklahoma City.
3. I am indebted to the pioneering work of Sara Diamond (author of Spiritual Warfare) and Frederick Clarkson (author of Eternal Hostility) for bringing to light the pivotal role of the COR.
4. These documents can all be accessed at http://www.reformation.net/
5. See Frederick Clarkson’s article Religious Right Reinventing Itself at http://www.talk2action.org/story/2008/3/10/163621/151 for a concise refutation of the oftproclaimed declaration that “the Religious Right is dead”.
6. See the Military Religious Freedom Foundation website for the latest reports on this effort: ?http://militaryreligiousfreedom.org