My Day at the ‘America for Jesus’ Rally

This is a guest post by Shaun Patrick McGonigal. He blogs about atheism, polyamory, and skepticism at polyskeptic.com.

***

The only way we are going to transform this nation is by transforming individuals, by bringing them to Christ.

This may not be an exact quote from the America For Jesus event in Philadelphia this past Saturday, but it was as close as I could transcribe after getting my notebook out upon hearing it booming over the speakers to the large crowd in Independence Mall.

It was a message which would be repeated several times over the course of my time at the event: We will never change America through politics. No. For that, we will need the “Holy Spirit.”

For those of you uninitiated in Jesus-speak, that means God, or at least one of God’s personalities. But whether we call the big guy God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, I heard it referred to many times while I was there, and I found much of it troubling.

I have been to a few Jesus-centered events over the past several years. In 2006, I attended Battle Cry, which was about as Religious Right as you could get with its militaristic feel, video speech by George W. Bush, and Ron Luce shamelessly asking for people to give until it hurt. Since then, I have visited a few churches and attended a class in Calvinist Theology. Today’s event was reminiscent of Battle Cry, but it was also very much like a music festival.

If any of you have been to the kind of church service that utilizes emotionally-saturated chords behind emotionally-pregnant words, you will recognize what being there sounded, looked, and felt like. I’ve never believed in any gods and I’ve never regularly attended church, but I found myself drawn in by the intensity of the words and the soaring music, compelling the listener to either swim with or against the rising tide of chords and voices.

At one point, while jotting down some of the above reflections, a man approached me, tapped me on the shoulder, and greeted me with a smile. He had seen my button (“your friendly neighborhood atheist”) and wanted to talk with me about what I thought about all of this. He talked about the fact that there was a plurality of political perspectives there and that the politics was kept at bay. He thought that this was no mere Religious Right gathering and even knew enough to mention the name Barry Goldwater, whose unsuccessful presidential bid in 1964 was a watershed moment in the relationship between the Religious Right and the GOP, when I mentioned how the Religious Right had been effecting politics since the 1960s.

To be fair, there were noted concerns about social justice, racism, and poverty in more than a few of the speeches They never went so far as to include LGBT rights, but this was no Tea Party event even if there were identifiable elements of that as well. The crowd itself was fairly diverse, even including the voices of black churches. In light of the circumstances of the upcoming election, this could be read as political in nature, but perhaps that is too cynical. I was not able to talk to any of the organizers to ask such a question, in any case, and I doubt I would have gotten a straight answer had I been able to do so.

At one point, a black pastor, who was addressing “the haves and the have-nots” said that we (well, maybe not me) needed to “reclaim the sign of the rainbow” and create a “rainbow coalition” in order to bring all people to Christianity. While he did not overtly mention LGBT communities, the rhetoric was to reclaim the symbol which has become associated with gay rights into a symbol of a form of Christian racial harmony. Under such a symbol, he suggested, we could create economic engines and business opportunities in the ghettos of urban America. We needed to be Christians first and black/white/etc second as we built up an America under God.

This was the overwhelming theme of the day: America belonged to Jesus. There were prayers for representatives, judges, and presidents to rule under God. There was a call for God to bring leaders, in the upcoming election, who would rule under His will. I cannot tell you how many times I heard speakers shout “one nation under God.”

There was no place for atheists here, with this crowd. The only time I remember hearing the word “atheist” the entire day was when Pat Robertson came to the stage to speak and said that he didn’t care what atheists told them, this land belonged to Jesus! There wasn’t even an attempt to hide the dispensing of secularism here — which, for anyone familiar with Robertson, was not a surprise.

This is the largest problem with events such as this, as well as the worldview it perpetuates and reflects. The über-patriotic, Christian Nation-esque rhetoric associates the greatness of America, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, with their form of Christianity. It is a worldview that is myopic and excludes the rest of America, especially those of us who are atheists/humanists/secularists.

They know that atheists, Muslims, Jews, and many other belief systems exist in America, but America is not for them; America is for Jesus. So no matter how nice they were (and most of them were very nice) and no matter how much they gave lip service to religious freedom, they still held a view tying American history to Christian mythology, putting Jesus above everything else.

It is a view which is incompatible with secularism. It is not the secular America that I see and fight for. It is a theocratic America which is now bleeding into the mainstream churches all over America. Therefore, I think that my friend who tapped me on the shoulder was wrong; this event was politically partisan in nature and it leaned conservative. Despite the inclusion of black churches and the attempts at showcasing diversity, it was a crowd with one mindset. Even the mentions of social justice were delivered almost exclusively by representatives of those various black churches and still failed to include those of us who didn’t hold their conservative views on sexuality, marriage equality, and inclusiveness. There were no Al Sharptons, no liberal Christian messages to balance out the conservatism and theocratic rhetoric.

“Those who will not be ruled by God will be ruled by tyrants,” said one speaker, bypassing the idea that creating such a dichotomy between Christianity and tyranny meant ignoring the tyranny of Yahweh.

“This land belongs to God Almighty,” said Pat Robertson as I stood 20 feet away from him. “We will never change America through politics.” This was, perhaps, the most political set of declarations I heard all day. In the same way that many Christians claim to reject religion in accepting Jesus, Pat Robertson and the many who spoke before and after him rejected politics while shouting political messages about the Christian-ness of America.

Jesus was the not-religion, theocracy was the not-politics, and thwe entire Christian festival was a not-political rally.

In summary, everyone I talked to was very friendly, interested in what I had to say, and very welcoming. But the fact that these people could not see the obvious political nature of this gathering was scary to me. It was a litmus test, of sorts, of where the mainstream and conservative churches are right now and how they view the world. They do not accept real science, they tend towards biblical literalism, and they have a view of the world which looks very different from the one I see. Furthermore, their friendliness seemed to be limited to the interpersonal and stopped at the point of applause-inducing messages of exclusivity. They saw America, and the world, as being under their God, and they didn’t see a real place for the rest of us.

It’s one thing to be friendly to my face and tell me that I am welcome and that my place in society needs to be protected. It’s another to imply the exact opposite through your rhetoric. Based on the speeches I heard and everything I saw, my “place” and the place of all atheists and other non-Christians in “Christian America” was secondary to theirs.

We still have a lot of work to do.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • machintelligence

    “This land belongs to God Almighty,” said Pat Robertson as I stood 20 feet away from him. “We will never change America through politics.”

    Good. Then get the hell out of politics and go back to praying.

  • jdm8

    Reclaim the sign of the rainbow? Back to what? Back to the story of Noah and the flood?

    That abortion sign guy is wearing a tie and a dress shirt under a burlap bag?

    I forget the source of this quote, but someone said that if fascism came to America, it would come in the form of a US flag draped over a cross. That still sounds about right.

    • C Peterson

      Not just a wheel, but what looks like a nice, comfortable shoulder pad as well.

      • WildRumpus67

        and made out of some nice light 2x4s which wouldn’t hold his weight.

        • C Peterson

          Unless the image is distorted, it looks like the top riser of the cross is already sagging a bit. I might become a believer in divine providence if it fell off and clobbered whomever he’s talking to!

          • jdm8

            I don’t think the Roman Empire used galvanized steel gusset plates or what look like might be threaded fasteners either.

            The lower section looks like it is two short pieces gusseted together from the sides, I assume for easier packing.

    • Sindigo

      I guess, as you alluded they mean to reclaim it as the symbol of the covenant. http://www.openbible.info/topics/rainbow

      Still, it’s a bit late for that.

    • http://profiles.google.com/conticreative Marco Conti

      I noticed the wheel too. As well as the pad and the fact that it was a very nice, light cross that would not hold an adult under no circumstances. 

      I actually thought it was a very telling image that these guys talk a good talk about sacrifice, but if he could have mounted a lawnmower motor on that cross he probably would have.

      Make no mistake: should these guys succeed, people like us, the atheists, omosexuals, anyomne that doesn;t conform to their narrow view, including other religions and many of their own sects, would be persecuted and shut down.

      The only reason they scream about “religious tolerance” is because right now it protects them. The moment they can amass a bit more power they would have no need for such a liberal concept.  To be sure, they would not be alone. It’s the rare religion that is actually, truly tolerant of those that worship other gods or that worship their own god differently. At the very least, they lament the fact that their eternity will be filled with unbearable torture. Once you can even just accept that your god can do that to a fellow human, you have lost all morality.

      • jdm8

        I agree. When Christians in the US talk about religious tolerance, it’s usually either about Christian privilege, or lamenting in a coded message that other religions are treated equally to their own.

      • Vrharp

        You have not been persecuted in the past.  Why in the future?  Just because some spoiled brat doesn’t get their way does not mean they are a martyr.

  • Coyotenose

    Pat Robertson speaking gives the lie to any claim that this was not a political rally. Pat is two things: a con artist and a politician. (cue jokes…)

    “There was no Al Sharpton”? Seriously: Thank Goodness. He is incapable of improving a situation.

    Given the overall context of Christian-Neocon statements, buzzwords, and history, when they say that America can’t be changed by politics, and they aren’t advocating prayer as a means to effect change (snerk), doesn’t that pretty much just leave “forcibly taking control” as the means to effect their goals?

  • Guest

    I’d rather have Christians as buffer or even as allies than some fanatical religion taking over.

    • Octoberfurst

       And you don’t think Christianity can be fanatical? Seriously?  You obviously don’t listen to much Christian Right rhetoric.

    • Sindigo

      Whichever religion could you be referring to? Is it the Wiccans? The Buddhists?

      In fairness, it you mean Scientology I may agree with you.

    • jdm8

      First, you’ve clearly missed a lot of history if you don’t think Christians can’t be or are not prone to fanaticism.

      Second, the absence of one religion doesn’t mean another is going to take over.

    • RobMcCune

       Because the religious right isn’t a fanatical authoritarian religion.

    • http://profiles.google.com/conticreative Marco Conti

      You obviously mean Islam. Obviously, given the choice I’d take the christians too, but by a very slim margin. 

  • RobertoTheChi

    It’s nice to see Pat Robertson was let out of his padded cell for the day to spew more hate.

  • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

    Correct me if I’m mistaken, isn’t there a passage somewhere in a book saying something about not displaying bright red signs so that everyone knows that you are praying in public…..

    • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

      Also, very creep = surveillance camera on the prayer banner. 

  • C Peterson

    These guys are running scared. They see what direction the wind is blowing, and it isn’t their way. People are moving away from religion, they’re moving away from Christianity (especially in its more traditional forms), they are becoming more socially liberal and politically secular. Our political system gives disproportionate influence to some redneck backwaters that maintain the “America is for Jesus” myth, but this is only delaying the inevitable loss of relevance that these people are seeing on their horizon. I expect that political “revivals” like this one will become increasingly strident as the trend continues.

    • Vrharp

      You have somehow forgotten that this Nation was founded on Christian principles.  You act like you have all the answers.  There is nothing profound about your views and the Constitution still governs this nation.  Obama has not declared it (the Constitution) invalid.  And when he does that will be the beginning of the revolution and the Christians will be willing to fight and sacrifice to defend this Nation and its roots.  Will you?

      • C Peterson

        I keep asking people like you to identify any of these so-called “Christian principles” you believe our country was founded on, and I’ve yet to get a response.

        Most of the people in this country at the time of its founding were Christians. That does not make this a Christian country. Most of the influential men who actually constructed our governmental system were not Christians, and they recognized the harm that comes when religion and government are mixed, and therefore went to great effort to ensure that the country was founded on purely secular principles- which we see in our founding documents as well as the entirety of our legal system (which is as far from Christian ideas as anything could be).

        • C Nichols

          You need to check your history, during this rally they quoted most of the influential men who actually constructed our governmental system that were Christians, and how many times that  they  recognized the need to stop and pray before gatherings of congress, meetings, etc.  And they wanted  to ensure that the country was founded on biblical principals, “In God we Trust”.

          • C Peterson

            It is a fact that most of the influential founding fathers were not Christian. Lies at a rally made to intellectually weak people who choose to ignore the truth don’t change that.

            But what difference does it make? They still created a secular country. Neither you nor anybody else has managed to answer the question: what uniquely Christian or biblical principles was this country founded upon? Even one?

            • DayWalker_Kyle

              I was at this rally, by happenstance, visiting Philadelphia on business.  While I was walking to Independence hall one of the speakers proclaimed: “We are at one of the birthplaces of our country, where the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were both signed.  And in both of those documents it says, One Nation Under God!”

              I had t sigh.

              I will say did talk with some interesting people though.

              • AverageJoe11

                Most of the founding fathers were Deists not Christians. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington to name a few. So just because you see the word God don’t assume it means the Christian God. The information is easy to find if anyone is interested in real American history.

      • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

        “This Nation was founded on Christian princilpes*”

        *[citation needed]

  • Glasofruix

    This an event to attend with a bag of peanuts.

  • Octoberfurst

     I saw clips of this event on other sites & it really bothered me. “America belongs to Jesus!” “We need to elect Godly politicians!”  No matter how “nice” they are they are really advocating for a theocracy.  I have had debates with such people before and while they DENY they want a theocracy they also say they want this country run on “Biblical values.”  (Like what? Stoning your disobedient children?)  They are very nice to your face but listen to how they applaud dominionist rhetoric from their leaders. “By the power of God we are going to take over and nothing will stop us!”  >wild cheering<
      These people are dangerous.  They see this country as theirs and anyone who is not one with them–Jews, Muslims, Atheists, etc–will always be outsiders and have to know their place. It's like they will LET us live here–if we don't make too many waves.  I for one refuse to be a 2nd class citizen under these fanatics.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    That guy has a wheel on his cross. Jesus didn’t have a wheel on his cross. All he had was a couple of Triceratops to help him carry it up the hill.

  • Greg1466

    If ANYthings sacrilege, it’s holding this event on the steps of Independence Hall.

  • rumitoid

    As has been observed by others, although not directly here, the Tea Party is America’s Taliban, and they are getting huge support from evangelicals. Most fascist takeovers start the same way. Use the religion to help get the power and then dump and persecute it. My point? Christianity is being used.

    There are clear injunctions in Scripture against getting involved in “worldly affairs” and what is more worldly than politics. Yet nowadays if these clear injunctions are brought up, there quickly follows the accusations of being a gnostic or the standby for doing whatever one feels is true to their worldly ideas, “You are so heavenly-minded, you are no earthly good.”

    As a Christian, I see patriotism as reprehensible and this Christian-nation jingoism as particularly disheartening and very scary. Jesus said there was one way to distinguish a Christian: by their love, which is to be given to neighbor and enemy alike equally. Of course, it is easy to twist the love thing into “I’m taking away your rights for your own good” or explain why “some are more equal than others.” As clearly as love is defined in the Bible appears not to be at the forefront of the actions for “re-taking America for Jesus.” The “re-taking” part makes it sound more “Crusadish,” a holy and just war, a battlecry not unlike “Remember the Alamo!”

    Recent suits by Christians about discrimination were dismissed because it was found that certain government agencies had simply stopped the favortism Christian felt entitled to. And they are blind to their Islamphobia, protesting the building of mosques and spewing hate-filled rhetoric about that faith.

    • JoFro

      Tea Party is America’s Taliban – ure a special kind of stupid aren’t you?

      • Tim

        Not a very inteligent comment. When you disagree with something the author is automatically stupid? Very enlightened and rational – not!

        • JoFro

          Actually my dear Tim, when someone is stupid enough to compare the  Tea Party to the Taliban, there is no reason to reply to that person with rationality for rationality has already left the discussion once that statement is uttered

          • Lynch Gerard

            That is not my observation, as I indicated, but the observation of other writer’s, such as for the show “Newsroom.” But I do agree…to a degree. The Tea Party is using religion for a “new order” in America, trying to force its faith down people’s throats, such as outlawing abortion and gay marriage. They are also hard on Islam, want a holy bombing of Iran for Isareal’s sake, and act zenophobic.

            • JoFro

              Then my apologies to you. My comment was aimed at that fool from Time Magazine who called the Salafis the Tea Party of Egypt and the others who think the same. And I would still disagree, even to all the degrees.
              As much as the Tea Party would like to use religion for a “new order” in America, they are firmly dedicated to the Constitution. If anything, they seem to be constitutional extremists and no different to the folks who use the Constitution to act as though Christianity had absolutely nothing to do with the Founding Fathers and America’s laws. But neither of the two can impose any new order for both would go against the Constitution itself.
              Since when did outlawing abortion and gay marriage become squarely a Tea Party issue? Abortion was outlawed until Roe v Wade and that was the 1970s. Heck, even the woman who was represented as “Roe” in the trial is now a staunch anti-abortion advocate. Norma McCorvey is her actual name. And u do not have to be religious to be against abortion.
              Gay marriage advocacy itself is something new. The same people who said marriage was just a piece of paper are now saying marriage is everything? Yeah right! No one is denying or blocking gays from being in a relationship, but the word “marriage” itself makes no sense to a gay union. Heck, marriage itself means the marital union of a man and a woman. Had gay marriage advocates been calling for a separate union to define their own unions, there would not be much animosity.
              And the Tea Party is hard on Islam becos the media does not seem to be doing its job. This is like living in the 1940s and complaining that America’s politicians are being hard on Nazi and Communist idealogies. Political Islam, wether you like it or not, is a thousand times worse precisely becos people like you and me are a threat to it. Try going to Saudi Arabia or Egpyt today and see for yourself what is happening there. Look beyond what the media is reporting. Try talking to a Coptic Christian for once in your life.
              Xenophobia is not restricted to the Tea Party – I’ve seen enough bile coming from the Democrats against Mormonism and Christianity to know that!

  • JoFro

    “There were no Al Sharptons, no liberal Christian messages to balance out the conservatism and theocratic rhetoric.”

    Anyone who knows anything about Christianity in America knows that there is no strong block of liberal Christians anymore. Most of them are agnostic or even atheist in their beliefs. The social gospel is their gospel and their only gospel. Go back 50 or so years ago, Mainstream Christianity (like mainstream Protestants and yes, Catholics) represented liberal Christianity. All these churches are dying very very fast. It is not that there are more conservative Christians now. It’s that there are no liberal Christians anymore

  • bruceewilson

    Many of the most prominent leaders of this event – Cindy Jacobs, Lou Engle, Harry Jackson, Bob Weiner – are apostles and prophets in C. Peter Wagner’s New Apostolic Reformation. This is the new Christian right.

  • Vrharp

    Hemant does not realize that due to their very existance some religions are ememys of Christ.  They teach destruction of other religious cultures (including Christianity) and have no tolerance for any other religion.  At least the Christian belief, as Christ dictated, is to ignore those that don’t believe in the Christian Bible.  Not commit a crime to be good.  What kind of hipocracy is that?  What would he do to his enemies if he knew he was fair game for their immortality?

    • Anna

      Really? Which religions would those be?

      It seems to me that Christianity is the most evangelical of all the current religions. Christians are the ones who want to destroy other religious cultures. They’re constantly sending missionaries to try to wipe out native religions in other parts of the world.

  • Dustin

    Why did you even go if you are an atheist! That makes no sense


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