God: dead but lively

haggard.jpgGiven that newsstand copies of the May Harper’s have an ad flap that reads “The Christian Right’s War on America,” it was only a matter of time before one of us GetReligion sleuths broke down and bought a copy to investigate.

As Giblets would say, “Interesting stuff.” Editor Lewis Lapham’s Notebook item, “Wrath of the Lamb,” contains a lot of the usual snobbish bashing of the Republicans/Romans, but it also has this little biographical digression that tells us something about the Ivory Tower of yesteryear:

As an unbaptized child raised in a family that went to church only for weddings and funerals, I didn’t encounter the problem of religious belief until I reached Yale College in the 1950s, where I was informed by the liberal arts faculty that it wasn’t pressing because God was dead. What remained to be discussed was the autopsy report; apparently there was still some confusion about the cause and time of death, and the undergraduate surveys of Western civilization offered a wide range of options — God disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1834 while on a voyage to the Galapagos Islands, blown to pieces by German artillery at Verdun, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp, and the body laid to rest on the consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud.

The two long pieces that comprise the cover package are an article on National Religious Broadcasters by the very annoying Chris Hedges and a report from Colorado Springs by The Revealer‘s Jeff Sharlet. The Hedges story was about as predictable as one would imagine. As usual, the former New York Times writer passes over any opportunities for empathy to instead sneer at his subjects. But the Sharlet piece, “Soldiers of Christ,” is fascinating.

The Revealer editor went to Colorado Springs to learn about New Life (mega)Church — its history, its founder, Pastor Ted Haggard (pictured), its influence on politics and culture — to turn out a long, frustrating, occasionally rewarding piece:

Long: It clocks out at 14 pages. At, let’s say, 1,000 words a page, you won’t be able to breeze through it. Frustrating: I’m into literary openings, but the page and a half of framing is so breathlessly Harper’s-esque that I nearly gave up.

Rewarding: Sharlet actually took the time to try to get to know and understand how Haggard put together this 11,000-member megachurch and what it says about evangelicals and the United States.

There’s a lot to note here — the Frank Peretti-style unabashed talk of angels and demons and visions and spiritual warfare, for starters — but I think this was the most revealing passage of the piece about the ways in which modern megachurchism separates itself from that old time religion:

Free-market economics is a “truth” Ted says he learned in his first job in professional Christendom, as a Bible smuggler in Eastern Europe. Globalization, he believes, is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity. He means Protestantism in particular; Catholics, he said, “constantly look back.” He went on: “And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They don’t tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development. Typically, Catholic nations aren’t shooting people into space. Protestantism, though, always looks to the future. A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history.”

Haggard uses this insight into Catholicism to cast a skeptical glance at certain forms of immigration:

“In America, the descendents of the Protestants, the Puritan descendants, we want to create a better future and our speakers say that sort of thing. But with the influx of people from Mexico, they don’t tend to be the ones that go to universities and become our research-and-development people. And so in that way I see a little clash of civilizations.”

There’s more, but I’m done excerpting for the morning. If you’ve read the essay and want to chime in with comments, go to it.

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com DK

    Clearly Haggard is an ass; perhaps megachurch pastors in the W/SW will send him an appropriate rebuke. But at least he is honest. Anti-Catholic antagonisms are still deep in the fundagelical rank and file and frankly integral to most Protestant theology and identity–ECT, evangelical and catholic political cooperation, pope admirers in the evangelical media and scholarly arena notwithstanding. Demographic changes in the US could well expose Haggard’s position as a majority view in the protestant right.

  • http://www.lolajl.net/blog/ Lola

    Haggard sounds like a real jerk. No way am I going to be going to his church any time soon.

  • Fred

    ‘Catholics, he said, “constantly look back.” He went on: “And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They don’t tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development.’

    He says it like its a bad thing.

    ” A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history.”

    Is this the result of a poll?
    What about kids with one Protestant and one Catholic parent?

  • Varenius

    I don’t find his Catholic comments offensive myself. Shallow and simplistic, yes, but not offensive.

    “Catholics, he said, “constantly look back.” He went on: “And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They don’t tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development.’”

    Renaissance Italy, anyone?

    “A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history.”

    Is it really an either/or proposition?

  • http://www.therevealer.com The True Revealer

    Consider the source. Sharlet has surpassed all his previous records in this vicious and malicious hack job for Nerve:

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    “Sharlet has surpassed all his previous records in this vicious and malicious hack job for Nerve”

    If that’s vicious and malicious, I’m not sure how. Ann Coulter writes more vicious stuff on her checks.

  • Fred

    Sharlet’s Nerve article is another “They hate us because they’re homophobic” yadda, yadda.

    “Soldiers for Christ” – interesting reading but I have nothing to compare it to. The piece is well written. Haggard is portrayed as materialistic and pragmatic. His aim seems to be numbers, and members’ self improvement with less emphasis on good works. You wonder if this church is going to continue at the same pace after perfect-hair-eyes-teeth Haggard passes away.
    Showmanship counts for a lot in his church. Will people drift away when they are no longer delighted by the lights and smoke?
    What Sharlet did not cover, and would be of interest, is where did these people come from?
    The Evangelicals are growing fast. Are these former members of other churches or people drifting looking for something to belong to?
    In any event, people flocking to this church is another blow for the liberals.

  • John P Sheridan

    I am not sure that Haggard should be a called a “jerk” or an “ass” just for being honest and saying what Protestants have thought for a long time. I am sure many of Harper’s mainline readers will see Haggard’s rearks as uncontroversial. In college in the 1980s, I learned that Catolicism was incompatible with democracy–my professor pointed to Latin America as proof. That same professor (Samuel Huntington) recently published book in which he opined that Mexican immigration was threatening America’s “Anglo-Protestant” heritage.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Catholicism is not incompatible with democracy. But John is right to cite Huntington — he’s one of Haggard’s favorite authors. Personally, I find Huntington’s thesis to be very conventional racist trash. It is hard to believe he meant it so simplistically — perhaps it was a failure of style.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    No, my Nerve article is not another “They hate us because they’re homophobic” yadda yadda. How can you tell? Because I don’t say “they” “hate” “us.” Read the article, Fred, and respond to the arguments. My article is my summary of what I encountered reading through about a dozen Christian manhood guides and attending, for the last three years, small groups and church meetings.

    If you disagree with my conclusions, I’d ask you to do so based on my arguments — not your caricature.

    As for the guy who says its “vicious”, I don’t know what to do — saying something is sad, and rather poignant, may be inaccurate, but it’s hardly vicious.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Thanks, Jeremy, for catching what I thought was the most important grafs of the article — that enduring anti-Catholicism. I agree with the comment above that it would have been worthwhile to talk more about where New Life members are from (in my defense, there are little sketches of seven fairly representative members, and several other Springs evangelicals), but there was only so much room and Haggard provided a lot of material to deal with. I certainly didn’t intend the article as a hatchet job. Some part of this will probably go in the book I’m working on, where I’ll spend more time “humanizing” the church through portraits of people who’re involved.

    For a more sympathetic — and beautifully written — portrait of New Life, I recommend Patton Dodd’s new book, My Faith So Far. Patton is a contributor to both my websites, a New Lifer, and a collaborator of Pastor Ted’s. Also a fine thinker.

  • Bob Smietana

    Whether you agree with Jeff Sharlet or not, his writing about evangelicals consistently gives a fresh, insightful outsider’s view of the “Christian subculture.” Despite the lovefest for John Paul II, a substanial number of evangelicals have a kind of contempt for Catholics that’s unChristian, to say the least.

    One weakness in Jeff’s Harper piece is the characterization of small groups as tools to enforce othodoxy and conformity–that’s a too simpllstic view and underestimates the communal aspect of the Christian faith, and of small groups as places where people live out the faith together.

  • Fred

    So the Christian conservatives accept the homosexual and want to be just like them?
    “The [Christian men's] movement itself is deadly earnest, and worse, a threat — legally, emotionally, sometimes physically — to all those who can’t or won’t conform to its perversely precise dream of a nation of sexually self-regulating spiritual warriors.” ….
    ” Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied.”…
    “The “enemy,” of course, is Satan, but his names are legion: pornography, homosexuality, feminism, humanism, the monolithic foe Christian conservatives call, simply, “the culture.”

    And these manly men love their own homosexuality?
    “They love the gay man because he is a siren, and his song is alluring; and because they believe that the siren is nonetheless stranded at sea, singing in desperation from a slippery perch on a jagged outcrop of stone. The gay man, they imagine, is calling to them; and they believe they are calling back — as if all of human sexuality was a grand and tragic game of Marco Polo. n° ”

    I learned a lot from the Harpers article, congratulations on a fine job, but nothing from the Nerve article. Why did you write it? The way I read it you are pointing out the dangers of a self-hate outward directed, that the conservative men would sweep away homosexuals so that the siren is no longer there to tempt them. Sorry if “yadda, yadda” hurt your feelings. I couldn’t see any base for the assertions in the article.
    I can’t do a better job on this comment or reply for a while. I have a 700 mile drive and probably no webmail at the end of it.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    No, I didn’t mean to suggest that these men love their own homosexuality, or that the Christian conservative masses are secretly gay. I meant to point out — “the basis” for my assertions — 1. that much of the literature and conversation within the Christian men’s movement revolves around sexuality, a fairly uncontroversial claim; 2. that the campy empahsis on a cartoonish version of manly men (Braveheart; swords; etc.) suggests that there is a certain anxiety attending this discussion; 3. that much of the anxiety gets channeled into a love-hate relationship with the idea of homosexuality. I.e., that gay men represent to Christian conservatives a society in which men pursue pleasure without restrictions. Which is, naturally, tempting; were it not, the whole concept of “sin” would make no sense.