For evangelicals, a bid to 'reclaim America'

For the faithful who gathered in Florida last month, the goal is not just to convert individuals - but to reshape US society.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the Reback daughters, the big attraction was the famous Ten Commandments monument, brought to Florida on tour after being removed from the Alabama judicial building as unconstitutional. The youngsters - dressed in red, white, and blue - clustered proudly around the display.

For more than 900 other Christians from across the US, the draw at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church last month was a national conference aimed at "reclaiming America for Christ." The monument stood as a potent symbol of their hopes for changing the course of the nation.

"We have God-sized problems in our country, and only God can solve them," Richard Land, a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), told the group.

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Their mission is not simply to save souls. The goal is to mobilize evangelical Christians for political action to return society to what they call "the biblical worldview of the Founding Fathers." Some speak of "restoring a Christian nation." Others shy from that phrase, but agree that the Bible calls them not only to evangelize, but also to transform the culture.

In material given to conference attendees, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, Coral Ridge pastor wrote: "As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government ... our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors - in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

This is the 10th conference to spread this "cultural mandate" among Christians, and although the church's pastor couldn't speak due to illness, others presented the message intended to rouse the conservative faithful, eager to capitalize on gains won during the November election.

This melding of religion and politics, Christianity and patriotism, makes many uneasy, particularly those on the other side of the so-called culture war, who see a threat to the healthy discourse of a pluralistic society.

"This is an effort to impose a particular far-right religious view, and political and social policies that result from that, on others," says Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way, a group that advocates for a diverse society. "There's nothing wrong with trying to convince others to adopt their views, but [Dr. Kennedy's] effort is also to use the levers of government to force changes."

An energetic pastor who built Coral Ridge into a 10,000-member megachurch with far-reaching radio and TV audiences, the Rev. Dr. Kennedy regularly calls the US a Christian nation that should be governed by Christians. He has created a Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington that seeks to evangelize members of Congress and their staffs, and to counsel conservative Christian officeholders.

Some critics suggest these views reflect far-right Presbyterian thinking, some of which extends to the realm of theocracy, the belief that God - or His representatives - should govern the state.

Frederick Carlson, author of "Eternal Hostility: the Struggle between Theocracy and Democracy," says that if Kennedy is not a theocrat, "he is certainly a dominionist," one who supports taking over and dominating the political process.

Kennedy is not in the theocratic camp, says John Aman, Coral Ridge spokesman. He does believe that "Christians should not sequester themselves inside their stained-glass ghettoes, but seek to be 'salt and light' - apply biblical moral truth and the Gospel - to every area of society."

It's apparent that those who've traveled here from 40 states are eager to do just that. Many of them say they are most motivated by signs of moral decline in America, concern for their children's future, and what they see as an effort to keep God and religious speech out of public life.

"The country is getting further away from Christian values, and we're being stifled," says Debbie Mochle-Young, of Santa Monica, Calif. "Other nationalities are coming to live here and say, 'We want our beliefs,' but they don't let you have yours." Nathan Lepper, an Air Force retiree active in politics in Florida, says he has "a personal passion to help America turn back to its moral and ethical bases."

Some are already involved in their communities - in antiabortion actions, in trying to prevent removal of feeding tubes from Terri Schiavo, or in efforts to oppose same-sex marriage by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Gabriel Carpenter, from Dryden, N.Y., works at a local crisis pregnancy center and is a coordinator for the now-required sexual abstinence program in New York public schools. He and his wife, Penelope, say they hope to "learn more about how to share America's Christian heritage with others."

Christianity and patriotism are interwoven throughout the gathering, from Christian and American flags marched into the sanctuary, to red, white, and blue banners festooning the church complex, to a rousing "patriotic concert." Several speakers emphasize the idea that America's founders were largely Christian and that their intent was to establish a biblically based nation. (No mention is made of other influences on the Founding Fathers, such as Englightenment thinkers or issues of freedom of conscience.)

David Barton, a leading advocate for emphasizing Christianity in US history, deftly selects quotes from letters and historical documents to link major historical figures such as George Washington to a Christian vision, and to suggest that the courts and scholars in the last century have deliberately undermined the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

Critics, including historians and the Baptist Joint Committee, challenge the accuracy of some of Mr. Barton's work, including what he calls "the myth of separation of church and state."

In "Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America," religious historian Randall Balmer of Columbia University writes that a "contrived mythology about America's Christian origins" has been a factor in the reentry of evangelicals into political life, helping sustain the conservative swing in American politics. Barton and others say they are recapturing truths hidden behind a secularist version of history, while critics say they are producing revisionist history that cherry-picks facts and ignores historical evidence.

But Barton is clearly a favorite speaker, with a theme buttressing the identity and purpose of those eager to reform the country. And there's plenty for them to do. Coral Ridge's Center for Reclaiming America is building a grass-roots alliance around five issues: the sanctity of life, religious liberty, pornography, the "homosexual agenda," and creation vs. evolution.

The Center aims to increase its 500,000-strong "e-mail army" to 1 million, and to encourage Christians to run for office. It has plans for 12 regional offices and activists in all 435 US House districts. And a new lobbying arm in Washington will target judicial nominations and the battle over marriage.

"If they don't vote our way, we'll change their view one way or another," executive director Gary Cass tells the group. As a California pastor, Dr. Cass spearheaded efforts to close abortion clinics and recruit Christians to seek positions on local school boards. "We're going to take back what we lost in the last half of the 20th century," he adds.

"Taking back" is a major theme - taking back the schools, the media, the courts.

It's time to "take back the portals of power," and particularly those of commerce, because "commerce controls all the gates - to government, the courts, and so on," says businessman Michael Pink in a workshop. Recounting his own business success based on in-depth Bible study, Mr. Pink says he's now urging wealthy Christian businessmen to start using their earnings to purchase such prizes as ABC and NBC.

Interspersed between worshipful singing, prominent activist leaders tout recent successes. Alan Sears of the Alliance Defense Fund, who has led the charge in the states against same-sex marriage, talks of victories in Ohio and California and the phalanx of 800 lawyers now trained for the fight across the US. Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association highlights growing impact on the entertainment industry, from spurring FCC regulatory actions against broadcast indecency to causing major companies to pull their ads from TV programs.

Yet it's the most combative language that brings the crowd to its feet in applause: "Judicial activists are running rampant and a God-free country is their goal.... All means to turn the tide must be considered, including their removal," urges the Rev. Rick Scarborough, founder of Vision America, which mobilizes "patriot pastors" across the US.

SBC's Dr. Land, credited with helping to turn out evangelical voters in the 2004 election, says Kennedy's conferences have an impact: "No one has been more important in helping Christians of every denominational persuasion understand first, their evangelistic responsibility ... and then their responsibility to be salt and light in the world."

Others suggest that among evangelicals as a whole - whose numbers are estimated to represent at least 25 percent of the US population - the appeal and influence of such religio-political activism are limited.

This is "more right wing and religiously politicized than the majority of evangelicals," says Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Most would not make the kind of 'take back America' statements in such an overt way."

In an in-depth national study published in 2000 under the title, "Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want," Dr. Smith explored the views of a remarkably diverse group, with many holding conflicted views on political involvement and the issues and methods of activists.

Still, the 2004 election confirmed a growing mobilization of conservative Christians. And in a recent Barna survey of American pastors about their choice for "the most trusted spokesperson for Christianity," Dr. Kennedy made the top 10, sharing the final spot with three others, including Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson and President Bush, each winning the vote of 4 percent of the clergy.

How one woman became a Christian activist

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Barbara Collier has trodden the path from apolitical Christian to concerned citizen to avid activist, and she hopes to help many others do the same.

As national field director for the Center for Reclaiming America, she helps train Christian activists across the US. As a Republican, she also grooms candidates for local office. Last fall, she became Broward County cochair for the 2004 Bush-Cheney ticket.

"I'm an average person that 20 years ago had a Christian bookstore," she recalls. Concerned about what was happening in society, she and friends started an issue-awareness group in her home, writing letters and taking action on issues that concerned them.

The meetings soon moved to Coral Ridge church. Then friends suggested she get involved in politics, so she became a Republican precinct woman.

"The Lord keeps opening doors and I go through," she says. "I love what I do."

Mrs. Collier has a flair for organizing and excels at building church liaison committees. She helps members get started by winning the approval of their pastors. "Sometimes the pastor would say, 'I don't want to get political.' So we'd give him the IRS form that says what a church can do," she explains. "Then he'd say, 'Well I don't know.' So we pull out the biblical reasons for being involved, then the historical reasons - quotes from George Washington and John Jay about 'This is a Christian nation.' And that usually convinces them."

She emphasizes voter registration in the churches. In 2004 she gave out a quarter of a million voter guides.

At the Center, Collier talks to callers from every state. She offers them "Fast Facts" on key issues via the Web and a book on "101 Ways to Reclaim America." "I tell them that if they just do one thing a week, that's 52 things a year," she says. "If everybody did 50 things a year, think how we could turn America around!"

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