Good Christ, Bad Christ

Just a few years ago, with the release of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson seemed to have done what centuries of religious wars and inquisitions couldn’t: unite Christians, at least conservative Christians. More than two hours of remorseless sadism, of thorns, whips and nails, washed away not just sin but theological quarrels that have defined Christianity since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the gate at Wittenberg Church.

Never mind that Gibson is Catholic. Evangelical Tim LaHaye, the author of the popular Left Behind novels, pronounced the film a “scripturally accurate account of how He really suffered for the sins of the whole world,” even though LaHaye believes Catholics to be little better than pagans who indeed would most likely be “left behind” when the Rapture came. Gibson in fact pulled off something like a modern miracle: he transubstantiated the body and blood of a humane and forgiving Jesus worshiped by less vengeful Christians — by Catholic Workers, Social Gospel protestants, and even the manor-born Episcopalians who until recently commanded the Republican Party and helped administer the secular welfare state — into Christ in Pain, a castigated and castigating icon that served as a common reference point for an amalgamated Religious Right. Even politically conservative Jews like David Horowitz and Michael Medved could join in the communion. Horowitz pronounced the film “awesome,” as “close to a religious experience as art can get” and a parable for the cruelties of the twentieth century.

But Gibson’s drunken summer sermon to Malibu police, when in apparent reference to Israel’s attack on Lebanon he accused Jews of starting all the world’s wars, opened an important schism between his brand of medieval Catholicism and the beliefs of many of his fervently pro-Israel evangelical supporters. Gibson is a member of a Catholic sect so conservative that it makes Opus Dei look like a Quaker prayer meeting, one that wants not just to stop history’s clock but turn it back a millennia. His anti-Semitism is straight out of the pages of the Merchant of Venice. Christian Zionists, in contrast, are futurists. As the Third International Christian Zionist Congress put it in 1996, the Jews are the “elect of God, and without the Jewish nation His redemptive purposes for the world will not be completed.” What that purpose entails depends on who you talk to. Hard-core dispensationalists believe that Israel needs to be defended only to be sacrificed at the Final Conflict, when upward of two thirds of Jews will be slaughtered and the rest either converted or eternally damned. The Texas mega-church reverend John Hagee — the founder of the new Christians United for Israel who blessed Tel Aviv’s bombing of Lebanon as a “miracle of God” — preaches a gentler version. He concedes, publicly at least, that Jews could be saved without conversion, even as Israel serves as the final “battlefield,” drowned in a “sea of human blood drained from the veins of those who have followed Satan.”

Last month, Hagee and other prominent Christian Zionists were in the news, passionately defending Israel’s right to attack Lebanon. They condemned to impose a ceasefire and exhorting their allies in the Bush administration to escalate the war into Iran. Yet conservative evangelicals have their eyes set on more than Jerusalem; they are key players in the White House’s foreign policy coalition, embracing not just the purpose-driven rhetoric so favored by the Bush administration but also its political and economic agenda.

If Not For America

This past June, Condoleezza Rice attended the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, North Carolina, and delivered the kind of speech US secretaries of states usually reserve for Washington insiders. Addressing 12,000 evangelicals — a group the Washington Post described as representing the “core of the Bush administration’s political base” — Rice urged the crowd, despite rising anti-Americanism and despite the bad news coming out of Iraq, not to give in to the temptations of isolationism. “If not for America,” Rice asked the congregation, “who would rally freedom-loving nations to defend liberty and democracy in our world?” That she received no less than seven standing ovations confirms that fundamentalists have come a long way from when Billy James Hargis, leader of the Christian Crusade, declared in 1962 that “the primary threat to the United States is internationalism.”

In fact, conservative evangelicals are America’s true internationalists. Congressional Christians like Virginian Representative Frank Wolf and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback consistently push the US government to deal with global humanitarian issues such as AIDS, sex trafficking, slavery, religious freedom, malaria, and genocide prevention. Bush has seeded USAID with a number of fundamentalists, including Paul Bonicelli, the former academic dean of Virginia’s Patrick Henry College, which is geared toward home-schooled Christians who plan to enter public service. Bonicelli is in charge of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, which dispenses public money to “faith-based” humanitarian organizations, many of them focused on Africa, a central site of conservative missionary work. Lest this involvement in administering the “soft” side of American power corrupt their minds, students at Patrick Henry, which include hundreds who have gone on to work in the Bush administration, including at least one who served in Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority, are required to sign a statement of faith that “Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being who acts as tempter and accuser, for whom Hell, the place of eternal punishment, was prepared, where all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”

Religious Right militants are also increasing their influence over America’s fire and brimstone. Last year, a moderate chaplain resigned from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs after a Pentagon investigation whitewashed the growing hold Pentecostal preachers have over the institution, where cadets are pressured to accept Jesus or “burn in the fires of hell.” And remember Lieutenant General William Boykin? He was the “prayer warrior” who helped “gitmoize” Abu Ghraib. After revealing that he had inside information that the U.S. would win the War on Terror because the Christian God is bigger than” than Islam’s god and warning that “Satan” plans to “destroy” America “as a Christian army,” Boykin was not removed from office but promoted to the number two slot in charge of intelligence in the Pentagon.

It is not just wrong but dangerously delusional, therefore, to think of America’s Religious Right as fringe anti-modernists, who, if parochial “value” issues such as abortion or gay rights were spun into innocuous language, could be conned into voting for a centrist Democrat with multilateral sympathies who would defend what is left of the New Deal. Its leadership forms a central constituency in a foreign policy establishment that has wedded militarism to a uniquely American form of idealism. In fact, with Iraq proving the neocons to be inept strategists, evangelical internationalists like Hagee, who is happy to believe that the “end of the world as we know it is rapidly approaching,” have emerged as the vital force behind Bush’s unrepentant righteous realism. During the recent Israel-Hezbollah war, Bill Kristol, along with potential GOP presidential contenders John McCain and Newt Gingrich, were showing up on news shows hymning from Hagee’s recent best-seller Jerusalem Coming to justify taking the fight to Iran.

A Central American Da Vinci Code

Well before neocons teamed up with the Religious Right to fight radical Islam in what the former believes is WW IV and the latter prays is Armageddon, they honed their fighting skills against another “political religion:” Liberation Theology, Latin America’s Christian socialism which fought against US-backed military juntas and sought to achieve social justice through a redistribution of wealth. Two decades before Gibson’s bloodied and tortured body of Christ became a symbol of a united New Right, the diverse strains of America’s conservative movement came together over the bloodied and tortured bodies of Central Americans.

Starting in the 1960s, conservative evangelical theologians such as John Price and Jerry Falwell interpreted, as did their secular declinists counterparts, defeat in Vietnam as a signal moment of world history in which the US stood at the precipice of collapse. They not only urged their flocks to fight what would become known as the culture wars, the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, and so forth, but to get more involved in foreign affairs as well. Ronald Reagan’s crusade against the Central American Left–his patronage of the Contra insurgents in Nicaragua and death-squad states in El Salvador and Guatemala–was the first extensive opportunity to do so, an apprenticeship that gave the Religious Right its first real taste of its own power within the Republican Party and drew it closer to other groups within the Reagan Revolution.

In order to bypass public and Congressional opposition, the White House outsourced the “hearts and minds” component of its Central American wars to evangelicals. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum sent down “Freedom Fighter Friendship Kits” to the Contras, complete with toothpaste, insect repellent, and a bible. Gospel Crusades, Inc, Friends of the Americas, Operation Blessing, World Vision, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and World Medical Relief likewise shipped hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels and Honduran refugee camps, where they established schools, health clinics, and religious missions. In El Salvador, Harvesting in Spanish, Paralife Ministries, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund (affiliated with the Unification Church) and the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade broadcast radio programs, handed out bibles, ran schools, established medical and dental clinics, and provided moral education to the soldiers. Pat Robertson used his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for Efraín Ríos Montt, the evangelical Christian who presided over the Guatemala’s 1982 genocide, which killed over a hundred thousand Mayan Indians. Most of the Guatemalan relief aid raised by evangelicals in the United States, by groups such as the California-based charismatic Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, went to help the military’s efforts to establish control in the countryside in the wake of its campaign of massacres.

In the United States, right-wing Christians Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly and Oliver North, along with evangelical capitalists such as Amway founder Richard DeVos, founded the Council for National Policy in 1981, which, as the Religious Right’s steering committee in the 1980s, was deeply involved in Reagan’s Central American exploits. Christian businessmen raised money for arms and humanitarian work and funded the myriad organizations that worked closely with the White House to sway public opinion and congressional votes in favor of Reagan’s policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. As part of Iran-Contra’s extensive support network, they deepened their ties with the international Right, with retired military and black ops personal, mercenaries, arms merchants, right-wing public relations experts, ex-agents of the Iranian Shah’s secret policy, international drug traffickers, the Sultan of Brunei, and anticommunist states such as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Panama, and Israel. Many of the militarists who executed the Contra war — John Singlaub, CIA director William Casey, Vernon Walters, and Oliver North — were themselves members of either Protestant or Catholic ultramontane sects, such as the charismatic Church of the Apostles, Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta. Catholic Casey attended mass daily, and filled his mansion with statues of the Virgin Mary. The Da Vinci Code has nothing on what took place in Central America during the 1980s.

The Economics of Satan

Reagan’s Christian soldiers, however, carried aloft not the banner of the lord of love popularized by Dan Brown but a pitiless avenger. It was largely in opposition to the Christian humanism that motivated Central American revolutionaries and reformers, as well as its supporters in the US, that the New Right elaborated the ethical justification of today’s free-market militarism. Not only was the Central American Left motivated as much by Catholic Liberation Theology as by Marxism, the domestic solidarity movement, much more than the protests against the Vietnam War, was noticeably Christian. Groups such as the Religious Task Force on El Salvador, Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. Catholic Conference, Witness for Peace, the Quakers, and the National Council of Churches actively mobilized hundreds of thousands of Christians in opposition to Reagan’s policy. It was a shared hostility to this Christian socialism that united mainstream conservative Protestants and pulpit thumping fundamentalists.

Take the Institute on Religion and Democracy for example.

Today, the neoconservative IRD is a key player in the Bush coalition, working hard to discredit liberal religious organizations that oppose Bush’s wars. Two of its theologians — Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus — have provided the White House with key spiritual guidance, theologically defending not just American militarism but the free-market fundamentalism and orgy of wealth accumulation that underwrites that militarism. The IRD, it turns out, was founded in 1981 by intellectuals associated with the American Enterprise Institute and advised by PR firms contracted by the White House. Its mission was to provide “mainstream” religious support for Reagan’s Central American policy, yet it immediately allied with evangelicals like Jimmy Swaggert, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson to take on Liberation Theology.

In a series of books and articles challenging the major tenets and proponents of liberation theology, Novak and Neuhaus began to, as Novak put it, “locate a theological grounding for corporate capitalism” by elaborating a set of ideals specific to the free market that they believed complimented the Christian understanding of free will. To those who said that capitalism embodied the worst of acquisitive individualism, Novak, who presented himself as a political liberal, responded with his “theology of the corporation,” which held up the business firm as “an expression of the social nature of humans.” He dedicated much of his work to refuting liberation theology’s insistence that Third World poverty could be blamed on exploitation by the First World, arguing that Latin America’s economic backwardness must be blamed on “cultural” factors.
As did their mainstream coreligionists, fundamentalists formulated their free-market moralism as a quarrel with liberation theology. The founder of Christian Reconstructionism, the influential branch of the evangelical movement that seeks to replace the Constitution with biblical law, Rousas John Rushdoony described liberation theology as the “economics of Satan,” while another preacher labeled a “theology of mass murder” and the “the single most critical problem that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000 year history.” Capitalism, they insisted, was an ethical system, one that corresponds to God’s gift of free will. Man lives in a “fundamentally scarce world,” Christian economist John Cooper argued, not an abundant one only in need of more equitable distribution, as the liberation theologians would have it. The profit motive, rather than being an amoral economic mechanism, is part of a divine plan to discipline fallen man and make him produce. Where Christian humanists contended that people were fundamentally good and that “evil” was a condition of class exploitation, Christian capitalists such as Amway’s Richard DeVos, head of the Christian Freedom Foundation, insisted that evil is found in the heart of man.

Where liberation theology held that humans could fully realize their potential here on earth, fundamentalist economists argued that attempts to distribute wealth and regulate production was based on an incorrect understanding of society — an understanding that incited disobedience to proper authority and, by highlighting economic inequality, generated guilt, envy, and conflict. God’s Kingdom, they insisted, would not be established by a war between the classes but a struggle between the good and the evil.

As did Novak, evangelicals sought to rebut liberation theology’s critique of the global political economy. Third World poverty, according to evangelical Ronald Nash, has a “cultural, moral, and even religious dimension” that reveals itself in a “lack of respect for any private property,” “lack of initiative,” and “high leisure preference.” Some took this argument to its logical conclusion. Gary North, another influential evangelical economist, insisted that the “Third World’s problems are religious: moral perversity, a long history of demonism, and outright paganism.” “The citizens of the Third World,” he wrote, “ought to feel guilt, to fall on their knees and repent from their Godless, rebellious, socialistic ways. They should feel guilty because they are guilty, both individually and corporately.”

Evangelical Christianity’s elaboration of a theological justification for free-market capitalism, along with its view of a immoral third world, resonated with other ideological currents within the New Right, laying the groundwork for today’s embrace of empire as America’s national purpose. In a universe of free will where good work is rewarded and bad works punished, the fact of American prosperity was a self-evident confirmation of god’s blessing of US power in the world. Third-world misery, in contrast, was proof of “God’s curse.” David Chilton, of the Institute for Christian Economics, a Reconstructionist think tank, wrote that poverty is how “God controls heathen cultures: they must spend so much time surviving that they are unable to exercise ungodly dominion over the earth.”

Novak and Neuhaus would not use such stark terms, yet the sentiment is step removed from their logic. After all, the IRD’s mission statement, written by Neuhaus, anointed America to be the “primary bearer of the democratic possibility in the world today.” Such an opinion nestles comfortably with evangel notions that America is a “redeemer nation” and saturates the president’s foreign policy pronouncements. “America stands as a beacon of light to the world,” Bush said in his Ellis Island address on the first anniversary of 9/11, cribbing from scripture to replace Jesus with America, “and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Bringers of Wrath

Not all in the Religious Right who backed Reagan’s Central American wars have followed Bush across the Rubicon. Some, such as Phyllis Schlafly, have remained true to their isolationist faith. Others like evangelical economist Gary North reject the end-time eschatology of the Christian Zionists. But the kind of moralism that many key fundamentalists used to justify the violence visited on Central America in the 1980s easily led to the kind of righteousness that today legitimates cluster bombing of civilians as an option of first resort.
Throughout the 1980s, as its involvement in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala deepened, fundamentalists came to share with Reaganite neocons and militarists a common set of assumptions about the world and America’s role in it. The U.S. had grown dangerously weak, and where neocons called for renewal of political will, evangelicals believed that America’s revival would come about through spiritual rebirth. Their sense of themselves as a persecuted people, engaged in a life and death end-time struggle between the forces of good and evil mapped easily onto the millennialism of anti-communist militarists, particularly those involved in Central America.

Working closely with neoconservative policy intellectuals such as Elliot Abrams, Otto Reich, Robert Kagan, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, conservative evangelical theologians established a moral justification for Reagan’s rehabilitation of militarism. They aligned their theology to incorporate elements of both the idealism and the unflinching militarism that led straight to war in Iraq. “Our government,” wrote Falwell in 1980 but sounding a lot like George W. Bush in 2002, “has the right to use its armaments to bring wrath upon those who would do evil by hurting other people.” And not just defensively but preemptively: “we must go on the offensive,” wrote Rus Walton in his 1988 Biblical Solutions to Contemporary Problems: A Handbook.

The violence of counterinsurgent war stoked the fires of fundamentalist Manichaeism, leading Falwell, Robertson, and others to ally with the worst murderers and torturers in Central and Latin America. “For the Christian,” believes Walton, “there can be no neutrality in this battle: ‘He that is not with Me is against Me’ (Matthew 12:30).” Robertson described the genocide carried out by Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt as a “miracle” and celebrated Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson, the killer of, along with untold others, Archbishop Oscar Romero, on his Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1984, more than a dozen Christian New Right organizations, including the Moral Majority, presented D’Aubuisson with a plaque honoring his “continuing efforts for freedom.”

Many of the death-squad members were themselves conservative religious ideologues, taking the fight against liberation theology to the trenches. Guatemalan security forces regularly questioned their prisoners about their “views on liberation theology.” Others report being tortured to the singing of hymns and praying. Some evangelicals excused such suffering. ”Killing for the joy of it was wrong,” a Paralife minister from the United States comforted his flock of Salvadoran soldiers, “but killing because it was necessary to fight against an anti-Christ system, communism, was not only right but a duty of every Christian.”

So when Jeane Kirkpatrick remarked that the three US nuns and one lay worker who were raped, mutilated and murdered by Salvadoran security forces in 1980 were “not just nuns, they were political activists,” she was being more than cruel. She was signaling her disapproval of a particular kind of peace Christianity. Over the next ten years, as a direct result of US policy, more than three hundred thousand Central Americans, many of them devout Christians, would be killed and tortured, and over a million driven into exile. In a way, the New Right’s crusade in Central America was a preview of the tormented Jesus that premiered two decades later in The Passion of the Christ — and, despite Gibson’s drunken dissent, is today on world tour in Boykin’s Abu Ghraib and the killing fields of Iraq and now Lebanon.

GREG GRANDIN, a recent recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, teaches Latin American history at New York University and is the author of a number of books, including most recently Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan). He can be reached at: