The Reverend Elmer Gantry was reading an illustrated pink periodical devoted to prize-fighters and chorus girls in his room at Elizabeth J. Schmutz Hall late of an afternoon when two large men walked in without knocking.
“Why, good evening, Brother Bains — Brother Naylor! This is a pleasant surprise. I was, uh — Did you ever see this horrible rag? . . . I was thinking of denouncing it next Sunday. I hope you never read it.
–Sinclair Lewis, “Elmer Gantry”
In 2001, President Bush appointed Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary. In 2006, the electorate voted him out of office. Exit polls showed that Americans had not only lost confidence in Rummy and his boss over the Iraq debacle, but also had their fill of Republican sleaze.
Republican super briber Jack Abramoff’s name rang bells in voters’ heads, but the Democrats got unexpected boosts from the antics of the modern day Elmer Gantrys, some of whom also served as White House confidantes and mobilizers extraordinaire of the soldiers of God at voting time.
The Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization of some 30 million people, fired their President when they learned that the epitome of modern righteousness, Rev. Ted Haggard, had engaged in the very satanic vices that he had condemned in his sermons. This model of uprightness for the Jesus movement, and actor in the film “Jesus Camp,” the recently released documentary about the fundamentalist movement, got “outed.”
Just days before the election, a gay drug-dealing hooker revealed that Haggard had engaged in kinky activity and did some naughty drugs as well. In the movie, the audience sees young Christians staring adoringly at Haggard, who warns them of the evils of homosexuality. “We don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible,” he sermonized.
Haggard not only lost his position as chief evangelical hooha, but also got fired as preacher at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a church with some 14,000 members. On CNN, a Republican spokesman claimed he never heard of Haggard. James Carville, his interview adversary, retorted that all top Republicans must have forgotten the daily conversations Haggard held with high White House officials. After all, Haggard played a key role in turning out the evangelicals on election day to vote for God’s candidate.
Married and a father of five, Haggard finally confessed, writing to his congregation that he was “guilty of sexual immorality.” The male escort who exposed him claims that Haggard had paid sex with him for more than the past three years. Mike Jones both massaged and sold Haggard crystal meth. So what did the two of them actually do?
Haggard’s continued vagueness about specific sins leads to speculation. But Wikipedia of all places provides some possible clues. Under “administering methamphetamines,” the online encyclopedia states that “booty bumping” or “Keistering” have emerged as methods of taking crystal meth anally. Imagine Haggard lying face down on the massage table. Well you can take it from there.
The introduction of the substance anally, Wikipedia asserts, increases “sexual pleasure while the effects of the drug last.”
Pastor Ted, in the tradition of Elmer Gantry, had made his congregation proud. Ted Haggard symbolized fundamentalism on the march. Unlike the stodgy geezers, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson, the boyish Haggard related to young Jesus adorers. Like Gantry, however, Haggard, when discovered as sinning in the very ways he had described as sinful, took the slithering mode of escape.
Haggard at first hedged and did a “Bill Clinton,” denying that anything more occurred than routine massage. He admitted to buying but denied using the methamphetamines. “I did not have sex with that man and I did not inhale.” As one cynical observer put it: “He just got a massage — of his you know what by someone else’s sphincter.”
Founder of Focus on the Family, Haggard used his charisma to convert young people. Hopefully, they have absorbed from his “outing” an important lesson. The portrait of Haggard as a sarcastic and cold-hearted cynic that appears in “Jesus Camp” was apparently the real Haggard.
After seeing how the film portrayed him, he claimed the producers had distorted his true character and theological bent. “You can expect to learn as much about the Catholic Church from ‘Nacho Libre’ as you can learn about evangelicalism from ‘Jesus Camp,'” he wrote. The directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, say Haggard is the only one who has complained about the way he was depicted in the film.
Haggard’s downfall on election eve reverberated in the White House. The preacher that regularly led his congregation in prayers for President Bush had also exhorted his flock to support the God-ordained nomination of Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. Haggard boasted about how his brand of evangelicalism had “got enough growth to essentially sway every election.” Indeed, from Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Republican Revolution” until last week, the disciplined fundamentalist had insured Republicans the control of Congress. When Haggard boasted of his implied power –“If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election”–he dramatized the political role of preachers like himself.
Indeed, after Haggard showed his sexual colors, some evangelists switched their votes from the Party of righteousness and instead cast ballots for the Party with “the homosexual agenda.”
The outing of Haggard, of course, doesn’t explain the vote. But the Haggard scandal became reinforced in voters’ minds by other “unseemly” behavior by a man who also claimed to have two way conversations with God. On November 6, just before the elections, Pensacola Florida police busted Rev. Kent Hovind, founder of Creation Evangelism Science, and charged him with 58 counts of tax fraud. Hovind apparently neglected to pay $845,000 in employee taxes at his now defunct Dinosaur Adventure Land theme park. This religious amusement center dramatized Hovind’s theological axiom: humans and dinosaurs coexisted. No such thing as evolution occurred.
Imagine Hovind exhorting his followers to watch “The Flintstones,” which they should see as a documentary film of course. Hovind faces a maximum of 288 years in prison. His wife, Jo Hovind, apparently helped him in his scam. She was convicted on 44 counts of evading bank-reporting requirements.
The election eve scandals clearly turned some voters; Iraq, corruption and sleaze weighed heavily in the decisions of others. Inside Republican circles, an anonymous source informs me, a discussion has emerged about the value of continuing to portray the Party as the epitome of Godliness while periodically some of its most righteous members come or are forced out of the closet. Not only the sexual closet! The Republican “moralist” Bill Bennett, was “outed” as a gambling addict, radio bombast Rush Limbaugh as a drug addict and super religious Ralph Reed, for years tied to the most pious sounding preachers, as a man who couldn’t resist bribes–from the religious Jew, Jack Abramoff, of course.
Perhaps by leaving the closet, gay Republicans could begin to restore some health to a hideously corrupted politics. Just as the literary character Gantry satirized a gang of hustlers who sold God to desperate poor people, Haggard, the modern version of the phony closet gay preacher, peddled Republican politics as God’s religion.
The cruel irony is that closet homosexuals in the Republican Party who refused to acknowledge their “loathsome impulse” instead project their hostility onto others. Think back of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s legal stooge who, as he lay dying of AIDS, screamed curses at homosexuals. The pathetic former Florida Congressman Mark Foley represents a more recent example: a man who headed a committee to protect underage pages while he preyed upon them sexually.
Since they lack power to control their own sexual “demons,” they seek to exercise power over others, targeting those with the same “hideous impulse”: by grabbing political control of the country and instituting the politics of repression, meanness and fear in the name of God. Bill Maher claimed he would soon “out” RNC Chair Ken Mehlman. The comedian quipped that at the rate Republicans were being forced out of the closet, the Party might do well to change its symbol from the elephant to the moth–or, at least color the monster pink.
The donkey has regained control of Congress. Its riders had better prove quickly to voters that they can deliver some sound policies–stopping the Iraq occupation, raising the minimum wage, health care and immigration. Cut bloated “defense” spending and invest money in the infrastructure
If they don’t act, they will cede the legislature back to the “pie in the sky” mountebanks that have already begun plotting–with God of course–their 2008 strategy.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. His new book, A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, will be published by Counterpunch Press.