The Hyatt Regency on the south bank of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake is a pleasant enough place, but its true purpose on April 3—a temporary respite from the licking hellfire consuming the United States—was not immediately apparent. But cross the threshold into the Texas Ballroom, where attendees of the Texas Renewal Project’s Pastor Policy Briefing are munching on little cuts of meat while a succession of speakers worry about the country’s terminal decline, and you start to feel the heat of the fire outside.
Hundreds of pastors have traveled from all over Texas to the conference, which, according to the invitation penned by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, aims to address the fact that ”our Judeo-Christian heritage is under attack by a force that is more destructive than any threat America has faced in decades.” There are speakers, and information sessions, though one suspects that for many the appeal of the event is a weekend in Austin with the wife. I stand in the back, where a stern-looking man unhappy with the offerings of ice tea and water sips on whiskey from the lobby bar. The woman in front of me picks away at her slice of bread, leaving the crust.
The message on offer is grim and fearful. This is a room full of people that are falling out of love with their country. It used to be a place that held promise for them and their cohort. But it’s changed, dramatically and for the worse, and the pastors don’t know if they can get it back in time.
The night’s speakers give them no comfort. There’s former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, who tells diners that America is “not great enough that we can shake our fist in the face of a holy god and expect to get away with it.”
“That World War II generation gave us something that we have squandered over the last 40 years,” Watts told the crowd. “They gave us an exceptional nation. I don’t want my grandchildren to inherit a normal nation.”
“We can’t just go to church on Sunday and pay our tithe and leave it up to Washington. Washington is a Babylonian system,” says Watts. (According to Revelation 17:5, Babylon is the “the mother of harlots and of the abominations in the earth.”)
Babylon’s enforcement arm is the Internal Revenue Service, which Matthew Staver rose to speak on. Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law, took time to reassure the pastors on one point: The IRS is impotent. There are strictures on tax-exempt churches engaging in political activity, but you can easily work within them. And if you break them outright, it doesn’t matter. “The IRS doesn’t have any teeth in this,” he said. “Some of my friends take their [political] message and sent them to the IRS.”
It’s your duty, he told the pastors, to engage in political activity to the maximum extent you are able. Have candidates speak in your church, acknowledge them in sermons, have candidate forums and debates. “Voting is a prophetic witness to the community,” he said. “No church has ever lost their tax exempt status for lobbying or for political activity. You’ve got to replace the muzzle that the world has placed on you.”
When he shifted to why the muzzle must be removed, things got dark. Staver spoke about legislative restrictions in New Jersey and California on “pray-the-gay-away” counseling services.
“If a minor comes to you and is struggling with same-sex attraction—maybe they were molested by the likes of a monster like Jerry Sandusky—and they have this self-hatred, they want to kill themselves because they have these desires that they don’t want, the desire to act out in the manner that they’ve been acted on,” Staver said, “and they come to a Christian counselor and say, help me, that counselor can’t help that child with those thoughts and behaviors. They have to sanctify that behavior as natural, normal, and good.” The crowd murmured.
Staver stepped back.
“I never thought I would ever say this,” he said.
Recently he had traveled to Peru, where that country’s congress asked him to speak on religious issues, particularly, on the Obama administration’s support for LGBT issues abroad. He found himself unable to defend his country. He told the Peruvian legislators: “America used to be proud that we were a city on the hill, a shining example. In these areas of religious liberty, we are no longer setting the example. I received a standing ovation, and a Congressional Medal of Honor,” he said. “I never would have received that treatment in our own congress.”
His trip culminated in another appearance, at a 70,000-seat soccer stadium, packed full with Peruvian Christians. When the first speaker addressed the crowd, Staver said, he carried a stern warning. “Any nation that supports or proposes laws that are contrary to God’s natural created order is cursed and will cease to exist.” Back at the Hyatt, audible gasps. A man in the audience yells “that’s true!”
Staver continued: “Tears began to roll down my eyes, because I began to think about the United States of America—the country that I was born in, that I love.” He added: “What we are doing now is not only destroying this country, but we are working to undermine Christian values in Peru and in countries around the world. This country is doing that. Under our watch! We can no longer be silent.”
Politically-minded evangelicals have been warning about America’s fall from grace and downfall since time immemorial. But the ground really has shifted: The demographic changes that are concerning the whole conservative coalition will hit the Religious Right especially hard. Even within the Republican Party, more libertarian strains of thought are ascendant. There are national politicians who can speak the language of evangelicals—Cruz, with his pastor father, among them.
But he, like Gov. Perry, has adopted a state’s rights position on thorny social issues like gay marriage. That doesn’t go far enough for this crowd, who’d like to see gay marriage prohibited in the 50 states and territories and gay people disappear from public view.
Nonetheless, this has been a particularly good election cycle in Texas for evangelicals. That’s especially strange because evangelical candidates—think Rick Santorum—tend to underperform here. Both Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, who seem set to win the GOP lt. governor and attorney general nominations, respectively, have received the imprimatur of Mike Huckabee, who spoke at the Hyatt the morning after. Cruz skipped the event, to the disappointment of the crowd, to appear at Fort Hood.
Even if Patrick and Paxton win this November, that won’t be enough to assuage the deep disquiet many feel about the direction of their country. This is a group that’s primed for disappointment—this is, after all, a fallen world.