Back in the late ’70s, as a teenager desperate to wash off my gayness in the blood of the Lamb, I abandoned my family’s mild Methodism and sought salvation at a Southern Baptist megachurch. I learned a great deal about the Book of Leviticus, honed my manliness in the state-of-the-art gym, and went forward to dedicate my life to Christ no fewer than three times. But it was all for naught; “the gay” had me firmly in its clutches (as did a certain fetching boy with a nice big station wagon, ideal for parking). Even so, I still feel at home in a megachurch, though my praise-singing and hand-waving skills have grown a tad rusty. Whenever I’m feeling professionally curious about the state of Christian Right preachments and politics, I like to go straight to the source—especially come election time.
And so it was that I blended into the massive multiracial flock at San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church on Sunday, Oct. 17. This was “God and Country” day at the charismatic megachurch presided over by Pastor John Hagee, one of the most powerful and hateful voices of the Christian Right. It’s an election-year tradition, where Hagee invites candidates to worship with him and electioneer afterward, outside in the prayer garden.
On the surface, it looked like a vintage display of the power and glory of evangelical politics. As the ushers came around with their tithing plates, Hagee introduced no fewer than 71 office-seekers who’d turned out (nearly half of them Democrats). But it soon became clear that almost all were locals. The only two statewide candidates were the Libertarian running for attorney general, Jon Roland, and the “go anywhere, talk to anybody” Democrat Jeff Weems, making a spirited run for Railroad Commissioner. Not a single State Board of Education candidate had materialized, even though the sermon was to be delivered by David Barton, the evangelical entrepreneur and former vice chairman of the Texas GOP who served as an official “expert” when right-wing board members attempted to Christianize the state’s social-studies curriculum.
The absences seemed as significant as the turnout. After all, just six years ago—when the Tea Party was still an 18th-century artifact—right-wing Christians were the most fearsome demographic in American politics, lifting George W. Bush to re-election and sending a sizable contingent of “pro-life” Republicans to Congress. But the movement has lost steam ever since. The reasons run deeper than the Terry Schiavo debacle, or Bush’s reneging on his pandering promise to outlaw gay marriage. A new generation of evangelicals has begun to question their churches’ umbilical ties to the Republican Party and embrace a broader notion of “Christian values”—you know, stuff Jesus actually talked about, like alleviating poverty. Forty-five percent of evangelicals voting in 2008 said their top issue was “the economy”—just like everybody else.
All of which is heresy—literally—to the likes of Hagee and Barton. Barton’s message on God and Country day was a stern rebuke to the straying sheep who base their votes on anything but the Ten Commandments. Wielding the miracle of PowerPoint, Barton flashed them on Cornerstone’s massive video screens, then superimposed the correct political translations—”abortion” over “you shall not kill,” for instance, and “private property rights” over “you shall not steal.” Voting on the basis of anything else, he insisted, is not merely a sin—it’s a recipe for destroying America’s economy. Up flashed a list of the members of Congress with 100-percent ratings from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—Republicans, all. Then, superimposed over that list, legislators with perfect “pro-life” voting records—mostly the very same Republicans. “If you’re good on life,” Barton proclaimed, “you’re good on economic issues. … Righteousness produces prosperity.”
Afterward, in the sunny prayer garden, the candidates chatted with the faithful who’d stuck around, plying them with cookies and yard signs. I made a beeline for Weems, who was busy batting away questions about his stance on “life”: “I have a personal view,” he was saying, “and I keep it that way. It’s not relevant to the Railroad Commission.”
Taking a break from his interrogators, Weems—who attends the First Congregational Church of Houston, a denominational world away—gave me a no-holds-barred critique of Barton’s “incredible stretches of logic.” And then he said the truest thing I’d heard all day: “But you know what it tells me? It tells me he’s struggling to remain relevant.”