Dark Christianity
dark_christian
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May 2008
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Inside America's Most Powerful Megachurch

LJ-SEC: (ORIGINALLY POSTED BY [info]sunfell)

The first half of Jeff Sharlet's "Harper's" article Inside America's Most Powerful Megachurch" is available on his "Revealer" website. I highly recommend it.

Here's an excerpt:

the city’s mightiest megachurch crests silver and blue atop a gentle slope of pale yellow prairie grass on the outskirts of town. Silver and blue, as it happens, are Air Force colors. New Life Church was built far north of town in part so it would be visible from the Air Force Academy. New Life wanted that kind of character in its congregation.

“Church” is insufficient to describe the complex. There is a permanent structure called the Tent, which regularly fills with hundreds or thousands of teens and twentysomethings for New Life’s various youth gatherings. Next to the Tent stands the old sanctuary, a gray box capable of seating 1,500; this juts out into the new sanctuary, capacity 7,500, already too small. At the complex’s western edge is the World Prayer Center, which looks like a great iron wedge driven into the plains. The true architectural wonder of New Life, however, is the pyramid of authority into which it orders its 11,000 members. At the base are 1,300 cell groups, whose leaders answer to section leaders, who answer to zone, who answer to district, who answer to Pastor Ted Haggard, New Life’s founder.

Pastor Ted, who talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday, is a handsome forty-eight-year-old Indianan, most comfortable in denim. He likes to say that his only disagreement with the President is automotive; Bush drives a Ford pickup, whereas Pastor Ted loves his Chevy. In addition to New Life, Pastor Ted presides over the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose 45,000 churches and 30 million believers make up the nation’s most powerful religious lobbying group, and also over a smaller network of his own creation, the Association of Life-Giving Churches, 300 or so congregations modeled on New Life’s “free market” approach to the divine. Pastor Ted will serve as NAE president for as long as the movement is pleased with him, and as long as Pastor Ted is its president the NAE will make its headquarters in Colorado Springs.

Some believers call the city the Wheaton of the West, in honor of Wheaton, Illinois, once the headquarters of a more genteel Christian conservatism; others call Colorado Springs the “evangelical Vatican,” a phrase that says much both about the city and about the easeful orthodoxy with which the movement now views itself. Certainly the gathering there has no parallel in history, not in Lynchburg, Virginia, nor Tulsa, nor Pasadena, nor Orlando, nor any other city that has aspired to be the capital of evangelical America. Evangelical activist groups (“parachurch” ministries, in the parlance) in Colorado Springs number in the hundreds, though a precise count is hard to specify. Groups migrate there and multiply. They produce missionary guides, “family resources,” school curricula, financial advice, athletic training programs, Bibles for every occasion. The city is home to Young Life, to the Navigators, to Compassion International; to Every Home for Christ and Global Ethnic Missions (Youth Ablaze). Most prominent among the ministries is Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, whose radio programs (the most extensive in the world, religious or secular), magazines, videos, and books reach more than 200 million people worldwide.

The press tends to regard Dobson as the most powerful evangelical Christian in America, but Pastor Ted is at least his equal. Whereas Dobson plays the part of national scold, promising to destroy politicians who defy the Bible, Pastor Ted quietly guides those politicians through the ritual of acquiescence required to save face. He doesn’t strut, like Dobson; he gushes. When Bush invited him to the Oval Office to discuss policy with seven other chieftains of the Christian right in late 2003, Pastor Ted regaled his whole congregation with the story via email. “Well, on Monday I was in the World Prayer Center”— New Life’s high-tech, twentyfour- hour-a-day prayer chapel —“and my cell phone rang.” It was a presidential aide; “the President,” says Pastor Ted, wanted him on hand for the signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Pastor Ted was on a plane the next morning and in the President’s office the following afternoon. “It was incredible,” wrote Pastor Ted. He left it to the press to note that Dobson wasn’t there.

No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted, and no church more than New Life. It is by no means the largest megachurch, nor is Ted the best-known man of God: Saddleback Church, in southern California, counts 80,000 on its rolls, and its pastor, Rick Warren, has sold 20 million copies of his book The Purpose-Driven Life. But Warren’s success has come at the price of passion; his doctrine, though conservative, is bland and his politics too obscured by his self-help message to be potent. Although other churches boast more eminent memberships than Pastor Ted’s—near D.C., for example, McLean Bible Church and The Falls Church (an Episcopal church that is, like many “mainline” churches today, now evangelical in all but name) minister to the powerful— such churches are not, like New Life, crucibles for the ideas that inspire the movement, ideas that are forged in the middle of the country and make their way to Washington only over time. Evangelicalism is as much an intellectual as an emotional movement; and what Pastor Ted has built in Colorado Springs is not just a battalion of spiritual warriors but a factory for ideas to arm them.

New Life began with a prophecy. In November 1984 a missionary friend of Pastor Ted’s, respected for his gifts of discernment, made him pull over on a bend of Highway 83 as they were driving, somewhat aimlessly, in the open spaces north of the city. Pastor Ted—then twentyeight, given to fasting and oddly pragmatic visions (he believes he foresaw Internet prayer networks before the Internet existed)—had been wondering why God had called him from near Baton Rouge, where he had been associate pastor of a megachurch, to this bleak city, then known as a “pastor’s graveyard.” The missionary got out of the car and squinted. He crouched down as if sniffing the ground. “This,” said the missionary, “this will be your church. Build here.”

So Pastor Ted did. First, he started a church in his basement. The pulpit was three five-gallon buckets stacked one atop the other, and the pews were lawn chairs. A man who lived in a trailer came round if he remembered it was Sunday and played guitar. Another man got the Spirit and filled a fivegallon garden sprayer with cooking oil and began anointing nearby intersections, then streets and buildings all over town. Pastor Ted told his flock to focus their prayers on houses with FOR SALE signs so that more Christians would come and join him. Once Pastor Ted and another missionary accidentally set off an alarm and hid together in a field while the police investigated. It was for a good cause, Pastor Ted would say; they were praying for the building to be taken off the market so it could someday be purchased for a future ministry. (It was.)

He was always on the lookout for spies. At the time, Colorado Springs was a small city split between the Air Force and the New Age, and the latter, Pastor Ted believed, worked for the devil. Pastor Ted soon began upsetting the devil’s plans. He staked out gay bars, inviting men to come to his church; his whole congregation pitched itself into invisible battles with demonic forces, sometimes in front of public buildings.

One day, while he was working in his garage, a woman who said she’d been sent by a witches’ coven tried to stab Pastor Ted with a five-inch knife she pulled from a leg sheath; Pastor Ted wrestled the blade out of her hand. He let that story get around. He called the evil forces that dominated Colorado Springs—and every other metropolitan area in the country—“Control.”

Sometimes, he says, Control would call him late on Saturday night, threatening to kill him. “Any more impertinence out of you, Ted Haggard,” he claims Control once told him, “and there will be unrelenting pandemonium in this city.” No kidding! Pastor Ted hadn’t come to Colorado Springs for his health; he had come to wage “spiritual war.”

He moved the church to a strip mall. There was a bar, a liquor store, New Life Church, a massage parlor. His congregation spilled out and blocked the other businesses. He set up chairs in the alley. He strung up a banner: SIEGE THIS CITY FOR ME, signed JESUS. He assigned everyone in the church names from the phone book they were to pray for. He sent teams to pray in front of the homes of supposed witches—in one month, ten out of fifteen of his targets put their houses on the market. His congregation “prayer-walked” nearly every street of the city.

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