Can you feel it, ladies and gentlemen? There’s been a great disturbance in the force. The wall separating church and state in America has been breached and right-wing evangelical Christians have poured in through the gap, all under the guise of religious freedom.
Eighty percent of evangelical Christians voted for President Donald Trump, and he has handsomely rewarded them for their continued unconditional support with cabinet picks, executive orders banning transgenders from the military, a conservative Supreme Court justice and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But they want much more than that.
They aim to make America Christian again, and first and foremost that means rolling back reproductive rights for women and civil rights for the LGBT community, which evangelicals and other conservative Christians appointed by Trump to cabinet-level positions are already in the process of doing, in God’s name, as this is being written.
They are being aided and abetted by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, including California 1st Congressional District Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who since Trump’s election has increasingly professed his strongly held religious beliefs to his constituents on Facebook. LaMalfa was so overwhelmed with the passing of the 99-year-old Rev. Billy Graham last month, he couldn’t help proselytizing about America’s Pastor:
“Today was one of the most profound and moving experiences during my time as a legislator. I pray that this day will punctuate a new revival of faith in God in America. Reverend Graham’s passing will remind the world of his message of salvation for all who would follow Jesus.”
There are about 710,000 souls in California’s immense 1st District, which extends north-to-south through Yreka, Redding, Red Bluff, Chico, Oroville, Grass Valley and Auburn, and west-to-east across the Sacramento Valley into the Sierras to the Nevada and Oregon borders. I’m sure many of those souls, perhaps even a majority, would be enthralled to know their congressman is calling them to Jesus.
But Facebook being Facebook, LaMalfa was mercilessly trolled by constituents more familiar with his other moving experiences as a legislator, like when as a freshman representative in 2013 he joined Tea Party Republicans in opposition to an increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, comprises the majority of the Farm Bill’s budget. LaMalfa and friends formed a prayer circle of sorts, citing biblical passages to justify their stance not just against food stamps, but against all government welfare programs in general. For a short time, they shut down the government.
Now-retired California Democratic Rep. George Miller kindly pointed out that LaMalfa and 13 other Republicans who had opposed increases in SNAP were receiving millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies. He also noted that 11 percent of LaMalfa’s constituents depend upon SNAP benefits, a higher percentage than most districts.
According to Environmental Working Group, which tracks issues involving the Farm Bill, including the subsidies doled out, LaMalfa’s family farm received $5.3 million in federal aid between 1995 and 2016. He remains biblically opposed to social welfare programs for the needy.
Religious Freedom Fighter
What sort of Christian clobbers poor people over the head with bible verses for taking government hand-outs even as he commits precisely the same sin behind their backs? There’s nothing on LaMalfa’s official bio page to indicate he might possess such a fervent religiosity, no degree from a seminary or divinity school, nothing that implies a concentrated study of the good book or that he even goes to church.
He’s just “a fourth generation rice farmer and business owner who has lived in Northern California all his life,” who “attended local schools and grew up learning the value of hard work and community service.”
Yet this is a politician who has played on his conservative white Christian base’s apocalyptic fears of undocumented immigrants, affirmative action, abortion rights, homosexuals and marijuana since the late 1990s.
After a 2002-2010 spin through the California Assembly and Senate, in which he distinguished himself by opposing gay marriage and supporting gun rights, LaMalfa was primed and ready for the Tea Party rebellion that led to the loss of the Democratic Party’s majority in the House in 2010. In 2012, he easily won the seat vacated by retiring 13-term Republican Wally Herger, and was reelected handily in 2014 and 2016.
In the House, LaMalfa has styled himself as a protector of “religious freedom.” He pushed for religious exemptions for contraception and abortion in the Affordable Care Act. In a 2016 floor speech delivered during National Bible Week, he admitted he’d only recently started reading the bible in its entirety, from front to back, for the first time. He was impressed, so far:
“The Bible is indeed the living, unerring Word of God. The Founders recognized that, as the gentleman from Ohio alluded to. Indeed, our form of government is more successful when we follow a standard that is separate from ourselves, a standard that lives in a timeless space, beyond what today’s fads are and what today’s feelings or thoughts are. The Bible is unerring in that since it is the Word of God. So it is for us to recognize this and put those words into action.”
This is straight-up dominionism, which religious scholar Frederick Clarkson defines as “the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”
Clarkson’s analysis of the rise of dominionism in American politics through the lens of Ted Cruz’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid includes an excellent short history of its theocratic development, which has significant roots in northern California.
The late theologian R.J. Rushdoony, whom I once interviewed at his modest headquarters in the Sierra foothills near Jackson in the early 1990s, is considered the father of Christian Reconstructionism. He began developing a detailed theology and political action plan designed to reconstruct society on biblical principals in the 1950s that remains enormously influential today, especially among conservative evangelical Republicans.
Rushdoony advocated “the idea that Christians must not only dominate society, but institute and enforce Old Testament biblical law,” particularly the death penalty for various sexual offenses. He also pioneered the home-schooling movement. His influence has spread across multiple Christian denominations around the globe.
Another connection to dominionism in Northern California is the New Apostolic Reformation, a strain of Pentecostal Christianity that includes Bethel Church in Redding. It’s sometimes called 7M dominionism, or the Seven Mountains Mandate, which commands the faithful to take over the seven mountains (or spheres) of cultural influence: education, religion, family, business, government, arts and the media. As we’ve seen in Redding, Bethel isn’t just saying it, it’s doing it.
Clarkson notes that like Bethel, 7M dominionism in general has gained considerable popularity since the turn of the millennium, which failed to deliver the long-awaited rapture for the saved and the eternal lake of fire for the heathens. Now the goal is to establish God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” as Bethel’s slogan puts it, in the hopes that in 1000 years or so, humans will be perfected enough for Jesus to return.
Prominent dominionist politicians include Cruz, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin, a crowd LaMalfa fits in with well politically. Make no mistake, when he speaks of religious freedom, he isn’t talking about pluralism. He’s using the falsified history that the Founding Fathers were all devout puritans, denying the influence of Enlightenment values such as equality, fraternity and liberty on the Constitution, to justify ruling the country by Old Testament law.
Not only doesn’t LaMalfa believe in the separation of church and state implied by the establishment clause in the First Amendment, he’s actively working with fellow like-minded Republicans and Trump administration appointees to subvert it, under the guise of “conscience and religious freedom.”
That’s the Orwellian name of a new division created in January by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights: the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division.
It currently exists as a Proposed Rule, titled Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights In Health Care. If adopted, it will expand the rights of individuals and entities across the health care continuum, from doctors to nurses to employers to insurance agents, to deny care to individuals based on their religious beliefs.
LaMalfa praised the Proposed Rule on the House floor in February, claiming—without offering any evidence—that the Obama administration had failed to enforce existing state and federal laws that permit health care workers to opt out of providing certain care, including abortions and assisted suicides, on religious grounds.
“Under the previous administration, doctors and nurses were not protected from being forced to participate in procedures that may violate their religious beliefs or moral convictions,” LaMalfa said. “This is clearly wrong. Those who are discriminated against for their religious beliefs should be afforded the same protections as those facing any other types of discrimination.”
Americans United For Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization, described the Proposed Rule quite differently in a blistering 8-page letter to HHS:
“The Department is attempting to use the Office for Civil Rights to affirmatively allow a host of institutions and individuals to use religion to deny patients health care and to disregard the nondiscrimination laws that OCR is charged with enforcing.”
“The Department has appropriated language from civil rights statutes and regulations that were intended to improve access to health care and is using it to create a regulatory scheme that is harmful and would instead protect those who seek to discriminate.”
Women and members of the LGBT community, who already face discrimination when it comes to health care access, will face more roadblocks, Americans United said. The National Women’s Law Center concurred, calling the Proposed Rule pointless and redundant.
“This new division is completely unnecessary,” the center stated in its response to HHS. “Unfortunately, existing federal law already allows health care providers to refuse to treat a woman seeking an abortion or sterilization, and OCR has authority to enforce those existing laws.”
The NWLC noted “that only 10 complaints had ever been filed under federal refusal laws before November 2016. The creation of this new division is a solution to a problem that does not exist.”
Washington Gets Religion
The HHS Office of Civil Rights is headed by Roger Serverino, a conservative Catholic attorney appointed last year whose previous experience includes working for the Becket Fund and the Heritage Institute on religious freedom and marriage issues.
Serverino, like LaMalfa, claims that by establishing the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, he’s simply addressing long-standing complaints from religious health care workers—all ten of them before Trump took office. But in January, a dozen anonymous HHS staffers informed Politico that Serverino and his closest staff members “are steering their offices to support evangelicals at the expense of other voices.”
The staffers also accused Serverino of keeping staff members in the dark about decisions on “controversial issues like abortion, contraception and transgender care.”
Similar scenarios have been playing out across Washington, D.C. as Christian conservatives appointed by Trump have asserted their new-found religious freedom.
For example, as one of her first acts in office last year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a devout Calvinist and well-known proponent of diverting tax funds from public schools to religious charters via voucher programs, rescinded the Obama era directive encouraging schools to permit students to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity. In March, she announced DOE was no longer reviewing complaints from transgender students about bathroom issues.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is being run by Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general and Baptist deacon who apparently doesn’t believe in anthropomorphic climate change or the theory of evolution. In his latest move, he’s attempting to roll back Obama-era auto efficiency standards. Like LaMalfa, he’s fond of using Bible verse to justify gutting any and all government regulation.
“The biblical world view with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind,” Pruitt explained to CBN News. He’s taken far more heat for his alleged travel expenditures than the religious views he’s brought to a science-based department.
Over at the Central Intelligence Agency, Director Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate and devout evangelical Christian, has been undermining the agency’s diversity program, particularly in regard to LGBT staff, according to staff members who spoke anonymously to Foreign Policy. They said Pompeo “attends weekly Bible studies held in government buildings, referenced God and Christianity repeatedly in his first all-hands speech and in a recent trip report while traveling overseas.”
“Director Pompeo is a man of faith,” a CIA spokesman told Foreign Policy. “The idea that he should not practice his faith because he is Director of CIA is absurd.”
Critics are concerned that Pompeo, who has been tapped by Trump to replace fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, will be bringing the same evangelical zeal to an already demoralized and depleted State Department.
Is it really that absurd to ask government officials to set aside religious beliefs when making decisions in a public capacity? Isn’t that actually one of the primary purposes of the separation of church and state, to prevent the establishment of an official state religion that infringes on all other beliefs, religious or otherwise?
That’s what I believe, and I think most constitutional experts agree with me, but Trump’s religious appointments have turned that notion on its head.
Here Comes The Revival
I am not the anti-Christ. I’m a product of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The latter probably wouldn’t have happened without the former. The Reformation set each of us free to worship in our own personal way. The Enlightenment taught us the tree of knowledge mentioned in Genesis doesn’t have to be a curse, it can be a gift. We don’t have to be ashamed of our own nakedness.
Recently there was a big commotion within Christendom when the Pope revealed in a private conversation that there is no hell, no eternal lake of fire, just the Big Empty for the souls who haven’t been saved before they pass away. I was instantly reminded of a passage by the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his classic phenomenological treatise, “Being and Nothingness.”
“Nothingness lies coiled within being, like a worm.”
What could be more terrifying than that?
Sartre, of course, was an atheist. I’ve never been able to maintain that pose for very long. The reality that nothingness awaits me at the end of the line is a grim prospect that has daunted me most of my life. It’s comforting to fall back on theories of some sort of an afterlife, whether the source is religious, philosophic or scientific. I’m fairly certain I’m not unique in this regard.
For the past 20 years, the self-anointed prophets and apostles of the New Apostolic Reformation have collectively made billions of dollars exploiting this fear with a unique interpretation of the New Testament that grants them divine powers. NAR isn’t an official organization, it’s a loosely affiliated network of theologians who’ve anointed one another. They claim they can heal the sick by the laying on of hands and that they receive direct prophecy from God himself.
Bethel doesn’t bill itself as a NAR church, but head pastor Bill Johnson does consider himself an apostle with a direct connection to God, and Bethel does proclaim that it’s bringing the gospel of the kingdom of heaven to earth. The church is assuming dominion of those seven cultural spheres—education, religion, family, business, government, arts and the media—or at least its fair portion of them.
But ultimately, in this vision of paradise, God’s law is going to run into man’s law, and there’s going to be trouble. With feathers and gold dust miraculously falling from its ceiling and acolytes proclaiming to be cured from fatal diseases and financial afflictions of every sort, Bethel presents a rather fanciful portrait of itself to the outside world. Yet bolted to this happy facade is Rushdoony’s call to bring Old Testament law back to planet earth.
I gave a preview of what that entails with my previous story, “The Truth Behind Bethel’s Gay Panic.” Somehow, this interpretation of God’s law always comes down hardest on the women and the gays. Self-anointed apostles unable to prove their divine status beware! The Old Testament punishment for false prophets is the same as it is for homosexuals: death by stoning.
In fact, a large number of conservative evangelicals, not to mention mainstream Christians, consider NAR churches heretical for that very reason. Nevertheless, the New Apostolic Reformation is ascendant, and 1300 acolytes showed up to cheer on the apostles of the movement at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. last month, at the same time the late Rev. Billy Graham was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
The event was billed, “The Turnaround: An Appeal To Heaven” and featured Dutch Sheets, Chuck Pierce, Cindy Jacobs, Lou Engle, familiar names in the NAR network. I have not been able to determine if any members of Bethel spoke or attended the gathering. The spirit of revival was definitely in the air.
“There’s never been anything on planet Earth like what’s about to happen,” Sheets told the audience. “The anti-Christ forces are almost rabid in their anger over the potential loss of progress.”
For these prophets and apostles, many of whom believe spiritual energy, anointment, can be sucked out of corpses like ectoplasm, the timing of the Rev. Billy Graham’s demise was biblical, sanctifying their gathering with his holy fluids. I can’t help but wonder if some of them didn’t rub up next to Doug LaMalfa while wandering around the capitol in search of Graham’s coffin. Maybe they even laid hands on him, and the next thing you know, LaMalfa was calling the entire 1st District to Jesus on Facebook.
The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Where is all of this going? Well, I expect you’re going to be hearing a lot about freedom of conscience and religion in the coming months. Apparently, 300 people have already called the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division since it began trolling for complaints. But no matter how much they say they’re talking about freedom for all religions, that’s not what the people who are behind this movement intend. They’re talking about one religion, and their own narrow interpretation of it. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s happening in real time.
One sign I’ve picked up on that might point the way forward is fairly ominous. Many evangelicals truly believe Trump has been ordained by God to make America Christian again. Yet the king’s crown is tarnished with alleged dalliances with porn stars and playmates. So they’ve identified Trump with Cyrus, the Persian king in the Old Testament who, despite living a sinful life, defeated Babylon, freed the Jews and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem.
We don’t have to travel too far back in time to find a prophet, a so-called sinful messiah, who claimed similar status. Just a mere 25 years.
The Hebrew name for “Cyrus” is “Koresh.”
May the force be with us.