"Let's get one thing straight, evangelicals do not want a theocracy."
After two days of being surrounded by right-wing Christian leaders bent on taking over America, these were the words that finally sent my good humor spiraling into collapse. I had spent hours listening to a dozen conservative heroes talk about their plans to put their particular interpretation of God back into government. But theocracy? No, that, apparently, wasn't their message.
When David Crowe, the founder of Restore America, uttered those words, I immediately realized one thing: Evangelical Christians have no sense of their own hysterical irony.
Welcome to Wanker's Corner
It seemed like a great idea—crash the second annual Restore America conference in Tualatin and get a peek at evangelicals' plans for "taking back America." So on Friday, February 23, I drove down to the appropriately named Rolling Hills Community Church, nestled in the hills southwest of Portland just past an intersection called "Wanker's Corner." It's the kind of large, sprawling church that has street signs marking each row in the parking lot. I parked in Romans.
The church itself is a portrait of browns and grays, as bland as the world the conference attendees are fighting for. The interior looks like a cross between a mall and a hospital, complete with a full-service café in the lobby. As a member of the media, I was informed that I'd be confined to a single room in the multi-acre complex—my access to the rest of the conference would be tightly controlled. I would have to be escorted by an event volunteer if I wanted to go into the main auditorium, or even to the foyer where attendees were milling around. I was also informed I'd have to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV from the media room, which resembled a living room in a model house for a tract housing development—carefully arranged with a fake fireplace, books, and Cost Plus knickknacks to make the room appear lived in, but devoid of any authentic human warmth.
Restore America was founded in 1999 by David Crowe, with the sole intention of getting evangelical Christians to become more involved in civic affairs—like voting. Much like the American evangelical movement as a whole, the organization has relied on two arguments: that America's Founding Fathers meant for the country to be officially Christian, and that modern Christianity is "under attack!"
This second point is repeated throughout the entire conference, with a host of assailants getting the credit for doing the devil's work—activist judges, secular humanists, Hollywood, homosexuals, and Muslims. This paranoia comes despite the fact that evangelicals were—until last November—in control of every branch of government, and reportedly make up the largest voting block in the country. But when you believe in a religion that places high value on martyrdom, you'll start seeing persecution lurking around every corner. I asked Crowe about this, and why evangelicals think that anyone who disagrees with them politically is attacking their religion.
"Isn't it possible that people can disagree with you without it being a persecution of Christians?" I asked.
"Oh, no. Christianity is definitely under attack," Crowe responded.
The Freedom to Be Self-Contradictory
On the first day of Restore America, I was treated to a "press conference," which was essentially a series of mini-sermons by all of the event's speakers. The organizers were thrilled—CNN was there with a camera crew, although they mostly wandered around exhibiting little interest. After an hour of these sermons—through which I learned that tyrannical judges and gays want to outlaw Christianity, and that Iran must be bombed now—I opted to leave the conference early for the day, in order to keep what was left of my brain from oozing out of my ears.
My second day near Wanker's Corner, though, was more exciting. I learned that the two traits that bind all evangelicals together are the ability to communicate entirely in non sequiturs, and to believe in ideas that are completely contradictory. Contradiction: Evangelicals don't want "theocracy," but they want every aspect of government controlled by the Bible. Contradiction: They believe that Islam is pure evil and a threat to the country, but radical Islam's social policies (anti-gay, anti-woman) are pretty much identical to Christianity's.
But here's the most entertaining contradiction: Even though much of the conference's rhetoric is steeped in words like "freedom" and "liberty," their agenda is entirely composed of taking freedoms away from you and I. In a lengthy interview, Crowe told me about an "Evangelical Contract with America" he's working on. Here's what's on that list: criminalizing abortion, ending no-fault divorce, preemptively banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, forcing judges to abide by a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, doing away with "the plague of porn that is infesting the nation," and keeping illegal immigrants out of America's borders. There's not exactly a lot of "freedom" on the list.
The dubious highlight of the conference, though, was sitting down with Rev. Ken Hutcherson, the former football star/one-man anti-gay army from Washington State. I'd expected to go head to head with "Hutch" on his views and horrifyingly misplaced morality, but I quickly discovered that it's impossible to debate someone whose hatred for reason is second only to his hatred of monogamous homosexuality. When I asked him why he believes that civil unions—or any level of benefits between same-sex couples—would undermine straight marriage, he presented a non sequitur of the highest order: "Would you still do your job if you weren't getting paid?" I blinked, not following the analogy. After some follow-up questions, I still had no idea what he was talking about, and got the sense that even through his manufactured confidence, neither did Hutcherson. There is no intellectually honest way anyone—even an evangelical Christian—can argue that expanding marriage benefits to committed same-sex couples in any way damages marriage for others.
But none of that matters.
"If I get more votes than you, I win," Hutcherson offered—one of the few arguments he made that I could follow. "If I get more votes, you have to do what I say. But if you get more votes, I have to do what you say. It's that simple."
Throughout the conference, I kept looking around, hoping to spot someone—anyone—expressing the same level of intellectual insult I was feeling, but to no avail. Instead, I saw hundreds of heads nodding along to messages of delusional paranoia, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism. And that's the most frightening element of it all—evangelical leaders have a built-in army of followers who are accustomed to doing what they're told and not asking any questions.