God bless America

In a religion dominated by conservative Christians, liberal voices can still be heard

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention.”

–Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

“Son, do you know Jesus?” the church usher asked an 11-year-old boy in a local church one Sunday last December.

The boy was standing with his father inside the cavernous Neighborhood Church, the golden-domed structure that resembles the top of giant golf ball partially buried in the sprawling paved parking lot just east of Highway 99 and south of the Skyway exit ramp.The usher had noticed the boy and his father milling about the outer corridors of the church while as many as 600 parishioners sat inside listening to the day’s sermon—a generic reminder of how God gave his only son to absolve us of our sins.

This message came between rock jams issued from the eight-piece band that played Marshall Tucker-sounding songs with religious messages, as opposed to the southern-tinged lost-love laments of the ‘70s country rock band.

Back out in the corridor, the boy stammered in the face of usher’s peculiar question, most likely wondering if he meant, “Do I know Jesus personally or historically?”

But before the young man could say anything, the portly church usher looked him in the eye and solemnly explained that he works as an undertaker in the Red Bluff area.

“By the time I get to those people, boy,” he warned, “it’s too late.”

Welcome the world of the Christian evangelical, who believes the Bible is an unerring, literal interpretation of history and that if Jesus isn’t one of your best friends, you are doomed to eternal damnation.

“There is a culture war on, we are told, and we’d best get clear about which side we are on,” writes Kate McCarthy, a Chico State professor in her soon-to-be published book Interfaith Encounters in America. “We are all now either red state or blue state, pro-choice or pro-family, Fox News or Democracy Now, yellow ribbons or peace signs.”

In this perceived war, the conservative Christians run roughshod over their liberal-leaning counterparts. While Democrats are regularly hammered by the savvier Republicans when it comes to issuing effective political rhetoric, the Religious Right controls the spiritual message by controlling the airwaves. Think Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson.

Name one person who speaks today for the Christian left—the very term sounds like an oxymoron. McCarthy suggests part of the problem is that the religious left’s message is too complex to get across in a sound bite, the medium of the day.

But they are out there, these reasoned, progressive, tolerant and realistic Christians; people like Pastor David Leeper Moss, who heads the Trinity Methodist Church near downtown Chico. Moss was dumped from his church in Auburn a few years back on account of his progressive sermons. He thinks he’s found a home in Chico.

The Neighborhood Church is an evangelical house of worship, practicing the type of Christianity that has come to dominate American religion since the 1970s. The rise in popularity has been fueled by the far-reaching bully pulpits of televangelists like Robertson, who famously said in recent weeks that (1) The United States should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his anti-Bush attitude and (2) that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke in December was God’s punishment for dividing up the Holy Lands.

Theirs are not the gentle teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, blessing the poor and hungry and chastising the wealthy. This church, like many others in America, is anointed with the fire-and-brimstone teachings of the Ten Commandments, where tough love trumps compassion and tolerance.

It’s this rigid, unforgiving religion that makes atheists confident in their beliefs as evangelicals push for the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools or carp about the “War on Christmas.”

The Christian conservatives rail against a woman’s right to choose, push for state-sponsored execution, argue that homosexuality is a mental illness that can be cured and shamelessly use a brain-dead Terri Schiavo to demonstrate their moral superiority over the non-believers.

Soon after President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents, he told Bob Woodward that he takes his marching orders from his Father. He was not referring to Daddy George H.W. Bush; he meant God.

The Christian conservatives literally believe the Earth, which God created in seven days, is only about 6,000 years old; that Noah was able to fit two of every species of animal onto a boat he built to survive a huge flood; Adam and Eve were the first people—Eve the subservient having been formed out of Adam’s rib; and a fellow named Jonah lived for some time in the belly of a whale.

The evangelical’s irrational religious belief is alive and well in America, affecting our government, our public schools, our courts and our popular culture. It’s everywhere.

Two days before Christmas, the News & Review received this e-mail from Paradise: “Every citizen should support ACLJ because Jay Sekulow is fighting for US!! This country has somehow been lulled to sleep by Satan and his host of unbelievers. We need our Churches to preach the Truth of God’s Word and we need to return to the Christian foundation wherein our beloved country began. Don’t allow the heretics, money-mongers, anti-American, dope-peddling people of this country maintain control! Let’s stand up, America, and let the world know that we stand for Christ and will obey His Word…not a bunch of fanatics that (in reality) hate Him. Jesus founded this great nation and made it great…let’s honor Him by keeping His Law, supporting His troops, supporting His chosen President, and supporting each other in our stand for freedom. God Bless you all and VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS. Sincerely, Robert Carr.”

Sekulow is chief counsel for Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice and hosts a Conservative Christian radio talk show. According to the online magazine, Legal Times, Sekulow owns three million-dollar homes purchased with money put up by his nonprofit organization and makes in excess of $600,000 per year.

PROGRESSIVE PREACHER <br>David Leeper Moss, pastor at the Trinity United Methodist Church, says the Bible is more of a resource than a literal interpretation of the past.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Then there is Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals: “'Cooperation without compromise’ is the theme we embrace as we work to advance the cause of Christ in the midst of the rich diversity that is evangelicalism. Now with 30 million members, and with the responsibility of speaking for over 40 million evangelicals in America, the NAE finds itself in an increasingly influential role.”

(A 2001 Gallup Poll indicates 30 to 35 percent or approximately 100 million Americans describe themselves as evangelicals.)

“The goal of the NAE is to represent, mobilize and network evangelicals in America,” Sekulow writes. “Moreover, as evangelicalism has increased in influence throughout the world, NAE’s responsibility to represent born-again Christians continues to grow. NAE members understand that there are many things we can do individually, but a few important things we can only do together. Together, we can accomplish what we could never do alone.”

America is a Christian nation. Sure, Amendment I of the Bill of Rights reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But it’s right there on our money and until recently within our Pledge of Allegiance. In America, 76 percent of the population claims Christianity as their religion of choice. More than half of them are Protestants and about 35 percent of them are evangelicals.

As a majority of Americans continue to rally around God—some with a real fervor—Europeans are moving away from traditional sky-god religion. The Vatican’s own newspaper has declared that Intelligent Design does not qualify as scientific theory and in Rome there is a court case challenging whether or not Jesus actually existed.

Still, there are an estimated 2.1 billion Christians in the world, the largest population of any single religion. Islam claims another 1.3 billion and 1.1 billion of the people on earth are non-believers—agnostic, atheist or non-secular. In other words, the third-largest spiritual belief system in the world consists of those who don’t believe, at least in an omnipotent being calling the shots.

There is a wide spectrum of values and political beliefs contained within American Christianity, but with the constant media bellowing by conservative Christians who dominate today’s cultural landscape, it’s easy to forget that there are religious people in this country who are not exactly Christian soldiers.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights, but he also opposed the Vietnam War and sided with working people and the poor of all races. Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed by an American-trained right-wing death squad for trying to improve the life of the poor in El Salvador.

Daniel and Philip Berrigan were Catholic priests arrested and convicted in 1968 for destroying Selective Service records in Maryland in protest of the Vietnam War. They each served four-year prison terms for their anti-war stances.

Pastor David Leeper Moss of the Trinity Methodist Church is one such religious progressive. He came to the Fifth Street church three years ago, replacing the popular and controversial Reverend Ellen Rowan, who got into some political hot water with the Methodists for presiding with 68 other ministers over gay marriages in Sacramento.

If the evangelicals make atheists comfortable in their convictions, guys like Moss can make them question their faith.

Moss is a relaxed 62-year-old with a trimmed white beard and hazel eyes. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful and has a gentleness that would make him an ideal seatmate for a cross-country flight.

He shows up and speaks at local peace rallies or for other progressive causes. His is the religious voice you don’t hear much in the media anymore. For all the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Fallwells and Jay Sekulows there is a David Moss administering more along the lines of a Ghandi, MLK or a Father Romero.

Moss hails from America’s Midwest; He grew up in a number of small towns, following his father, a hospital administrator who moved from job to job. Moss attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965. From there he went to the Boston University School of Theology.

Four years later he left and from 1969 to 1972 he served in his first pastor job at a church serving the Plumas County towns of Greenville and Taylorsville right up Highway 32. He came to Chico from Grass Valley two and one-half years ago. He came west part out of a quest for adventure.

“I grew up in the Midwest, lived in a seminary in the East Coast and then thought I would like to try the west,” Moss said during an interview in his Chico office last month.

He was active in a Christian youth group as a kid and after graduating high school attended Miami for a liberal arts education.

But he wanted more, he said, and looked to the ministry. His calling, he said, came “through the back door.”

“I wasn’t sure right away that I wanted to be a pastor, but I thought I’d check into it. I tried Boston University. It is called the school of the prophets. Martin Luther King received his doctorate from there. In fact, I had some of the same professors that Dr. King had.

“This is when the Vietnam War was kicking up and I started work in a ghetto church [on] Tremont Street. I got to know poverty for the first time. Here I was, a middle-class Midwestern kid.”

The church, located in south Boston, closed in 1971 when the building was sold to a Baptist congregation. It has since been designated a United Methodist Historic Site.

“As well as studying Bible scripture and going to classes, I awakened to a kind of Christianity that made sense to me and had a lot of power for me,” Moss explained.

During this time in the late 60s, he said, he got something less than an enthusiastic endorsement from his parents, whom he described as “Nixonian Republican types.”

REACHIN’ OUT <br>Chico State’s Kate McCarthy has recently penned a book that looks at efforts by different religions to understand each other.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“I’ve always had a rebellious streak in me and when the Vietnam War hit I became morally outraged—I handed in my draft card and I was briefly pursued by FBI agents.”

Turning in a draft card meant the risk of jail time. Today Moss continues to hold onto his lefty views, even as he heads a church in relatively conservative Chico.

“I find it easier to do it here in this town,” he said. “I was kicked out of a church in Auburn for my views.”

The role of the church, he said, is no different today than it’s ever been.

“And that is to be the light and leaven, as they call it, for the community. To be a voice of conscience for society and by embodying the truth of Christ, at least as it is revealed, and to try to bring others to Christ. I see that as a way of leavening society in very helpful ways.”

Leavening he said, “is a peace-filled and justice-oriented consideration of the poor. Compassion over and against motives of greed, materialism, racism.”

“My view of the Bible and the life of Christ, leads me as a pacifist to be against war and certainly leads me to be skeptical of swallowing everything that comes from government or from society as a whole.

“Jesus was murdered by them. It was capital punishment; he was murdered by Romans who were the Americans of his day.”

Pretty strong words and not what we are used to hearing from those who profess Christian spirituality.

“There are certain things about the life of Christ that puts me against society as it is,” Moss allowed. “And that’s true of Christians in every age. We are in but not of the world.”

As pastor, he explained, he wants his church to serve as an example of what the Kingdom of God would be like.

“As such I value very much our being as diverse a community as possible. My vision of a church is that it be so diverse, that it have so many different types of people that those looking in from the outside would say, ‘My God, who can keep a thing together like this?'”

Moss asks simply that people be kind and considerate and listen to each other. A fault line, he said, runs through every church just like it does in greater society, separating the right from the left.

The religious right, the pastor said, makes black-and-white distinctions between those they see as living correctly and those who are just wrong. There are no shades of gray.

“I just think the matter by which we go about these things can be enlightening and peace-filled. We can be considerate of each other and have some basic kind of respect for each other.”

One of Moss’s parishioners is Chico City Councilman Larry Wahl, perhaps the most conservative member of that body. Wahl, he said, is an example of the diversity Moss likes about Trinity Methodist.

“I appreciate Larry because he keeps me on my toes and keeps me alert to the full spectrum of possibilities and problems that my point of view brings. He’s a tester and I live for that.”

Unlike the evangelicals, Moss said he appreciates the separation between church and state, noting that America is a diverse nation, initially settled by the Puritans but soon after home to waves of other immigrants from across the world.

The fact that the Religious Right is encroaching on the concept alarms him, he said. And the so-called war on Christmas is “a non-issue.”

“Can you imagine going to Wal-Mart and being offended by somebody who doesn’t mention Christ?” he asked. “I think it is just another smoke-screen issue.”

His faith, he said, is important to him but he honors others and their beliefs.

“We are on the Pacific Rim here and we have the Hmong, the Koreans, Americans all of them, and they all bring their culture and their traditions and their religions. We are really quite a kaleidoscope of people. It’s a wonderful experiment. If it can work for us, maybe there is hope for the world.”

Moss preaches that Americans are connected to the world, and should not use narrowly interpreted Christian beliefs to isolate themselves or somehow justify war. He sees the Bible as a novel, a poem, something from which to learn—not a literal interpretation of history.

SHUT OUR MOUTHS <br>Abortion protestors from Kansas came to Chico last summer to pray outside Planned Parenthood. They said God had directed them to Chico.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“As followers of Christ, we comprise the largest faith in the world,” he told his congregation last Memorial Day. “We are called to represent the universal love of God for all of God’s creation. As Christians, we are first of all, citizens of the Universe, not of a country, or a state, or a particular political party in that state, but first of all, citizens of the world. No people is beyond our caring or beneath our concern or undeserving of our compassion. As is our Savior, we have an equal love for all, and must be willing never to kill but ultimately be willing to die for others, even our enemies, for all are our brothers and sisters under God. We ask God to bless, not just America—but to bless the whole world, no exceptions! We follow a God who knows no boundaries of national or political favor. As much as we love our own country, Christians love even more the God who in love has made us all one in Jesus Christ. On this Memorial Day, let us remember our veterans with honor and respect, and pray to God that there never again be any more war—especially one we as a nation initiate.”

The Neighborhood Church is an important mixing ground for business and political connections and activities. Chico Police Chief Mike Efford, a Catholic when he came to town in the late 1990s, reportedly switched his spiritual allegiance to the Neighborhood Church, the story goes, so he could move among the city’s movers and shakers and big deal makers.

City Councilmember Dan Herbert is a member, as are Assemblyman Rick Keene and Dale Penne, who ran unsuccessfully for Chico Unified School Board last year.

The vehicles in the huge parking outside the church are dominated in type by larger SUVs, many sporting yellow “Support the Troops” magnets, the metal fish symbols, Calvin-kneeling-at-the-cross decals, and bumper stickers with sayings like “Real men love Jesus.” There are also plenty of “Bush-Cheney 04” or simply “W 04” signs

Inside the church, teens with I-Pod wires running to their ears lounge on overstuffed chairs and couches in the foyer, reading books and missing the message being preached in the inner sanctum with Biblical phrases like “slay the fattened calf.”

And in the balcony overlooking the action below, young men with spiky, highlighted punk hairdos and dressed in baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts sit next to young women in midriff shirts absently listening to the minister say things like, “The gulf between us and God makes the Grand Canyon look like a schism in the sidewalk.” Or, “Think if you really are sure this Jesus stuff is for you; if you want a greater life after death, ‘cause you don’t want to become weird like those Christian people.”

The parishioners—500 to 600 strong—laugh and applaud enthusiastically to these holy one-liners, standing to clap when a particularly clever observation drifts over the congregation.

Then on cue, the band, standing on stage in front of a huge wooden cross and an American flag, breaks into “My God Reigns.” People on the floor boogie to the beat. When the song is over, middle-aged pony-tailed men in blue-jeans come forward to take communion.

Then more preaching, jokes about Harley Davidsons, heavy-bassed, driving God music follows. The whole thing has a television game-show production feel to it.

The action takes a break and the worshippers’ attention is directed to the left side of the stage where a spotlight hits a curtain that opens on a guy in a white robe standing in an aquarium. It’s baptism time.

On this day, the church-goers witness City Councilman Herbert baptize his 80-year-old mother, Mary.

“Mother,” Herbert asks, supporting his mom as she lies back, partially submerged in the tank of water, “do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?”

She says she does and Herbert dips her under the water. People go nuts.

We tried to contact Pastor Larry Lane for this story but were told by his secretary that he was at a week-long Northern California Pastors Prayer Summit 2006 at Richardson Springs and obviously unavailable.

Right before our deadline, Lane e-mailed this message, “I appreciate your interest and the questions are quite engaging. I could write pages on these things but time does not permit to do so at this moment. Besides my normal work load I am three weeks away from occupying a house I have been building on the side. All of my spare time is used in getting this done. Sometime in the near future I would be delighted to sit down with you and process any of these questions and more. Thank you for the invitation but I cannot help you at this time.”

But judging by the brochures we picked up and from looking at the church’s Web site, it is clear that its mission is to influence the local community, schools, businesses and government.

On its Web site, the church says part of its responsibility is to “Serve Northern California business and government leaders by equipping them to integrate kingdom principles throughout their sphere of influence.”

Neighborhood Church is affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The C&MA is a worldwide collection of evangelical protestant denominations that place an emphasis on foreign missionary work and Jesus’ role as a physical healer.

Keeping with this doctrine, Neighborhood Church provides healing prayer services every third Sunday evening of the month.

“This service is a wonderful mixture of worship and prayer geared towards praying for the sick,” the Web site explains. “Over the last few months many people have been touched and healed by the Lord as they have made their needs known for prayer. If you or someone you know has a physical or emotional need for prayer this is a meeting for you.”

The CM&A also teaches that the body will be resurrected after death and those who’ve accepted Jesus will head straight to the reward of eternal life ever-after; the rest of us, the unjust will be rendered unto judgment, almost surely resulting in the old heave-ho from heaven. This would explain church usher Bennett’s concern for the importance of knowing Jesus before death makes its inevitable claim.

Prof. McCarthy’s book, Interfaith Encounters in America, to be published by Rutgers University Press, considers efforts by representatives of differing religions in this country to accept, tolerate and perhaps even learn from one another. There is an interfaith council in Chico that meets on a regular basis and was part of her study.

CROSS BEARER <br>Pastor David Moss speaks at an Iraq War protest in Chico last summer.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

The evangelicals, perhaps fearing they will have to confront uncomfortable issues like homosexuality, abortion rights and capital punishment, do not involve themselves in inner-faith activities.

“My questions,” McCarthy said, referring to her book, “were why would somebody want to do that? Why would you want to engage someone who is a religious other? And what happens when you do? Does anybody change their religious orientation?”

The interfaith movement in this country is more than a century old, she said. If different religious beliefs divide people, then the interfaith councils can work to bridge those divisions through understanding and tolerance.

To the uninitiated, this sounds like a concept that would be at the core of every Christian-based religion.

“Conservatives who resist the interfaith movement typically assume that they will be converted or that there is this aim to create this one generic world, least-common denominator of religion that threatens the particularity of their religion, so they are not interested for that reason,” the author explained.

McCarthy is an attractive, trim woman of 43 who was born and raised by liberal parents, growing up as a “Kennedy Catholic” in both the Philadelphia and Boston areas.

“It’s funny. My parents retired and moved to Florida and they couldn’t take it; they had to leave because of the Republican culture.”

Her husband, she said, is an atheist and they are raising their children, “negotiated,” within the Catholic Church.

“They are baptized and go to Sunday School, because I am the Sunday School teacher.”

She speaks quickly and confidently when talking about her area of expertise.

Her research, she said, included an hour-long conversation with Pastor Lane, whom she described as much more thoughtful and complex man than she would have expected. She did not feel comfortable, she said, speaking for Lane and his resistance, like most evangelicals, to sharing thoughts and ideas with representatives from other religions.

She did say Lane believes in placing personal relationships with other religions above the formal interfaith-council approach and that Lane rejected the so-called war on Christmas as a ridiculous concept.

The evangelical movement in America can be traced to the late 1970s, she said, and it got its cultural legitimacy through the production values of the so-called mega-churches.

“It’s not embarrassing to go to a church like the Neighborhood Church. It’s got a cool feel. It’s got the kids with I-Pods and dressed in jeans. They have done an incredibly successful job of adapting [to cultural changes].”

Evangelical bookstores, she said, now have offerings similar to what is found at Barnes & Noble—Christian romance, Christian Sci-Fi, Christian self-help and Christian diet books.

“The wider evangelicals have entered the mainstream very dramatically. What I think is going to be really interesting in the next decade or so is to see what the fruits of this cultural success for evangelicals is going to be. Is it sustainable, can you really hold together this kind of immersion in popular secular culture and these fundamental gospel beliefs?”

The religious left has not been nearly as media savvy as the right, McCarthy said.

“They’ve been Neanderthal. My husband’s theory is that the left is too nuanced. That to be successful at these things you have to be black and white. Nobody rallies around, ‘It’s complicated!'”

It is a harder job, she said, to explain a Christian pro-choice position than it is to explain a Christian pro-life position.

“The progressive tradition is on on-going thing. It’s not like a new idea somebody had last week. Especially in American Christianity. But you sort of forget that there have been strong voices in the past.”

There are cultural wars going on in every denomination she said.

“I really think the future of denominationalism is at stake,” she said.

While the folks at the Neighborhood Church rock and roll, pray for healings, go through the machinations of symbolic religious devotion and push to bring their Kingdom to the secular world, David Leeper Moss delivers his messages a little closer to the ground.

Consider his sermon delivered last September, in the wake of Katrina: “Where is God? God is in the poor, with the poor. God is black, wading through polluted water to safety. God is white, wondering when they will ever see their home again, who think they will never live through the night to see another day. God is in those who serve, who have compassion. And it is in the name of a God who won victory from the jaws of death and rose again to eternal life—it is this God who, in us, in spite of us, is the voice of hope.”