Because certain trees are sprouting in the Middle East, the world will soon end. Because the European Union has grown to its current size, fiery death and plagues of locusts are about to descend on the planet. Because Israel established a homeland, non-believers will, in a short while, suffer agonizing horrors before being damned to an eternity of pain. And now a word from our sponsor — a real estate agent helping Christians find their dream homes. This summer, I joined the rush hour in San Bernardino. Every day, descending the final hill from Los Angeles into the fastest growing region in California, I tuned into Christian radio station K-Wave. The station broadcast lessons on Christ-sanctioned financial planning as well as sermons on faith-rooted marriages. But its mission of missions was to map out, just the way the Weather Channel describes approaching storm fronts, the end of the world now bearing down upon us. The deep voice of Pastor Chuck Smith filled my car each morning. Founder of Calvary Chapel, a “mega-church” with a publishing company, Bible colleges, and franchises in every state, Pastor Chuck inspired two followers to write the best-selling Left Behind novels about the Apocalypse. Soon obsessed with the station, I started wishing my Democratic friends in L.A. would join me in K-Wave’s freeway congregation. Each evening I returned home to find them wringing their hands over the possibility that a born-again Christian president, who laced his speeches with secret signals to fellow worshippers and considered praying his most important action before starting an unjust war, might be re-elected — and re-elected by religious nuts so stupid they believed Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie were lovers. As it happened, those “nuts” won the election for the president. Ill-prepared newscasters promptly relabeled them “moral voters,” showing how little they understood about the new religion practiced in Calvary Chapel. Democrats could, of course, have turned on K-Wave (or its equivalent), but even then they might not have grasped the most basic element of Calvary Chapel: It isn’t guided by the outside world’s concept of the Christian right’s stern and unforgiving morals code. While Calvary Chapel encourages Christians to enjoy “fellowship” with God, the doctrine it preaches is guided not by any ordinary sense of morality but by a gruesome vision of the end of the world and a set of instructions for how to deal with it. Listening to that doctrine each morning and evening, I felt the sensations American audiences first discovering Hong Kong action flicks must have known: a fascination with the exotic combined with awe at the extreme violence it displayed. Granted, my perspective is unusual. Unlike most of my Democratic friends, I was raised in a church that practiced New Thought Christianity just up the freeway from Pastor Chuck’s compound. It offered a new agey cocktail of faith, drawing heavily from Buddhism, Hinduism, and transcendentalism. Just the type of stuff Calvary Chapel abhors. My childhood of crystals and sunshine made Calvary Chapel-style evangelism, with its emphasis on conversion and its belief in testifying to God’s power, something strange and deeply mysterious. I felt like an anthropologist investigating a new culture as I listened to its broadcasts, and what I found makes me refuse to picture the organization as an army of moral voters. Faith, California-Casual Style If my liberal friends had accompanied me to the Calvary Chapel branch in Livermore to meet other listeners they might have wondered if we were in a real church. The squat, one-room chapel, with its rows of chairs, resembled a conference room. I, though, recognized it immediately as California-casual-style worship. New Thought had had the same laid-back vibe at its gatherings. Under a 1960’s suburban sun, spiritual wanderers established my childhood church. Around the same time Pastor Chuck began ministering to Jesus freaks and Republicans in Orange County. My church stagnated in the 1980’s. Its meditation garden now sits empty. Pastor Chuck’s congregation, on the other hand, grew until Calvary Chapel took up a campus as large as a mall and spread beyond the country’s borders. My friends might have been surprised that as I sat in this chapel, where the outline of a dove on the back wall replaced a traditional altar, I wasn’t thinking about morality or stupidity. I was simply staring at the people around me who wore jeans, shushed babies, and tried not to kick over their purses on the floor. When the pastor asked everyone to greet each other, a woman buzzed up to urgently give me important bullet points from her life. One: She met her husband at church. Two: Her new baby was named Grace. I could escape the future of lonely desperation that she’d narrowly avoided, she implied, by finding a man here. The Left Behind books serve as Calvary Chapel’s literary touchstone, even though they’re closer in quality to Star Wars paperbacks than anything penned by St. Augustine or St. Thomas More. In the series, certain people are physically sucked up to heaven, leaving those who don’t make the celestial cut to suffer through the last, grim days of life on Earth. The people in the chapel had the feel of those left behind not by God, but by our world. They weren’t losers, but they’d lost out. Religious scholar Donald E. Miller, who studied Calvary Chapel for his book Reinventing American Protestantism, found its congregations to be dominated by blue-collar Americans. Only 20% of church members had a college degree. Over half of the pastors Miller surveyed had grown up, or spent parts of their lives, in single-parent homes; 70% had parents who abused drugs or alcohol. The numbers were similar for the congregants, almost a third of whom claimed to have been physically and/or sexually abused. In my friends’ world, such numbers would be as alien as the Rapture itself, but I suspect Pastor Chuck knows them intimately. His mission is to embrace those the world leaves behind and promise them a new chance in the after-life. The dove on the chapel wall, I decided, wasn’t the typical symbol of peace found in many Christian art works. In the Old Testament, a dove lands on Noah’s Ark after the entire earth has been flooded, proving there’s land nearby and providing hope for a new life to all the creatures crammed onto the wooden boat. In the same way Calvary Chapel’s dove offered hope not of peace but of a change in fortune, at least for those who belong to the church. Playing by God’s Rules What liberals might have learned from visiting Livermore, listening to K-Wave, or reading Calvary Chapel-inspired web sites is that “morality,” at least as they imagine it, is beside the point. In fact, Calvary Chapel-style Christianity is a complex system with intricate rules. Think of it as God’s game. Instead of X-Box’s MechAssault, this is GodAssault. If you play the game correctly, you’ll receive that change in fortune. If not here, then in the after-life. The guidebook to the game’s moves is the Bible; the key steps to winning are in the Book of Revelations. Conventional notions of “morality,” in which people adapt standards of right and wrong to an ever-changing world, don’t hold here. Neither do the teachings from my childhood, which emphasized enlightenment and a sense of knowing God through your mind and heart. In GodAssault, your conscience is not your guide. The Bible is. Like many evangelical forms of Protestantism, Calvary Chapel preaches that everything a Christian needs is written, word by holy word, in the Bible. In Miller’s surveys, everyone from Calvary Chapel’s pastors to its recent converts said they took the Bible literally. If you read the Book of Revelations as the physical, material truth, then you come to see God’s game as one played in a swirling, planet-devouring vortex of blood and violence. Pastor Chuck’s main radio work involved describing this unstoppable Apocalypse, doling out a new chapter each morning. It begins as the Antichrist arrives on Earth — some time after the Jews establish a Holy Land — to annihilate a large percentage of the planet’s population. Then, Christ comes to judge the living and the dead, sending the bad guys to a just and unspeakably gory end. Calvary Chapel’s Apocalypse, however, bears a resemblance to the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons. Just as “D and D” players excel by learning complicated strategies and knowing arcane sub-rules of sub-rules, Calvary Chapel Christians win by following a set of instructions taken straight from the Bible. They must know the secret passwords, identify their enemies correctly, and understand what lies beneath the various layers of evil. False prophets will become popular in the end times, for example, and those who don’t want to be damned will recognize these poseurs and refuse to worship with them. Whether heaven’s riches are 17 virgins or a beautiful set of angel wings, Calvary Chapel won’t say. Prizes aren’t important to the game, because winning is defined as not losing; not having to endure unthinkable tortures. And not losing rests on adhering to all of the rules. My friends in L.A. wanted to know what this new “morality” meant in terms of American politics. Was there some way to maneuver on this new political landscape, dominated by religion, and reclaim “the moral voter”? Leading Democrats were also looking to put new moral moves in their political playbook. At a Roe v. Wade commemoration Hillary Clinton announced that her once-firm stance on legal abortion had turned Jell-o soft, showing exactly what churches like Calvary Chapel mean to politicians. Clinton and other party leaders are now determined to win over Calvary Chapel-style evangelicals by taking stands they imagine those Christians will consider “moral.” In the meantime, they hope to preserve their wider political philosophies in the shadows. But take heed, oh keepers of the Democratic word, I say unto you: Lo, do not give into the temptation of moral appearances that will not bear fruit in the next elections. Change your view on abortion and they still won’t vote for you, Hillary, not if you don’t play the total version of GodAssault. My aunt often complained that Eve, her cleaning lady, rambled on about God and the end of the world while dusting. Eve had dropped out of community college to marry a drug addict, divorced, and then married an alcoholic. She couldn’t stop having children or getting fired from part-time jobs. I liked Eve. As she told me about how she struggled to afford milk for her kids and gas for her car, I realized that, in this world with its rules, Eve was on the losing team. But there was hope in Pastor Chuck’s board game of a religion. I didn’t ask Eve if she attended a Calvary Chapel, but I did hear her repeat the game’s rules. And why shouldn’t she? If Eve followed the game’s demands, she would stop suffering one day. She would win. For all sorts of struggling souls the promise of eternal salvation, and victory over those left behind, is stronger than any weak pledge a politician could make.
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.
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