Luis Palau, George Bush, and the Mall of America

An afternoon with the holy trinity of terror

Hundreds of kids pour onto the skate ramps, the ultimate (and extreme) place to give yourself over to Jesus. Fourteen-year-old Shayne from Faribault came forward, he says, to show God that he knows he's real. His Afro adds an entire foot to his height, and his thick, long eyelashes look like they're stuck together with tears. But he's ecstatic about being one of the first to pray with a counselor on the plywood. There's a heightened element of fandom and excitement, and more kids pile in to get saved.

The clean-cut counselors, many of them young twentysomething men with goatees and sporty girls in ponytails who look they stepped out of a Gap ad, have to bend over to reach the kids: "Do you have a relationship with Jesus?" one of them asks a pint-sized kid with a skateboard and mullet-hawk. "Do you swear?" another asks two young skater-clothed boys who are anxiously filling out response cards.

"We're here to make Jesus famous!" the emcee says. And for this group of Jesus-hungry kids, the mood on the ramps lends itself to a fan-club-only meet-and-greet session. Sign up and shake hands with your savior! Apparently, this newfangled Jesus is awesome, extreme, gnarly, hardcore, and also incredibly vengeful. What happened to that Jesus from the '70s, that sandal-wearing granola softy who showered the masses with unconditional love? He's been replaced by a skateboarding superhero whose ultimate weapon is fear and whose catchphrase is "Skate (and Repent!) or Die."

 

"Tell George W. Bush, We Made It!"

Along with many of the adults, every other kid at the festival is wearing a red, white, and blue Bush-Cheney sticker on his or her shirt, including wobbly-legged toddlers of every race and bohemian-hip teenagers not yet old enough to vote. One little girl has a sticker plastered across her bright-pink top, alongside a silver-sequined declaration that "America Rocks."

A woman outside the skateboard park holds a clipboard and a roll of Bush-Cheney stickers in her hand, stopping passersby to ask whether they're registered to vote. She gets nervous when she spots my notebook and I ask how many people she's registered thus far. "Fifteen or so," she says. Bush political strategist Karl Rove said in a recent statement to the Associated Press that as many as four million conservative Christians did not vote in 2000--this year's strategy is to make sure they get to the polls.

In a surprise guest appearance, Bush's skyscraper-sized face flashes on the big screen. Over some tug-at-your-heartstrings instrumental music and with the American flag flapping in slow motion behind his enormous head, Bush praises Palau for teaching about faith, family, and values. Since 9/11, Palau has visited the White House seven times. Bush ends his minute-long speech with the obligatory "God Bless America," which results in roaring applause and cheers.

Moments later, Grammy-winning gospel singer/Pentecostal minister Hezekiah Walker takes the stage with his choir of 50 or so African American musicians and singers. With a backdrop of the Capitol's Quadriga, or the four golden horses that represent the power of nature and women as civilization, the group launches into the horn-fueled spiritual-funk tune "We Made It." The choir is filled with big-toothed smiles, and the singers shake their heads with powerful assertion each time they cry, "We made it!" Then Walker starts freestyling, summoning preacherlike guttural yowls from deep within his soul: "Tell Bin Laden, we made it! The devil's a liaahhh! We made it! Tell Afghanistan, we made it! Tell George W. Bush, we made it! The devil's a liahhhh! We made it!"

Any clarity of meaning (Is Walker talking about civil rights? The war on Iraq? Bush's faith?) is lost when two blond women wearing Bush-Cheney stickers and lots of denim raise up their hands and clap loudly and spastically to a song no one else is hearing. Maybe Walker is talking about the turnout. An hour ago there were an estimated 50,000 attendees on hand, and now they're saying as many as 80,000 people are roaming the Capitol grounds. "Tell George W. Bush, it's a victory! We made it! Your constituency is here!" You are either with us or against us. You either choose God/Bush or lose.

 

"It's Hardcore for Jesus Christ!"

Actor Stephen Baldwin wants to make Christianity seem gnarly. "I was at Beachfest in 2003, and there were these skateboarders, these gnarly, gnarly skaters that loved Jesus Christ," he says during his onstage testimony. "I wish there was something cool like a skateboard ministry when I was a kid."

Baldwin says he became interested in Jesus when his wife started reading the Bible. "My wife came to me one night and said, 'I need to be a better wife. I need to submit to you.' And I thought, I kinda like this Jesus dude." Hmmm. I kinda don't like this Baldwin dude. This admission of submission piqued his interest in Christianity, but it wasn't until the September 11 attacks that Baldwin turned his life over to God.

He says that because of the impossibility of the attacks, he was convinced that anything could happen, including Jesus coming back to earth. "If my wife loves Jesus, and I've been reading the Bible, and I've been praying to God to give me an answer to this curiosity, and now the impossible is now possible and now anything is possible, well, then Jesus Christ can come back to earth tomorrow," he tells the crowd over whistles and cheers.

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