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In God's Name

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm, and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has not works, is dead.

--James 2:14-17

A couple of months ago I started work on a story about the growing popularity of big-box religion in suburbia. In an effort to give the phenomenon a face, I spent a month of Sundays at Grace Church in Eden Prairie, where, as in most "megachurches," the pastoral staff uses the aesthetics and language of corporate America to attract the upwardly mobile with promises of instant community and high-speed access to salvation. Besides being enormous (some 4,000 people attend Grace every Sunday), many megachurches advertise themselves as "nondenominational," which often means the doctrine is both evangelical and conservative.

Whenever I would introduce myself to members at Grace, they would ask whether I was a Christian. Initially I answered honestly. That would always lead to a follow-up question: When were you born again? At that point they would meet my polite, painstakingly nonconfrontational "I haven't been" with a blank stare or a suspicious scowl. Ultimately, in the name of expedience (and a looming deadline), I ended up avoiding the topic altogether. "I'm still sorting out the whole religion thing," I'd say sheepishly. People seemed to like that. It put me in the category of salvable.

The piece was anything but a hatchet job. In fact, after it ran I was asked to speak at a local Bible college, where one of the students, a former attendee at Grace, told me I was "way too nice." That said, even a casual reader would know my biases. The megachurch phenomenon struck me as a product of the times--self-consciously slick, overly simplistic, and fueled by fear. My prose betrayed a stoic cynicism. Most of the sources I quoted did the same.

The hate mail arrived right on schedule, as presumptuous as it was condescending. "Obviously, you are not a Christian," one e-mail began. "If you were, you would be able to more fairly evaluate what it means to have a close personal relationship with God." A number of missives expressed a similar sentiment. If only I were not so lost, so arrogant, so blind. If only I believed.

The thing is, I do believe. I spent my childhood running through the halls of my family's big old church. Mom taught Bible school, Dad directed the choir, and the minister who confirmed me is now a close friend--a rigorous philosophical sounding board and spiritual counselor. They made me the card-carrying bleeding heart I am.

The Jesus Christ they taught me about walked the earth in the name of justice, in the spirit of peace. That Christ was not a symbol on a cross, but a flesh-and-blood activist, first flawed like man, ultimately redeemed as a righteous spirit. That Christ would go unnoticed by today's pious pontificators. They would be banging the pulpit on close-circuit cable in Eden Prairie. He would be fighting for the medical benefits that--as Beth Hawkins and Leyla Kokmen report in this issue--are about to be taken off life support. They would be trying to intimidate women on their way to Planned Parenthood. He would be volunteering at an AIDS clinic. They would be blessing America as it marches toward Baghdad. He would be leading a march on Washington.

And while I will probably always be "sorting out the whole religion thing," I've become so weary of the close-minded pundits and moralizing politicos who claim a monopoly on Christianity, I've decided, deadlines be damned, to stop turning my back on the subject in the name of expedience.

 

In the current issue of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, Bryan Malley--the publication's brand-new, 23-year-old editor--reports that this year's state legislature is "expected to be pro family." In this context, that oft-used and abused moniker means there's a good chance that a spate of backward-thinking House members are likely to push a number of initiatives through to the Senate. And, depending on the tenor of the accompanying media coverage, on to a sympathetic governor. At the top of their list: a requirement that sex ed in the public schools be focused on abstinence until marriage, despite indisputable studies proving that that method alone will not prevent unwanted pregnancies or life-threatening STDs; anti-abortion legislation designed to erode a woman's right to choose; the eradication and roughshod replacement of the Profile of Learning, which, behind the scenes, has been targeted by conservatives because of its allowance for diversity education; and the elimination of state-funded programs that "promote" abortion or homosexuality. (The primary villains in this last category are Planned Parenthood and the Minnesota AIDS Project, humanitarian organizations that exist to spread public health information and literally save lives.)

Oh yeah, they're also down with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's promise not to raise taxes, no matter who or what gets lost in the shuffle.

The chief lobbying group behind these efforts (and the main source in Malley's story) is the Minnesota Family Council, a 20-year-old organization that is on a crusade to "defend and strengthen the families of Minnesota by upholding Judeo-Christian principles in the public arena." Its leadership, which is, confoundingly, quoted in the local media as representative of traditional conservatism, is repressed, ignorant, and intolerant. They're also emboldened by a number of new legislators that one longtime Republican lobbyist told me are "downright mean" and a budget crisis that is distracting public attention from a fundamentalist social agenda with legs. "The trend toward cultural conservatism is only picking up steam in Minnesota," MFC president and ubiquitous hatemonger Tom Prichard boasted to the Star Tribune on January 23. Sadly, there's a good chance he's as right as his organization is wrong-headed.

What's most troubling is that, besides the occasional column or op-ed, Pawlenty's ties to the "Christian" right have gone unscrutinized by the local media, who seem so charmed by the handsome, hockey-playing hot shot that they have neglected to connect the dots between his past voting record, the lobby groups that have his ear, and his religious background (perhaps the most embarrassing examples of this sort of political reporting have run in the Star Tribune, where the postelection profiles were as sycophantic as they were lazy).

As a member of the House, Pawlenty supported abstinence-only sex ed; voted to censure the health department and the Minnesota AIDS Project for sexually explicit, offensive advertising (condom, it seems, is a four-letter word); censored sexual health messages for gay and bisexual men (most at risk for the AIDS virus, about which "compassionate" conservatives are suddenly professing to care); and endeavored to keep birth control and safe-sex information away from public school students. And while he's been careful not to align himself publicly with groups like the Minnesota Family Council this session, it's no secret that they see him both as an ally and a change agent.

And why not? Pawlenty spends Sunday mornings at Wooddale Church, a nondenominational megaplex in Eden Prairie that reaches out to prospective members by soft-selling its agenda, which in word and deed is strikingly similar to that of the Family Council's--pro family as long as your family walks, talks, and believes just like theirs.


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