Tucked away a few miles off Interstate 40 just outside Asheville, N.C., the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center provides Southern Baptists with a remote place to facilitate the nurturing of “Biblical Solutions for Life.”
The sprawling 1,300-acre compound in the Blue Ridge Mountains is made up of chapels, a book store, café, guest housing, drab-colored brick buildings, fences topped with barbed wire and plenty of wooded grounds for religious contemplation or recreation. It is not easily or quickly located; its address cannot be found via a Google Maps search or traced on a Global Positioning System (GPS).
Despite its isolated location, during the last week of May hundreds of Religious Right activists and their families made their way there for a four-day “Worldview Super Conference.” They came to hear fundamentalist Christian speakers rail about the nation’s moral confusion, claim the public schools are bastions of secular humanism and warn that Christians, especially their type of Christians, are in danger of being persecuted by America.
The gathering, dubbed “Preparing This Generation to Capture the Future,” was hosted by American Vision, a ministry that has been toiling away since 1978 to “help Christians build a truly Biblical worldview.” In a conference handout, American Vision states that “By God’s grace, we will work together to make America a truly Christian nation for our children’s children.”
Based in Powder Springs, Ga., American Vision also produces reams of material that push Christian Reconstructionism, a form of fundamentalism that argues for a re-writing of American history, dismantling secular democracy and constructing an America governed by “biblical law.” Reconstructionists seek to impose the criminal code of the Old Testament, applying the death penalty for homosexuals, adulterers, fornicators, witches, incorrigible juvenile delinquents and those who spread false religions.
Despite its overtly radical theocratic agenda, American Vision is allied with some of the Religious Right’s most powerful outfits. This year’s conference was cosponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, a well-funded Religious Right lawyers’ outfit that James Dobson and other religious broadcasters helped create; Michael Farris’s Home School Legal Defense Association; the late TV preacher Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law; and World Magazine, Marvin Olasky’s influential evangelical Christian periodical.
The event was promoted heavily by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, and it was held in a facility owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination and a religious body closely aligned with the Bush administration.
In an opening prayer, American Vision President Gary DeMar set the stage for what would be a major theme running through the gathering: restoring the sovereignty of God and God’s people – namely, folks like those at the conference.
“We know,” said DeMar, “that you are a sovereign and omniscient God…. We know that you have called us to be responsible servants in the advancement of your kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel and the application of your word in every area of life.”
Worldview speaker after speaker vacillated between decrying the nation as wildly secular and ready for a radical makeover led by fundamentalist Christians.
One of the first speakers, Gary Cass, offered a dire picture of a country that is doomed unless it embraces a rigid form of government led by fundamentalist Christian edicts.
“We need a new American vision,” said Cass, former head of TV preacher D. James Kennedy’s now-defunct Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, “because we’ve lost our biblical heritage, our Christian birthright, which has been given to us by our founders, we have squandered for a poisonous bowl of atheistic humanism and political correctness.
“And now our culture is experiencing its deadly effects,” he continued. “The putrid stench of the culture of death fills our living rooms, coming to us every night on the evening news. And this Worldview weekend, I believe, is the antidote for the culture of death.”
He continued, “By God’s grace you are here to reclaim our godly heritage and to reassert, without apology to the atheists and the neo-pagans of our day, that this was and is a Christian nation, built on Christian ideals.”
Cass’s stark call for a fundamentalist Christian takeover of America was later followed by claims that the nation is increasingly hostile to religious people. To some chuckles from the audience, he insisted that the United States is in “great need of a Christian anti-defamation league.”
“Defamation,” Cass argued, “is the precursor to persecution.” Defamation leads to marginalization, he continued, and marginalization sets the “stage for discrimination,” which inevitably leads to the final stage of religious cleansing.
“Genocide being the ultimate expression,” Cass declared, “the deliberate, systematic extermination of a group of people.” Kind of like what is happening in Sudan’s Darfur region, he added.
Other speakers brutally attacked the public school system and promoted home schooling and private Christian education. The Ridgecrest bookstore was full of materials offering curriculums for parents interested in escaping the public schools.
On the conference’s first day, attendees gathered in Ridgecrest’s Spilman Auditorium were treated to a lengthy rant against public schools by a Baptist preacher from Texas.
The Rev. Voddie Baucham Jr., pastor at Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas and founder of Voddie Baucham ministries, is indignant that so many “blood-washed” Christians choose to send their children to public schools. He boasted about his involvement in pushing a resolution before the Southern Baptists’ annual convention that calls on church members to yank their kids from public schools.
“If we continue to send our children to Caesar for their education, we need to stop being surprised when they come home as Romans,” Baucham said.
Baucham encouraged the gathering to do what his family does, which is to keep children at home and immerse them in religiosity. The towering pastor – virtually the only African-American at the conference – noted that his son Trey travels with him full time.
“Trey travels everywhere with me,” he said. “Trey is 14 years old; I am his teacher. When our sons reach the age of 13, they go through a rite of passage; they enter into manhood. And when they enter into manhood, their mother closes up the books and hands them to me.”
There are things that only a man can teach a man, Baucham said, though he did not elaborate other than to say that his son is his assistant now.
All the railing against public schools and other state-supported institutions has long been a focal point for Christian Reconstructionists, whose goal is a society where their harsh version of biblical law permeates everything. DeMar provided a platform for some of the movement’s most radical voices.
On the second day, Doug Phillips, oldest son of long-time right-wing activist Howard Phillips, declared that God created the universe and the Bible is a history book for understanding God’s design.
Phillips heads up a San Antonio-based group called Vision Forum that advocates for the “Biblical family.” The organization is also a staunch supporter of home schooling and families where the men take precedence.
“If we encourage our daughters to pursue a careerist philosophy,” the Vision Forum’s mission statement reads, “if we fail to make our homes economically vital, hospitable centers for love and learning, we are hypocrites.”
Phillips spent the next hour railing against what he said was a plot by secularists to write Christianity out of American history, concluding that “those who control history define the culture.” Like other Worldview speakers, Phillips promoted removing kids from public schools and immersing them in fundamentalist Christian training.
Later in the day, DeMar introduced Gary North to the attendees, lauding him as “a mentor.” North is a son-in-law of the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, who is widely touted as the founder of Christian Reconstructionism. North has written boatloads of books and articles about the need to establish “Christendom.”
His plentiful material has left a track record of extremism. North has called for the death penalty, like Rushdoony did, for youngsters who curse their parents, gays and others who violate his interpretation of biblical law. He has argued that stoning is the preferred means of capital punishment, noting that it is a communal activity and “the implements of execution are available to everyone at virtually no cost.” Writing for Reason magazine in 1998, Walter Olson observed that Reconstructionists like North “provide the most enthusiastic constituency for stoning since the Taliban seized Kabul.”
North skipped stoning at his Worldview appearance and offered a strident rant against secularism. According to North, the universe is ordered by an all-powerful God who will ultimately dispose of all the “covenant-breakers.” The so-called “covenant-keepers,” on the other hand, will inherit the riches of the heavens.
Citing the Book of Genesis, North said, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now, that establishes God as the absolute authority, since he is the creator; since he is the creator, he is the owner of all of creation. And, therefore, absolutely sovereign over that creation.”
During his lengthy discussion, North conceded that his views have not been embraced by the public yet.
“Most of the people in this room are fringe people,” North claimed to a hushed audience. “And not just ‘kind of’ fringe people, not just ‘kind of’ Christian evangelicals.”
He added that the Worldview audience is on the fringe because it is in the forefront of the war against “Darwinism” and the secular culture.
“We really are on the extreme fringe of society today,” North continued. “And that’s our curse. And if we do our work well, and if the grace of God is on us, in retrospect that will be our blessing.”
Many of the speakers blasted civil liberties organizations for supposedly waging an ongoing, aggressive effort to remove religion, Christianity in particular, from the public square.
DeMar specifically targeted the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claiming that if those groups had their way God would be excised from “everything” in America. But thankfully, DeMar maintained, “there’s a new sheriff” in town.
“The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State,” DeMar said, “really have a battle on their hands with organizations like the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).”
DeMar praised ADF, a $25 million operation based in Scottsdale, Ariz., for training young lawyers to fight for a “biblical worldview.” Two ADF representatives appeared before the Worldview audience and promoted the group’s work to bring the legal system under Christian control.
Ken Fletcher, an ADF development director, insisted that America was “started on a biblical worldview,” but has been wrenched from its religious moorings by secularists and “activist courts.”
“Our Christian liberties are under attack in our nation,” Fletcher maintained. “I guess back in the ’60s it really got under attack, where the secular agenda really started replacing the Christian worldview that we had in our nation.”
Besides home schooling and trying to convert people to their religious principles, Fletcher argued that the courts “cannot be left out of the equation.” “The right to abort a baby came through the courts; prayer and the Bible taken out of the public schools, that all came through the courts,” he maintained. “Homosexual marriage,” Fletcher added also came through the courts.
So in 1994, an array of powerful fundamentalist broadcasters, such as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Bill Bright, got together to form the ADF, he said, because “if we don’t start showing up in the courts, our religious liberty is going to be lost in this country.”
The conference also heard from Janet Folger, a former executive director of Kennedy’s disbanded Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. Folger, who now heads a Religious Right lobbying group dubbed “Faith2Action,” was especially ticked off at the new make-up of Congress, blasting it for supporting hate-crimes legislation. She is also seriously convinced that fundamentalist Christians are in danger of persecution in America.
Folger, author of a book titled The Criminalization of Christianity, repeatedly attacked the “homosexual agenda” as one of the main driving forces against fundamentalist Christianity. Aping comments from Kennedy, she tagged gays as plotting to criminalize the Christian religion.
Folger said gays want to use hate-crimes legislation to “do away” with terms applied to homosexuality such as “abomination,” which she noted is a word from Leviticus. The gays want to ban the Bible, according to Folger.
“If they can silence the truth,” Folger said referring to gay lobbying groups like the Human Rights Campaign, “make no mistake, they will silence the gospel.”
She then claimed that Canada, Sweden, England and France are already persecuting Christians who cite Bible passages in demonizing gays. America, she claimed, is following those nations’ lead. (In fact, the hate-crimes legislation pending in Congress specifically protects speech and penalizes only hate-motivated violence.)
During her afternoon appearance, Folger said she sobbed and felt almost defeated when the U.S. House of Representatives passed hate-crimes legislation earlier this year.
We just need to bring “God back into this debate,” Folger maintained. She argued that when large numbers of fundamentalist Christians get to the voting booth, good things will transpire and pointed to the election and re-election of President George W. Bush as evidence.
Folger urged attendees to be especially politically active in 2008, saying that they should not be lulled into believing that a “values voter” candidate cannot retain control of the White House.
Lauding the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding a federal ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortion, Folger maintained that Christians are “so close to winning this thing, of overturning Roe v. Wade.”
“We are one judge away,” she said.
Concluding her afternoon talk with a prayer for President Bush and for God to assert dominion over the land, she started to weep.
“I’m asking You how to take this land,” she prayed, “and how to keep it until You come.”
ADF Senior Vice President Jeff Ventrella trumpeted the work of his organization as one of the ways the nation can be returned to a biblical foundation. Ventrella bemoaned the secularization of society, claimed Christian children from coast to coast face harassment from public school teachers and officials and that the legal system must be used to fight back.
For over an hour, Ventrella blathered on about the Apostle Paul and other characters from the Bible, declaring that “truth in the public square has stumbled.” At one point in his rambling, angry talk, he warned that any “spies” amongst the Worldview gathering had better not misquote him.
The ADF attorney claimed that his organization exists, in part, to “do damage to evil. We must do damage to evil.” Ventrella also asked the afternoon gathering whether they wanted to “win the world for Christ. We can’t be on the sidelines,” he said.
The evening featured one of the conference’s oddest presentations. Gary Bates, head of Creation Ministries International, spoke for well over an hour about his recent book Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection.
In a nutshell, Bates contends that the UFOs some Americans claim to see are not space aliens, but rather angels. Some of those angels are good, he indicated, and some of them are bad. He said that Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, and the Muslim prophet Mohammed had both been visited by fallen angels.
The evening’s biggest draw, however, was the debate between Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and Herb Titus, a former dean at TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University and former attorney for disgraced Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. The two advocates sparred over whether the First Amendment prevents “a Bibically-Based Public Policy.”
The ADF’s Ventrella served as moderator of the exchange and told the audience that his role was to “be invisible.” He apparently could not contain himself, however. Throughout, he chided Lynn for not asking a question of Titus quickly enough, said Lynn, not Titus, carried the burden in the debate and gave his own opinion of the question at the debate’s conclusion.
Lynn told the 800 conferees what they didn’t particularly want to hear.
“American public policy cannot be based,” he said, “solely on the Bible, any more than it could be based solely on the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita.
“The laws that govern our daily lives,” Lynn continued, “need to be based on commonly shared secular values, including those found in the Bill of Rights. Lawmakers take an oath, sometimes on a holy book even, to uphold the Constitution. They do not put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.
“Political leaders represent all Americans, Christian and otherwise,” he said, “so yes, to base public policy on one constituency’s religious text and, moreover, a particular interpretation of that text, would fly directly in the face of the First Amendment’s guarantee that there will be no laws respecting, touching upon an establishment of religion.”
Lynn’s comments were the only words in a four-day talk-a-thon that promoted a free society.
The major theme of this year’s Worldview conference was a call for an ongoing push by Christian fundamentalists to tear down democracy and replace it with theocracy. Far from being super, it was rather scary.