In late April of 1607, three ships of English adventurers landed at Cape Henry in what is now Virginia in search of fame and fortune. Although their primary motivation was gold, not God, they erected a wooden cross, and Anglican priest Robert Hunt led a prayer service.
Four hundred years later, the Rev. John Gimenez stepped onto the sand at nearby Virginia Beach to reenact that historic event. This time, Gimenez, TV preacher Pat Robertson and a host of their Religious Right allies erected an array of small plastic crosses and claimed America for their version of Christianity.
“We are gathered to say we’re back!” Gimenez shouted. “We’ve come back to proclaim and reclaim, Amen. We are proclaiming that this is the day that the Lord has made and we are claiming the covenant that was established here 400 years ago.”
While some pundits have heralded a new breed of evangelical activists who do not want a Christian theocracy, speakers at Gimenez’s “Assembly 2007” apparently didn’t get the memo. Indeed, the April 26-29 conference, hosted by Gimenez’s Rock Church International in Virginia Beach, was all about advancing a “Christian nation” agenda, riling up evangelical Christian voters and raising lots of money.
A multitude of famous, and not-so-famous, Pentecostal preachers trumpeted the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony as proof positive that America was created to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Speaker after speaker at the conference, which slipped under the news media’s radar, extolled 1607 as the year America was “birthed” and when a “covenant” was formed with God that our nation would be Christian.
“This monumental covenant with God laid the foundation for the birth of a nation founded on Christ!” the Assembly 2007 brochure states. “Today, all Americans have benefited from God’s blessing on this land.”
But according to many of the preachers who came before the audience, which peaked close to 2,000 on the final day, America has drifted from its religious moorings and evangelical Christians must now renew the covenant with God. Additionally, the preachers argued that only born-again Christians are equipped to yank the nation back from a moral abyss to its Christian heritage.
Gimenez, a longtime ally of Robertson’s, has spearheaded numerous religious gatherings in the past, ostensibly with the goal of sparking a national revival. In 1980, Gimenez coordinated his first “Washington for Jesus” rally, where a cavalcade of evangelical Christian leaders, including Robertson, took the stage in the nation’s capital to urge federal lawmakers to advance Religious Right values and to blast the U.S. Supreme Court for its rulings on prayer in the public schools and other social issues.
The 1980 rally came as the Religious Right was burgeoning and it drew about 200,000 participants. Similar events in 1988 and 2004 drew smaller crowds and less media attention.
Gimenez’s rallies, including the recent Assembly 2007 gathering, have all come during election seasons, and many observers think they have the obvious intent of mobilizing the Pentecostal wing of the Religious Right on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. The Virginia Beach pastor and his allies have used fear and fervent religious appeals to persuade the faithful that born-again Christians are meant to rule the land and that they risk being persecuted if they don’t turn politically active.
Pastor John Blanchard, the Gimenezes’ son in-law and emcee of Assembly 2007, repeatedly asked God to prepare the gathering for the task of taking back the nation for Christ.
“Heavenly Father, we thank you for our foundation of the cross,” Blanchard prayed. “And, God, we want to take this land back. God, I pray this weekend you will empower us, Lord, through the irresistible force of the Holy Ghost. God is going to anoint your people, Lord, to blow the trumpet and, Lord, to declare that we’re the lords of this generation.”
Throughout the conference, the attendees were provided a simplified and historically challenged version of the English settlers at Jamestown. Many of the conference speakers claimed that Chaplain Hunt and the other settlers landed on the shores of Virginia Beach on a mission to dedicate the new land to God.
None of the conference’s speakers mentioned the fact that religion was actually not the top concern of the Jamestown settlers and that the only religion they were concerned about was propagated by the Anglican Church. Indeed, as historians have noted, most of the Jamestown settlers had left England in search of a greater possibility of wealth. As The Washington Post put it recently, “part of their mission was” religious, but “mostly the Jamestown colonists came here to get rich.”
Also, religious freedom as we know it today did not exist in Jamestown. The colony’s leaders established the Church of England by law and penalized dissenters (including the forbears of the group that gathered in Virginia Beach last month). In Church, State and Freedom, First Amendment scholar Leo Pfeffer noted that the Jamestown colony’s governor signed a decree in 1612 that mandated the death penalty for those who spoke “impiously of the Trinity…or against the known articles of the Christian faith.”
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other visionaries among the nation’s Founding Fathers changed all that in the 18th century. They pushed through legislation in Virginia in 1786 – Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom – that guaranteed religious freedom for persons of all faiths and none. The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment later extended that freedom throughout the country.
But Assembly 2007 speakers harken to their skewed version of Jamestown’s founding to suit their needs. So conference attendees, led by sponsors and guests, set out to rededicate the land to Christianity by planting white crosses on Virginia Beach on April 29. The crosses were on sale at the conference for just under $15 and included the inscription “One Nation Under God,” bracketed by the years 1607 and 2007.
The climax of the four-day gathering was on Sunday at the rededication event, which took place on a large stage with an enormous American flag as its backdrop. The platform was set up on the beach just off the 20th Street section of the boardwalk.
Stepping to the microphone, Robertson received a raucous greeting from a sprawling crowd.
“Praise God Almighty, this is a great day!” said Robertson. “We are here at a historic moment. This is the 400th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America. And this nation was founded by men and women who planted a cross on this very shore of the Atlantic Ocean, and they knelt in prayer and they said ‘we declare that this nation belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.’
“And we are here to reclaim again,” Robertson continued, “and to certify again the covenant that was made 400 years ago by our forefathers, who came to these shores for one purpose – to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who didn’t know it. What a heritage!”
Robertson again repeated the story of Chaplain Hunt and the English explorers, whom he dubbed “a small band of settlers.” They dedicated the land to Christ, he said, but added that unspecified forces have since sought to wrench the land from God.
“They’ve tried to take it away from us, folks,” said Robertson. “But we aren’t going to let them; we’re not going to let them do it. This belongs to the Lord. And we’re here to declare His word.”
Robertson was followed by a Native American pastor, Ernest Custalow, who claimed that Robertson is “related by marriage to the first pastor, Robert Hunt.” (Robertson has made that claim himself, but did not mention it at the event.)
Politicians also showed up at the event. U.S. Reps. Randy J. Forbes (R-Va.) and Thelma D. Drake (R-Va.) addressed the Sunday gathering with prayers and messages of support. (The events schedule listed U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., as a speaker, but he did not show.)
Forbes promoted his work in spearheading a prayer gathering in Congress, and he urged the attendees to “commit by praying five minutes a week at least that God would heal our land.”
Drake followed Forbes with a prayer for America, in which she maintained that the Jamestown settlers “came to create a new nation and to be able to pray to You and to honor You.”
Before the Sunday rededication, the attendees were treated to three days of sermonizing, cajoling, praying, Christian music and opportunities to buy religious sundries. One enormous book, retailing for about $80, was described by Blanchard as containing hundreds of documents bolstering the argument that America was founded for Christ.
Besides peddling the Christian nation theme, many of the conference’s speakers took the usual swipes at popular culture, bashed gays, called for an end to reproductive rights and issued dire warnings about the nation’s future if their religious leanings were not embraced wholeheartedly by all Americans. The theme of redemption swept through the conference as well.
One of the conference’s main speakers, Bishop Harry Jackson, spoke twice of his “near-death experience” with cancer. The second time came Saturday evening when he called on attendees who were pastors to bring a special offering or “seed” to the front of the church’s sanctuary to help the Gimenez family recoup some of the money expended on the four-day gathering. After re-telling his battle with cancer, Jackson noted that he was giving a check of $1,000 to the church.
On the conference’s opening day, April 26, Jackson, senior pastor at suburban Washington, D.C.’s Hope Christian Center, began his talk with a harangue about Congress and its push for hate-crimes legislation extending federal protections to gays. Jackson said the bill, H.R. 1592, would make it illegal for Christian leaders to speak out against homosexuality. (In fact, it would do no such thing.)
“And so what we are dealing with,” he continued, “is an insidious intrusion of the Devil to try to cut off the voice of the church, and I for one am not going to let that happen.”
Jackson urged the attendees to sign a petition opposing the legislation.
After giving his spiel on hate-crimes legislation, Jackson veered back to one of the gathering’s central points – a grand religious revival or awakening in the nation.
Railing against rampant “individualism,” Jackson bemoaned the rampage shootings that took 32 lives at Virginia Tech University. He suggested that the nation’s laws, not infused enough with evangelical Christian doctrine, have allowed for such tragedies.
“Virginia Tech happened, because we have been worshipping the rights of the individual,” maintained Jackson. “The individual can do whatever he pleases. He can spend all his days looking at video games that celebrate violence and get himself so filled with anger and intensity and hatred and it can be poured out on anybody.”
Without Christ in their hearts, Jackson maintained, Americans are destined to live in a country beset with “chaos and murder and massacre and mayhem.”
Jackson assured the attendees, however, that they have the opportunity to usher in a spiritual reawakening in the country. Jackson implored the attendees to pray especially for those “back-sliding, beady-eyed, narrow-minded politicians in Washington.”
“We need to pray them into a Damascus-road experience,” Jackson said, referring to the Bible’s story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion to Christianity.
Other speakers that took the stage in Rock Church’s 5,200-seat sanctuary advanced similar themes and, not surprisingly, had similar styles of delivering their messages, which they claimed were provided to them from God. While most of the pastors began their sermonizing in reasonably measured tones, it was not long before they were moving across the stage, hands flailing and voices rising. It seemed that all the pastors eventually settled into a bombastic tone.
The Rev. Wellington Boone’s sermon touched on a lot of diverse topics, such as economics, slavery, the Declaration of Independence, the religiosity of the original colonies and hate-crimes legislation.
According to Boone, pastor of The Father’s House in Atlanta, Ga., early colonists escaped England and the tyranny of the monarchy and yearned to establish a nation “where they could preach the gospel without compromise.”
Boone criticized today’s opponents of the so-called “faith-based” initiative. Religious groups that take government grants to operate social services must have the right to also proselytize, he said.
Boone then lurched into politics, saying that there was no way he could support a candidate who does “not have Christ as his center. So when you come to me, I want to know whether you serve the Lord.”
Boone aired the oft-repeated Religious Right attack against Thomas Jefferson’s use of the church-state wall metaphor for explaining the First Amendment.
“And so the Danbury letter written by Jefferson about the separation of church and state,” Boone claimed “wasn’t to keep the church out of the government; it was to keep the government out of the church. God owns the church and the state.”
Boone even cited Muslim countries as models of partnership between government and religion.
“If you don’t think that’s right,” Boone said, referring to God’s ownership of the church and the state, “check out Islam….You couldn’t tell any Islamic nation that kind of foolishness, because their book, the Quran, is the basis by which government is being run.”
Boone then targeted the hate-crimes bill as an effort by government to control the church. By this point, he was clearly agitated, and he made no effort to mask his contempt for gays.
“The sodomites are trying to shut up the church and preachers from talking about same-sex marriage, which is an abomination,” bellowed Boone.
Later in his rambling sermon, Boone complained about the U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated Texas’s sodomy law and claimed that before Lawrence v. Texas, every state had sodomy laws.
“Capital punishment for a man with man and a woman with woman,” he said. “Do your homework!”
Boone lauded the U.S. Supreme Court for recently upholding a federal ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortion. But he seemed to reference that ruling merely to launch an attack on Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Boone repeatedly and derisively employed a truncated version of the word abomination – “aboma” – to refer to Obama.
“When those judges passed that partial-birth decision, buddy, abomination, or Obama, sent a letter – he put on his Web site that he was in total disagreement with that decision.
“You mean you’re in a disagreement with all those blacks aborting themselves?” Boone shouted.
In between many of the pastors’ sermonizing was lots of contemporary Christian music. One of the conference’s favorites, Ken Kenoly, sang songs such as “Return To Righteousness America.” The lyrics included the refrain: “Return to your King. Stop writing laws inspired by lust and convenience. Return to laws written in your heart by God.”
One of the conference’s more animated and over-the-top speakers was Bishop Ken McNatt, a little-known pastor who is part of the Rock Church ministry. His bio states that he was saved by God after battles with heroin addiction and “trouble with the Mafia.”
McNatt emphatically declared that Assembly 2007 attendees were here to do God’s work, which entails taking control of society.
“We have not been placed here to take sides,” implored McNatt. “We have been placed here to take charge. You’ve got to awaken to the reality that God has put us here as His representatives so that the earth might begin to reflect and manifest what it is like in Heaven.”
McNatt complained that there are too many efforts afoot, such as the hate-crimes legislation, to muzzle the voice of Christians. He then denounced the First Amendment principle of church-state separation as essentially a figment of someone’s imagination.
There are lots of “parcels and particles of legislation” that are being pushed in Congress and state legislatures intended to marginalize people of faith and “corrupt” their morals, McNatt claimed.
“Isn’t there something said in this great land of ours about separation of church and state?” McNatt asked rhetorically. “There’s been a lot said about it, but it’s not in your Constitution. There’s been a lot said about it, but it’s not in your Bible.”
According to McNatt, the chosen people of God have a lot of work to accomplish, for America has strayed far from its roots. He pointed to television, music, video games and Hollywood and called America a “cesspool.”
“We are living in a society today that is embarrassing to anyone with morals,” he concluded.
In the evening, McNatt spoke again, preceding one of the conference’s headliners, San Antonio, Texas, televangelist John Hagee. McNatt was just as lively in repeating lots of the platitudes he delivered a few hours earlier. He added to his sermon the claim that God had told him 2007 would “be a season of release” so that born-again Christians would be lifted out of debt and all their money problems would be solved.
McNatt followed that declaration with the claim that God had also told him that 100 attendees would “seed” $700 to Rock Church and urged those chosen few to come place their money on the stage. He had to plead several times before people started flowing forward.
One woman, who did not appear to have a check or any money to donate, proceeded to the front of the stage where she commenced weeping, howling and flailing her arms about. The spectacle appeared to take Rock Church officials by surprise. After a few minutes, a security guard ushered the woman away from the stage and out of the sanctuary through a side door.
Hagee followed McNatt with a plug for his pro-Israel prophecy book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Prelude To War, which he described as being the authoritative text on the Middle East conflicts.
“If you want to know what is going on in the Middle East,” Hagee said, “I urge you to read Jerusalem Countdown.”
The televangelist then shifted from Middle East affairs to the conference’s matter at hand – celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown and promoting Christian nation doctrine.
Citing the nation’s motto, “In God We Trust,” and its inscription on American currency, Hagee claimed that America trusts in God “because God never changes”
Since God is always with us, Hagee said we’ve got to be with Him. And there are certain tentacles of the American government that have, according to Hagee, made such a partnership very difficult. He targeted the federal courts for working to yank the nation from its religious heritage.
“Democracy in America is being hijacked by activist federal judges who are trying to re-write the Constitution from the bench,” Hagee said. “Thanks to President George Bush, we have two conservative Supreme Court justices, and partial-birth abortion is now against the law.”
Hagee then implied that the nation’s public schools have become havens for violence where children have “been shot by other children,” partly because the Ten Commandments are not plastered all over the public school walls and promoted by teachers and administrators.
“One of those Ten Commandments says ‘Thou shall not kill,’” he said. “Because it was removed by the Supreme Court, it did not influence the next generation. I want to say very clearly that the Ten Commandments are not recommendations, and they are God’s moral compass for the United States of America.”
As the conference came to a close on the sunny shores of Virginia Beach, Pastor Gimenez urged attendees to once again give money to help cover costs of the event. He added that he really did not want to host the conference because of the financial burden, but relented at God’s imposition.
Then he reminded the gathering that more Christian nation advocacy is yet to come.
“And by the way, one last thought,” Gimenez said, “this is only a launching. Next year, it’s going to be an ‘Awake America’ – take back your state in ’08. Amen.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, criticized Gimenez and other Assembly 2007 speakers for continuing a push to undo church-state separation in America.
“Gimenez, Robertson and their allies are just as driven today as they were a decade ago to impose on America their rigid brand of beliefs,” Lynn said. “This conference is a stark reminder of the Religious Right’s devotion to shutting down religious freedom in this country.”