By Victoria Clark, Saturday, 11 September 2010
It’s taken nine years for the Christian West to throw up a cleric as radically, fundamentally bellicose as some of those produced by the Muslim world. The marvel, I would say, is not that it has, and proved beyond reasonable doubt that any and every religion can breed monsters, but that it has not done so earlier.
Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Centre church in Florida, the Protestant clergyman who thinks marking this ninth anniversary of 9/11 by burning copies of the Koran is a fine idea, may boast a congregation of no more than 50, but there is one thing I’d be prepared to bet on. It won’t be his potentially lethal bellicosity that’s stopped him attracting a congregation large enough to fill one of those 50,000-seater megachurches. There’ll be other, more humdrum reasons for his obscurity until now.
How can I be so sure? A few years ago, while researching a book about the dangerous dovetailing of Armageddon theology with support for hard right-wing Israeli politicians and Israeli expansionism in the West Bank after 9/11, I encountered a number of Pastor Jones clones: alpha male egocentrics who used their pulpits to peddle a deliciously intoxicating cocktail of literal-minded Bible exegesis aimed at forecasting the future, right-wing political punditry, shockingly irresponsible fear-mongering, straight-talking saloon bar humour, and bloodcurdling threats against the Muslim world.
There was the powerfully rotund and famously Israel-friendly Pastor John Hagee of “Cornerstone” megachurch in San Antonio who thrilled his audience one night back in October 2006 with a public address to Iran’s president: “Listen up, Mr President of Iran. Don’t threaten America! We’re not afraid of you!” before provoking a storm of applause and whistling with, “If you remember, Pharaoh threatened Israel and he ended up fish-food in the Red Sea!” A few days earlier he had assured National Public Radio’s Fresh Air programme that “those who live by the Koran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christian and Jews”, adding, “It teaches that very clearly.” He got away with that, but his powerful endorsement of Senator John McCain’s presidential candidacy in 2008 backfired badly on the senator; Hagee, it turned out, had let rip against Catholics as well as Muslims.
A year earlier I had visited a megachurch in St Paul, Minnesota, for an event known as a “prophecy conference”. Its star speaker was Hal Lindsay, a hell-raising, gun-slinging tugboat captain on the Mississippi until he found God, attended theology college and then, in 1970, penned a bestseller called The Late Great Planet Earth. With the looks and demeanour of an ageing pop star, Lindsay perched on the high stool with a microphone in one hand and his Bible in the other to tell an audience of about 4,000 what they could expect and should look out for in the light of Old Testament prophecies. He warned of terrifying disasters: Hurricane Katrina had been bad but “what will happen when someone decides to smuggle a nuclear warhead into one of our ports?”.
Lindsay made his audience-cum-congregation laugh out loud by describing Islam as “violent to the core” and the Palestinians’ miserably overpopulated and isolated Gaza Strip as a “target-rich environment” for the Israeli army. Next, he invited them to open their Bibles at Isaiah, chapter 17: “An oracle concerning Damascus. Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city, and will become a heap of ruins.” “My opinion is that Damascus will be destroyed…,” he continued, adding that Syria was “a troublemaker, a terrorist headquarters”, musing, “I wish the US would obliterate Syria.”
The following spring I joined a large group of Americans on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, led by one Chuck Missler, a retired aerospace engineer who ran an internet ministry, rather than his own church. In Chuck’s view, Islam was a “Satanic religion” and he could discern the shape of a devil on one of the grey-veined marble panels on the exterior of the Muslims’ Dome of the Rock. On the last morning of the tour, Missler and I fell out badly over breakfast; I had begun questioning his views so he began banging his Bible on the table, telling me that if I did not believe every word it said was true he had nothing more to say to me.
All three of these men had created lucrative religious business enterprises. Undeniably charismatic, funny, red-blooded and energetic people, they were all blessed with a boundless self-belief. Pastor Terry Jones admirably fits the same template; the difference is surely only in degree. In the wake of the horror of 9/11, the West’s ill-conceived response to which so many now regard as another catastrophe, these men of God have deliberately compounded the problem. Spreading Western Christian fear, hatred and mistrust of the Muslim world, they talk their frighteningly facetious talk, but Pastor Terry Jones has gone out and tried to walk it too.
And there is nothing new about the template. Nineteenth-century American history is littered with tales of men like these who founded breakaway sects that defined themselves by some ludicrously literal reading of something in the Bible and then led their followers into absurd or dangerous adventures.
There were the 156 followers of a Pastor George J Adams, members of the Church of the Messiah in Maine, whom he persuaded to take ship with all their “houses, our agricultural implements, also our mechanical implements and our furniture” for the Holy Land in 1866. An alcoholic and a fantasist, Pastor Adams let everyone down. Within a year of their arrival in the Holy Land, the colony of “Regenerators” was riven with strife, many had died, and Adams himself was found lying in the middle of a road in Jaffa, “in the most degrading state of drunkenness”.
John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren sect, was an Irish-born example of the same type. But on trips to the US and Canada in the 1860s and 70s, even he complained of the North American ecclesiastical scene resembling a garden “overrun with weeds, some plants set free”. It pained him to encounter so much “looseness as to practice and doctrine”. Darby’s teachings, including an over-literal interpretation of one line of the Bible now popularly known as “The Rapture”, has found a much wider audience in the United States than in Britain.
The cause of the abundance and proliferation of churches and sects in the US today has its roots in the fact that theirs is a society that was founded by members of European sects dubbed heretic by the established churches of their countries, by people forced to flee to practise their faith in freedom – starting with our own Puritans. Unfettered by any supervising umbrella institutions of established churches such those of Rome and Canterbury, American churches have been free to grow tough and worldly and as much defined by the personality and talents of their preachers as any Muslim mosque in the fight to survive against the ferocious competition. The American pastor has a valuable tax-exempt charity status to help him but the onus is on him to gather and galvanise a bigger congregation than his rivals; better sound systems and seating and crèches, more jokes, more excitement, more thrills and more fun are what it is often about.
My guess is that a bonfire of the Korans just sounded like a lot of fun.
Victoria Clark’s books include ‘Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism’, published by Yale