God: dead but lively

Given that newsstand copies of the May Harper's have an ad flap that reads "The Christian Right's War on America," it was only a matter of time before one of us GetReligion sleuths broke down and bought a copy to investigate. As Giblets would say, "Interesting stuff." Editor Lewis Lapham's Notebook item, "Wrath of the Lamb," contains a lot of the usual snobbish bashing of the Republicans/Romans, but it also has this little biographical digression that tells us something about the Ivory Tower of yesteryear:

As an unbaptized child raised in a family that went to church only for weddings and funerals, I didn't encounter the problem of religious belief until I reached Yale College in the 1950s, where I was informed by the liberal arts faculty that it wasn't pressing because God was dead. What remained to be discussed was the autopsy report; apparently there was still some confusion about the cause and time of death, and the undergraduate surveys of Western civilization offered a wide range of options -- God disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1834 while on a voyage to the Galapagos Islands, blown to pieces by German artillery at Verdun, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp, and the body laid to rest on the consulting rooms of Sigmund Freud.

The two long pieces that comprise the cover package are an article on National Religious Broadcasters by the very annoying Chris Hedges and a report from Colorado Springs by The Revealer's Jeff Sharlet. The Hedges story was about as predictable as one would imagine. As usual, the former New York Times writer passes over any opportunities for empathy to instead sneer at his subjects. But the Sharlet piece, "Soldiers of Christ," is fascinating.

The Revealer editor went to Colorado Springs to learn about New Life (mega)Church -- its history, its founder, Pastor Ted Haggard (pictured), its influence on politics and culture -- to turn out a long, frustrating, occasionally rewarding piece:

Long: It clocks out at 14 pages. At, let's say, 1,000 words a page, you won't be able to breeze through it. Frustrating: I'm into literary openings, but the page and a half of framing is so breathlessly Harper's-esque that I nearly gave up.

Rewarding: Sharlet actually took the time to try to get to know and understand how Haggard put together this 11,000-member megachurch and what it says about evangelicals and the United States.

There's a lot to note here -- the Frank Peretti-style unabashed talk of angels and demons and visions and spiritual warfare, for starters -- but I think this was the most revealing passage of the piece about the ways in which modern megachurchism separates itself from that old time religion:

Free-market economics is a "truth" Ted says he learned in his first job in professional Christendom, as a Bible smuggler in Eastern Europe. Globalization, he believes, is merely a vehicle for the spread of Christianity. He means Protestantism in particular; Catholics, he said, "constantly look back." He went on: "And the nations dominated by Catholicism look back. They don't tend to create our greatest entrepreneurs, inventors, research and development. Typically, Catholic nations aren't shooting people into space. Protestantism, though, always looks to the future. A typical kid raised in Protestantism dreams about the future. A typical kid raised in Catholicism values and relishes the past, the saints, the history."

Haggard uses this insight into Catholicism to cast a skeptical glance at certain forms of immigration:

"In America, the descendents of the Protestants, the Puritan descendants, we want to create a better future and our speakers say that sort of thing. But with the influx of people from Mexico, they don't tend to be the ones that go to universities and become our research-and-development people. And so in that way I see a little clash of civilizations."

There's more, but I'm done excerpting for the morning. If you've read the essay and want to chime in with comments, go to it.

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