TWO Special Report: The Call Detroit – A Slick Political Rally Disguised As a Religious Revival
by: Wayne Besen
Wednesday November 23, 2011 - 11:52
Truth Wins Out’s acclaimed Center Against Religious Extremism (TWOCARE), offers original, in-depth, and on-site reporting.
“Please, come join us,” insisted an attractive college student flashing her bright Aquafresh smile.
Before I was able to decline her friendly invitation I was gently pulled into a large prayer circle of thirty or so Charismatic Christians. “I’m sorry my hand is sweaty,” the girl said with a sheepish grin.
Those were the last words she spoke that I understood. We quickly surrounded a handful of young preachers who whooped and hollered before surrendering English for the unintelligible language of tongues. The manic participants sounded like a cross between a prayer service and a Native American tribe preparing for battle.
Eventually, they raised their hands toward the sky pointing to God, which allowed me to escape and enter the seating area at Ford Field, where Lou Engle, founder of The Call, had gathered 27,000 fundamentalist Christians from across the nation on 11.11.11, a date that came to him in what he believes to be a divinely inspired vision. The majority of the crowd was Caucasian, however a significant number were African American. There was a large youth component, but the age of participants reached across the spectrum.
While I can’t speak for the entire conference, which was a 24-hour call to fast and prayer, I did spend 14 hours at Ford Field watching sermons, surveying sideshows, videotaping the gathering, and interacting with the hyped-up crowd. So, my observations, while not complete, do offer a significant snapshot of the 11.11.11 Detroit rally.
In a press release prior to the event I wrote that I expected 11.11.11 Detroit to be a “gay bashing” and “Muslim trashing” extravaganza. After all, The Call had chosen Detroit as its rally site in an effort to convert the region’s estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims.
The Associated Press reported that Apostle Ellis Smith, Engle’s local “point person” for The Call, referred to Islam in a sermon leading up to the revival as a “false,” “lame” and “perverse” religion.
Engle had previously held an infamous event in Uganda that whipped up anti-gay hysteria. In 2008, the electrifying preacher organized a rally at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium in support of Proposition 8, a successful measure to prohibit marriage equality in California.
To my surprise, the festivities, which were aired on God TV, were appreciably toned down. Sure, there was red meat on the menu, but it was not the all-you-can-eat buffet that I had come to expect from Engle and other leaders of the 7 Mountains Movement (aka The New Apostolic Reformation) that he is a key part of.
Indeed, most of the aspersions on Friday evening and Saturday were deliberately cast though euphemism. Homosexuality was never explicitly mentioned, but was instead lumped together with other “sins” under the umbrella of “sexual immorality.” Other times, speakers camouflaged their anti-gay agenda by simply saying they supported “traditional marriage.” During the entire time I observed the event there was not one reference to healing homosexuality and no “ex-gays” were trotted up on the stage to tell tales of how they “prayed away the gay.”
However, the Detroit Free Press reported that Apostle Smith claimed that at the event, “a lesbian came from the homosexual community and said she has never experienced such love. And she is now working to change her lifestyle.”
(I’m sure this alleged lesbian was very stable and well adjusted because it is common for healthy and secure LGBT people to spend weekends attending revivals that consider them demonic.)
The conversion of Muslims was also downplayed and “Dearborn,” referring to the Detroit suburb with perhaps the nation’s largest Muslim population, euphemistically replaced the word “Islam.”
It took several hours to figure out what was really going on – but I gasped when the disturbing pattern finally revealed itself. This elaborate show had all the trappings of a modern religious revival – from the thumping music to the two gargantuan video screens suspended above the enraptured audience. But this ostensibly religious event was little more than a political front.
Its real aim was to peel African American support away from the Democratic Party in a swing state during a critical election year. Not only is President Barack Obama’s reelection at stake, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow is locked in a tight race that includes social conservative and former GOP Rep. Peter Hoekstra. This cynical revival was not about “values” — it was about votes. It was not about worship, but winning office for Republicans by promoting what writer Ed Kilgore called in The New Republic, a “big-God, small-government creed.”
The amazing part was that the audience seemed totally unaware of the underlying motives and machinations. After all, the words “Democrat” and “Republican” were never spoken and there was only one local politician identified on-stage. It seemed that even some of the minor speakers might not have been privy to the overarching strategy. Nonetheless, a brilliant display of political subterfuge was unfolding as the oblivious crowd bopped to Christian rock with their hands swaying above their heads.
This is not the first attempt of white fundamentalists to lure black voters away from the Democratic Party. Immediately following the 2004 presidential election, social conservatives made a strong push to lure African-Americans. Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center hate group, The Traditional Values Coalition, hosted a right wing meeting of 70 black religious leaders in Los Angeles.
Unbelievably, at the Los Angeles meeting Sheldon played an anti-gay video featuring disgraced Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. Remember, Lott had to step down as Senate Majority Leader after he publicly pined over Strom Thurmond not winning the presidency as a Dixiecrat. African-American columnist Leonard Pitts put Sheldon’s power grab in perspective:
Still, the attempt was gaining some momentum until Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, which badly frayed the burgeoning unholy alliance. The effort was further hampered by the emergence of Barack Obama as the Democratic standard bearer.
In this renewed effort in Detroit, Lou Engle and his minions were smart. They wisely figured out that direct attacks on the Democratic Party would not fly, nor would all-out verbal barrages against President Barack Obama, who still has strong African American support. They also understood that the baggage surrounding white Evangelical racism would have to be addressed and surmounted before real progress was made.
To overcome these obstacles and recruit African Americans to vote for the GOP they devised what seems like a five-part strategy.
Lou Engle understands that much of Michigan is conservative. If he were able to peel off fifteen or twenty percent of Detroit’s black Democratic vote, he might be able to turn the state solidly red. The main wedge issue he selected to accomplish his plan is abortion. For good measure, he helped weave a conspiracy theory: Sinister white bigots who run programs like Planned Parenthood were using abortion to reduce African American birthrates.
Engle’s message was aided by a parade of socially conservative African American ministers. One preached that black people must choose “BC (Biblical Correctness) over PC (Political Correctness).” The subtext was that the pro-life GOP is on the side of the Bible and thus should be the party of African Americans. Another pastor was even more explicit when he declared that African Americans had a choice: “God’s way or a political party’s way.”
A young, thin black minister bitterly complained about how he was called “Uncle Tom” while growing up. “Uncle Tom is actually a Christ-like figure, so to be called an Uncle Tom is actually an honor and a privilege,” he proclaimed. Needless to say, many of the white audience members were totally onboard, if not a bit too enthusiastic, with his rendering of history.
The preacher then dishonored his father by portraying him as an unthinking sheep for supporting Barack Obama. The pastor continued delighting the white fundamentalists by saying that African Americans should “repent to our white brothers and sisters for the black ideologies, the black militancy that Detroit has been a center of.” Finally, the man introduced his Caucasian wife and proudly proclaimed, “Isn’t she beautiful,” which received a frosty reception, showing that this crowd still had some work to do on racial reconciliation.
While other culture war issues were downplayed, there was an all-out assault on abortion.
Rev. Johnny Hunter, national director of the Life Education and Resource Network, a North Carolina-based anti-abortion group aimed at African-Americans, lit into “Charlie Darwin” and then thundered, “The abortion industry and Planned Parenthood are destroying the black community.”
Another black pastor preached that once black people embrace his cause to outlaw abortion, “No more will death outpace life in the African American community.”
This is not all that surprising, considering an encounter I had in Lynchburg, Virginia with Engle on April 16, 2010. I had gone to the Awakening Conference at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. While sitting in the audience during the “LGBT Agenda” breakout session, Engle spoke up and conceded that the next generation of evangelical Christians is largely supportive of LGBT rights, but not abortion. Engle said that when he preaches against gay people, the Christian youth often “rage against him.” Engle admitted that the far right has lost on this issue barring a miracle, such as an intercession at a 500,000 strong youth rally.
In Lynchburg, Engle tossed around the idea of organizing such a massive anti-gay event, but it has yet to materialize. It seems a combination of time and trends are working against the preacher’s grand anti-gay vision. The New York Times reported on Nov. 13, 2011 that the latest Gallup Poll shows that 70-percent of Americans between 18 and 34 support marriage equality, up from 54 percent in 2010. More than half of the audience in Detroit fit this demographic – with many participants in high school and college Christian youth groups.
Perhaps, Engle was wise enough to know that he would offend many young people if his rally degenerated into an ugly gay bashing circus. It seemed, however, that Engle was correct on the abortion issue with the vast majority of the youth in attendance fervently anti-choice. This is still the one issue that seems to animate the overwhelming number of Christian fundamentalists.
The attacks on Planned Parenthood are not new. Attempts to defund the organization almost led to a government shutdown during the recent budget battle in Congress. Right Wing members of Congress, such as Chris Smith (R-NJ), have called Planned Parenthood “Child Abuse, Incorporated.” (Jill Lepore wrote a splendid article in The New Yorker outlining recent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.)
However, for political purposes, The Call needed to tweak the abortion message to appeal specifically to inner city African Americans. They found Georgia Right to Life (GRL) had already created a powerful template. In February 2010, GRL’s Minority Outreach Coordinator Catherine Davis unveiled more than 65 anti-choice billboards with the startling message: “Black children are an endangered species.”
The New York Times reported on the story and found that the group was distorting the data:
If the Atlanta billboard campaign was a shot across the bow, Engle’s Detroit rally signals a move towards the mass marketing of this message. In fact, Davis spoke at the event and discussed the campaign in detail.
Complimenting such rhetoric were the more traditional testimonials from black women who came to regret their abortions or suffered health consequences. One woman recounted a dramatic story that shocked the attendees at Ford Field. She stood in front of what seemed like a 50 foot cross festooned with lights and spoke of rushing to the emergency room in pain after she had an abortion. According to her story, the doctor discovered a bone from her fetus lodged in her abdomen. The Bible waving crowd recoiled and let out anguished screams of horror and disgust. The speaker concluded by imploring the audience to “stand and choose life for Jesus.”
The star, however, was Martin Luther King Junior’s fundamentalist niece Alveda King. Her speech opened up with a dramatic video playing on the two gargantuan screens set to hip hop music detailing how abortion was decimating the African American community. According to the video, “Abortion reduces the black population: from 54 million to 39 million. It’s Epidemic” The video also claimed that abortion “never reduces poverty,” which is patently absurd. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that an extra mouth to feed costs more money.
After offering a shallow, sweeping, and convoluted history lesson, King screamed, “We lift up the banner of Jesus!” Then she went on to compare the anti-abortion movement to the civil rights movement. “The freedom riders of the twentieth century meet the pro-life freedom riders of the 21st Century.”
King continued with a laundry list of sins that God allegedly detests:
Of course, not everyone is sold on the new strategy of using abortion in the African American community as a conservative political wedge issue.
Of course, as I previously mentioned, there is still a profound distrust of white evangelicals in the African American community. To scale this formidable wall, Engle orchestrated a magnificent outpouring of white guilt with Caucasian pastors prostrating themselves at the feet of African American reverends while pouring buckets of crocodile tears. To top it off they begged the forgiveness of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Latinos.
The unctuous performance intensified when the white audience members were commanded to find someone of another race in the stadium and apologize. Lily-white teenagers from the suburbs were embracing inner city blacks while they wept uncontrollably. You could hear murmurs of “I’m sorry” throughout Ford Field.
The racial reconciliation was the most positive aspect of The Call rally. It was a useful exercise that was emotionally moving, if not draining. However, when one stopped and thought a bit deeper about the spectacle it was less impressive. For the conservative activists onstage and the participants in the arena, these were not daring acts of courage. After all, this was 2011 and not 1964. Where were these folks during the Civil Rights movement when their love and contrition would have genuinely mattered?
It was relatively easy to atone for the sins of a war already lost. Yet, on every one of today’s major human rights battles they were on the wrong side of history. People in this stadium arrogantly refused to see parallels with the past and to even consider flaws in their stubborn belief systems. The cognitive dissonance and the inability to see the big picture were remarkable.
Indeed, you could easily imagine a similar “daring” rally in 2050, where an arena packed with fundamentalists finally apologize and hug teary-eyed homosexuals. Long after it mattered and long after the pioneering gay married couples were dead or decrepit, the fundamentalists would finally, at no political cost, admit they had caused tremendous pain, caused teen suicides, and ruined countless lives. Then, of course, a scripted gay toady would pounce on the elevated platform and make the audience feel better by offering an apology for “LGBT militancy.”
At Ford Field, it would have been impressive had these evangelicals used this opportunity to embrace moderate Muslims. Instead, they contemptuously trotted out Kamal Saleeman (aka Khodor Shami), an alleged “ex-Muslim terrorist” who dumped Mohammed for Jesus. The Arab convert said that when he abandoned Islam he went from “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves to the Kingdom of God.” (There’s nothing like the loving and productive interfaith dialogue offered by fundamentalist Christians!)
What the audience never heard was that Saleeman is a fraud and a Christian right stooge who has actually never been a terrorist. He worked for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network for sixteen years, and was hired by Focus on the Family in 2003. In 2006, he launched Koome Ministries, whose mission is to “expose the true agenda of [Muslims] who would deceive our nation and the free nations of the world.”
This charlatan is so far removed from terrorism that I doubt he could blow up a balloon. Talk2Action researcher Rachel Tabachnick gives in-depth background on this entrepreneur who has made a living capitalizing on the fears of vulnerable fundamentalist Christians, while they, in turn, exploit his tales of terror to advance their agenda.
As one can imagine, renting Ford Field was expensive. Engle, an intimidating figure that ceaselessly rocks back and forth and sounds like a professional wrestling announcer, implored the audience to give one million dollars to pay for what I jokingly refer to as “Loonypalooza.” Many of the adults dutifully got their checkbooks out and teenagers took small denominations of cash from their colorful wallets. A moment later, an alarmed Engle had a panicked look in his eyes and nervously announced that they had forgotten the large money buckets for donations.
The most disconcerting part of the rally was the conformity of the crowd and the ease in which they were led. In my extensive time at Ford Field I did not hear any dissenting views. The message was never questioned. The people seemed to agree with every word uttered by their leaders, no matter how bizarre or extreme.
This disturbing aspect was most vivid during the faith healing segment of the show. A hypnotic song blared over the speakers with repetitive lyrics, “The blood of Jesus, is greater, it’s greater.” A southern minister preached above the music and promised to cure all sorts of ailments.
The microphone was handed to another preacher who over ear splitting shouts of “hallelujah” proclaimed, “We will rebuke the spirit of cancer…no matter what type of cancer it is. We have seen supernatural miracle stage four cancer being totally healed by the power of God.”
The second faith healer had asked the assembly to raise their hands if they had been healed. I was somewhat surprised by the high percentage of the impressionable and frenzied throng who signaled that they had been cured. For the sake of their health, I hope these individuals continue to receive legitimate medical treatment and don’t really think these swindlers have cured them.
The faith healing session was comparable to gay circuit parties or hipster raves of my youth – except this was a “righteous rave.” Just like the secular events, this affair offered the allure of visual spectacle, mind numbing hypnotic beats, a tribal sense of belonging, and a quasi-religious feel.
The primary difference between the experiences was that the “highs” produced at Ford Field occurred without psychedelic drugs such as mushrooms or ecstasy. But make no mistake about it, this was no less a mental manipulation designed to flood brains with endorphins that induce an unnatural euphoria. As with ecstasy, people hugged strangers and told them how much they loved them. They danced for hours to the booming beats blasting out of humongous speakers. Instead of disco lights there was a massive illuminated cross, and in lieu of glow sticks people clutched their bibles and religious trinkets. Like those who over-indulge in drugs, there were people drunk on religious zeal that spoke gibberish and succumbed to mania.
In a lonely and unforgiving world, it is easy to see the appeal of such flamboyant fundamentalism. At once it offers its participants a purpose and an emotive club of conviviality. Once you’ve signed on the dotted line, there were instant friends, expressions of love, a comfortably homogenous culture, and a support system from cradle to grave.
Unfortunately, the strings attached can strip one of individuality and the ability to reason. To join, one has to blindly accept The Call’s belief that “the Bible is flawless and complete,” as well as embracing socially conservative politics and the anti-intellectual baggage that comes with it.
Evolution? Forget about it.
Equal rights for all? No way.
Economic reform? Heck, no!
At a time when Americans are occupying Wall Street and Detroit is in dire financial straits, The Call had virtually nothing to say about the global economic crisis. In fact, the grotesque abuses of power and the stunning immorality that define the crash are a mere afterthought. When these key issues are addressed, Engle steers his flock away from protesting those responsible for the financial meltdown and funnels them towards religion.
The futility of the event’s vapid promise for “transformation” in Detroit could be witnessed only four days later when Mayor Dave Bing held a televised address discussing the city’s fiscal nightmare.
Engle brought a magical version of God to Ford Field who apparently was able to cure lower back pain and eradicate late stage cancer on the spot. Yet, did seemingly little to alleviate the pain and suffering of this desperate and dilapidated city that has shed a quarter of its residents in the past decade. The city announced it would lay off nine percent of its public workforce a week after the religious revival.
The magnetic preacher brought “renewal” based on Jesus and not jobs; reducing abortion rates instead of raising employment rates; worship without lifting wages; fixating on Scripture while not fixing public schools; and hurting homosexuals while not helping the homeless. Detroit 11.11.11 was little more than a mere distraction that will do virtually nothing to lift Detroit out of despair.
The Call is a just a “feel good” event that forces its followers to adopt a cruel theological system that works against the betterment of mankind. If one attends such events, it becomes clear that without consequences their movement becomes inconsequential. Life has to be unnecessarily dangerous for fundamentalism to thrive. They share the ethos of the judge that ruled in Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s 1917 trial that no woman “had the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”
It is in their interest to eliminate all personal security so their institutions can serve as the sole security blanket. They oppose condoms and the HPV vaccine because it is more important to make sex dangerous than it is to save the lives. They fight against programs to stop school bullying, because its more important to ensure that coming out as gay is a sad and risky experience, than to save the lives of LGBT teenagers. It is more important to have mothers die in back ally abortions than to offer healthy medical alternatives to terminating unwanted pregnancies. The answer to everything is their austere version of Jesus, and that is why they oppose virtually everything that is viewed as competition – such as medicine, secular entertainment, healthy sexuality, and science.
In the end, one can only feel sorrow for this fanciful movement that is based on pure fantasy. It exists to restore an idealized version of the 1950’s family that never existed. It contorts and distorts history to turn our founding fathers into false idols whose words and views are as inerrant as their bible. At its core, it promises the immanent return of Jesus Christ – although I distinctly remember “Jesus is Coming Soon” highway signs from the moment I was able to read. No one can answer if Jesus will return to earth – but if there is a plan, fundamentalists are clueless about the timetable.
Even more tragic is that The Call, a wing of the New Apostolic Reformation (aka 7 Mountains Movement) has tremendous ambition, but will always be numerically too small to fulfill its pipedream of earthly dominion. Researcher Bruce Wilson has written extensively on the New Apostolic Reformation. He says that the mandate of the Seven Mountains Movement is for “Bible believing” Christians to seek control of seven key sectors of society: Education, government, media, business, arts and entertainment, religion, and the family. According to a movement video, the church must regain control of those sectors, which are now occupied by “darkness.”
Americans may prattle about family values, but the majority will never want the Bible to replace the Constitution, ushering in a cruel and narrow form of Christian Sharia. They don’t want a cabal of weepy, melodramatic zealots lording over their lives, censoring their beloved movies and television shows, indoctrinating their children, and turning Wall Street into Wailing Wall Street.
It must be exceedingly difficult for this movement to swallow, but we have surely reached a point where the strikingly bizarre behavior displayed at this rally is significantly weirder to most Americans than floats at gay pride parades.
Lou Engle and the New Apostolic Reformation can’t win its culture war legitimately. They can only take power through stealth strategies and sleight of hand. They would need to expertly employ subterfuge and sedition to essentially replace democracy with demagoguery. It is certainly possible for this to occur and that is why we must remain vigilant. But Engle’s ascendance requires the almost unimaginable descent of this nation from modern to medieval. Are we willing to go there?
What doesn’t register with the swaying fundamentalists at Ford Field is that they may be more likely than their secular counterparts to be ensnared by the oppressive web of laws they seek to pass. For example, we now know that fundamentalist “virginity pledges” in schools don’t work and can increase the potential for pregnancy and STDs.
We also know that fundamentalists are actually worse at creating lasting marriages, despite the fact they talk about family values ad nauseam. For instance, University of Iowa sociology professor Jennifer Glass presented a study this year on skyrocketing divorce rates in regions highly populated with conservative Christians.
The evidence was even more profound at Ford Field, where Christian women who had once had an abortion were asked to repent for their sins. There was a surprisingly long line of guilty looking women and seemingly traumatized teenage girls who acknowledged that they had, in the parlance of The Call, “shed innocent blood.”
What would have become of these women had Engle’s Christian Sharia state come to fruition?
It was fascinating to observe the youth groups passionately clapping at Engle’s fundamentalist sermons, even as they aped mainstream culture by pogoing to thumping modern music in their expensive mall-purchased grunge clothing. The moral relativism on display, the yawning gap between stated beliefs and real world actions, and the lack of self-awareness was breathtaking.
It was the general obliviousness of the crowd that represented the greatest danger of all. It appeared that many of the participants were not fully aware of the overarching agenda of The New Apostolic Reformation. The masses were likely not educated on Engle’s foray to Uganda to spread a deadly form of homophobia.
Yet, shouldn’t they have been well informed before they made a pilgrimage to Detroit to offer their imprimatur to a dangerous zealot with overarching ambitions who derives his power from his ability to draw large stadium crowds? Is ignorance really an excuse for legitimizing ideologues with dangerous visions? Social conservatives like to talk about personal responsibility, but there was little on display at Ford Field, as people who profess to love this country cheered wildly when various theocrats vowed to “take back America.”
The 24-hour rally and fast were winding down. The few thousand remaining prayer warriors looked haggard and hungry as if they needed concession stand junk food more than Jesus.
An angry African American twenty-something with filthy fingernails and a soiled pinstriped jumpsuit was displeased. Apparently, one of the speakers had said something unbiblical. The disgruntled man walked up to the steel barrier in front of the stage with a mammoth Bible tucked under his right arm. He aggressively confronted a security guard demanding that he have an opportunity to speak. “I need to get on the speaker’s line-up,” he demanded. “The Lord gives what you ask for.”
Apparently not, as the muscle-bound guard told him that the speaking lineup had already been set. Dejected, he dropped to his knees and recited what sounded like a bitter prayer.
Only feet away, an attractive young cheerleader type whose eyes were a leaky faucet appeared to be having a spiritual breakthrough – or was it a nervous breakdown? Weeping uncontrollably, she rolled around on the concrete speaking in tongues and punctuating the gibberish with desperate cries of “Abba! Abba! Abba!”
Twenty-one excruciating hours had passed and Engle looked worn down and exhausted. Yet, he continued rocking back and forth with the same exuberance he had displayed the previous night. It had become a test of endurance and sleep was the mark of Satan.
For a moment, I caught the charismatic preacher yawning. Then his tall, bearded son, Jesse, who looked like Jesus Christ and ran a ministry in San Francisco for tormented LGBT people, whispered in his father’s ear.
Engle, who often appears enraged, but also has a unique capacity to exude enormous joy, perked up. He and son smiled and looked down from the stage, as they saw me filming the event. They laughed heartily and waved. I smiled back uneasily. It was time to leave and return to the civilized modern world.
As I left the stadium, I peered back and could still see a fully engrossed Engle rocking with fearsome intensity – an amalgamation of preacher, motivational speaker, and football coach. No matter how loopy his vision, he would do everything in his power to not be denied.
If you find yourself growing tired and weary in our endless fight for freedom, keep Engle in mind. Our batteries must be quickly recharged and there is no time to sleep. Say what you will about the Lou Engles of this world – they are fully committed to their cause, absolutely tireless, and they will do virtually anything to achieve their theocratic utopian vision.
(**Note: I stood directly in front of the stage, which made it difficult to get the names of all the speakers. The Call claimed it did not want to promote individuals, so they didn’t introduce all of the preachers. Other times the names were shouted and inaudible. However, it did not seem to matter, as their messages were eerily interchangeable.)
For further information on this event, please read Rachel Tabachnick’s article.
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