God, Gays, and the Gilded Age: First Baptist Church of Dallas and the New Satanism
This morning I felt like I got sucker-punched in the soul when a friend in Dallas emailed me this article from Dallas Business Journal:
First Baptist Dallas announced plans Sunday for a $130 million capital campaign that would pay for what it claims will be the largest church construction project in U.S. history. Plans call for a state-of-the-art campus in the heart of downtown. [...]
Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, told church members that prior to the Sunday launch of the capital campaign the church already had secured $62 million in pledges from donors—nearly half of what is needed to complete the project.
Plans call for a new 3,000-seat worship center complete with state-of-the-art audio-visual technology, a fountain plaza with a highly visible cross at the center of a cascading fountain, a sixth-floor education building, two gymnasiums, an outdoor patio, green areas and a skywalk connecting the campus’ buildings.
Other facets of the project include a new parking garage with more than 500 additional spaces, a roof-top green area for outside concerts and events and a transparent glass-design that will illuminate the church’s various walkways and the historic First Baptist Church sanctuary. That worship area will remain standing and in full view of members walking inside the church as well as to downtown visitors who are driving past the campus.
Has your head exploded yet? It gets so much worse:
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, a member of the congregation, started Sunday services with a prayer session. During a press conference after the service, Leppert told members of the media the church is an integral part of the city’s plan to rejuvenate downtown Dallas.
Wait, what?! The MAYOR?!!
“This is an important investment in downtown Dallas,” Leppert said. “It will be part of what we are trying to accomplish in creating an urban setting.”
During Sunday’s services, Jeffress highlighted the benefits of building a significant structure in a down economy. Pricing in the current economy is attractive, he indicated, with the church estimating that for every $1 spent it will be getting $1.30 in construction value.
Oh Jesus. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.
My experience with Robert Jeffress began almost two decades ago. He was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas where my family moved from rural Iowa when I was eleven years old. One year for Christmas, someone gave us tickets to a performance of The Living Christmas Tree, a pageant that was staged annually by the church. Young, naïve, and accustomed to the austere, wood-paneled interiors of midwestern Lutheran churches, I was shocked and fascinated by the extravagance of the building. There was a bowling alley in the basement. The sanctuary itself was enormous and adorned with a half-dozen or so chandeliers that would make Liberace blush. The pastor was a slight, folksy little man with a crisp suit and a sharp, effeminate Texas accent that may well have served as the model for South Park‘s Mr. Garrison. (Lots of video here.)
“Oh wow, the minister is gay!” my mother whispered, impressed. “How progressive!”
As it turned out, Dr. Jeffress is not only <ahem> NOT gay, he really really really hates it that other people get to be gay. In 1998, our town made national headlines when he stole two books from the public library aimed at helping children with gay parents feel better about their families—Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. The ensuing controversy exposed the political faultlines between my family and many of our friends that had previously been unspoken, foreshadowing the evangelical polarization that came to the forefront of American politics in the years that followed. In the early 2000s, a close friend of mine was asked to step down from his role in the music ministry at the church when he came out as a homosexual.
Over the past eighteen years I have watched Pastor Robert Jeffress rise from a small-town irritant to an enviable position of national prominence primarily through his controversial gay-hating shenanigans. He has, in recent months, made numerous appearances on Fox News where his opinions on religion and politics are clearly an invaluable asset in the campaign to keep the Republican base fired up against the rest of us. He also has an internationally syndicated TV show and a growing catalog of bestselling books to help fan the flames.
Which brings us back to the big money. Not surprisingly, given his position of prominence within the conservative evangelical movement, Jeffress seems to have no shortage of outrageously wealthy donors lined up to shell out millions of dollars to buttress his gilded empire. Prior to his move to Dallas, he presided over a small but similar multi-million dollar expansion project at First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls. The guy is a fundraising machine.
So let’s talk about megachurches for a moment: A couple months ago, I wrote a blog post called Created in Our Image: The Making of an American Idol in which I traced the tradition of uniquely American representations of Christ, paradoxically, to the iconoclasm of the Puritans and Protestants who dominated the scene in the early days of American Christianity. At the time, I almost included something about the architecture of megachurches, but I figured that was enough information for its own post.
In a nutshell: The early Puritan and Protestant settlers in the New World—disgusted by the decadent displays of wealth that characterize the visual culture of Catholicism in Europe—created new, stripped-down forms of religious architecture that focused on the utility of the spaces, the ethics of democracy, and the virtue of the common good (typified by the colonial Meeting Houses of New England). But as the asceticism of the early colonists gave way to the emergent mythology of the capitalist market, Americans gradually grew increasingly comfortable with opulent displays of wealth in their places of worship. Rather than raid the gothic dustheap of European history for design ideas, American Christians gave birth to an innovative new category of architectural forms dictated by an increasing reliance on technology and mass media to simulate the power and glory of God.
Today’s archetypal American megachurch bears more resemblance to a commercial sports stadium or supermall than anything out of the history of sacred architecture. (Lakewood Church in Houston, home to the incomparably creepy Joel Osteen, is a former basketball arena.) Religious emblems are absent or played down. In their place is a conspicuously costly abundance of cutting edge media technology, stage lights, sound systems, and the capacity to seat tens of thousands of “worshipers.”
Anyone who’s been to the Vatican can tell you, of course, that there is nothing new about grandiose church architecture. But there are some key distinctions that make the American megachurch a relatively recent evolutionary development. Unlike Old World houses of worship, which were by and large designed to create a consecrated environment worlds away from everyday concerns, megachurches conjure their power by simply magnifying the intensity and scale of the secular experiences of the marketplace. As a result, the object of reflection is not the aesthetic world of evocative beauty nor the invisible world of the interior soul (or even the projection of the soul onto the personality of Christ or the Bible, for that matter).
At a megachurch, the primary object of reflection is the impressiveness of the show. The charismatic celebrity of the pastor. The vindicating affirmation that materialism, capitalism and the American way of life are not just permissible, they are virtues worthy of worship.
Of course, Robert Jeffress would say no, the object of reflection is the Bible, which is taken literally. Again, this is a whole other post, but for our purposes I will simply point out that nothing about political conservatism or megachurch culture follows necessarily from the study of the Bible. If it did, we would not expect to see the diversity that exists within Christianity, even among literalists.
If I thought he had any capacity for spiritual insight and I had the power to do so, I would encourage Jeffress to re-read the parts of the Bible with Jesus in them, particularly his advice to a rich man (Mark 10:17-25), his attack on the money-changers in the temple (John 2:13-16) and the episode where he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) which ends like so:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
What if we were to replace “all the kingdoms of the world” with “state-of-the-art audio-visual technology, a fountain plaza and two gymnasiums”? Couldn’t we very easily draw the comparison—with no trace of irony!—between the worldly lure of the megachurch and the Satan of Matthew 4?
Now, I’m not suggesting that spending $130 million on a church is Satanic, at least not in and of itself. But the act of taking one’s own darkest, most shadowy urges—fear and hatred, greed, lust for power (in the guise of “winning souls”)—projecting them onto an idol and bowing down before it and enticing those around you to follow suit?!
That, my friends, is the very essence of Satanism.
In summary: it is my sincere and humble opinion, based on almost two decades of observing Robert Jeffress’s career and evaluating it in the context of the whole history of human religious behavior, that the deity worshiped by the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas is none other than the dark Lord Satan himself, the sworn enemy of all that is decent, insightful, and holy.
No one’s point of view is objective, but over the years of pursuing an avid, albeit amateur interest in spirituality, I have arrived at a simple set of criteria I tend to rely upon when assessing the relative “goodness” of an organized religion. For these purposes, I define “goodness” as the degree to which a religious body fosters those near-universal moral imperatives collectively described by a good many saints and scholars as the Perennial Philosophy, and my criteria are as follows:
1. Does this religion foster a sense of awe, wonder, and appreciation of the sheer amazingness of existence?
2. Does this religion foster a sense of interconnectedness and interdependence between all beings, both living and non-living?
3. Does this religion place a premium on love or compassion as its highest virtue?
For what it’s worth, the megachurch movement—as does the majority of evangelical American Christianity—fails the Perennial Philosophy test miserably. Although the rhetoric of these denominations is cloaked in the idea of “community,” in practice they define their identity from an us-vs-them exclusion of outsiders (gays! liberals! non-Christians!) Add to this the fact that the political ends they support often have the effect of encouraging environmental destruction and enforcing an economic system that helps the wealthiest among us accumulate more wealth at the expense of the poorest, both violations of criteria (2) and (3).
So what have we got? Given its failure to meet at least two of the three above criteria, I think it’s a stretch to even call this game a religion at all. Let’s call a spade a spade. What we have here is a political and economic movement that has cloaked itself in the language of righteousness and manipulated its members by appealing to their basest, most profane instincts for the cynical purpose of the accumulation of power.
(But you can call it Satanism for short.)
Thanks to Brandon Drake for identifying the previously uncredited Nicholas Kalmakoff work.