Fear and Loathing at Philadelphia's BattleCry
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns about the Christian fundamentalist movement BattleCry, which has produced several massive Christian rock shows across the country this year. For more info on BattleCry and its activities, check out the first column in the series of three here, and the third column here.
It began with fireworks so loud and startling I screamed. Lights and smoke followed, and a few kids were pulled up on stage from the crowd. One was asked to read a letter.
This was the letter that opened the event. Its author was George W. Bush. Yes, the president of the United States sent a letter of support, greeting, prayer and encouragement to the BattleCry event held at Wachovia Spectrum Stadium in Philadelphia on May 12. Immediately afterward, a preacher took the microphone and led the crowd in prayer. Among other things, he asked the attendees to ?Thank God for giving us George Bush.?
On his cue, about 17,000 youths from upward of 2,000 churches across America and Canada directed their thanks heavenward in unison.
Throughout the three and a half hours of BattleCry?s first session, I thought of only one analogy that fit the experience: This must have been what it felt like to watch the Hitler Youth, filled with self-righteous pride, proclaim the supremacy of their beliefs and their willingness to shed blood for them.
And lest you think this is idle paranoia, BattleCry founder Ron Luce told the crowds the next morning (May 13) that he plans to launch a ?blitzkrieg? in the communities, schools, malls, etc. against those who don?t share his theocratic vision of society.
Nothing like a little Nazi imagery to whip up the masses. *(see editor’s note at bottom)
But back to the first rally, on May 12. Shortly after we sat down, Tom, a man of imposing size who appeared to be a BattleCry security staffer, sat down next to me and my friends and asked us if we were planning any disturbances. I don?t know how BattleCry & Co. knew I was here; they apparently had recognized me from my appearance on “The O?Reilly Factor” (video link) in March. I told Tom that we weren?t planning any disturbances and that, no, I wouldn?t like to meet with BattleCry founder Ron Luce after the rally, nor did I want to give him my phone number. Seemingly satisfied, he ambled off. But later on, as I rose to go to the bathroom, I caught sight of another BattleCry security-type following me. It was very unsettling, to say the least.
(While in the bathroom, I saw something equally unsettling–a preteen girl wearing a shirt being sported by many attendees that night: Jesus on the cross, robes waving, and emblazoned across the front the words ?Dressed to Kill.?)
After my bathroom break, Tom, my helpful minder, was replaced by an eerily cheerful young woman who was also obviously one of the BattleCry personnel. She claimed to be simply making sure that my friends and I were happy. She would stop by several times over the course of the concert. I wonder if all attendees got that kind of VIP treatment.
But on to the show.
The first rock band that performed, Delirious, got the crowd festive and up on their feet with lyrics that were projected on large screens so that everyone could join in: ?We?re an army of God and we?re ready to die…. Let?s paint this big ol? town red…. We see nothing but the blood of Jesus….?
Between musical acts, Luce, the BattleCry founder, hammered away at the dominant theme of the night: his contention that ?pew-sitters … passive Christians … the Christians who just want love, joy, peace … ? were the problem, and that the world needed more radical and extreme God-worshippers?those who would be obedient and fully submit to Christ.
Luce would have us believe that everything went off track when the Bible-toting people of my grandparents? generation were replaced by the ?pew-sitters? of the Baby Boom generation. These are the people who, according to Luce, just wanted to passively benefit from the ?love, joy and peace? message of Christianity without actively surrendering their wills and their selves completely upon Christ?s altar and working in His name.
Yeah, if only people would stop practicing ?love, joy and peace.? Wouldn?t that make the world a better place….
Luce used this critique of pew-sitting Christians to assuage the doubts of the youths at the rally who may have been feeling uncertain about their commitment to the Church. “Don?t worry,” he was telling them, “you?ve been amongst pew-sitters–watered-down Christians. Welcome to the reign of total submission to the Lord.”
It was a mantra Luce repeated all through the night: the need to submit one?s self fully to Jesus, to belong completely to Him.
?He doesn?t just want to be in your heart, He wants to own your heart…. There?s only one good reason to come to Christ: because He?s the rightful owner of your life…. You don?t have to know much about Jesus, just enough to surrender your whole life.?
Throughout this section, a loud crowd from the back of the stadium would periodically erupt, ?We are warriors!?
After tugging at countless emotional strings, Luce insisted — with the humility of Taliban members who submit to Allah?s command to stone adulterers — ?You are the one talking to God, I am just going to help you with the words.?
There was a session when, after a great crescendo, the stadium was brought to silence. Luce instructed individuals to stand up when they felt the spirit and cry out, ?I want the cross!? The voices of hundreds rose up over the course of 10 minutes. These young people, declaring death unto themselves and rebirth in Christ, were called down to the floor of the stadium and directed to get on their knees and put their heads down and pray some more.
Luce put great emphasis on following every word in the Bible, treating it as an ?instruction book,? even when a person doesn?t understand or agree. This is, of course, the logic that leads to the stoning of gays, non-virgin brides, disobedient children and much more — because the Bible says so.
Chillingly, when I confronted Ron explicitly about these passages, he refused to disavow them. During the afternoon preceding the May 12 rally, Luce and about 300 BattleCry acolytes (almost entirely youths) rallied in front of Philadelphia?s Constitution Hall?the location having been chosen because Luce wants to ?restore? the Founding Fathers? vision of a religious society (never mind that the Founders enshrined in the Constitution an explicitly secular framework of government).
I and about 20 people representing various anti-Bush, atheistic and anti-Iraq-war factions made our way into the rally and began interacting with the youths assembled. Some said openly that it was OK that George Bush?s lies have cost the lives of thousands of Americans and Iraqis. Why was it OK? Because ?God put him [Bush] there.?
We then decided to ask them a little about this God, and his ?instruction book,? as Luce calls it. Specifically, we asked them if they supported the parts of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that spell out, for example, death sentences for women who dared to enter the city while menstruating. The most memorable response came from Luce himself. (We were standing face to face in the plaza?he had recognized me from my O?Reilly appearance.)
?This is your Bible,? I told him. ?You have to defend this.?
He smiled, smugly, and almost looked taken aback that I would challenge him like this.
?You can?t defend this,? I continued.
A biblical literalist, Luce couldn?t disavow something in his ?instruction book,? but neither did he want to appear (I imagine) to condone Iron Age barbarity. So he stayed quiet, until, after I prodded him further, he changed the subject.
?Why are you so angry?? he asked.
My point made, I walked away.
(Editor’s note: There is a debate among readers of this piece over the connotation of the word “blitzkrieg.” Commenter Vira (#9278) argues that “Blitzkrieg” is a German word–not Nazi, per se. And indeed, Wikipedia.org notes that the term “is used in many other non-military contexts. Commenter Paul Danaher (#9351), however, says the terms is indelibly linked in many peoples’ minds to Nazi tactics.
We had originally struck out the “blitzkrieg” section of this column, but have now decided to let it stand and allow readers to make up their own minds.)