Thursday, May 3, 2007
Scared Like a Child
Jeff Sharlet wrote about Ron Luce and the BattleCry movement in last month’s Rolling Stone. Sharlet is an outsider, but he’s an educated outsider who has made a career exploring religious subculture. He’s the sort who understands the lingo and knows what’s going on, but isn’t going to buy it. All italics in this entry are from Sharlet's article. He’s the right man in the right place to look at Ron Luce, a man who is scary, even scarier than I’d thought. The problem is, while there are a lot of people out there who look like would-be Christian theocrats, Ron Luce is the only one who is building an army. "When you enlist in the military, there's a code of honor," Luce preaches, "same as being a follower of Christ." His Christian code requires a "wartime mentality": a "survival orientation" and a readiness to face "real enemies." The queers and communists, feminists and Muslims, to be sure, but also the entire American cultural apparatus of marketing and merchandising, the "techno-terrorists" of mass media, doing to the morality of a generation what Osama bin Laden did to the Twin Towers. "Just as the events of September 11th, 2001, permanently changed our perspective on the world," Luce writes, "so we ought to be awakened to the alarming influence of today's culture terrorists. They are wealthy, they are smart, and they are real." Luce’s war isn’t just directed at the secular culture, however. "The devil hates us," he exhorts, "and we gotta be ready to fight and not be these passive little lukewarm, namby-pamby, kum-ba-yah, thumb-sucking babies that call themselves Christians. Jesus? He got mad!" Luce considers most evangelicals too soft, too ready to pass off as piety their preference for a bland suburban lifestyle. He hates what he sees as the weakness of "accepting" Christ, of "trusting" the Lord. "I want an attacking church!" he shouts, his normally smooth tones raw and desperate and alarming. The “attacking church” Luce wants hasn’t been unleashed in a spiritual realm, however. Luce recruits the politically powerless -- kids too young to vote. "That makes 'em want to fight," he tells me backstage after one of his events. "They get so livid. They're mad. They've been very cleverly marketed to. Kids started finding out that we cannot just stand back and let these people do this to us." This is the language of a demagogue. I saw a piece about Luce and BattleCry on ABC’s night time newsmagazine not that long ago. It was right after Luce had decided to get in to the habit of finishing up his usual Acquire the Fire rallies with marches. The students were led out of the arena, carrying placards and waving flags, to the steps of city hall. It started in San Francisco but has since happened in some form or another at all of the Acquire the Fire events. Luce insists that the marches aren’t political in nature. In an interview on Bill O’Reilly’s show he said the entire purpose was to “bring the country back to the Judeo-Christian values that made it great.” For those not keeping track, “Judeo-Christian,” especially when used in such a context, is a codeword for “fundamentalist Christian values.” Meanwhile, if you’re not making a political statement, why in the world are you carrying placards, singing songs and marching on a government building? That, to me, sounds very political. In fact, it sounds a lot like a putsch. Luce is building up a movement based on military imagery of a segment of the population he thinks of as politically impotent and is intentionally making angry. Meanwhile, he encourages these same kids to cast off anything that is outside of Christianity. The Cleveland event, Acquire the Fire, only one stop in what is becoming Luce's permanently touring roadshow, is not meant to save souls -- most of the kids say they accepted Jesus when they were four or five -- but to radicalize them. It’s not outreach related. He brings the kids in and convinces them to get rid of all the secular influences that are branding them. Luce then replaces Abercrombie and Hollister with $40 hoodies from his own expansive line of clothing. Meanwhile, should the students decide, they can attend the Honor Academy, a camp which consists of four sex-segregated dorms, named for Luce's favorite missionaries; the headquarters of Global Expeditions, which sends out thousands of missionaries every year; the cafeteria and the campus store, which offers BattleCry's skate-chic gear, Luce's books and little else; and the building that houses the main auditorium, pillared with artificial stone set in a biblical style. HA is a year-long program where students go to a site owned by BattleCry and, basically, become radicalized. There are all the standard “nos” of a Christian camp: no sex, no drugs, no alcohol, etc. On top of that there is no dating and no secular media of any sort. For that, they get something akin to an unaccredited, watered-down Christian education. Meanwhile, unlike your basic missions trip or college education, the kids are put to work nearly full-time. Such lessons, however, are secondary to the grunt work of building the BattleCry brand. Interns must log at least thirty-one hours a week working for the cause....Most, however, work in theological boiler rooms: cubicle mazes in which they spend their days cold-calling youth pastors to sell them blocks of tickets to upcoming events or counseling would-be teen missionaries by phone on how to raise the funds to pay for a trip through Global Expeditions. So these kids pay to come to the isolated Honor Academy, are told to leave all outside influences behind, can only get media that’s part of Luce’s propaganda and are then put to work for an oddly specific 31 hours a week as telemarketers. I’m not entirely sure, but that sounds a lot like cult behavior to me. I feel like I should be worried about Ron Luce. He’s using rhetoric and techniques that others have used countless times before, but he’s doing it in a new way. Cults are usually harmless because they burn themselves out. Militant Christianity is usually mostly words with little action. Ron Luce is building militancy, advocating action and indoctrinating leaders of his movement fast. None of them bear the mark of Christ, either. They’re all branded by BattleCry and Ron Luce. That’s not good. Edit: Added a missing link, corrected a bit of grammar.