Culture War Heroes
Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord. And do not touch what is unclean.
--2 Corinthians 6:17
I am alone on a stage in the back of a vast, lavish ballroom, overlooking a panorama of modern Christian soldiers, seated in groups of 10 around white-clothed tables, heads bowed in a prayer of war.
The man leading them in this prayer stands behind a dais on a stage across from mine. A hundred tables are between us. Screens in the ballroom's corners project the speaker's likeness as a giant. He is begging Jesus for victory in the struggle to save America from itself, a duel he dubs "The Culture War." He speaks of "forces aligned against us," "battles on the horizon" and "the need to further mobilize our troops."
"Lord," he says, "You have drawn us here together to witness unity in greater strength. We come tonight to see that there are not just a few of us but many who are battling together . . . for the sake of those yet to be born, for the sake of those who are working to keep their families strong, for the sake of those who are battling to keep our country to some kind of important moral standard."
Although I have been invited to the Crystal Ballroom of the Radisson Resort Scottsdale for "an evening with Dr. William J. Bennett," the Center for Arizona Policy's third annual fund-raising banquet, I feel like an infiltrator. I am alone on a platform designated "Media Seating." My head is not bowed. My hair is not short. I am not wearing a suit. I sense glances sliding over me from eyes that snap closed when I find them.
I am, as they say, out of my element, and I'll be damned if I'll spend a whole evening on stage as a Member of the Media in this videodrome of righteousness. As soon as the man (who, according to my program, is Allan Cook of KFLR, Family Life radio) has finished his invocation/call to arms, a thousand forks scrape against salad plates, and I temporarily flee the Crystal Ballroom.
Brief background: The Center for Arizona Policy ("Promoting Family, Faith, Freedom") was founded in 1995 by conservative Christian lawyer/lobbyist, former sportswriter, and third-generation Arizona homeboy Len Munsil, then director of the National Family Legal Foundation, an anti-pornography organization which, like his Center for Arizona Policy, is based in Scottsdale.
"The Center for Arizona Policy is a non-profit research and education organization committed to strengthening the family and restoring traditional moral principles to the public policy and cultural arenas."
So goes the center's mission statement, without defining in detail precisely which traditional moral values it's committed to restoring. Judging by legislation the center has supported and the fiery oration throughout my Evening With William Bennett, I can sketch a partial list of what they're against: gays, gambling, drugs, divorce, abortion, Hustler, Hollywood, "Satan rock" (don't ask me), violent video games, and the theory of evolution as taught in most public schools.
The center's primary strategy for restoring traditional moral values in Arizona is to help socially conservative lawmakers write new laws, shepherd them through the legislative process and get them on the books. Since it was founded, the center has been integrally involved--via lobbying, legal and technical support, testimony at public hearings, and maelstroms of phone calls and letters from concerned citizens--in the passage of 17 new Arizona laws steeped in conservative Christian ideology.
That's 17 victories in the Arizona theater of the Culture War, ranging from a law passed this year ensuring that home-schooled students are eligible for state-funded college scholarships to laws passed in 1996 that ban same-sex marriage and require parental consent for an abortion. Munsil helped write both statutes. Currently in play are center-supported bills to raise the minimum gambling age in Arizona to 21 and to impose a 24-hour cooling-off period on women seeking abortions. Among the center's outspoken supporters in state government are Senate President Brenda Burns and Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost.
Burns is here tonight. Groscost and Governor Jane Dee Hull are represented by staffers. Also in the house are U.S. Representative John Shadegg, state senators Mark Spitzer, Tom Smith, Ken Bennett, Darden Hamilton and David Petersen, state representatives Jeff Hatch-Miller, Jean McGrath, Karen Johnson, Mark Anderson, Barbara Blewster, Debra Brimhall and Michael Gardner, and Hall of Fame baseball player Robin Yount.
In the corridor outside the Crystal Ballroom is a table with a placard inviting everyone to "influence and persuade your elected representative." It is stacked with copies of a 12-page 1999 Citizen's Action Pack, which begins with a warning: "For too long, Christians have voluntarily removed themselves from the political arena . . . leaving the debate over our nation's values to those who reject Biblical truths.
"As the moral fabric of our society unravels, it is increasingly clear that each of us needs to recommit ourselves to the fight for family values. While that fight begins in our own lives and homes, it must extend to the rules by which we govern our society."
Once the Action Pack has the reader by his fears, though, it quickly stops thumping the Bible and starts dispensing practical, strategic advice for citizen activists, such as how to research their elected representatives' religious beliefs and tailor their pitches accordingly.
"Is the goal to convert nonbelievers, or to get a specific piece of legislation approved? We don't want to get sidetracked debating theological issues or the role of religious values in setting government policy."
In other words, don't confuse missionary ideals with political reality. Push the agenda, not the ideology behind it. That's smart. I respect that. And, longhaired liberal paranoia aside, I respect the Center for Arizona Policy, if only because it encourages citizens to educate themselves on how government works and then participate in their democracy. There's no sin there. I loathe apathy far more than Christian conservatism.
I have a problem with this $500-a-table banquet, though. It's too opulent. There's an attendant in the men's room outside the Crystal Ballroom who has a silver tooth, smiles a lot and speaks no English. He's wearing an electroplated crucifix on a chain. I watch center supporters--devout Christians, presumably--wash their hands after taking a leak, then accept a towel from their brother, wipe their hands and walk away without thanking, tipping or in most cases even looking at him.
Back in the hall, I find some trippy WWJD? ("What Would Jesus Do?") hologram bookmarks and a bouquet of brochures for Women of Virtue conferences this summer in such tongue-speaking, faith-healing burgs as Lubbock, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Modesto, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The conferences are titled "Completely His," which sets me wondering--completely whose? The Lord's or The Husband's?
From a table marked "In-depth research on Family cultural issues," I scoop a copy of the Denver-based Focus on the Family's monthly magazine, Citizen, flip through, and stop cold at a color photo of Hulk Hogan pinning an opponent to the mat by his throat. Hogan's visage is a delighted leer. The photo has a caption: "Raw 'wrestling' by the numbers." It's sort of a Harper's Index breakdown of a report by Indiana University researchers who watched 50 pay-per-view World Wrestling Federation episodes:
"1,658: instances of WWF characters grabbing or pointing to their own crotch (not counting slow-motion replays).
"434: times participants uttered a sexually charged slogan or fans displayed one on a sign.
"157: obscene gestures.
"128: episodes of simulated sexual activity.
"47: references to satanic activity."
There are 180 pieces of chocolate cake on each of the service carts being rolled toward the Crystal Ballroom. I follow, eschew the Media Seating, and take a place with white-jacketed waiters along a rear wall. Dinner plates are cleared, the lights are dimmed and a video presentation ("The Center for Arizona Policy mission") begins on the two projection screens.
It begins with shots of white kids at carefree play. Children are the spoils of the Culture War. I quote the Center banquet's keynote speaker, William Bennett, from his 1993 tome The De-Valuing of America: "Those whose beliefs govern our institutions will, in large measure, win the battle for the culture. And whoever wins the battle for the culture gets to teach the children."
Once the video reminds everyone what they're fighting for, it moves to the steps of Arizona's Capitol, where state lawmakers sing the center's praises. Along with Burns and Groscost, there are pro-center sound bites from senators Ken Bennett and David Petersen, and state representative Laura Knaperek, who allows how elected officials might be lost in a sea of responsibilities were it not for the center's guiding light. "We'd really be on our own without the Center for Arizona Policy," she says.
Next, center founder and president Len Munsil testifies to the dire need for "family-friendly policy" in Arizona. The video lingers on the center's successful efforts to make Arizona the second state (after Louisiana) to pass a Covenant Marriage Act. Under that bill (drafted by the center, introduced by Senator Petersen and signed into law last year), a couple that opts for a covenant marriage and mandatory premarital counseling is prohibited from obtaining a no-fault divorce. One partner who wants to leave the marriage must have the other's permission, or prove a just cause--adultery, physical or emotional abuse or drug addiction--before they can legally divorce.
That sounds good to me. I was born in 1971--Generation X, dead center--and of the dozens of good friends I've made who are my age, only one has parents who, like mine, are still together. I had a college roommate who could not listen to the Jane's Addiction song "Had a Dad" without weeping. I think he would agree that if you make a vow of permanence, it should have more weight behind it than a lover's whisper in the night.
But unlike the center, I believe it's fine for two people of any gender to live together without being married. After all, state Representative Karen Johnson, a real Old Testament kind of lawmaker, is on her fifth marriage.
The video presentation closes with a campaign-commercial pan of Munsil, his wife, and their--holy begat!--eight children, walking toward the camera, happily hand-in-hand (Munsil, 35, has been married 14 years). The lights go up, the cake hits the tables, and Munsil takes the stage.
I have met with Munsil one-on-one, and came away thinking he is not a power monger, but a compassionate man who genuinely believes he is doing God's work.
Munsil is a thinking man's poster boy who knows his case law as well as his scripture. He is comfortable on camera, and is a convincing speaker. Although tonight he's competing with the chocolate cake for attention, and losing.
Isn't gluttony one of the deadly sins?
There's a piece of cake sitting on my assigned chair, but I stick by the waiter's station and listen to Munsil's rap. He dives into the blood of the Columbine High massacre.
"When I taught ethics the last three years at Southwestern College, I would ask my students as an exercise in determining if it's ever permissible to lie 'What would you do if a crazed lunatic burst into this classroom, pointed a gun at your head, and asked "Do you believe in God?"' Well, my hypothetical exercise became a tragic reality."
Munsil beatifies the two girls in the Columbine library who were asked by the gunmen, point blank: "Do you believe in God?" Both answered "Yes I do," and were immediately shot in the face. One lived. The other, Cassie Bernall, 18, and born again, has gone to glory.
America was founded as a Christian country, Munsil says. "'Do you still believe in God?' The future of our nation depends on our answer to that question. There's a gun pointed at the head of American civilization. Only this time, the gun is in our own hands."
With great verbal fanfare, Munsil passes the mike to Culture War commandant William Bennett, who, upon taking the podium, receives a 32-second standing ovation.
Bennett is fond of saying the world will forever owe a debt to Ronald Reagan for "vanquishing Communism." That's probably because Bennett owes his fame to Ronald Reagan, who appointed him Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981. He served there until 1985, then as Secretary of Education, '85-'88, then as drug czar (director of the National Office on Drug Control Policy) under President Bush from 1989-1990--an assignment that freed Bennett from the culture of chain-smoking.
Since then, Bennett has become the most popular conservative Christian commentator and speaker-for-hire in America, and has written or edited 10 books, including the 1993 best seller The Book of Virtues ("a 'moral reader' for children of all ages") and last year's The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals.
Which ideals? Outrage over what? The specters of America's Founding Fathers are raised many times during the Evening With William Bennett, as they are quoted talking of God and country. Bennett himself quotes President Clinton's middle-namesake, Thomas Jefferson, three times, and describes the Monica Lewinsky scandal as one of those rare, singular national events that "provide us with a window onto our times, our moral order . . . how we view politics and power; virtue and vice; public trust and respect for the law; sexual morality and standards of personal conduct."
But what of the DNA test results that proved that Thomas Jefferson had sired several children out of wedlock with black women he owned on paper? What sort of window does that provide, and exactly which traditional moral principles was TJ exemplifying with those midnight runs to the slave quarters?
Bennett doesn't tackle that one.
And like Munsil, he speaks dramatically about the Columbine shootings and the need to protect our children without ever once even mentioning gun control. Bennett says Cassie Bernall was not only a martyr but deserving of sainthood.
"Cassie showed us the power of an idea, the power of faith, and the power of witness more profoundly than anything ever could."
Bennett's statement comes three days after members of his army, conservative lawmakers in the U.S. Senate, voted down a bill to make age and background checks mandatory for all firearm sales at gun shows, such as the one in Colorado where a friend of the Columbine killers purchased the pistol-gripped, 30-round 9mm combat rifle used to murder Cassie Bernall.
It would take great moral courage, and carry a considerable political cost, for a conservative of Bennett's stature to suggest that, along with censoring video games, impeaching a president and installing prayer in schools, another way to protect America's children in these tumultuous times might be to restrict access to lethal weapons.
Bennett chooses to ignore the issue.
What would Jesus do?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.