Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Religious Personality Cult Problem

The Rev. Wright blowup which is beginning to show a heavy impact on late polling numbers for Democratic hopeful Barack Obama is unfortunately yet another sign of the type of extremism that is often passed off as religion in many Pentecostal and independent Baptist churches which often become personality cults organized around one single charismatic founder and leader. Church members who attend these personality cult churches usually are seeking two things; a sense of social identification and a need to seek God or spiritual fulfillment in their lives. Yet members of these churches often tend to overlook some extremist political or social views that the charimatic leader often espouses that substitute for the traditional preaching about religious issues presented in more established churches..

The problem with many Pentecostal or independent Baptist churches compared to the more structured and traditional churches such as the Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants or Jewish synagogues, is that often no real formal religious studies education is required for leaders of many Pentecostal or independent Baptist churches, creating an environment where a charimatic leader establishes a personality cult and dictates the beliefs of the church, which often may involve more politics or a social gospel than any genuine religious message. One good example was Southern tobacco and cotton farm interests who had a financial interest in preserving slavery as a means of cheap labor, and were instrumental in establishing the Southern Baptist faith in the South before the outbreak of the Civil War as a means to justify slavery and act as a counter to the longtime Baptist faiths which had long established historical roots in European history.

And while it is Senator Obama who is currently suffering from a backlash from many voters unhappy about the political extremism espoused by his longtime former pastor, it is usually the Republicans and their ties to the "Religious Right" which have often concerned many voters. For example, John McCain has had a long history of consistent votes against civil rights and hate crimes legislation while as a member of Congress and as a U.S. Senator and this voting pattern seems consistent with some of the radical language and social views espoused in many "Religious Right" churches. McCain has attracted the support of two extremist personality cult religious leaders, Rev. John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and Rod Parsley, an evangelist from Ohio.

Rev. Hagee has a background as a defrocked pastor in the Assemblies Of God faith and was removed from the pulpit by this church and his first marriage disolved as a result of what Hagee described as "immoral" conduct in his personal life. But none of this has prevented Hagee from returning to the pulpit and establishing a new personality cult church in San Antonio, Texas called Cornerstone Church and peppering his fire and brimstone sermons with language calling homosexuals "degenerates" or attacking the long established Roman Catholic faith. According to Hagee's convoluted sense of spiritual reasoning, a long established faith like the Roman Catholics are a false religion, while a new church, set up almost overnight by a defrocked pastor who admittedly engaged in "immoral" personal conduct is somehow a true path to God. Somehow thousands of members of Cornerstone Church have no problem with all of this, and politically right leaning politician John McCain welcomes the support of John Hagee and other "Religious Right" political leaders.

Even in death, followers of personality cults tend to continue to worship and glorify their leaders. Dr. D. James Kennedy, a former dance instructor turned minister in the smaller Presbyterian Church In America faith, which has far fewer members than the larger and better known Presbyterian Church USA organization, still has his family and followers air his far right wing politically leaning sermons each week on religious networks long after his August 2007 death from complications of a heart attack. While more intellectual and more educated compared to many Pentecostal and independent Baptist leaders, Kennedy still espoused some very wacky and extreme views such as setting up quarantine camps for victims of AIDS. Kennedy was also a leader of the radical religious-political movement known as Christian Reconstructionism which has earned him some serious concerns from leaders in the Jewish faith community. Kennedy's views that America is a historically "Christian" nation simply do not match up with the historic fact that Jewish American immigrant Hyam Salomon not only funded George Washington's revolutionary army to establish the United States as a nation free of official English government and state church rule, but Hyam Salomon also may have penned important portions of the U.S. Constitution dealing with freedom of worship as well. The role of American and European Jews in the establishment of the early United States is a historic fact and is a serious rebuff to the historical revisionism of Dr. D. James Kennedy and other Christian Reconstructionists.

There is no doubt a strong primary instinct drive in most humans to belong to something, as well as a spiritual hunger in many persons. However, the personality cult does not always inspire the best of citizenship in many persons and sometimes provokes hateful and extremist social or political views. Mr. Obama has done his best this week to distance himself from some of the extreme opinions of his longtime former pastor, however a serious seed of doubt and distrust has been planted in the minds of many voters. Whether this will ultimately cost Mr. Obama the nomination or simply leaves him as a badly damaged leader for the Democrats to limp into the Novemver election with remains to be seen. As personality cult churches began to flourish during the later 1970's Jimmy Carter years, sometimes as a response to his more socially tolerant sense of faith, they have tended to create some serious social frictions such as antihomosexual "defense of marriage" legislation and other divisive social battles. While church attendance has tended to drop over the last few decades for the general population, the political community represents a far higher level of church attendance than the general poulation as a whole and has also brought many members of personality cult faiths into political office, often driving some politically extreme and divisive social legislation. Mr. Obama's membership in a personality cult faith church is unfortunately not all that uncommon in modern American politics, however it is far common for Republican officeholders to be members in such personality cult churches.

Many Americans expect for their political leaders to be church members. But this also invites many who belong to some sort of personality cult faith to enter public office and sometimes drives politically extreme social legislation. It was only a few months ago that the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney became another debate on religious cults in American politics. Before this election season is over there will no doubt be many more public debates about faith, religion and the role of personality cult religious leaders.