Behold the Bible Belles
Sunday Times Magazine
Also published in Sunday Herald (Scotland) World Press Review (U.S.) The Globe and Mail (Canada)
There are about 65 million born-again Christians in the United States, and 62 per cent of them are women. Any politician who discovers how to marshal them could lead America into a profoundly different future.
As she describes it, the fight against liberal values begins in the classroom. The OCA believes that homosexuals have infiltrated the schools and are recruiting children with the assistance of a federally financed bureaucracy. [Patricia Smith]'s files are filled with complaints from parents who disagree with Oregon school-board policy of non-discrimination on a sexual basis. In sex-education classes, the OCA claims, anal, oral and genital sex are taught as equal expressions of love.
Behold, the Bible belles
Eugene, Oregon -- The girls come in drifts to this big modern house surrounded by 60-metre-high fir trees, arriving in expensive Jeeps or old bangers, late because this house is far from the university that most of them attend. Most are in their early 20s. They are fresh-faced, hip, pretty, wearing leather jackets, jeans and boots, uniformly clean-cut. Even the one black girl looks like a Gap ad. A few wear good jewellery. A couple sport significant diamonds on their ring fingers.
Shannon Kearney, their leader, chides them for their lateness, but teasingly, and they collect their Starbucks decaff and wander down the hall to her television room. Shannon, a tall thin 45-year-old blonde with cropped hair, is wearing jeans and a little eye makeup under her Armani frames. Settled, they join hands, bow their heads and pray.
When the prayer -- long, intimate and punctuated by soft agreeable hmmms and thank-yous -- is over, Kelly, a blonde with a bob, lifts her head. "I just want to say that what Casey said last week about the joy she found in submission to her husband was very inspirational." Cries of agreement bounce around the room. Maggie, a thin dark girl wearing an impressive diamond, breaks in. "You have no idea how rich and how deep the relationship gets when you submit and let your husband assume his proper position. For you unmarrieds, I won't go on, it's too mean, but the surprises and joy are endless." Eyes shine as they look at her. "Juan and I just go from healing to healing," interjects Casey. "Thank you, Lord," someone whispers.
This is the Monday evening Bible study group for young women with leadership potential, a near-perfect sampling of a new social group, dubbed "Bible Belles" by The Village Voice last year for their quasi-Southern, extravagantly feminine take on a steely biblical morality. Belles are born-again Christian women. They do not belong to the traditional Catholic, Presbyterian or Episcopalian churches, but to the booming evangelical and charismatic movement. There are tens of millions of fundamentalists across the United States, and their beliefs transcend all barriers of age, class, race and profession. To a woman, they are social conservatives. They believe in the submission of wives to their husbands, and that abortion and homosexuality are sins.
Tonight's women have been chosen from the 3,000-strong Faith Four Square Centre in Eugene, one of 30,000 Four Square churches in the United States. Eugene, in central Oregon, is a university town, decorated with houses built in the antebellum style, with testosterone-rich frat houses, a stellar football team and old-fashioned American prosperity.
Casey is married to a former football star, a black man with whom she has two children, aged 3 and 2. The star of the Bible study group, she is a dark blonde, with a pretty face. There is a rightness, a certainty and a fineness about her that everyone wants to be part of. "There's a lot of reconciliation in my marriage," she says a few days later as she tells of her battle with the devil to save Juan.
Recent research reveals there are 65 million born-again Christians in the United States, representing one-third of the electorate. Of these, an estimated 62 per cent are women, mostly college educated; their average age is 40 and they have a median family income of $40,000 a year. They believe in "sacred motherhood" (raising children for Christ), "correct passion" (submission to husband as practice for submission to Christ) and, increasingly, in "kitchen table politics" -- the recreation of intimate communities centred on a vibrant church whose literal interpretation of the Bible informs all aspects of social and political life. The belles have co-opted the gains of feminism and given them a new spin. They want an end to abortion and easy divorce, and they want a reduction of taxes to allow mothers to stay home with their children.
Though they are often painted with the same brush as Christian white supremacists, very few of the younger belles are racist; many of them work to integrate as many blacks, Hispanics and Asians into their communities as possible. Some of them are married to Promise Keepers, one of the many evangelical men's groups.
When their children start to edge out of the nest, they often discover they have a "call." They pray over it, then ask their husbands to "release them," which means asking permission to serve God in the world. Sometimes, this call is to work in the church; increasingly, it is to work in politics, supporting the Christian Coalition, a powerful lobby group that has been key in moving the American political discussion far to the right.
Their role model is Elizabeth Dole, who resigned as head of the American Red Cross in January to consider making a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Any politician who discovers how to inspire and marshal these women could lead the United States into a radically different future. They are ready.
The morning after Bible study, I am in Shannon Kearny's office at the Faith Center, a sprawling building that houses a large auditorium, offices, a school, a day-care centre and meeting rooms. Shannon's husband is a corporate lawyer, her father was a federal judge and she studied art at university. She is Pastor of Family Services -- her husband has "released" her to the ministry -- and her main function is counselling.
Shannon is the troubleshooter for those in deep distress, most often in their marriages. This is what I am most curious about, the foundation of a Christian marriage: the submission and subjection of the wife and the authority of the husband.
"Scripturally," she says, "the Bible talks about the husband being the head of the household; he is held accountable. That does not mean that he gets to be tyrannical or dictatorial; it means he is ultimately the man before God on behalf of our family. So my husband Mike one day is going to stand before Jesus and there is going to be a conversation between him and the Lord that I won't have."
Conservative Christian women believe that marriage is sacrosanct, made by God, and that the Bible's instructions for a happy marriage guarantee happiness. Chief among the prescriptions is the submission of the wife to the husband, who then treats his wife "as Christ treated the Church." Since Christ loved the Church and gave his life for it, belles expect their husbands to give them precedence, to treat them as queens. But, first, they must give their husbands final authority on all matters in family life. Shannon acknowledges this authority is often abused, but she says the solution to strife is prayer and the intervention of Christ as ultimate therapist. Shannon believes that, when she counsels, the Holy Spirit often speaks through her.
Shannon's own marriage had its problems. Her husband was addicted to marijuana and subject to violent rages. Rather than get angry or nag him, she sat a prayer vigil for three years. Apparently, it worked. One evening, their little son followed him out to the garage, where he had gone to smoke. He came back into the house, with the dope in his hands, and asked her to get rid of it, saying he had decided to ask Jesus to come live in his heart. "Mike didn't have to go through treatment. God talks in Scripture about having a renewed mind and a renewed heart and he changed [she snaps her fingers] like that." Belle husbands, I note, have a sleek, happy, well-taken-care-of look, a bit like pampered pets.
Not surprisingly, there are many who view such groups with alarm, believing they create a climate of intolerance and hatred. Across Oregon's Willamette River, Linda Kinst, associate professor of English at the University of Oregon and author of Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America , is a leading critic of the religious right.
"The question these women ask is not 'Who am I?' but 'Whose am I?' And whose they are is the adored child of a sheltering and loving God who seems to be the opposite of the forbidding father deconstructed by cultural theorists. He is the attentive father we wish ours had been, the perfect father there to comfort and care for us."
What worries Prof. Kinst is that "this solace is located in precisely the same place as in the dangerous certainty of self-righteousness."
This certainty has already been harnessed by the Republican radical religious right under the aegis of such organizations as the Christian Coalition, which has about a million members. Founded by evangelist presidential candidate Pat Robertson in 1989, it is an advocacy organization with a sophisticated training program to teach the faithful how to enter and then dominate local politics. The coalition trains 50,000 people a year through church-based seminars.
Because of this committed activism, Christian conservatives have become disproportionately powerful. In Oregon, one of the most liberal states in the Union, Christian conservatives dominate the State House, Senate, many school boards, the judiciary and sheriffs' offices.
Christian conservatives want a complete revision of America, to make it a loose association of federated states with a strong national defence. They want the U.S. Congress defunded and disempowered. They want to devolve power to the states and, even further, to municipalities and counties, so that decisions are made at the local level.
A hundred kilometres north of Eugene in the state capital of Salem, the dingy offices of the far right Oregon Citizens Alliance overlook a desolate road. Some of the windows are boarded up, and iron grills cover the rest. The group's 60-year-old research director, Patricia Smith, says she was shot at in her car; the bullet dinged off a tire rim. That affirms her importance. Almost every Christian activist in Oregon has been inspired by her call to arms.
"We are in a mighty war," she says almost before I sit down. A statuesque woman amidst filing cabinets labelled "Homo" and "HomoPromo," Patricia is the brains behind the organization's initiatives to restrict abortion, ban euthanasia and sex education, create a school voucher system, and deny civil rights to homosexuals. "We could literally lose America in the next 10 years. People who don't understand the factual information think I'm a loon, I'm flipping out."
As she describes it, the fight against liberal values begins in the classroom. The OCA believes that homosexuals have infiltrated the schools and are recruiting children with the assistance of a federally financed bureaucracy. Patricia's files are filled with complaints from parents who disagree with Oregon school-board policy of non-discrimination on a sexual basis. In sex-education classes, the OCA claims, anal, oral and genital sex are taught as equal expressions of love. Teachers in Portland-area schools have been ordered to refrain from using the words "marriage," "husband" or "wife" because they are discriminatory, and to use the words "partner" and "partnership" instead. Three-year-olds come home from school talking about "sex" and "my body," with picture books such as Daddy's New Roommate or Gloria Goes to Gay Pride .
Christians such as Patricia believe that homosexual practices are an abomination to the Lord. They regard the fight against homosexuality as the most pressing political issue. They want, if not home schooling, then Bible schools, where creationism is given equal or greater weight than evolution, which they would like to see treated as a theory. They favour a system where abstinence and practical methods for resisting premarital sex are the only sex education, and a strong set of Christian values is taught along with English, geometry and geography.
Another 80 kilometres up the freeway, in Portland, Oregon's biggest city, I stay with Lou and Marianne Beres, members of the Baptist Church, who style themselves as "prayer warriors." Though they are more moderate than Patricia Smith, they are important political players in the battle. Lou, 62, is executive director of the Christian Coalition. He regularly fasts and prays for 40 days, is a passionate defender of Israel and an ardent political street fighter.
When I arrive at their Hobbit-like cottage in a prosperous old neighbourhood of Portland, I find that Marianne has been baking. Apple pies, cinnamon bread, cookies and chicken soup line the kitchen counters. She makes tea, then sits me down and asks whether I think I'm going to Heaven.
"Prayer," she tells me after I nod halfheartedly, "is key. The activists wouldn't be doing what they're doing if their beliefs didn't come from prayer." Every morning, Marianne gets up at five and spends two hours on her knees in her prayer room, running through a prayer list almost 100 names long.
Lou, who develops commercial real estate, owned a chain of pizza franchises, and Marianne has been proud to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. She counsels young married women from her church, chiefly in the ways of submission. "I say to them, 'I know you don't want to hear this, but you'll like yourself when you do it.' I know that this is an offence to some women, it's so pervasive this thinking that we're just as powerful as our husbands, but I look at it differently. I am just as powerful as Lou but in different ways. There is just one head of our household, otherwise there will be conflict. . . . Even if I don't like it sometimes, I submit. And I don't think I'm being a doormat, either."
That evening, at what seems an interminable praise service, Marianne introduces me to Gail, an attractive bouncy woman of 38 who grew up in a Catholic family as one of five children. She whispers her story into my ear. "I learned how to get things for myself. I put myself through college, got a good job, I was very rational. But I frightened my husband because I could think so clearly. Parts of my marriage were so dark and despairing, no hope. Marianne taught me the Word: 'Wives, submit unto your husband.' She'd call to check and I learned to let him lead, to submit. We assumed the positions that the Lord wanted us to have and my marriage grew so rich and deep. I know that it will only get richer and the blessings will continue to flow in ways I can't even imagine."
Out of the next 16 waking hours, I spend 7½ in church and more time than I'd like to admit smoking in my car. I seem to have entered a parallel universe where up is down and Jesus has an almost palpable presence. Marianne is a gentle and sweet hostess; she waits hand and foot on Lou, who treats her with an off-handed jokiness, though it is clear that, without her, he'd be lost. Three of their four daughters call and drop in often, as do sons-in-law and grandchildren. We pray before every meal, and laugh often. There is an old-fashioned sweetness about this life, with Marianne as the anchor. I am both charmed and unnerved.
Lou and Marianne have me flying up and down the freeways of Portland meeting one Christian woman activist after another. Most are thoroughly middle class; they live in big houses in nice neighbourhoods, and most of their children are in college. Some are well-educated, though most of the houses are curiously bereft of books, magazines and art that isn't religious. Their husbands are accountants, lawyers, doctors, or they own small businesses or software companies. They travel. They dress well. They are articulate.
They are also spurred by the fact that, to a woman, they believe we are in the end times of biblical prophesy: When tribulation falls, the holy are raptured up to Heaven, and on Earth, the Antichrist takes over, mobilizing the world under a malignant one-world government. They believe the millennium bug will enable President Bill Clinton to declare martial law, the first step to one-world government. It is one of the many indicators of the end times, along with the return of Russian Jews to Israel, the massing of Arabs to the north of the Jewish homeland, and the fires, floods, mudslides and earthquakes that have plagued the United States during the past few years.
We return, as everything in this story must, to the church. New Beginnings in inner-city Portland is an independent church. Its membership is expanding as attendance at the mainline churches declines. New Beginnings was started by self-confessed former drug dealer Larry Huch. Now he specializes in treating drug addiction, violence, obesity, anorexia and poverty. The congregation, which has grown from 10 to 5,000 in four years, is an extraordinary group. All races and classes, including ex-cons and street people, as well as the old, the young and the dying, mix it up with wealthy Republican Party stalwarts. The choir is uproarious, and a full rock band with horn section backs it up. Everyone sings in tongues, arms outstretched to welcome the Holy Spirit, a thousand unknown languages shouted out around me, everyone immersed in a sheer unashamed ecstatic trance.
Larry Huch's wife, Tiz, is preaching today.
Lou Beres and I are sitting in the front row and before we know it Tiz has Lou stand up. "This is the fine man from the Christian Coalition who has those Voter Guides outside. Now we're not telling y'all who to vote for [in last November's midterm elections]," she says with a smile, "but take a look at them. This is a fine Christian man and it is your Christian duty to vote. It's time the church took the love of God outside the walls," she shouts. "We are taking dominion in as many areas as we can." The congregation explodes in shouts, applause, praise and song.
The Bible belles, without question, are in ascendance.
In the past five years, they have developed a group of female legislators, activists, radicals, administrators, wordsmiths and politicians to get them what they want. And they have a growing youthful female charismatic ministry to fuel their passion. In Elizabeth Dole, they have a popular Christian woman who is skilled enough to woo the far right without alienating her moderate base, and to galvanize the apolitical -- and their husbands -- into supporting her.
After Ms. Dole introduced her presidential candidate husband at the 1996 Republican convention, many watching turned to their neighbour and said: "Why isn't she running, instead?" Now she is.
For America's Bible belles, the crusades are just beginning.