Building a Texas Theocracy?

 

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Rep. Matt Krause, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, Senator Konni Burton and Rep. Jonathan Stickland

By Alan Bean

“We’re hosting Senator Konni Burton, Rep. Matte Krause, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, and Rep. Jonathan Strickland” the invitation from Gateway Church read, “to share stories about victories Texans have achieved saving lives, securing civil and religious liberties, and protecting property rights.”  The advertised event was part of the congregation’s Your Vote under God initiative.

I knew Gateway’s pastor, Robert Morris, was a member of Donald Trump’s “executive council of evangelical leaders” and that the congregation had co-sponsored an inaugural gala for the new president.  And I knew Texas Governor Greg Abbott had reached out to Gateway when he wanted support for his “bathroom bill” (see below).  But is Gateway a major player in presidential and Texas state politics, I wondered.  And, if so, is the church part of the Dominionist movement?

If you follow Texas politics, the names on the invitation were all familiar.  Konni Burton won her senate seat after Wendy Davis, a Democrat, was caricatured as “Abortion Barbie” in the course of an ill-fated run for Governor.  Krause, Rinaldi and Stickland are members of the small but influential Texas Freedom Caucus that kept Texas media outlets well-supplied with headlines during the last legislative session.

I did not attend the meeting as a neutral observer.  My wife, Nancy Bean, is running to unseat Matt Krause, so this is kind of personal for me.

I was particularly curious to learn more about Matt Rinaldi.

On the last day of an incendiary legislative session, the state rep. for Irving-Flower Mound came close to sparking a full-on brawl in the Texas legislature.  Rinaldi was incensed by hundreds of Latinos in the gallery loudly protesting a bill that would outlaw “sanctuary cities”.  Rinaldi whipped out his phone and reported the protesters to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to report.  He then approached a group of Latino Democrats and bragged about the call.

Rinaldi says he was pushed and shoved by Fort Worth Democrat Ramon Romero (full disclosure, Ramon is a friend of mine).  Rinaldi also admits he threatened to use his gun on another Democrat, but only after he felt his life was in danger.

Jonathan Stickland is widely hailed as the most conservative, most outspoken and least educated member of the Texas House.

Why, I asked myself, was Gateway Church inviting only the most conservative fringe of the Texas Republican Party to its town hall meeting?  I came to the meeting looking for answers.

People were lined up against the wall when I arrived but, as is usually the case, there was plenty of room on the front row.  The audience was older and whiter than the folks I had seen streaming into the Saturday evening worship service.

The politicians were relaxed and confident.

“The rest of Texas doesn’t look like this,” Jonathan Stickland was telling the crowd as I took my seat.  Y’all live in a bubble up here.  This isn’t what most of Texas looks life, believe me.”

I’m not sure what kind of bubble Stickland was referring to, but Gateway Church, like other conservative, charismatic megachurches in the DFW, is best understood as a carefully constructed bubble.  Gateway is a safe place for conservative Christians, a shelter in a time of storm.

Abortion, not surprisingly, was subject one at the forum.  Matt Kraus assured the crowd that most of the Latino and African American Democrats are moving in the right direction on the issue.  “Even though they vote against it [pro-life proposals]; intellectually they are with us on a lot of these things,” he said.

Stickland couldn’t believe that a legislature dominated by Republicans couldn’t enact more of the party’s conservative agenda.  He blamed Joe Straus (the house majority leader) and a timorous corporate community for the failure.

The meeting soon shifted to Matt Krause’s failed attempt to ban no fault divorce.  If you make divorce too easy, Krause reasoned, a lot of marriages that could be saved won’t make it.  No fault divorce, he assured the audience, “has led to a huge breakdown in our society.”

Next up was the “bathroom bill” that had fired the imagination of the media during the recent session.  Republicans wanted to force transgender school children to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.  Everyone admitted that the law would have been impossible to enforce, but it was the principle of the thing.

I wasn’t sure what principle was at stake.

Matt Rinaldi shared a lurid story of a little kindergarten boy who horrified the little girls in his class by insisting on using the girl’s restroom.  The gasps from the audience were audible.

When I Googled the story later I discovered that the “boy” in question looked like a beautiful little girl.  Her mother was a conservative Christian who just got tired of trying to force her child into a male gender role and didn’t want her daughter using the boy’s restroom.

The horror stories kept coming.  Krause related the story of a man in Washington State who exploited a local law by parking himself inside the women’s changing room at the country club.  Turns out, nobody in Washington State sided with the man in the women’s bathroom because (a) he wasn’t transgender and (b) he was dressed like a man.

Jonathan Stickland said he was simply fighting to maintain the status quo.  If Obama got his way, he said, people at sporting events could use whatever bathroom they wanted and there would be chaos.  Matt Rinaldi interjected to say that’s already the case for fans of the Dallas Stars hockey team.

More gasps from the audience.

The Stars, I later learned, opposed the Republican bathroom bill, but public bathrooms for hockey fans still read “ladies” and “men”.

Next, the politicians talked about “religious liberty”, which seems to be shorthand for protecting the right of churches to discriminate against the LGBT community.

A woman told the meeting that she got involved in politics to support Ted Cruz and urged everyone to get out and vote their conscience.

“The government is not the solution for any problem at all,” Jonathan Stickland broke in, apropos of nothing.  “The solution is for you, as individuals, to take responsibility for yourselves.”

This while Hurricane Harvey was making a beeline for Houston.

As the meeting drew to a close, a Gateway Church representative asked everyone to reach out to God in prayer.  To my astonishment, everyone present thrust their arms straight in front of them, palms down, in what looked for all the world like a zeig heil salute.  I thought of snapping a picture but decided it would be shabby to photograph people in prayer.

For the past week I have been educating myself about Gateway Church and its pastor, Robert Morris.  Founded in 2000, the church boasts a weekly attendance of 36,000 at six Dallas area campuses and an additional campus in Scottsdale, Arizona.  The “mother ship” in the posh suburb of Southlake boasts over 13,000 members.  Gateway, depending on the source, is either the third or the fourth largest congregation in the United States.

With a staff of over 500 people, Gateway is more reminiscent of Disney World or a venue on the Vegas Strip than a traditional church.  These people believe in operational excellence.

As I entered the sanctuary for the last few minutes of the worship service, the praise team was in full flight and the guitarist was in the middle of an impressive slide riff.  Anyone can join the choir at most churches, but Gateway does auditions.  And if you’re good but not ready for prime time, the church’s Worship Team Academy offers twelve week courses in “acoustic guitar, piano, drums, bass, electric guitar, percussion and vocals (pop-style technique)”.

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You won’t find more accomplished musicianship at any secular venue in the DFW Metroplex.  Worship leaders prowl the stage, thrusting their hands into the air, whirling in sudden ecstasy, and speaking in a breathy, awestruck way that banishes all doubt about their love for the Lord.

Exiting the sanctuary, I encountered dozens of attractive young people wearing “no excuse” T-shirts who were encouraging church members, particularly new comers, to join a small group.  You can get lost in a packed sanctuary of 4,000, but a small group provides intimacy and a sense of community.  There are groups for young singles, divorcees, young married couples, old married couples, empty nesters, bikers, gardeners and any other affinity classification you can name.

But Robert Morris has always been clear about his target audience: businessmen and entrepreneurs.  The church can place you in a small group with other men who are interested in starting a small business.  They’ll help you shape a business plan and even provide an experienced mentor to help you along the way.

The only catch is that you have to tithe (a tenth of your pre-tax income goes to the church).  And you can’t wait for the weekend.  Pay day is giving day.

Robert Morris
Robert Morris

Like most “prosperity preachers” Robert Morris churns out a steady stream of ghost-written books wrapped around the tithing motif.  You probably don’t know this, Morris tells his flock, but God has cursed your family, your business, and your professional future.  Only the tithe can transform that curse into blessing.  God really wants to bless you, but until you turn loose of that tithe it can’t happen.

And there’s the demons.  They don’t reside in your mind, your heart or your soul—they take up residence in your body.  Pastor Robert was riddled with demons for the first several years of his pastoral ministry and he isn’t ashamed to admit it.  Fortunately, Morris was working as an understudy to evangelist James Robison.  Robison told Morris he was demon possessed and, that very hour, the demons were cast back into the pit in Jesus’s name.

James Robison
James Robison preaches at Gateway

I heard James Robison preach in Southern Seminary chapel in Louisville in the late 1970s.  He was at Southern with W.A. Criswell, then pastor of First Baptist, Dallas.  Robison and Criswell, together with a posse of Texas preachers, were determined to drive the plague of liberalism from the Southern Baptist Convention the way St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland.

As seminary professors looked on in disbelief, Robison concluded the most distressing sermon I have ever witnessed with a vision (ostensibly from God) of his family nailed to the wall of his Dallas home.  The words, “is that enough for you, James?” was scrawled on the wall in the blood of the victims.

A few years later, I learned (from one of my father’s Voice magazines) that Robison had received the baptism of the Holy Ghost and had been freed from what he called “the claw in my brain”.  James Robison was a new man. He even made a pilgrimage to Waco to apologize to the good liberals at Baylor for being so mean back in the day.

James Robison, now a senior elder at Gateway Church, is one of the most gifted public speakers in America.  If you go on the church’s website you can listen to the man, now in his early 70s, transform his struggle with staph infection into a spiritual adventure of biblical proportions.

The members of Gateway are regularly treated to gifted speakers.  The only exception I found on the church’s website is poor Franklin Graham.  Graham’s speaking style is bland, pedestrian and monotone.  Billy Graham’s son, stays in the public eye by making audacious statements: calling Islam a religion of hate, castigating homosexuals, and hinting that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim.

All the preachers on the Gateway website give first-person accounts of their personal spiritual adventures.  God speaks to them.  Explicitly. All the time.  I suspect these speakers are talking about strong subjective impressions that arise, unbidden, during prayer.  But if their words are taken at face value, they are describing the audible voice of God, presumably a male baritone with a British accent.  But seasoned evangelicals frequently reference the voice of God, as in, “this morning, while I was driving past the Krispy Kreme, God said, “Julie, you’ve got to get serious about losing weight!  Starting now!”

As a preacher, Robert Morris can’t compete with his mentor, James Robison, but his sermons are intensely practical. If you’re experiencing money problems, or marital strife, or difficulty disciplining your kids, or trouble losing weight, “Pastor Robert” (or “Pastor Bob”) is your man.

The Gateway website used to claim that Morris holds a “Doctorate of Literature”, but it doesn’t say that anymore because . . . he doesn’t.  Morris once received an honorary degree from Jack Hayford’s The King’s University, but Morris has no formal theological education.  The King’s University now resides on Gateway’s Southlake campus offering courses in messianic Judaism, worship leading, church planting and the like.

This helps explain why Gateway Church didn’t invite any moderate Republicans or Democrats to their Your Vote under God town hall meeting.  Liberal churches like to “live the questions”, but Gateway traffics in answers.  No ambiguity.  No uncertainty.  Not a single shade of grey.

Gateway Church was created as a safe retreat from the chaos of secularity.  The mix of biblical literalism, charismatic and prosperity theology, conservative politics, Ayn Randian economics, young earth creationism, American hagiography, and a distinctly patriarchal take on family, church and society, is marketed as a package deal.

David Barton
David Barton at Gateway Church

If the public schools are beginning to acknowledge the shaping role of organized money, racism and patriarchy in American history, Gateway brings in David Barton and his Wallbuilders ministry.  Barton has no formal training as a historian (his only academic degree is in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University), but he can produce thousands of documents proving that America has always been a Christian nation.  Matt Krause, one of the politicians speaking at the Your Vote under God event (and my wife’s opponent in the 2016 election), is a speaker with Barton’s organization.

If your children are learning about biological evolution in public school and hearing that the universe is 13.82 million years old, Gateway brings in the Institute for Creation Research.  The ICR scans scientific literature for “evidence” favorable to creation science, just as David Barton cherry picks the historical record.  (Believing that the universe is less than 10,000 years old is rapidly becoming mandatory in the world of conservative evangelicalism.) Sure, the ICR is routinely denounced by the scientific community for trading in “pseudo-science”, but isn’t that just what you’d expect from godless secularists?

Wallbuilders and the Institute for Creation Research are both headquartered within a half hour drive of Gateway Church.  If you have been looking for a safe retreat from inconvenient truths, the DFW Metroplex is the place for you.

Gateway Church believes the relationship between husband and wife mirrors the spiritual relationship between Christ and his Church.  Male headship sets the pattern for married life, government, church life and the business community (which is why Morris focuses primarily on male businessmen).  Although the senior leadership of the church is almost exclusively comprised of white males, a handful of women and ethnic minorities appear in support and middle management.

If you need an alternative to the liberal agenda peddled in the public schools but can’t afford a private school, Gateway provides support groups for homeschoolers.

There is a reason why Robert Morris lacks formal theological training, David Barton lacks historical training and most of the speakers from the Institute for Creation Research have no scientific training.

One semester of standard seminary education, or one college class in comparative religion, or an overview of American history written by a trained historian, or one real-life encounter with a Christian feminist or a gay Christian would force a preacher like Robert Morris to refashion his theology so much it would no longer be marketable.  There is a market for simple answers, but honest interaction with hard questions shrinks your market share.

As things presently stand, the Gateway flock is not free to ask serious questions about science, sexuality, the Bible, or the accuracy of Pastor Robert’s teaching.  You eat what’s on the menu or you walk away.  Robert Morris can be uncompromising because thousands of people resonate with his teaching.  The emphasis on tithing may be legalistic, quasi-biblical and, for those on fixed and limited incomes, unrealistic.  But for most of the middle and upper middle class folk who attend Gateway, paying a tithe may be a helpful form of spiritual and financial discipline.

Which explains why most megachurch pastors have avoided the kind of serious theological study you encounter at traditional seminaries or the religious departments of secular universities.  Either they attend safe fundamentalist schools where never-is-heard-a-discouraging-word, or they get their theology at the feet of older men (and they are almost always men).

There is such a thing as progressive evangelicalism, of course, and in recent decades evangelicals have had a major impact on the world of biblical scholarship.  Reciprocally, the give and take of scholarly debate has paved the way for various forms of progressive evangelicalism.  N.T. Wright, for instance, is highly regarded by conservatives and liberals alike because he knows his stuff and knows how to argue his case. The Bible is still central for progressive evangelicals, but the teaching of Jesus is assumes a central place, biblical literalism has been abandoned and no one has time for young earth creationism.  Progressive evangelicals are revisiting issues like gay marriage, feminism, and white privilege.

But progressive evangelicals are much better at selling books and headlining conferences than they are at planting and filling new churches.  The DFW Metroplex has dozens of megachurches, but the founding pastors are almost always conservative evangelical bubble builders like Robert Morris.  The theological focus shifts from church to church, but the answers provided are invariably simple and never subject to debate.

Even in the DFW Metroplex, the evangelical bubble may be reaching the limits of expansion.  Robert Morris recently announced that Gateway would be cutting its staff by 15-20%, which could eliminate as many as 100 positions.  Morris assured the congregation that church growth is as dynamic as ever, but an efficiency evaluation suggested the congregation was over-staffed.  Perhaps, but churches experiencing dynamic growth normally add staff.

Gateway Church, like the other megachurches of DFW, functions as a denomination unto itself.  But it is also part of a national religious network.  Men like Robert Morris and James Robison are remarkably ecumenical.  So long as fellow Christians are excellent musicians or public speakers, with the right opinions on hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage and young earth creationism, the gates of Gateway swing open in welcome.  And Gateway’s leading lights, people like Morris, Robison, Jack Hayford and church musicians like Kari Jobe, speak and perform at like-minded churches across the nation.

Gateway leaders also have a good working relationship with conservative Roman Catholics (rumor has it that James Robison high-fived Pope Francis during a recent audience at the Vatican) and the church sponsors a congregation of “messianic Jews” at the Southlake campus every Friday evening.  Morris enjoys a good working relationship with conservative African American pastors like Tony Evans and TD Jakes and has been criticized for sharing the stage with controversial figures like faith healer Benny Hinn.  Morris is also a big fan of Pat Robertson.

And, as the Your Vote under God event suggests, Gateway Church has close ties to the world of conservative politics.  In fact, the congregation has been accused of being a Dominionist church, part of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR).  Dominionists are postmillennial.  That is, they believe Christ will return on the clouds of glory when, and only when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

As previously noted, Morris is a member of the “Executive Council of Evangelical Leaders” Donald Trump created to advise his campaign.  When Trump became president (to the surprise of everyone but God) the council remained intact.  James Robison, one of three “apostolic elders” guiding Gateway Church, says he takes at least two calls from the president every week.  And when Governor Greg Abbott was looking for someone to rally support for the proposed “bathroom bill” in the religious community, he called Robert Morris.

So, yes, Gateway Church is a major player in state and national politics. That’s why four of the most conservative politicians in the state knew they would find a friendly audience at Gateway.  You will not be surprised to learn that Gateway Church co-sponsored an inaugural gala in January.  Standing on the ballroom floor, dressed in a Tuxedo, Morris told his people to pray for our president, no matter which political party they vote for.

But is it possible to imagine a devoted member of Gateway Church voting for Hillary Clinton or a Texas Democrat?  I can’t.  So why the pretense?

Two things.  First, churches, being tax-exempt charities, are not supposed to engage in partisan politics.  Secondly, Gateway Church is moving, very gradually and cautiously, in a more moderate direction.  The change is largely generational.

Joshua Morris
Joshua Morris speaks at Gateway

While Robert Morris was in Washington for Gateway’s Trump gala, his son, Josh was preaching on Building God’s Kingdom.  Like his father, Josh has no formal theological training, but in the course of his sermon he revealed that N.T. Wright is one of his favorite Bible scholars.  Josh Morris didn’t just drop Wright’s name, his focus on the Christian’s responsibility to care for God’s world here and now, was pure Tom Wright.  And then he closed his sermon with a Franciscan Prayer:

May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.

NT (Tom) Wright happens to be my favorite biblical scholar as well.  The Anglican scholar has taught at Oxford and Cambridge and was Bishop of Durham in the north of England before moving to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Although he is generally regarded as a conservative, the practical implications of Wright’s theology harmonize nicely with an old time social gospel that would, one assumes, be anathema to Robert Morris.

Or would it?  I don’t know of many churches that are built around the sort of evangelicalism Wright represents, but progressive evangelicals are having a leavening influence in America, especially among millennial pastors who grew up in the conservative evangelical bubble.

Ultimately, megachurches like Gateway will either adjust their message or they will die.  Fully 26% of Americans over 65 identify as evangelicals; with millennials, it’s 8%.  Over the last decade, the evangelical percentage of the population has been dropping like a rock, from 23% to 17%, while the proportion of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has grown from 16% to 24%.

This explains why 59% of Americans over 65 think the Bible has too little influence in American society while, among millennials, just 33% feel that way.  The conservative evangelical brand has become toxic to most younger Americans.  The effect is probably weaker in DFW than in most American cities, but, even here, these demographic chickens are coming home to roost.

Robert Morris learned his theology from charismatic evangelists like James Robison.  Josh Morris’s theology is a blend of his father’s preaching and progressive evangelicals like Wright.  The change is probably imperceptible to the people in Gateway’s theater seats, but it is real.

Gateway will change because Gateway wants to maintain its market share.

Robert Morris’s church wanted 100% of its members to cast a ballot in 2016.  If all the 36,000 people in the Gateway orbit lived up to that expectation the effect would be enormous.  One voting congregation could swing an election and probably has.  And that’s just one evangelical superchurch—the DFW Metroplex is riddled with them.

So it could be argued that the close ties between the Republican Party and conservative evangelicals already constitutes a theocracy.  Working together, conservative churches and conservative politicians have been slowly refashioning the Lone Star state in their image.  The platform of the Texas Republican Party, after all, is largely a conservative evangelical document.

Churches like Gateway may enjoy the praise of president Trump, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and the members of the ultra-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, but they are held in contempt by the mainstream media, academic institutions, credentialed historians, the entire scientific community and the vast majority of Texas millennials.   As affluent white evangelicals lose control of Texas politics (as they inevitably will) could churches like Gateway alter their message without losing their constituency?

What would happen if churches like Gateway used their clout to reform the Texas foster care program, or to work for compassionate immigration reform, or to properly fund our public schools?  They could keep all the good stuff they are already doing (the small groups, the practical preaching, the amazing musicianship, the ministries to children, youth, singles, couples, the recently divorced, the grieving and the business community).  They could even keep their focus on the demonic.  Just mix in a little good news for the poor, a little “the least of these” a little “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

Compared to most mainline Protestant congregations, Gateway is a young church that reflects youth culture.  No one wears suits and the music is intentionally geared to the millennial generation.  Give these folks some solid, Jesus-centered teaching grounded in progressive evangelical scholarship and things could change quickly, in Southlake Texas and across the nation.

5 thoughts on “Building a Texas Theocracy?

  1. Excellent, thoughtful analysis. We have the “Joshua Morris” brand of evangelical millennials (“Bridgetown Church”) worshiping here at FBC Portland Sunday evenings, and i have been able to engage their leaders in dialogue and cooperate with them in helping ministries.

    Watch the typos, bane of my writing also. Best of luck to Nancy.

    David Wheeler

  2. Tom Wright was a guest scholar at Pepperdine a while back, and like you, I find much to like about his theological positions. However, I must admit that I am quite disappointed on his sometimes harsh words towards homosexuals, same-sex marriage, ordination, etc. Theocracy, like kakistocracy, is often lead by the least qualified.

  3. I share your disappointment with Wright’s view of gay marriage. But his conservative take makes him more acceptable to American evangelicals.

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