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The Rev. Steven Anderson: American Taliban?

4 years ago
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Not so long ago, it's likely that the Rev. Steven Anderson would have lived and died known only to a small circle of friends. Instead, for the past couple of weeks, he's become one of the most famous pastors in America.

Don't recognize the name? I bet you know of him: A member of his congregation named Chris Broughton showed up at an Obama speech in Phoenix legally carrying an AR-15 automatic rifle and a handgun. When the local Arizona media did a bit of digging, they discovered the Web site for Broughton's church. And a recording of the sermon his pastor had delivered the day before Obama arrived.

Don't tell me you haven't heard the money soundbite from that sermon:

"When I go to bed tonight, Steven L. Anderson is going to pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell."

When I heard that, I immediately thought of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor. Who could forget the "God damn America" quote lifted from one of Wright's sermons? During that electioneering hoo-rah, I concluded that Wright had been taken, at least partially, out of context.

For one thing, the sermon was actually called "Confusing God and Government." And Wright's call at that dramatic, often-quoted point was for God to render judgment on an unrepentant, sinning nation. But only if the nation remains sinning and unrepentant. Not a sentiment far from the American Christian mainstream.

(Read my full dissection of that sermon here. While his theology is clear, Wright's mastery of history and science are not. Wright's list of putative national sins includes some outlandish and unsupportable claims, which I explored in detail here.)

I fully expected to find something similar when I listened to Anderson's sermon -- a fiery quote ripped out of context.

Not so much. For one thing, his sermon is actually titled "Why I Hate Barack Obama." Yes, there's plenty more context in the sermon. But it's not the sort of context that will change your first impression. (You can listen to it yourself here.)

The quote that made me sit up, though, wasn't the one that's gotten all the media attention. Here's what caught me:
"I was reading Deuteronomy and I was thinking this is great! I wish I lived in this society! Man, these are great laws!"
And I thought: American Taliban.

No, I'm not saying that Anderson is a terrorist. I'm actually making a theological and sociological link. This is a man with an absolute belief in a particular interpretation of Scripture that many others consider archaic, an interest in seeing those beliefs affect the modern political and legal milieu, and a disregard (even a contempt) for other putative co-religionists who do not share these views.

Sound familiar?

Anderson is the self-taught pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz. The church Web site proudly proclaims that it belongs to no denomination. Anderson, it says, "holds no college degree but has well over 100 chapters of the Bible committed to memory, including almost half of the New Testament."

The church theology includes:
We believe that the King James Bible is the word of God without error.
We believe that the unsaved will spend eternity in torment in a literal hell.
We believe only in the local church and not in a universal church.
We believe that life begins at conception (fertilization) and reject all forms of abortion, including surgical abortion, "morning-after" pills, IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), birth control pills, and all other processes that end life after conception.
We believe that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination which God punishes with the death penalty.
We oppose worldliness, modernism, formalism, and liberalism.
So we know where Anderson stands, no question.

Why does he hate Barack Obama? Because he says that God hates Barack Obama and wants every right-thinking Christian to do likewise. His sermon is a tour through Bible verses that don't generally get a ton of airtime. It's a salient lesson for those who choose to cherry-pick the Koran for the violent and troublesome verses to be found there.

Where does Anderson find his proof texts? Mostly in the Old Testament where one can find plenty of places where God hateth the wicked and treats them most violently.

Let's start with the hate (Anderson says he has found 30 verses that speak of God hating people):

From a couple of Psalms:
The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth.
The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.
From Hosea:
All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters.
And what happens to those who God hates?

Back to more Psalms:

Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand. When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun. Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath. The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.

Anderson does quote the New Testament. Proving that there are people who are just so wicked that God gives up on them.

From the Book of John:
Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.

From Romans, he finds precedent for praying against someone:

Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel.

And for an object lesson, he heads back to the Old Testament, 2 Kings and the story of Jehu and Joram. If you've not read 2 Kings lately, Joram is the villainous ruler of the piece, Jehu the anointed of God tasked to take him out.

And it came to pass, when Joram saw Jehu, that he said, Is it peace, Jehu? And he answered, What peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many? And Joram turned his hands, and fled, and said to Ahaziah, There is treachery, O Ahaziah. And Jehu drew a bow with his full strength, and smote Jehoram between his arms, and the arrow went out at his heart, and he sunk down in his chariot.
It's fair to note that the longbow in the arms of a powerful man was at least the AR-15 of that era. And here's the lesson that Anderson draws from that story:

"Is it peace while the whoredoms and witchcrafts of the U.S. government and Barack Obama continue? While socialism takes over our country and steals the bread out of our cupboards and puts us in bondage?"

Mostly, Anderson is heated up about abortion. And Obama is not the only U.S. president that catches, hmm, hell from him:

"And by the way, most everything I'm saying here applied to George W Bush. Just deal with that. It's the truth. What did he ever do to stop abortion? What did he ever do to stop the queers from taking over? No, he was promoting it. He hired more sodomites than any other president in the history of the United States. George W. Bush. He spent more money than any president in the history of the United States. He's a socialist. Period."

And that's enough of that. So here's my question: So what? Should we really care what a fringe self-called preacher in suburban Phoenix says? Is he really an American Taliban whose words those of us who hold other beliefs should heed or fear?

I went looking for expert guidance.

Kenneth D. Wald is a political science professor at the University of Florida and author of "Religion and Politics in the United States." What should we make of Anderson, professor?

"It seems to me the most effective criticism should be coming from the Baptist world. Of course, as an independent Baptist, he's pretty much the king of his own fiefdom. But just as we routinely condemn Muslims for not disavowing Muslim terrorism, we should asked pointedly what the leaders of the conservative Baptist wing are doing to challenge this particular interpretation. "
(After my conversation with Wald, I saw that the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist News website features just such a repudiation by the Rev. Paul Brewster.)

He suggested I ping a former student of his who has greater experience with terrorism and terrorists. Adam L. Silverman was a field social scientist for the Army's Human Terrain Team in Iraq. The Human Terrain Team was designed to get social scientists into the field to advise the military about the people they were dealing with, the same way a cartographer or geologist might offer advice about the physical features of the land.

Silverman asked me to make it clear that he is not speaking for anybody but himself here. So what's your take on Anderson, sir? Does he matter?
"He matters in so much as he seems to encapsulate something that a lot of Americans either didn't really focus on or didn't know existed. In that sense Pastor Anderson is a face to a set of ideas. Now, should someone related to those ideas do something really stupid, he, of course, matters even more."

Silverman issues a warning:
"There has always been a strain, if you will, in American politics of fear and paranoia. Very often it overlaps with dogmatic, especially extremely charismatic and dogmatic religion. Many scholars have touched on a religiosity cycle in the U.S. of awakenings occurring with certain regularity. The same seems to be the case with extremism and extremist religion. Also, these movements tend to be reactionary (i.e. on the extreme right of the political spectrum) and they seek to return to idealized, and essentially imagined, golden period of the past."

Is Anderson like the Taliban?
"Your analogy to the Taliban, while not perfect, is useful: Pastor Anderson's ministry is based on charismatic attitudes and faith in being called -- not in specialized training. Essentially it is an appeal to ortho doxa -- right belief. . . .

"This is similar to how the extreme, reactionary Wahhabiyya Islam of the Taliban function. You have charismatic leadership, most often not formally trained, egalitarian membership -- everyone can join if they just accept this version of faith, and dogmatic assertions of precepts. The difference so far is that the Taliban decided to put theory into practice and use religiously justified force to try to capture the Afghan state and remake it in their image. This has not yet been done in any significant way by the parallel groups in the U.S."

Let's give Anderson the last word. He is not, he says in that sermon, a terrorist. He is calling, he says, for spiritual and not physical battle against Obama.
"We're not revolutionaries. We aren't trying to overthrow the government. We are counterrevolutionaries."

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