Pastor Terry Jones sure seems like an unlikely fellow to become America's most inconvenient man.
A grizzled 58-year-old who packs a .40-caliber pistol on his hip, Jones heads a small congregation -- maybe 50 members in all -- on a pine-studded tract of land in Gainesville, Fla. The Dove World Outreach Center, as the church is known, is in fact the kind of local, spirit-filled, Pentecostal-style church that is found in cities and rural areas across America, and have been since the earliest days of the Republic.
Think Robert Duvall in "The Apostle," the 1997 Oscar-nominated film
about the downfall and redemption of a Texas minister.
But Terry Jones is preaching a much different message than the pastor in "The Apostle," and at a different moment in time. And that is why Jones' mission to burn copies of the Koran to mark the 9/11 anniversary this Saturday has managed to dominate the news -- and global politics -- even in a wildfire media cycle already ablaze with suspicions (false) that President Obama is a Muslim and that jihadis are building a victory mosque at ground zero (also a myth).
On Thursday, Jones surprised the media with news that he was canceling the Koran-burning event. He said he had reached an agreement with Islamic officials in New York City to move the planned Islamic center from a site near ground zero, implying that this concession had softened him and had changed his mind about the need to burn Korans.
But Islamic officials immediately said they had reached no such agreement. Within hours after that Thursday, Jones stood outside his church and told reporters he had been "lied to" and said he was putting any decision on Koran burning "on hold."
Jones believes that Islam is a "false religion" that is "of the devil" and therefore must be defeated. But Islam, he believes, is also threatening to take over in the United States. Hence his justification, reiterated earlier this week, for the Koran-burning: "We must send a clear message to the radical element of Islam," Jones said. "We will no longer be controlled and dominated by their fears and threats. It is time for America to return to being America."
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, this week said the plans
by the Dove World Outreach Center to burn up to 200 copies of the Koran could endanger U.S. troops in the country and Americans worldwide. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the proposed book burning "disrespectful and disgraceful"
at an iftar dinner for Muslims ending their daily Ramadan fast. And Attorney General Eric Holder called Jones' plan "idiotic and dangerous."
Even Angelina Jolie weighed in -- surely a leading benchmark of media buzz. "I have hardly the words that somebody would do that to somebody's religious book," the 35-year-old actress told reporters
in Islamabad after visiting refugees camps in flood-ravaged Pakistan. Jolie is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N.'s refugee agency.
An effigy of Jones -- wrapped in an American flag -- was burned
in Afghanistan, and Muslims in Indonesia have rallied outside the U.S. embassy threatening violence if any Korans are burned.
A growing number of Christian leaders are also raising their voices as Jones seems determined to go ahead with his plan. "Please do not judge all Christians by the behavior of one extremist," the National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson said
. And the Vatican's interreligious office on Wednesday denounced
"Burn a Koran Day" as an "outrageous and grave" plan.
Yet even as efforts are made to minimize Jones' profile and limit the damage he could cause -- Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe called the Dove Center "a very tiny church" that does not represent "the true nature of Gainesville" -- the pastor and his flock are also very much a part of the American religious past, and present.
Patraeus Urges Florida Church Not to Burn Copies of the Koran
Indeed, the Dove World Outreach Center is centered in the Pentecostal, charismatic branch of American Christianity that traces it roots to the first Great Awakening of the colonial era up through the great Cane Ridge, Ky., revival of 1801 and on to the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement that was sparked by the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906.
These "holiness" movements, as they have come to be called, are marked by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit (as experienced by Jesus' apostles at the original Pentecost) that is expressed in emotional and enthusiastic celebrations and transformative personal spiritual experiences. The Dove Center, for example, says
that it cultivates "a conscious, deliberate effort during worship to change the spiritual world, that then works its way out into the natural world and becomes visible as victory over the enemy." (The name of the Gainesville church refers to the Holy Spirit, which is usually depicted as a white dove descending from heaven.)
While these churches stress a literal reading of Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit, inspiring visionary experiences, that is the mark of the true believer. The Spirit blows where it will, and recognizes no race or social class. That is why Pentecostal-style churches are among the most racially integrated in American Christianity, and why they are also among the most economically egalitarian.
And the Holy Spirit also confers authority on leaders, linking them directly back to the original Apostles and thereby de-emphasizing the role or even need for "man-made" traditions like formal clergy or denominations.
Yet this kind of free-range spirituality, while spreading in Africa and Latin America as well the U.S., can also spawn religious outliers who believe their direct connection to the Holy Spirit gives them an authority that is beyond ordinary accountability or argumentation.
For example, asked about his knowledge of the Koran, Pastor Jones told The New York Times
: "I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says."
During a recent sermon Jones also voiced disgust at the spiritual bona fides of the United Methodist Church a few blocks away streets away that is planning an an interfaith prayer service on Sept. 10.
"Lily-livered, yellow-bellied Christians," he called the congregants
at the neighboring church, and he said the rest of the country wasn't much better. "Our nation is in ruin spiritually."
Dove World Outreach Center was founded in 1986 by Donald Northrup and his wife, Dolores, who spent 17 years as missionaries in Africa before returning to the United States. According to the Dove Center's web site (which appears to have crashed after the recent worldwide attention), Donald Northrup envisioned the congregation as a "total concept church for the rich, the poor, the young and the old."
Northrup died in 1996 and it took the church several years to settle on Terry Jones as the new leader.
Jones had been a former hotel manager and part-time pastor when Northrup sent him and his wife Sylvia to Germany in 1981 to set up a sister church in a working-class neighborhood in Cologne. At its height, the German church had up to 800 members. Jones, a Missouri native whose reportedly has an honorary degree from the unaccredited California Graduate School of Theology, spent some 20 years there before returning to the United States to lead Dove World Outreach in 2001.
At first, Terry and Sylvia Jones split time between the Cologne and Gainesville churches. Then in 2008 they cut ties with the Cologne church after members accused the couple of financial improprieties connected with their side business, TS and Company, which is owned by Terry and Sylvia Jones. TS and Company sells vintage furniture on eBay and was supposed to help support the churches.
Terry and Sylvia Jones have also been accused of of labor abuses by former members in Florida because they allegedly use students from Dove's religious school, called the Dove World Outreach Academy, to pack furniture for TS and Company, which is owned by Terry and Sylvia Jones, who is Jones' second wife. Gainesville authorities have been investigating the church's tax-exempt status.
Jones' daughter, Emma Jones, who still lives in Germany, was one of those accusing her father and stepmother of wrongdoing. Emma Jones had broken with the church, calling it a "cult" that "forced us with oppression to be obedient."
"They used mental violence. They'd say, 'If you're not obedient, God will punish you,' " Emma Jones told The Gainesville Sun
Other former church members in Florida and Germany also described Jones' style as abusive and cult-like.
"He wasn't a pastor who takes care of everyone," Diana Breuel, a church member in Cologne, told a German news agency. "He didn't project biblical values and Christianity, but put himself as a person in the center of things." (A Cologne court once fined Jones 3,000 euros ($3,800) in 2002 for falsely claiming the title of doctor.)
The Cologne congregation, which now has just 60 to 80 members, says it has no ties to Terry Jones and has denounced his plan to burn Korans, calling him "violent and fanatical."
"We are distancing ourselves from these actions and don't want to be connected to them," Stephan Baar, a church official, told dpa, the German Press Agency.
Jones' call to public action against Islam -- while not shared by most of his fellow Pentecostals and evangelicals -- is another aspect of his ministry that underscores the broader changes within conservative Christianity. A few decades ago, evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians in particular were cultural isolationists who wanted nothing to do with the wider society, which they felt was lost and would only taint them spiritually if they engaged it.
Now these conservative Christians are front and center in politics and in some of the sharper clashes of the culture wars. A few congregations, like the Dove Center and its allies in the Westboro Baptist cult of the Fred Phelps' clan, are considered fringe elements. But they follow in some of the same patterns as their mainstream brethren, only more so.
For instance, a belief that we are living in the "End Times" before Jesus comes again to deliver the saved from a fallen world fuels their urgent proselytizing and their crusading against favorite evils like homosexuality.
During a mayoral run-off in Gainesville last April, Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center posted a sign
on the property reading, "No homo mayor," and Jones denounced the candidate, Craig Lowe, in a video. "We've got us a homo mayor, with of course a homo agenda." (Lowe won anyway.)
Islam in its extremist forms is another great concern for many Christians, though fighting Islam in all its forms has become a veritable obsession for Terry Jones. Jones and the Dove Center first drew coverage
a year ago when some members sent their children to area schools on the first day of classes with t-shirts emblazoned with the church's motto, "Islam is of the Devil." The children were sent home by school authorities, and media coverage followed.
But in the final analysis, the zeal of Terry Jones -- as so often happens -- is in danger of turning him into the very thing he hates, a religious extremist who risks tarnishing the reputation of the rest of his fellow believers.
"The spirit which Jones condemns is what he's showing himself: this readiness to violence, this fanaticism," said Stephen Baar from the Cologne church. "Terry Jones is someone who will carry something through to the end if he sees it as God-given."
Given the individualistic, decentralized nature of charismatic Christianity, however, there is little Jones' fellow Pentecostals can do but denounce the Koran-burning plan and beseech the Holy Spirit to blow back a bit. And that's what they're doing.
"[The] Rev. Terry Jones does not speak for charismatic Christians, and his brand of fire-breathing judgmentalism doesn't even remotely resemble the message of Jesus Christ," J. Lee Grady, a prominent writer at Charisma magazine, wrote in his latest column
. "I am praying that he will repent and renounce his outrageous intentions before the time arrives to strike the first match."
Perhaps those prayers could have an effect, since that is the language Terry Jones speaks, and hears.
"As of right now, we are not backing down," Terry Jones told NBC
But, he added, "If God told us to do it" -- burn the Korans -- "then I guess he could tell us to do something different."