Sunday, March 06, 2011

First Amendment Challenge

During the months leading up to this year’s general elections, one of the races that I followed with particular interest was the one for governor of Hawaii.  The Republican nominee, Lieutenant Governor James “Duke” Aiona, is closely identified with the International Transformation Network (ITN), an extremely conservative Charismatic Evangelical Christian organization which is aligned with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) movement.  A win for Aiona could have set the stage for a serious challenge to the First Amendment rights of the citizens of our western-most state, fewer than half of whom are Christian.
The ITN and NAR advocate a brand of Christianity which falls under the general term “Dominionist.”  That is, they seek to place their adherents in positions of power in all areas of society, including business, education, culture, and government.  The ultimate goal is to transform a multi-cultural, democratic society where minorities enjoy constitutional protection and religious freedom into a theocracy in which divergent beliefs are marginalized or eliminated.
The process has been underway in Hawaii for a number of years.  In December 2004 in a speech during a conference organized by Transformation Hawaii, a subsidiary of ITN, Aiona dedicated the State of Hawaii to Jesus.  Two months later Ed Silvoso, CEO of ITN, noted in a report on his Harvest Evangelism ministry, “One of the most significant spiritual acts in modern times took place in Hawaii when on December 8, 2004, Lt. Governor Duke Aiona issued a proclamation... dedicating Hawaii to the Lord Jesus Christ... Never before has such a high official publicly and without reservations turned an entire state over to Jesus!”
As Kathleen M. Sands, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii with an academic specialty in Law and Religion, notes, "This is something that is constitutionally prohibited.  Like all elected officials Aiona took an oath to uphold the constitution. Whether he simply does not understand the constitutional provisions about religion, or willfully defies them, this should be of very serious concerns to voters."  Nevertheless, by autumn 2008 Cal Chinen, Senior Pastor of Maonalua Gardens Missionary Church, and his wife Joy were noting in their church newsletter that Hawaiian attendees at the 2008 ITN conference in Argentina had received “a blessing and confirmation that Hawaii will be the first Christian state.”
One of the primary tenets of ITN belief is that demons control much of society and are responsible for physical, spiritual, and cultural illness.  To counter this supposed demon possession, ITN adherents engage in a technique known as “spiritual mapping” or “prayer walking,” in which a geographical area is examined for evidence of “demonic institutions.”  Institutions on their lists include, not surprisingly, porn shops, gay bars, New Age centers, and swingers’ clubs.  But also included are Buddhist and Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, Masonic temples, sectarian churches such as those of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Christian Scientists, and even non-charismatic mainstream churches.  
For example, one frequently mentioned demonic spirit in ITN literature is The Queen of Heaven.  While several pre-Christian deities received this designation, it is most commonly used today to refer in Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  ITN documents make it clear that they regard as demonic any form of religion or belief other than their own.
The next step in the ITN project is demon expulsion or “spiritual cleansing.”  In the United States this generally takes the form of book burnings and destruction of cultural artifacts.  Targets include the Book of Mormon, statues of Roman Catholic saints, kachina dolls, African masks, and items associated with Freemasonry.  Ceremonial objects used by Native American and other indigenous religions are labeled “idols” and “occult.”  Their purpose is to obliterate any symbol of a religious or cultural practice not in accord with the narrow ideology of the Transformation preachers.  At a time when American religious institutions are just beginning to acknowledge their complicity in the immense harm done to Native American peoples and cultures over the centuries, these new attacks re-open old wounds and substantially inhibit tentative moves toward reconciliation and healing.
Internationally, cleansing of the demon-possessed has sometimes taken a murderous course.  Guatemalan former dictator Efrain Rios Montt was converted to charismatic Evangelical Christianity in 1976 by members of the Gospel Outreach movement.  During the massacres of the 1980’s, when nearly 100,000 Guatemalan peasants, most of Mayan origin, were slaughtered by the military, a pastor of Gospel Outreach said in an interview, “The army doesn't massacre the Indians. It massacres demons, and the Indians are demon-possessed; they are communists.”  While Gospel Outreach predates the formation of the ITN, it closely represents the thought patterns and tactics of the latter organization, both in attacking non-charismatic belief and in conflating political and religious opponents.
The draconian anti-gay bill now pending in the Ugandan legislature, which would mandate the death penalty for HIV-positive gays and lengthy prison terms for anyone convicted of the “crime” of homosexuality, appears to have been inspired by the preaching of ITN and NAR members.  The bill, which has been forcefully condemned by human rights organizations throughout the world, was introduced soon after Lou Engle, one of the leading Apostles in the NAR, held a rally in Uganda during which he and other speakers whipped up anti-gay frenzy.  President Yoweri Museveni, who has expressed support for the bill, and his wife Janet, who is a Member of Parliament, have worked closely with Ed Silvoso, of ITN, and have been featured in promotional materials for Transformation Uganda. 
Let me be perfectly clear – the ITN and NAR do not represent all charismatic Christians, or even a majority of them.  In recent decades the charismatic movement has been a vehicle of spiritual renewal touching the hearts of tens of thousands of believers, most of whom have no intention of subverting democracy and leading a theocratic take-over of our cities and states.  Precisely because charismatic Christianity is much more a “heart religion” than a “head religion,” however, adherents may be drawn into a network of activism the true nature of which is obscured by the emotion of fervent prayer and praise.
In mentioning the topic of this column to friends and acquaintances, a number of whom are ordained clergy, I did not find anyone who had ever heard of the International Transformation Network or the New Apostolic Reformation.  These are organizations working to eliminate the religious freedoms we enjoy.  Everyone should be aware of them, and keep careful watch that they do not succeed.
Note: Information contained in this post has been researched by journalists Rachael Tabachnick, Bruce Wilson, and others whose work is published on the website

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