Onward Christian soldiers

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What Kimball calls Stanley's brand of Christian nationalism was on vivid display in an In Touch prayer pamphlet titled "A Christian's Duty," which features a list of daily prayers for U.S. troops serving in Iraq and for President Bush and his advisors. Framed in luminous shades of red, white and blue, the pamphlet includes a tear-off prayer pledge that can be mailed to the president. According to Black, In Touch Ministries has distributed 850,000 of the pamphlets across the U.S. and could exceed the 1 million mark very soon. Of course, during wartime it is common for religious leaders to ask their congregations to pray for their leaders to act wisely and for the safety of their troops. But some of the daily prayers in "A Christian's Duty" are exceptional. For instance, one reads: "Pray that the President and his advisors will be strong and courageous to do what is right regardless of critics."

Specifically, Black claims, the pamphlet is referring to people like the journalist Peter Arnett, who was fired in midwar by NBC for telling Iraqi media sources that the U.S.'s military strategy had failed. "There's always naysayers and every decision is countered with a criticism," says Black. "Many people in the profession of journalism have positioned themselves as naysayers and I use Peter Arnett as an example ... But the plan has moved forward and [the military has] stayed with what they felt was right and that's an example of how that prayer would be applied."

"A Christian's Duty" made a splash recently when the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that it had turned up by the thousands among U.S. Marines in Iraq. Because the ABC cited an anonymous embedded reporter, the report is almost impossible to confirm. Black denied that In Touch sent the pamphlets directly, hypothesizing that an individual member might have delivered them without In Touch's knowledge. Centcom spokesman Col. Keith Oliver of the Marines said he is not familiar with the prayer guide, but added that he's "not surprised at all that civilian ministries in the United States would be providing materials to our troops ... It's just as much a part of life on bases overseas as it is back in the towns and cities of America. But it's curious to me that anyone would be alarmed. The Bible's pretty clear about asking us to pray for our leaders."

Oliver's remarkable statement may be emblematic of a Christian zeal that has some support among troops in Iraq. One chaplain who may have taken In Touch's pamphlet to heart is Josh Llano, a self-described Southern Baptist serving in the Army. An April 4 article in the Miami Herald reports that Llano has been offering baths at Camp Bushmaster in Iraq to soldiers who haven't bathed in weeks -- on the condition that he be allowed to baptize them. Like Stanley, Llano quotes from the Bible to justify war, telling the Herald that "we are called upon by our government to fight and that is giving to Caesar, as the Bible tells us."

Whether or not In Touch sent "A Christian's Duty" directly to Marines in Iraq, the content of the pamphlet is in keeping with Stanley's long history of intertwining religion with politics, which at times has left him embroiled in controversy. As an original board member of Jerry Falwell's political action group, Moral Majority, Stanley helped lobby against the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexual rights, abortion and the U.S.-Soviet SALT treaties. In 1986, a speech he made in San Francisco stirred up outrage when he said of homosexuality: "AIDS is God indicating his displeasure and his attitude toward that form of lifestyle, which we in this country are about to accept."

Stanley backed President George Bush I in his failed 1992 reelection bid. Bush, an Episcopalian and a social moderate compared to his born-again Christian son, was polling badly among religious conservatives during the Republican primaries. So when the Georgia primary rolled around in February, Stanley invited Bush to services at First Baptist Church, and in a carefully tailored speech, Bush told the whooping crowd: "We believe America's first so long as we put family first." Bush's appearance at First Baptist marked a turning point in his campaign; he swept the South, decisively crushing the insurgent candidacy of arch-conservative Patrick Buchanan.

Stanley's activity in the political arena also includes the seat he held on the board of the Religious Roundtable, a pantheon of the religious right that assessed the Christian credentials of Republican primary candidates during the 1996 campaign. And he has joined Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as a board member of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, a lobbying powerhouse that backed Bush II's 2000 campaign and gave him a forum to push his war plans at its annual conference in February 2003. Still, until reports surfaced of In Touch's prayer pamphlets in Iraq, he has been content to hang in the background while Falwell, Robertson and Billy Graham's son, Franklin Graham, make headlines.

Graham recently caused a flash on the media radar when he announced that members of his humanitarian mission, Samaritan's Purse, and the Southern Baptist Convention are poised to enter Iraq after the war to offer aid in the name of Jesus Christ. At In Touch Ministries, Black was skeptical about the plan. In Touch certainly wouldn't rule out helping if the need is there, he said, but the ministry's ultimate calling is to provide "the Truth" by cassette tapes, radio and TV.

Nevertheless, an open avenue into the Arab world is as crucial to In Touch as it is to Samaritan's Purse. On its Web site, In Touch refers to the Middle East as the "10/40 Window ... a 10-by-40 degree area north of the equator [which] houses the majority of the world's people who have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their language. These people ... are in desperate need of the Truth." Stanley's weekly sermons are beamed across the "10/40 Window" via satellite TV and shortwave radio by Middle East TV (METV), an American-owned Evangelical broadcast network. According to METV's Web site, its mission is "bringing the Gospel message of hope and peace to the troubled Middle East." Along with Stanley's weekly "In Touch" show, METV offers a mixed fare of evangelical programming, American sports, and reruns of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Gilligan's Island" -- all accompanied by Arabic subtitles. Since satellite dishes will probably become legal and popular in postwar Iraq, Stanley and METV's audience there seems likely to grow.

When METV was founded in 1982 by an evangelical minister, Lester Sumrall, it started by operating out of a van in Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon with the sanction of the Israeli government. It is now owned by LeSEA (Lester Sumrall Evangelistic Association), the Sumrall family's umbrella group, which includes a humanitarian mission and a tourism agency that, according to its Web site, works in tandem with Israel's Tourism Ministry. When Israel ended its occupation of Lebanon in 1999, METV was forced to relocate to Cyprus.

Charles Kimball was in Israel and Lebanon to do interfaith work with the Mid East Council of Churches when METV started broadcasting evangelical programs like Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" in the area. Kimball recalls that Christians from Lebanon and the Galilee region of Northern Israel bristled at Robertson's enthusiasm for the activities of the right-wing Christian Phalangist militia and the Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon's bloody civil war. And he says that METV's broadcasts inflamed tensions between Lebanon's indigenous Christians and their Muslim countrymen, who became suspicious that their Christian neighbors might have actually agreed with Robertson's anti-Islamic vitriol.

"The problem begins with outsiders like In Touch, Pat Robertson and METV coming in and ignoring the indigenous Christian community as if they don't exist, thinking they're the only people who have the message, and broadcasting whatever they want without realizing there are consequences for the people who actually live there," says Kimball.

Next page: The Bush administration tries to dodge the issue

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