An Atheist Yankee in Ron Luce's Court: My visit to "Battle Cry"
An Atheist Yankee in Ron Luce’s Court: My Visit to the Philadelphia “Battle Cry” Shaun P. McGonigal May 14, 2006
Thousands of young Christians gathering together to listen to rock bands, abstinence-based sex education, and anti-secular media polemics gathered together at the Wachovia Spectrum in South Philadelphia during the weekend of May 12th. Christ-o-palooza you say? Not exactly. With military imagery and language, a video greeting from George W. Bush, and a constant bashing of a secular worldview, this was much more than a rock concert sprinkled with Jesus talk.
Battle Cry is supposed to be a solution for a media-brainwashed generation plagued with moral uncertainty and “dangerous” messages. Whatever else we can say of it Battle Cry is indeed a solution. The question is whether it is the correct approach to what a very conservative group of Christians sees as a problem with our culture and whether it addresses the correct issues. The answer is a resounding ‘NO’!
The fact that I’m an atheist, and therefore admittedly biased against the message being carried by Ron Luce and his organization, Teen Mania (which is responsible for the recent Battle Cry events) does not invalidate all the criticism that will be thrown at them from this metaphorical pulpit. I don’t believe the Battle Cry solution is wrong only because I disagree with their beliefs, but because I do not trust their intentions. They claim to be a solution to a problem with secular culture when it seems they are simply in competition with the mass media they claim is manipulating today’s youth.
The fact is that there are many Christians and other non-atheists who are equally as critical of this movement for a number of reasons including, but not limited to their use of military imagery and language, questionable statistics used to bolster their arguments in support of (for example) abstinence, and their openly anti-homosexual agenda. It will not be my intention to offer a comprehensive account of these criticisms, but rather to focus on a particular set of issues that Battle Cry addresses; the media and its secular influence on teens.
Their primary issue is to prevent secular brainwashing. The solution, it seems, is to do some brainwashing themselves.
Preparing for the event
The night before Battle Cry came to Philadelphia, I attended a meeting held by The World Can’t Wait (WCW; www.worldcantwait.org), which is an organization that is concerned about the current administration as well as issues dealing with the threat of a theocratic-like control that movements like Teen Mania seem to support. Also present at this meeting was the authors of www.acquiretheevidence.com who have been following and criticizing Ron Luce and his ministries for more than 7 years. The picture that they painted for us was both unsettling and insightful, and any serious investigation of Ron Luce or his Teen Mania Ministries must go through them.
What became clear is that there are many people who are concerned with declining church attendance, especially with young people. The problem, as Luce and his Teen Mania Ministries sees it, is that most teenagers are having a secular worldview “crammed down their throats” (his words), and are therefore buying into a lie. The result is STDs, pregnancy, and moral depravity on a large scale. The solution is, of course, Jesus. By convincing young people that a life “in Christ” is preferable to the secular culture around them, more young people will become active in their churches, and the declining church attendance will reverse in order to help those in charge of those churches to climb out of debt.
The Battle Cry events themselves are only the cannon from which thousands of fired up evangelists will hit the schools, their friends, and anywhere else that their “battle cry” leads them. The battle is a long-term strategy to make sure that the “war” between the secular world and the evangelical Christian one continues to have Christian soldiers. The battlefield is the cultural marketplace. The issues are gay marriage, abortion, sex outside of marriage, and other conservative Christian agenda that, if Teen Mania is successful, would initiate a culture of restricted freedom. The language and rhetoric is presented in unambiguously militaristic tones intended to amplify the so-called culture wars. The secular world is the enemy. And by secular, they seem to mean anything that doesn’t share their limited worldview of Biblical Law.
With this in mind, I traveled down to the stadium to see for myself the training ground for an opponent that I’m not at war with. And from what I saw, the message was beginning to stick with many of the trainees, but thankfully not the militaristic tone. They were, of course, more than happy to speak with me and the protesters from WCW and thus lively (but mostly friendly) discussion ensued. They did not treat us as enemies, but rather as people who they simply did not understand. I admitted to seeing some problems with mass media and popular culture, but I don’t believe that the Bible is the answer or that any battle is necessary. I believe that these kids who see a problem with their generation have the ability to solve the problems without any battle cries or discriminatory ideologies. I don’t think they need Ron Luce at all; I rather think Ron Luce needs them.
I wasn’t going with the intention of discussing the finer points of atheism or Christianity, but rather to observe the phenomenon myself in order to better understand the propaganda. I wanted to see how the message was presented and how it was being received. But when confronted with a group of evangelicals in an event such as this, an atheist is quickly put in a position to explain their position and becomes quickly surrounded by a dozen or more interested set of ears and tongue.
I took the time to try and explain the atheist position, and found myself having to defend myself against ideas that seemed filled with fear and misunderstanding. The dislike of homosexuality—lack of comfort with most expressions of sexuality in general, actually—and anger at a world that seemed intent on manipulating them was resonating with most of those with whom I spoke. It was a perfect fertile ground for planting the seeds of Ron Luce’s agenda, and it was starting to work already. While talking with some people there, I was offered a free pass to enter the stadium and see the event myself. I happily accepted and went in.
The primary dangers that the contemporary teen in America has to deal with, according to Ron Luce, is their enslavement to the media and what it tries to sell. Here is a quote from Battle Cry’s website:
A stealthy enemy has infiltrated our country and is preying upon the hearts and minds of 33 million American teens. Corporations, media conglomerates, and purveyors of popular culture have spent billions to seduce and enslave our youth. So far, the enemy is winning. But there is plenty we can do. We need to take action. We need to answer the Battle Cry.
Again and again, the media was accused of manipulating young people in order to sell an image and a lifestyle to teens. Sex, pornography, and “lies” about safe sex are helping destroy our youth while the media is helping uphold a secular worldview that, according to Teen Mania, is dangerous and untrue.
Battle Cry brought these predominantly young Christians together to address a problem with the secular world that presents America’s youth with “harmful” and “untrue” messages. And from talking to the teens that were there, it is clear that there are many teens who agree that the “crisis” is real; that this is a problem that the current young generation is aware of this manipulation and wants to do something about it.
I applaud them for being so aware and wanting action. At least that is what I heard while listening to various speakers as well as those to whom the message was intended. One teen from the Reading area, in response to a question as to whether the goals of Battle Cry were a good idea, responded that it was better “than smoking pot and watching porn all the time.” Perhaps, but I wonder why he saw the choice as being so limited. If he wasn’t a Christian, would he have to succumb to the things he already seems to not like?
I rebuke Ron Luce and Teen Mania Ministries for offering a parochial and disingenuous course of action as response to the perceived crisis. They commit one of the most common logical fallacies, one that pervades the vast majority of evangelical Christian argument; the fallacy of false choice. Teen Mania declares that America’s youth have a choice between sin and God, Heaven and Hell, declaring a battle cry or being a slave to a world that is merely trying to control you I order to make money. There are other ways to deal with these issues. There are good ways, humanist and secular ways, to repair a damaged culture. Secular does not mean without religion, it simply means without only religion. We can fix these problems without the Buble as a guide while these teens can still remain Christian, if they so choose.
For example, Adbusters has been dealing with issues related to media manipulation for some time as well. Their methods are not based upon the same ideas as Teen Mania, but they are addressing a similar problem. The popularity of Adbusters seems to lend credibility to the ideas that the problem is real and that young people are aware of it. It seems that the current young generation has internalized this approach to consumer culture and is fed up with it. Great! But it begs the question; why do they need a Battle Cry then? If they are already aware of the problem, and from what I saw while there they seem very aware of it, why do they need Ron Luce and Teen Mania Ministries?
It looks like, on the surface, Teen Mania is promoting that young people stop being slaves to a consumer culture that is simply trying to make money by selling products and ideas that help further endorse those types of products. It looks like an organization that is trying to free young people from the bonds of marketing manipulation; a culture of instant gratification ruled by emotion. To me, it looks like a brilliant ad campaign that is attempting to pull young people away from one market to another. After all, to register for the event was neither free nor cheap, and during the event Ron Luce asked people to contribute to evangelical causes while hundreds of volunteers passed buckets down the aisles.
Further, there are Christian-oriented media affiliated with Teen Mania, such as Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, which stand to gain much from shifting teen attention from MTV to their various programs. Think how much Pat Robertson and the 700 Club would benefit with a loyal audience younger than 21 for the next 50 years. This looks more like a long-term marketing strategy than the saving of souls.
I’m willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that there are some significant issues to be addressed concerning media-controlled culture. Unwanted pregnancies, STDs, sexual violence, killing, drug addictions, and problems with how many young people treat one-another in general are significant problems. Working at an inner-city school I see these types of problems all the time, and agree they need to be addressed. The solution presented by Teen Mania, however, is not an attempt to help the problem, but rather to ignore it—literally. Those who attended the Battle Cry event were not encouraged to challenge the culture around them or to try and become part of an organized effort to fix it, but rather to move away from it.
Teens are asked, by Ron Luce during his sermons, to ignore the lies told to them by people advocating “safe sex” (referred to as one of the biggest lies of secular culture) and other things considered sinful in the eyes of Ron Luce’s ministries. This is not a solution to any problem, this is ignoring the problem to keep a wall between secular culture and those who choose to live in a world ruled by some vague, discriminatory, and frankly unethical rules of behavior such as discrimination and repression of rights.
This is the result of the militaristic imagery. It separates people and forces them to look at one-another as if across a battlefield. Instead of seeing those around them “in sin” as neighbors, they are told to see culture around them as an enemy. It’s much easier to reproach the secular world for its sins if they are told to separate themselves from it. If these Christian teens are told that they are to separate themselves from and not view themselves as part of the secular community, then perhaps there is no log in the eye of evangelical Christians battling against the secular world with mere splinters obstructing their sight. Instead of reaching out to help, they draw lines of distinction that makes neighbor-like communication impossible.
Sex outside of marriage? No. Abortion? Absolutely not! Homosexuality? Not unless you like hellfire. Condoms? Not effective. Some harmless secular music now and then? It will brainwash you to want all sex and violence. MTV? Nothing but half-naked women tempting you to sin. Pornography? More sin encouraging masturbation, which is also a sin. Thinking for yourself? Only if the conclusions you reach happen to agree with Teen Mania’s interpretation of the Bible; otherwise you’re being deceived by a set of lies intended to enslave you.
That, my friends, sounds like brainwashing to me. It does not sound like the freedom that sets people free. Those advocating freedom would never ask you to ignore something, they would ask you to confront and challenge it. Hopefully many of these teens who attended Battle Cry will do so. If they do, they can help us try and fix the problems, not simply change the brand name they buy.
What seems to be going on here is Teen Mania pulls in the younger people with more energy and desire to create a solution and leads them towards a very limited solution. These kids are already the leaders in many respects because they are there, having made the effort to do something. The idea is to train the natural leaders so that they can influence those that follow them, whether consciously or not. It is a brilliant but manipulative strategy that will probably work, creating another generation of brainwashed kids. Some will be brainwashed by the mass media who are simply trying to make money by use of enticing ideas, the others will be brainwashed by those who desire to spread discriminatory ideas while making money. Choose your evil.
A better solution
Instead of replacing one kind of brainwashing with another, why not simply encourage these young people to use their own abilities to think about these issues on their own. It is true that mass media does not generally encourage thinking and is manipulative, so something needs to be done. The attitude of those with which I spoke seems to include the necessary energy and ability to think about these issues, but the Battle Cry message seems to rather herd that energy into a very narrow channel that stifles independent thought and broad education. It is a highly parochial approach to a problem that these kids already seem to be willing and able to solve.
Personally, I will always appreciate the few who don’t allow any large group to manipulate them. Of course, herding people like this is kind of like herding cats. Independent people don’t organize well. Those that are herded easily are people who, seeing a problem, need someone so provide a solution. Battle Cry will have been a success so long as they can win the marketing strategy against the “secular world.” As for this secular brainwashing, see my previous article (“secular inconspiracy”); it simply does not exist. The best way to brainwash people, it seems, is to convince people that you are combating the brainwashing by others.
Christianity, in general, feeds of the insecurities that people have about themselves and the world around them. In this sense Teen Mania is merely an extension of this trend, and is therefore not surprising to see it used here. My criticism of Battle Cry is a general criticism of conservative Christianity. If people see a problem with the world, a solution is not to condemn it then separate yourself, but rather to get your hands dirty and help solve it. The problem is that what this kind of Christian message does is it tries to separate our natural desires and expressions as evil and sinful. Therefore, rather than teaching people to be independent and intelligent thinkers capable of finding good solutions to problems, they cast the issues aside and declare that they are not going to be a part of it any more.
This method is both cowardly and hateful. Cowardly because they refuse to accept that these natural drives are something to deal with and not simply discard (Sartre calls this “bad faith”) and hateful because it says to people living comfortably in the secular world that we are their enemy either peddling lies or subject to the lies of others. I resent that, and would challenge anyone to demonstrate how I’m the one brainwashed here rather than those following some battle cry.
Our youth don’t need Ron Luce or anyone else to shield a lie in order to point to the truth. The truth points to itself.
I'll fight for a person's right to speak so long as that person will, in return, fight to allow me to challenge their opinions and ridicule them as the content of their ideas merit.