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It's a Thursday afternoon in San Antonio and I'm in a rented room—creaky floorboards, peeling wallpaper, month to month, no lease, space heater only, the ultimate temporary lifestyle—and I can't find the right channel on the television. I rented this place, it seems, without making sure that it had ESPN. This realization throws the poverty of the room into relief for the first time.
Shit, it's cold in here, I think, aware of a draft all of a sudden. When I look back at the TV, it's on a gospel channel. A video preacher straight out of central casting is pointing a finger right at the screen—right at me—admonishing me to surrender to God. He's got swept-back white hair, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and a booming hellfire voice that makes the name "A-BRA-HAAM!" come spilling out of his mouth like a brand-new Mustang V-8 turning over for the first time.
"When you give up more than you deserve," he shouts, "God will give you more than you dreamed!" He pauses, letting the words settle in for effect. "I want you to write that down somewhere!"
I shrug and reach for a notebook.
"Write it down: When you give up more than you deserve," the preacher repeats, "God will give you more than you dreamed!"
I nod and write it down in block letters. Why not? I have no idea what the hell it means, but I didn't come to Texas to argue with people. But what exactly do I deserve?
The preacher continues on; his sermon is from Genesis 12, the story about Abraham coming to Egypt and instructing his beautiful wife, Sarah, to say that she's his sister, which in turn allows Abraham not only to avoid being killed but to trade her to Pharaoh in exchange for a mother lode of slaves, asses, and camels. But, as things like this always do in the Old Testament, this unlawful union brings a plague on Pharaoh, and when Pharaoh finds out the reason, he is pissed, screaming to Abraham, "Why saidst thou, 'She is my sister?'…Therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way."
At which point Abraham and his people leave, and a few chapters later he gets to go into the tent of his wife's handmaiden Hagar and make a baby with her. This seems like a great deal for Abraham—avoid execution, get a great trade-in deal for your wife, then bang her handmaiden—but I'm not sure I see where the lesson about deserving and dreaming is here. No such problem for Pastor John Hagee.
"You see, it happened to A-BRA-HAAM, it can happen to you!" he shouts. "Nothing is impossible to those who have faith!"
Down at the bottom of the screen there's a notation. "PRAYER LINE: (210) 490-5100." I write that down, too, marking it with a smiley face.
The show ends shortly after that and another, less talented preacher—his Carrot Top-esque shtick is preaching seated at a desk—comes on and starts babbling about the Christian children in the Sudan being kidnapped at birth and forced to convert to Islam. Here in South Texas everyone for five hundred miles in every direction is a Christian, but they're constantly finding ways to think of themselves as a besieged minority. You hear a lot about our oppressed brothers and sisters in Africa, India, the Middle East. They're ideal objects of sympathy because they're helpless, they're poor, and it would take them at least twenty years to reach San Antonio even if they started swimming today.
Anyway, I hit the mute button, lean back in my chair, look around at my shitty room, and sigh.
It's December 2006 and I'm now on hiatus, after spending the whole fall covering the midterm elections for my depraved liberal magazine, Rolling Stone. I'm here in Texas to work out the answer to a question that has been germinating in my mind for some time, and which came to a head after the elections.
Back in the East Coast media world where I come from—an ugly place where nothing grows but scum, lichens, and Jonathan Franzen—the sweeping electoral victory by the Democrats was greeted with a tremendous sigh of relief, as if it were a sign that our endlessly self-correcting, essentially centrist American polity had finally come to its senses. In that world, there was optimism because the people had finally derailed that nutty Bush revolution, because the country had apparently seen the light about a pointlessly bloody and outrageously expensive war in Iraq, and because the cautious yuppieism of the Democratic Party had been triumphantly rehabilitated, at least temporarily quelling the potentially internationally embarrassing specter of terminal one-party rule. The pendulum was swinging back, yin was morphing back into yang. American politics moved in cycles, and the latest conservative cycle had finally ended.
The election results were being sold, in other words, as a triumph of the American system, of American democracy. Just like the producers for Monday Night Football, the counry's political elite likes things best when the teams are evenly matched. As far as the press was concerned, the best thing about the Democratic bounce-back in the midterms was that it set up a great 2008. Even odds, or maybe Dems -1, to reach the White House. American politics had never been in better shape.
I knew better. I had been all around the country in the last year and I knew that the last thing these elections represented was a vote of confidence in the American system. Out There, in states both blue and red, the People were boarding the mothership, preparing to leave this planet for good. The media had long ignored the implications of polls that showed that half the country believed in angels and the inerrancy of the Bible, or of the fact that the Left Behind series of books had sold in the tens of millions. But on the ground the political consequences of magical thinking were becoming clearer. The religious right increasingly saw satanic influences and signs of the upcoming apocalypse. Meanwhile, on the left, a different sort of fantasy was gaining traction, as an increasing numberup to a third of the country according to some poll—saw the "Bush crime family" in league with Al-Qaeda, masterminding 9/11. Media outlets largely ignored poll results that they felt could not possibly be truelike a CBS News survey that showed that only 16 percent believed that the Bush administration was telling the truth about 9/11, with 53 percent believing the government was "hiding something" and another 28 percent believing that it was "mostly lying." Then there was a stunning Zogby poll taken just in advance of the 2004 Republican convention that showed that nearly half of New York City residents—49.3 percent—believed that the government knew in advance that the 9/11 attacks were coming and purposely failed to act.
Not only did voters distrust the government's words and actions; by 2007 they also had very serious doubts about their government's legitimacy. Successive election cycles foundering on voting-machine scandals had left both sides deeply suspicious of election results. A poll in Florida taken in 2004 suggested that some 25 percent of voters worried that their votes were not being counted—a 20 percent jump from the pre-2000 numbers. More damningly, a Zogby poll conducted in 2006 showed that only 45 percent of Americans were "very confident" that George Bush won the 2004 election "fair and square."
The most surprising thing about that last poll was the degree to which the distrust was spread wide across the demographic spectrum. That 71 percent of African Americans distrusted the 2004 results was perhaps not a surprise, given that black voters in America have been victims of organized disenfranchisement throughout this country's history.
But 28 percent of NASCAR fans? Twenty-five percent of born-again Christians? Thirty-two percent of currently serving members of the armed forces? These are astonishing numbers for a country that even in its lowest times—after Watergate, say, or during Reconstruction—never doubted the legitimacy of their leaders to such a degree.
And if distrust of the government was at an all-time high, that was still nothing compared to what the public thought of the national media. Both the left and the right had developed parallel theories about the co-opting of the corporate press, imagining it to be controlled by powerful unseen enemies, and increasingly turned to grassroots Internet sources for news and information. In the BBC/Reuters/Media Center's annual Trust in the Media survey in 2006, the United States was one of just two countries surveyed—Britain being the other—where respondents trusted their government (67 percent) more than they trusted national news reporters (59 percent). A Harris poll that same year showed that some 68 percent of Americans now felt that the news media were "too powerful."
The country, in other words, was losing its shit. Our national politics was doomed because voters were no longer debating one another using a commonly accepted set of facts. There was no commonly accepted set of facts, except in the imagination of a hopelessly daft political and media elite that had long ago lost touch with the general public. What we had instead was a nation of reality shoppers, all shutting the blinds on the loathsome old common landscape to tinker with their own self-tailored and in some cases highly paranoid recipes for salvation and/or revolution. They voted in huge numbers, but they were voting out of loathing, against enemies and against the system in general, not really for anybody. The elections had basically become a forum for organizing the hatreds of the population.
And the worst thing was that the political parties at some level were complicit in this and understood what was going on perfectly—which is why together they spent $160 million on negative advertising in this cycle, as opposed to just $17 million on positive ads. There were no longer any viable principles in play. Just hate. And distrust. The system had nothing left to offer the People, so the People were leaving the reservation. But where were they going?
That was what I'd come here to find out. While Washington was still basking in the glow of the Big Win and starting its revolting 2008 party way too early (headline on the Washington Post opinion page today: "An Iowan You Should Know," about candidate Tom Vilsack. I should know now? In December of 2006! Are these people insane?), I decided to pick a spot on the map, go there, and get retarded. If the country was going to flip out, I didn't want to be left behind.
The mute button was still on, but I gathered that the deskbound TV preacher was still blathering about Sudan. They kept alternating close-ups of his face with shots of balloon-headed Sudanese kids meekly waving the flies out of their eyes. I looked down at my notebook and saw my own handwriting jump back at me: PRAYER LINE (210) 490-5100.
I grabbed my cell phone and dialed the number. Three rings, then a recorded voice answered:
"Thank you for calling John Hagee Ministries. All of our prayer partners are currently busy. You may have called at a peak period. However, your call will be answered in the order it was received…"
I frowned and started doodling in my notebook. A year and a half ago I watched a British reporter at the Michael Jackson trial draw a picture of a knife plunging into a dog's head during the cross-examination of Larry King. Since then I can't stop drawing the same thing. I'm now beginning to wonder if the Brit caught the disease from someone else. Perhaps this goes back thousands of years. After a few minutes I heard a click and a young man's voice came on the line:
"Hello, John Hagee Ministries," he said.
"Yeah, hi," I said. "I'd like to make a prayer request."
"Sure," he said. "What are we praying for?"
I paused. When dealing with the kind of people who think Left Behind is really possible and who think Noah really was six hundred years old when the flood came, there is a strong temptation to ham it up, fuck with them a little, offer answers that will at least make them blink once or twice before they swallow them whole. I'll confess to doing this throughout my stay in Texas, and I don't feel a need to apologize for it—I live in this country, too, and sometimes I can't help being angry about how dumb and mean our culture has become, how fast that meanness and dumbness is expanding, and how determined some Jesus-culture merchants are that people like me should not escape it. And so from time to time that anger would come out, in a tall tale or two that would pop out of my mouth in churchgoing company. But hilariously, the joke would mostly end up cutting both ways. I'd say the craziest, stupidest stuff, trying like hell to get a rise out of people, and not only would I not get one, I'd for the most part be completely ignored—smiled and nodded at, and then just waved on through into my seat in the megachurch. Being a wiseass in a groupthink environment is like throwing an egg at a bulldozer.
That's the way things work in America. You can literally stick a fork into your own eye in public, and so long as your check clears, no one will even bat an eye. There was a lot of this sort of thing in my Texas experience, and it made for a strangely harmonious undertone to my relations with the locals: I kept sticking a fork in my own eye over and over again, and over and over again my new friends would smile like nothing was happening. You can say a lot of very weird shit when you're a Brother in Christ, so long as you don't forget to sing along at the right times.
In that regard, the "prayer request" I ended up making was for a fictional ex-wife who I said had run out on me. I told my prayer line counselor that my betrothed had thrown me over for a Jewish ACLU lawyer named Schatz—that she had jumped in his Saab and run away with him to Paris, to take the Bateau-Mouche ride she said I could never give her. I further told my counselor that I didn't know what "Bateau-Mouche" meant, but I knew it warn't Christian. When I was finished with my story, there was silence on the line for a moment.
"The car was a Saab?" the counselor said finally, with appropriate contempt.
I smiled, pleased that he was paying attention to the important details. I added that I didn't like this Schatz fellow at all. That the black curls in his hair looked almost like horns.
"Anyway," I said. "I just want to pray for her, pray that she finds her way back to me, back to Christ."