PASTOR Terry Jones seems like an unlikely candidate for the title of America’s Enemy No 1, but that is what he has become, almost overnight, in his attempt to lead his band of Christian soldiers against the sword of Islam.
President Obama must have felt a bit like the 12th century Henry II pleading: “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” when he made a very public appeal to him to abandon his plan to burn copies of the Koran, fearing that American soldiers would be killed in retaliation.
Jones, who declares Islam as the incarnation of the Devil, sees himself as the saviour of Christianity against a malevolent force, but he is no Thomas Beckett. The grizzly 58-year-old packs a .40-calibre pistol and heads a small congregation of around 50 members on a pine-studded tract of land in Gainesville, Florida.
The Dove World Outreach Center, as the church is known, is the kind of high-octane fundamentalist sect that can be found in cities and rural areas across America. Think Robert Duvall in The Apostle, the 1997 film about the downfall and redemption of a Texas minister.
Fighting Islam has become an obsession for Terry Jones. He and his Dove Center first came to prominence a year ago when some members sent their children to school with T-shirts emblazoned with the church’s motto, “Islam is of the Devil.” The children were sent home by school authorities.
Strenuous efforts are now being made to minimise his public profile and limit the damage he could cause. The Mayor of Gainesville, Craig Lowe, called the Dove Center “a very tiny church” that does not represent “the true nature of Gainesville”.
Yet the pastor and his flock are very much at the centre of a widespread religious movement that allows them enjoy an influence far outweighing their numbers.
The Dove World Outreach Center can trace its roots to the first so-called Great Awakening of the colonial era in the early 19th century and on to the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement a century later. These “holiness” movements, as they have come to be called, are characterised by a doctrine of sanctification centring on a post-conversion experience. The numerous Holiness churches that arose during this period vary from quasi-Methodist sects to groups that are similar to Pentecostal churches. In a sense the movement goes back to John Wesley, the Anglican priest ordained in 1728 who became the founder of Methodism and who issued a call to Christian “perfection”.
While the Holiness churches stress a literal reading of Scripture, they insist that it is the Holy Spirit, inspiring visionary experiences, that is the mark of the true believer. And the Holy Spirit also confers direct authority on leaders, rendering them virtually uncontrollable and unanswerable to any form or church hierarchy.
This kind of free-range spirituality tends to spawn religious mavericks who believe their direct connection to the Holy Spirit gives them an authority that is beyond any temporal accountability. They are rarely even required to offer theological arguments for their pronouncements or actions.
As far as Pastor Jones is concerned, ignorance is bliss. Asked about his knowledge of the Koran, he told The New York Times: “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.”
It is not just the Muslims who have incurred the pastor’s wrath. During a recent sermon, Jones also voiced disgust at the United Methodist Church located close to the Dove Center and which is planning an interfaith prayer service on the eve of 9-11. “Lily-livered, yellow-bellied Christians,” he called the congregation and he said the rest of the country wasn’t much better: “Our nation is in ruin spiritually.”
Jones’s call to public action against Islam underscores the broader changes within conservative Christianity in the United States. A few decades ago, evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians in the US were cultural isolationists who wanted nothing to do with the rest of society. Now they are prepared to engage in some of the sharper clashes of the culture wars but some congregations, like the Dove Center, are still considered fringe elements. They believe we are living in the “End Times” before the Second Coming of Jesus who, they believe, will arrive to save the faithful and punish non-believers.
In the final analysis, the zeal of Terry Jones is in danger of turning him into the very thing he hates, a religious extremist who tarnishes the reputation of his fellow believers.
Picture: Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center speaks to the media as Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida looks on yesterday.