Winking Scofflaws and Christian Strongmen

Adam Park

Perceptually indistinguishable, Clifford Geertz famously reminds us, is the difference between a 
wink and a twitch. But, oh, how very vast the difference between a conspiratorial signal and an involuntary eye closure! And as it so happens, the wink-twitch interpretational problem can be quite useful when it comes to navigating First Amendment obstacles.

Christian strongmen teams--The Power Team, Team Impact, John Jacobs Next Generation Power Force, Omega Force Strength Team, et al.--with their public feats of strength, are particularly savvy in this regard. Breaking bricks, hoisting logs, bending iron, and exploding hot water bottles for Jesus ... or is it breaking, hoisting, bending, and exploding for the world? I forget.

Nevertheless, many witness. Team Impact has a weekly television show and performs at nearly 1,000 schools a year (which amounts to an annual audience of over 700,000 students). Since its founding in 1976, The Power Team has performed in every state and in over 40 countries; and in the past 20 years alone, they have put on over 26,000 school assemblies. Big numbers. Big men.

The wink and the message 

Back to Geertz. Winkers participate in an established web of signification and meaning. In Geertz's words, the winker "is communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company." You know where I'm going with this. Winks aplenty in Christian strongman shows. Let's thickly describe.

As the Power Team website suggests for public schools: "use our complementary materials to begin spreading the word about the event. The more promotion, the better the turn out, and the more chances on making the greatest impact on those in your schools"; or, for churches: "The more promotion, the better the turn out, and the more chances at reaching people in your area for Christ." Should your church school want to spread the Word word, The Power Team has the media.

"Our secular school assemblies cover a variety of topics that school administrators are desperate for," Team Impact claims, with a simple "message of hope," "timely" and "inspirational." In fact, the Principal of Lincoln High School, a public school in Alabama, testifies that "their message was so inspirationally moving that several students confided with the school counselor, with tears in their eyes, about how they wanted to make better choices." Team Impact's "secular" message was received with open and repentant hearts, and in accordance with the Team's mission statement: "To reach people with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ." Masters of double entendre, with 501(c)3 status, Team Impact accepts contributions for those who want to "play a role in the mission of Team Impact; bringing the good news and a message of hope to people around the world."

We get it. They get it. The "it" is no secret. The "greatest desire" of Power Team member Tiffany Shields "is to reach this generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ." And as Team Impact member Ron Waterman proclaimed in his autobiography, "Whether I was at a Christian school or not, God's anointing was over me every time." A web of religious meaning and implication is clearly spun for the reception of a particular message at these public gatherings. For any "buffered subjects," the "conditions of belief" are thus.

Christian mission statements. Christian personal intentions. Christian reception. There are a lot of grown-ups winking. And a lot of children feeling, "free to act and think according to the same set of first principles," to borrow a phrase from John Modern. So, how do these Christian groups assert their "secularity" and "uphold" the law?

Easy. Like this ...

The twitch and the law
Perhaps the founder of The Power Team, John Jacobs said it best. People are "drawn to the spectacular," he claimed in a 1988 interview; their performance is "a platform to share the Word of God. It's the bait." But, in a 2006 interview, "It's not our job to sneak Jesus into the schools"; "we're not trying to trick anybody." Clear? Let me summarize. Yes, it's religion. No, it's not religion. Wink. Twitch.

"Don't try to get over-creative," The Power Team instructor tells his muscled performer-speakers (in the video above). Continuing,
We cover drugs, alcohol, suicide, abstinence, and academic excellence, staying in school, and peer pressure. That's why we're there. Never mention any Jesus-talk. No Christian talk. Think secular. You're now our secular business men when you're doing a school assembly. If you go to the wrong school and you stand up there and start proselytizing [...] that's what the ACLU is going to say you're doing. 
The idea is to create something religious that goes without saying. To evoke a religious referent without use of a religious reference. It's even more "deliberately ambiguous" than a prison ministry. When the "religion" is left unnamed, as an "unmarked category" in Fessenden's terms, the courts haven't much to say about religious signification and meaning. To show establishment, it seems, requires the highest degree of explicitness. There's no "God" or "Jesus Christ," evidently, unless named outright. The boundaries of secularity are set verbally.

To summon Winnifred Sullivan again, "disestablished religion depends on the government for enforcement of moral norms." So, 1.5 million public school students, heed the Team Impact message to 1) BE on Guard against the Old Deluder, 2) STAND Firm in your Christian faith, and 3) DO What's Right in the eyes of the Lord. Let's call it an established disestablishment then. In this case, certain words, or rather, the Word, makes religion so, brings it into being, and therefore into jurisprudent purview.

"Our public school system is a disaster," The Power Team instructor asserts.
What are we going to do? Are we going to stand by and let our country be secularized? Are we going to let people erase our Christian morals? There is an absolute right and there is an absolute wrong. And young people need direction. 
Yes, something is terribly wrong here. This secularism is taking over our schools. Open your hearts to The Power Team's secular message and be saved. He assures, "we're not trying to trick anybody." Indeed. Wink.

In the spirit of Foucault, who reminds us that the efficacy of power is reliant upon its ability to make itself invisible, I'll conclude with an image. The image, if I'm not mistaken, is taken from an elementary school assembly where they are celebrating lowercase "t" appreciation week. And rightly so. After all, it is in American youth that we find the greatest need for an intimate, personal relationship with the letter.


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