Dark Parallels for
the American Liturgy

Advertisers, cults, terrorists, and American megachurches know how to target people at the right time to get them to "convert". The last of these has evolved an entire liturgy for that purpose. Through a couple of personal anecdotes, we trace the history and purpose of that liturgy and draw a parallel with a less "American" cult.

AI generated Photo of fictional patriotic congregation meeting in church.

10 Oct 2022, published 8 May 2023

Colorado Springs, Colorado

by Matthew Eric Bassett

In Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009 Umar Abdulmutallab boarded a flight bound for Detroit while wearing underwear into which he had sewn plastic explosives. I had met the would-be bomber roughly 27 months prior, while Umar was finishing his undergraduate degree in engineering at the University College London (UCL) and I was matriculating at the same institution1. He was then president of the student Islamic society. Student presidents are elected, and so we can conclude that Umar was well liked and in possession of some degree of charisma. He was reportedly known for being both politically moderate and politically engaged, but not for being violent or for being an extremist. He graduated in 2008, presumably with first or upper-second class honours (roughly an A or B grade average in the American system); few UCL students graduate with anything less. His father was formerly the Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Economic Development and a successful businessman. His parents loved him, and they encouraged him to pursue a Masters degree; when Umar stated his wish to study Arabic they paid for him to do the Masters in Dubai.

When I met Umar he was on top of the world and at the peak of his potential: an honours degree from a top British university, two opportunities in two global centres of finance, and a family pedigree to match. But in 27 months he traded all that in for a bomb he could wear in his pants. As that Christmas day flight landed in Michigan, Umar attempted to detonate the explosives and thus carry out a suicide attack on behalf of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The bomb didn't go off; the engineering graduate only succeeded in burning his genitalia.

What transformed him from a promising graduate into a homicidal terrorist?

In Colorado Springs in October 2022, I was attending a church service with my parents (I had no explosives in my undergarments or anywhere else). The church itself was a large auditorium - a converted sporting goods store that the congregation had bought a few years prior. It could accommodate the couple thousands of people that attended services each weekend. It was renovated with a sound and lighting system capable of running any rock concert (and they occasionally sold tickets) together with multiple large HD projector screens above a pulpit in the front and centre of the room. Different parts of the liturgy — a word that requires more explanation — for the upcoming month flashed on the screens above. One of them caught my eye: an announcement for a Biblical Citizenship course that promised to provide a "Biblical, historical, and constitutional" instruction (emphasis mine)2. My mother learned over to me to whisper as it flashed overhead: "that's where they'll make you wear a MAGA hat and won't let you take it off." Screenshot of church announcement for Biblical Citizenship.

"Liturgy" wasn't a word I heard a lot as I was growing up in these sorts of American Protestant Evangelical churches. In the Calvary Chapel churches my family attended, "liturgy" might have even meant something bad. They would insist that they were not liturgical; that they were copying the earliest, first century Church, and that they weren't liturgical, either3. But the word "liturgy" literally means a pattern of public worship. I use the term to refer not just to the pattern and order of their weekend services but also to the pattern of when their weekend and mid-week public meetings happen and what they do in them. An Orthodox church in Turkey might follow the Byzantine rite on the Lord's day with sacred vestments and solemn chants, but it also holds Vespers or other public meetings on such-and-such weekdays. An American Protestant Evangelical church follows their own pattern, too, with the weekend service requiring stage lighting and big, rock music drums4. Sacred vestments are replaced by t-shirts. Mass happens monthly instead of weekly. Weekday Vespers are replaced by weekly small prayer groups and bible study groups for all demographics and interests: prayer breakfasts for married men, women's bible study groups, young adult services, remote workers' study groups, homeopathic fellowship groups, Awana programmes for small children, et cetera. The homily is replaced by an emotional and motivational talk (sometimes with a request for to buy an album or a book, or otherwise give money). And the liturgy demands that the weekend service starts with dimming the lights and running the smoke generators while a "worship band" plays a rock concert and invites the congregation to sing along. Various leaders recite prayers in front of the congregation while calling attention to all the weekly liturgical activities: the small groups, the prayer breakfasts, the Biblical Citizenship courses. The fact that the course was announced in the service was an implicit statement, perhaps one that the church did not even realize, that it was part of their weekly pattern of Christian worship. In Evangelical parlance, that such constitutional instruction was part of fellowshipping with the rest of the Body of Christ. The requirement for these weekly groups and rock concerts is never explicitly stated and it is not written down anywhere. Calvary Chapel has never held a synod that mandated the use of smoke machines or the small groups for the different demographics. Rather, American Protestant Evangelical churches — Calvary Chapel or otherwise — are all guided towards a similar liturgy as if the same force gently nudged them in that direction. Call it the Holy Spirit if you will, or maybe even the Invisible Hand.

The liturgy of these American Evangelical churches, with its weekly rock concerts and demographically targeted small groups, also makes an imitable business model. One such church, Calvary of Albuquerque, grew to be so successful with this business model that at it's height it operated two radio stations and an unaccredited college5. I have seen other groups try to copy the business model but leave aside the religious aspects of the liturgy: fitness groups, even swing dance groups6. As I had grown up with both the liturgy and the implicit business model I was so steeped inside of it that I never knew where it originated or that it could be done any other way. After all, the church leaders insisted they were trying to be like first century churches. But both the liturgy and the accompanying business model are recent innovations. An article in Harper's Magazine from 2006 credits the "small groups" to South Korean pastor Paul Cho, who emphasized their importance to church growth through the 1970s and 1980s 7. But Pastor Cho's idea really came into its own in the free market cultures of the United States. Two sociologists of religion, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, tell a story in their work of an American free market of religion where churches are like companies competing for the souls, instead of the dollars, of the country8. The same Harper's column described American pastors as CEOs, realizing that market segmentation and consolidation are necessary to maximize market share. Church pastors like Ted Haggard — a former American Protestant Evangelical church leader before he was defrocked after scandal involving drugs and gay prostitutes — took Pastor Cho's idea on "cell groups" and used them to reach multiple demographics and spiritual needs (say, for both a liberal and a conservative theology) at once. He united them all under a hierarchy led by the weekend, mass-marketed, mass-produced rock concert services. It's a liturgy that evolved from, and is designed to evolve with, the competitive environment of American capitalism, which means that it requires constant innovation. Rock concerts cannot run on the Spirit alone, and to compose a large and diverse congregation from all those small groups one needs a steady stream of materials for the diverse spiritual needs. And thus this liturgy also needs a lengthy supply chain of wholesalers to support the operation.

The "Evangelical" part of "American Protestant Evangelical" church is at its core. From both a spiritual perspective (fulfilling the "Great Commission", Jesus' commandment at the end of the Gospels to make disciples of all nations) and an economic perspective (new believes mean more revenue to fund bigger rock concerts and slicker productions) churches have to bring in new believers. The person who makes such a religious conversion — or even a revision, or maybe they are just changed churches — can only do so during a state of extreme emotional vulnerability. Social scientists, especially marketers, have already observed that people rarely change even small habits like where they shop except at key life-changing moments: moving, getting married, divorced, becoming pregnant9. Spiritual conversions must happen at an equally momentous time — some form of a life crisis, or months of despair and emotional struggle. At worst, spiritual groups might exploit this to coercively control new members10. At best, they provide some much needed direction, stability, and comfort. In between it can be hard to distinguish between the two.

Umar's transformation from a promising graduate to a homicidal terrorist must therefore must have happened after a life changing event or long period of emotional struggle. The evidence suggests the latter. Before even enrolling at UCL his online life betrayed his internal conflicts, his loneliness, and his difficulties with sexual feelings11. It is spiritually and emotionally difficult for any boy to grow up and become a man, and Umar's online posts could have resonated with my teenage self who had similar difficulties reconciling the sexual morals he was raised when neither his society nor his body shared them. Umar's web postings and online writings showed someone who had arrived at that vulnerable stage where he could convert to a different religion. We already know that an extremist group got to him.

But if he had gone to another university or spent time on other websites the story would have evolved differently. These American Protestant Evangelical churches rely on a network — or supply chain, if you will — of publishers and media organizations to produce materials for their liturgies. All the materials and plans for those weekly groups require a "para-church" organization, a sort of non-profit supplier of interchangeable pieces of the liturgy, to produce them. The liturgy is composed of individual commodities of spiritual materials that can be traded on an open market. Common demographics — like a teenage boy struggling with sexual urges and desires for religious glory — have targeted materials produced for them. If Umar had attended the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs instead of UCL then a "Bible study group" working through "Every Yong Man's Battle" or similar book might have found him instead.

Retailers and marketers know how to reach their target demographics. American Protestant Evangelical churches, operating in the same free market system, know how to reach their demographics, too. I cannot (and do not wish) to access terrorist recruiting material, but we know that they rely on the same moments of emotional vulnerability. It is not hard to imagine that they are just as good at targeting vulnerable young men.

Any market is always subject to some political constraints — not just those regulations that make it more or less "free" but also the meddling between businesses trying to pick politicians/regulators and politicians trying to pick businesses. Lobbying and corruption are always tenants on Market Street. The market for the American Protestant Evangelical liturgy is huge and the major actors in the church and in American politics have been lobbying and corrupting each other for decades. Ted Haggard used to brag about having weekly conversations with President George W. Bush. Bush, for his part, considered the Protestant evangelical and conservative Catholic vote to be essential to his 2004 election victory12. The National Association of Evangelicals has actively lobbied Congress since its existence13. This interaction has not always been accepted by the faithful. The Harper's Magazine column from 2006 quoted members of Haggard's congregation saying "Pride's dangerous... God does not see politics as a victory." My parents pointed out — without needing to know anything about who was supplying the "Biblical Citizenship" course — that Christian citizenship is of a spiritual kingdom, not an Earthly country, and does not concern itself with political documents like the US Constitution.

Nearly two decades after Bush's 2004 victory one of the links between American Protestant Evangelicalism and politics now takes the form of something called "Christian Nationalism", despite its association with authoritarianism14. It might be that authoritarian leaning politicians and Christianity might be drawn to each other by a similar psychology. On the one, Christianity's psychological fondness for authoritarianism might come from its history. Ancient Hebrew scriptures (commonly referred to as the Old Testament) scarcely mention an afterlife, but after the Babylonian exile, where the Hebrew people were robbed of their temporal power and agency, the idea of an afterlife became much more prevalent15. American Christianity's courtship with politics could be driven by the same process but in reverse: declining church attendance, scientific progress, et cetera, could all be causing the remaining faithful to have serious doubts about their grasp on the spiritual world, and those doubts are being expressed in a more prevalent focus on temporal power to compensate. And on the other hand, democratic politicians might be attracted to the inherent authoritarianism in Christian theology and therefore in Christian voting groups. Jesus is King and Judge and should rule without constraint. Authoritarianism could also just be what people eventually vote for: Athenian democracy ended with the election of the Thirty Tyrants — an oligarchy with both executive and legislative power16.

It is not necessary to reach to ancient history to understand how the general decline of Christianity in American could pressure it to take a more overtly political slant. Economic forces might be sufficient to understand it. Most American industries have a habit of asking for government assistance when they struggle — from banks to car manufactures. Declining religiosity means a smaller market for liturgical materials, rock concerts, unaccredited Bible collages, and the like. The active focus on politics might be their way of asking for a bailout, or at least industry protection via government regulations. Note that President Bush extended federal funds for "faith-based organizations" after his 2004 reelection17.

Whatever it is, the same free market dynamics that gave birth to this liturgy are driving it into a deeper marriage with politics. Politicians court congregations until the congregations expect a certain politics. Eventually they lose the ability to distinguish between spiritual goods and political ones. Churches are like a newspaper that needs to flatter the preconceived notions of its readers to keep them until eventually they cannot write anything outside of that same bias.

In 2022 when I saw the "Biblical Citizenship" course joining the ecclesiastical ranks of the Men's ski weekend, I immediately knew that it had been purchased from elsewhere. As it turns out, the course materials were produced by, and were purchased from, an organization called TPUSA Faith, which is the religious outreach program of Turning Point USA, a non-profit seeking to "identify, educate, and train students to promote freedom". They believe, among other things, that the US Constitution is "the most exceptional political document on Earth" and that "capitaism is the most moral economic system... ever devised"18. Screenshot  for Turning Point USA.
In practice, however, "promote freedom" means "promote Donald Trump for President". Turning Point USA ran the Students for Trump organization, which they acquired shortly after its founder, Charles Kirk, became its chairperson19. They even hosted a Trump rally in Arizona for the 2020 US Presidential election20.

TPUSA Faith appeared to be using another organization, the Patriot Academy, as the front that would sell the "Biblical Citizenship" courses to churches. They also provided training programmes for the would-be "coaches" to run the courses. The Patriot Academy was founded and is run by Texas state representative Rick Green. The Academy exists to "equip and educate a generation of citizen leaders to champion the cause of freedom and truth in every sectory of society" as well as to "restore our Constitutional Republic and the Biblical principles". Besides the "Biblical Citizenship" course from TPUSA Faith, they also put on a few courses of their own. One such course, titled "Constitutional Defense", included "28 hours of firearm training on the range". Screenshot  for the Constitutional Defense course.
Yet it somehow joined the gun training with 12 hours of "intellectual training" on "how to defend the Constitution". It is never said so explicitly, but the subtext is that firearms are necessary to "restore our Constitutional Republic and the Biblical principles". Can you imagine how unsettling it would be for the people at the Patriot Academy if a mosque had, as part of its liturgy, an advertisement for an organization that hosted "Islamic defense" courses — courses that included "28 hours of firearm training" ?

There are similarities between the relative socioeconomic positions of the young men growing up in American Protestant Evangelical churches and people like Umar Abdulmutallab. Protestant Evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican voters, and Republican voters are also more likely to be affluent. However, Protestant Evangelicals themselves are not more likely to be affluent, suggesting that wealthier churchgoers would be aware that their brothers and sisters in Christ are not as well off as themselves22. Similarly, Umar came from a relatively wealthy Nigerian family who could afford to educate him at a London university. As he traveled between Nigeria and the UK, Umar would have bee exposed to much more extreme levels of wealth inequality between himself and his fellow Muslims than Protestant Evangelicals would see. Furthermore, Protestant Evangelicals feel increasingly repressed and discriminated against23. And while writers in The Atlantic might dismiss this as a persecution complex24, even I can attest to the palatable disdain for religion in general and Christianity specifically among the elites I have met in my time in the media and academia. Umar was also drawn to the idea that he was being persecuted; a large part of al-Qaeda's ideology centers around the idea that Western and Westernized elites are subjugating the Islamic world.

When my parents and I discussed the "Biblical Citizenship" course they had mentioned that one of their main concerns was for the spiritual health of new believers: if someone was a recent convert to Christianity, or rediscovering it, then they would see things like "Biblical Citizenship" courses and organizations like TPUSA Faith being promulgated as part of the weekly liturgy. How could they not then conclude that firearms training and political activism are an important part of their new faith and fellowship? As I was wondering what would drive Umar to put a bomb in his underwear and attempt to detonate it on a plane, I thought of young men in the US feeling equally adrift while trying to find their place in the world. I thought of the para-church organizations producing liturgical materials targeting those men. I thought of the economic and social pressures driving the church into politics and the same pressures polarizing those men. I imagine them hearing the call for a Biblical Citizenship course that would lead them to firearm training and "constitutional defense classes". I realized how all this relates back to Umar and I became enlightened.

And then afraid.