February 3- 9, 2005
Jesus Geek Superstar
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Michael Marcavage wants to save your soul. (We think.)
On the week of George W. Bush's second inauguration, a group of conservative Christians from Wisconsin, Nebraska and Virginia convened in Washington, D.C. Among them were three young children, about a dozen home-schooled teenagers and several congenial adults, including a bearded man in a green-and-yellow jacket that read "Jesus is the Christ" on the back. The group rented a tour bus from Superior Tours and set out to spread what they believe to be God's honest truth: President Bush is too liberal.
Early the first morning, a 25-year-old man from Philadelphia joined the mission. He was tall and athletically thick, with a smooth, innocent face and a thin sheet of dark hair combed in the same ministerial style as Sen. Rick Santorum's. As he stood on a heavily trafficked corner holding a poster of an aborted fetus, a teenage boy wearing a "LIFE" button took a break from passing out fliers to approach him.
"Mike?" the boy asked, smiling sheepishly. Michael Marcavage turned around.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"I saw you on TV last night," the boy said, extending his hand.
"Thanks," Marcavage replied, accepting the hand and shaking it heartily. Then he shrugged. "I thought Alan Colmes would be more responsive."
The teen's eyes were wide. Ever since Marcavage was arrested protesting at Philadelphia's Outfest, a gay pride event, the street preacher has become a rock star to this crowd and a public face for their movement. The teen wanted to hear more about his television appearance.
But Marcavage gently shifted the conversation to one of his talking points. He began discussing the festivities at Outfest. The "penis-bagel eating contest" seemed to have really gotten under his skin.
"I'm sorry," he says, "but that's not Christ-like."
Marcavage has a knack for these sound bytes. As his name becomes more recognizable and religion adopts a bigger role in American politics, he threatens to become a true force in the arena of American belief. But since entering the spotlight, this man has revealed many different faces: the savvy pundit, the devout muckraker, the confused adolescent, the calculating bigot. Just what does the Great White Hope of the radical right believe in?
Michael Marcavage's star began to rise shortly after Oct. 10, 2004. That day, he and a number of his followers attended Outfest with bullhorns, posters, a guitar and a camera crew. Marcavage always brings a camera as witness to his protests now. He has been arrested a dozen times, he estimates (though never convicted), and he believes that the content of his message has a lot to do with that. At Outfest, Marcavage and his followers were surrounded by a group of Pink Angels, parade-goers who had come prepared with boards of insulation to block out Marcavage's signs. Police, perhaps fearing a violent conflict, tried to direct Marcavage away from the area, but Marcavage, speaking loudly and clearly enough for the cameras to pick up his every word, repeatedly invoked his right to demonstrate on public property. Finally, he sat down on the ground, and the police placed him under arrest.
The video shows all of this, as well as a long, tragic shot of Marcavage and his followers being loaded into the back of a police van. Marcavage posted that video on the Web site for his evangelical organization, Repent America (whose theme is "Calling a Nation in Rebellion Toward God to Repentance"), along with text explaining that he was being charged with three felonies criminal conspiracy, ethnic intimidation and inciting a riot and five misdemeanors. Conservatives quickly picked up on the case, labeling him and three of his compatriots who also faced charges the "Philadelphia Four." Web sites began buzzing about the "Christian Rodney King," and before long, some of them kicked off a letter-writing campaign.
In December, dozens of e-mails started pouring in to local media outlets, mostly from red states. One sent by June Shafhid of Las Vegas, Nev., captures their essence:
There is a young man named Michael Marcavage and a few other people that can face up to possibly 47 years in jail because he simply protested against a Homosexual Pa. event. He is a Christian. He had the right to be at this event just like any other person. Why do the homosexuals have rights, but Godly people no longer do?
Marcavage had tapped into a deep well of resentment among conservatives who feel that political correctness now excludes Biblical reference from public discourse. Combine that with a preoccupation among some Christian circles with persecution (think Mel Gibson), and Marcavage became a cause celebre. The Philadelphia Inquirer picked up on his story. He made appearances on the O'Reilly Factor and the Abrams Report, as well as numerous radio stations. He was still a fringe activist, and his fame might have expired in its proverbial 15 minutes, but Marcavage did something unexpected. He nailed the interviews.
Consider, for instance, his Jan. 18 appearance on Hannity & Colmes, Fox News' highly rated talk show.
Nine hours before his anti-institutional work in D.C., Marcavage joined the institution via satellite. He arrived in a cramped Center City studio with two lawyers flanking him, like bodyguards for his intellect. He appeared giddy, unfocused. With just a few minutes remaining before going on the air live, sitting underneath a bright light in front of a glossy backdrop of the city's skyline, he wondered aloud whether Alan Colmes might be sympathetic to his cause. Colmes, Fox News' resident liberal, is not the most feared of left-wing interviewers, but for a 25-year-old television greenhorn, the possibility of being tripped up by him was real and the fear of humiliation acute. A technician dabbed the sweat off Marcavage's face.
Less than two minutes to go. Marcavage reviewed some talking points about Outfest, such as the amount of money the city put into the event, and then, once the 10-second countdown began, he stared unblinking into the camera. A woman's voice said "One," and Marcavage's image was beamed into 1.5 million living rooms. He smiled thinly.
All of a sudden, Colmes was on him. Tell us what happened. ("We were there to minister the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ," Marcavage says.) According to the District Attorney, you had bullhorns getting in people's faces. ("No, that's false.") So the District Attorney is lying? ("Yes, that is correct.")
Colmes' tone was confrontational, like that of a police interrogator who knows he's got the right man: You have a history of being arrested. But Marcavage held fast. "Dr. Martin Luther King," he says, "was arrested many times, too."
Hannity took over. His questions were like a cold glass of water.
"I love how liberals love free speech unless you're a conservative," he began. ("A grievous violation of our civil liberties," Marcavage declared.) The interviewee spoke in tight, lawyerly sound bytes now; he knew he was home free. Hannity tossed a few more softballs, then expressed his disdain for the charges against Marcavage. The interview was over. Marcavage aced it. In the hallway afterward, he complained that the four-minute segment was too short.
The charges against Marcavage are still pending, but he has already made the most of them. By maintaining a cool confidence under fire, he has put an accessible face on his radical ideas. Reporters continue to ring his phone constantly he used 7,000 minutes of air time last month and Repent America's mailing list now exceeds 5,000 people. It's still growing.
"There are thousands upon thousands of people out there who want to hear what I have to say," he says. "I think that's just God's design for me."
"The Bible is in its entirety truth. It speaks to all issues we could encounter."
Marcavage sits in the faint light in his home in Lansdowne. His living room has scant earthly possessions, with the exception of technological items: There is a big screen TV, a DVD player, two computers and an original Nintendo.
He lives alone in this dimly lit house. It serves as his shelter, place of worship and workplace. Marcavage's full-time job is running Repent America (his income, he says, comes from "donations from individuals and churches"). He does not belong to a Church, but he attends "fellowships" with other Christians approximately three times a week. He does not date.
"I am a virgin," he says after some deliberation. "I'm not ashamed of that. Paul said it was better to be alone."
Like many born-again Christians, Marcavage refers often to his prior life. "I broke all 10 commandments," he says. According to the Bible, if you break one commandment, you've broken them all, he clarifies. This sinning took place in his hometown of Simpson, Pa., a rural town outside of Scranton, where Marcavage presumably acquired his folksy manner. His mother died when he was three, and he doesn't know much about her, he says. His father raised him and his younger brother as Catholics. But Marcavage found Catholicism to be more ritual than religion. "I didn't know God," he says. He was 16 years old when he began reading the Bible. "That's when God opened my eyes to the truth.
"Jesus made it very clear that he is the way, the truth, and the light, that no man comes to the father but by him, John 14:6," Marcavage says, his speech accelerating as he quotes, as though his mind had switched gears. "It's not that other religions are bad, but it's that other religions are wrong."
Marcavage's new commitment caused some rifts in his family. Though he maintains a relationship with his father and brother, they are separated by a "spiritual division," he says. He can't remember what his brother, who still lives near Simpson, does for a living, which seems to embarrass him.
When he moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University, where he studied broadcast journalism (and, presumably, acquired his media savvy), his outspokenness about his convictions drove him apart from his junior-year roommate, Damany Higgs. Higgs says that he and Marcavage had political arguments that exploded into personal attacks.
"We would talk about things in the Bible," Higgs recalls. "I grew up in church. I would say it doesn't explicitly say in the Bible that being homosexual is a sin, it says that lusts are sins, and that was one of our debates."
"Are you gay?" Marcavage would ask him. Higgs was not.
"Well, a person who believes something like this is definitely going to hell."
Marcavage remembers that their falling out was about Higgs' insistence that he be permitted to walk around the room naked and display pornographic posters on the wall.
"He's just another lost individual," he says dismissively.
Higgs says this reaction is very much in character for his old roommate.
"If you don't agree with what he says, he condemns you."
The crux of Marcavage's worldview is biblical literalism. Even those famous instances where the Bible seems to wander from modern conceptions of right and wrong, Marcavage explains away as misinterpretations. Biblical slavery, for instance, is "not in the sense of based on the color of someone's skin, but about how people were admitted into voluntary slavery based on them wanting to be in service to others." Nor is Marcavage bothered by the suggestion that, in adhering to his own interpretation of the Bible, he is ultimately putting his faith in the superiority of his own intellect. He says that on some matters, the Bible is just clear.
"As Christians, we know that there is a literal hell and a lake of fire where the unsaved will burn for all eternity," he has written on the Repent America Web site. "Therefore, we act upon this Truth without reservation and GO OUT into the streets and communities of America declaring the WORD OF GOD and proclaiming the GOOD NEWS."
But critics have wondered why he seems to focus so much of his attention on abortion and homosexuality. He has been accused in the past of having "an obsession with all things gay." Marcavage calls these charges "baseless." He calls abortion in America a "holocaust" and homosexuality a "public safety issue." The latter, he says, deserves special attention because it is one of the more "celebrated sins in our nation. No one says, 'let's break the Sabbath today'. No one's gonna say, 'greed is good'. I don't know of any event where you have people coming into the streets of America celebrating adultery."
Marcavage never uses slurs to describe homosexuals; rather, he turns the word homosexual itself into a slur, using it as a sort of branding. He is a deliberate speaker, careful as any politician. But if he is diplomatic with his words, he uses them to advance a militant agenda.
"According to the Scriptures, it's the government's job to enforce God's law and to uphold his law, and the Bible talks about how, I don't want to really get into this it'll make me sound like I'm crazy but it does talk about how [homosexuals] are to be put to death. The wages of sin is death. But I want to make [it] clear that I'm not advocating the [independent] killing of homosexuals. I'm saying that the government's duty is to uphold God's law. I know that's harsh, but we have all broken the law, God's law, and we need to be held accountable."
Marcavage's methods have attracted as much attention as his message. Some Christians don't understand why he won't support Bush. They think of him as a sort of Christian Ralph Nader, a charge Marcavage rebuts by citing various perceived violations of scriptural law by the president, such as providing federal funds for abortions or appointing an open homosexual as ambassador to Romania. "As Christians, we're not allowed to compromise," he says. Other people wonder whether Marcavage actually convinces anyone with his evangelical street preaching. Franny Price, the organizer of Outfest, can't understand why he came to Outfest in the first place. "Nobody was going to be converted that day, I guarantee you," Price says.
Marcavage keeps a prop in his living room that he uses to respond to this point. One night, a couple of years ago, he was in the parking lot of a strip club near Childs, Pa. Though it was nighttime and there was no one around, he says, "the Lord put it in my heart to start preaching into the darkness." Occasionally, patrons came and went, ignoring him or throwing him looks. Then, "a young woman emerged from the darkness," a white woman in her 30s. Marcavage tried to speak to her, but she quickly took his hand and folded a note into it.
The note is now framed on his mantle:
"I want to thank you. I came here tonight to sit and wait and pray that I did not again, see my husband, my boyfriend of five years, pull into the parking lot. Last November, he had an affair with a stripper who works here. She was a heroin addict exchanging sex for money. Your words and scripture have comforted me. Taken away some pain."
As for other examples of successful ministry, Marcavage only mentions a time he convinced a man to return a pornographic video.
In Washington, D.C., Marcavage's ministerial skills were on full display. Over two days, he stood in bitter cold and beating snow, and his posters elicited a number of reactions. None of them appeared to be faith.
In front of the Supreme Court building, Marcavage and a group of followers held up pictures of aborted fetuses. Through his bullhorn, he exhorted the court to overturn Roe v. Wade and reinstitute a ban on sodomy. "Blood runs through our streets!" he said. "We are guilty!" A small group of committed tourists huddling in front of the entrance ignored him. One man came over to congratulate him, and a class of middle school children expressed its disgust: "Eewww!"
At the inaugural parade, his poster got him into a shouting match with nine teenage girls. "I have a question for you," said one. "Are you a 14-year-old girl who's been raped by her father?"
Marcavage asked why the child should be "killed for the parent's crime." They went back and forth for a while, each growing progressively more agitated, until he yelled at her, "You don't care about the babies, that's the problem!"
"Grow a vagina," she said as she walked away.
His luck is only slightly better with Bush supporters. High above his head, Marcavage holds a sign that says, "Why Should God Bless America?" On the other side is a picture of the wet, half-formed pieces of an aborted fetus. "Funding for abortion has gone up under President Bush," Marcavage says. "He was the first Republican president ever to appoint a homosexual to office. There are people representing the U.S. in Romania sodomizing each other."
One young man came over to try to convince Marcavage to change the Republican Party rather than protest it. The two had a civil conversation, and Marcavage convinced him to check out his Web site. But most of the Republicans simply ignored him, booed him, or chanted "USA! USA! USA!"
"The arrogance of some of these Republicans is amazing," Macavage said after packing up his poster.
It is easy to forget, given the antiseptic language Marcavage uses, the people he has antagonized. Kevin Lee tries hard to keep his cool while discussing the Christian activist. Lee, an openly gay councilman from Lansdowne, has been the target of Marcavage's "ministry" several times. He says Marcavage has attacked him verbally and posted his telephone number on Repent America's Web site, precipitating death threats. (Marcavage explains that he posted all the Council members' numbers.)
Lee characterizes Marcavage as a small-time nuisance and hatemonger.
"In our small town, he has picketed and bull-horned a children's Arbor Day event [and] the opening of a retirement housing facility," Lee wrote in an e-mail. "He has also picketed a private residence that had been visited by Sen. John Kerry and asked the children that lived there how many abortions they've had."
Marcavage says he was at all these events, though he objects to Lee's descriptions of them. He points out that Gov. Ed Rendell was at the Arbor Day event, and that it wasn't for children (though there were children present); he says he was actually at the groundbreaking of a retirement facility, not the opening, and he was there because he objected to the politics of a minister involved; and he says that Lee wasn't near him at the Kerry event and couldn't possibly know what he said (though he definitely had a tense exchange with a child who lives at the house).
To Lee, Marcavage is a huckster whose "whole goal in life is to get in front of the media and get arrested." Lee suggests that Marcavage is a paid agent of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organization, which pays him to get in legal trouble so that the AFA can raise money to defend him. Marcavage and Brian Fahling of the AFA both say this is false, though the organization does provide the street preacher with free legal counsel. (When you visit the AFA's Web site, the "Philadelphia Four" are plastered all over the place, and if you click on a link to donate for the cause, you are led directly to a nonspecific AFA donation page. Fahling says the AFA does use cases like Marcavage's for fund raising).
That's why Marcavage was arrested so many times before the Outfest incident, Lee says.
Price, the director of Philly Pride Presents, gets a similar impression. She points out that Marcavage comes to events where the possibility of "conversion" is unlikely at best: "I think it's his agenda the Michael Marcavage agenda."
"If the AFA turned around and said [homosexuality and abortion] are no longer a focus of ours, I think he would have a different focus," Lee concludes.
In the face of all this criticism, Michael Marcavage is the picture of confidence. He says he believes that his motives are pure. That his interpretation of the Bible is sound. That his protests are warranted. And, finally, that he, Michael Marcavage, understands what's best for Kevin Lee's eternal soul.
"I don't enjoy getting arrested," Marcavage says. "I don't enjoy sitting in a jail cell. I don't hate Mr. Lee. I love Mr. Lee. Probably more than anyone he knows."
Response from Mr. Marcavage
Serving the King
A recent statement published in City Paper, in a tabloid-like fashion, quoted me in suggesting that my desire is to have homosexuals and other sinners put to death. In regards to the accuracy of the quotation, it is clear that it was not published in its entirety and was my response to a theological question, which was off the record. Sadly, this has led others to promote the quotation in a false light. So, on the record, I want to make it clear, as it was even included in that printed quotation, that I do not desire that homosexuals be put to death but rather proclaim what the Scripture says in Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
I believe that homosexual behavior is sin and cannot force any person to accept this message, but can only warn. I confessed in the City Paper quotation, as I do so now, that I am guilty of violating God's law but have repented and accepted the payment for sin, Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I do not act in hatred toward any person, including the homosexual, but I go to those willing to listen with the same love that was extended to me. If I did not love, I would stay in a church building.
Director, Repent America
Ed: City Paper stands by the veracity of Taussig's article and reporting.