AUSTIN, Texas — For the sake of a book, atheist Matt Taibbi lied his way into a Texas church.
Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, spent more than four months in 2006 and 2007 pretending to worship at the San Antonio megachurch whose pastor, John Hagee, has lately aired regrets if his past comments, including a reference to the “great whore” in the Book of Revelation, proved hurtful to Catholics.
Taibbi hung with residents of Austin and Houston who viewed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as inside jobs by the U.S. government.
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I asked him why he ended his secretive stint with Hagee’s Cornerstone Church.
Partly to get back to the magazine, he said, and partly because to become more involved, he would have had to submit his Social Security number to the church for a background check.
“There’s a point at which it becomes, I think, immoral to be in that environment under false pretenses for that long,” Taibbi said. ” I would have had to have relationships that were, you know, really really involved . … I stayed kind of just long enough to see a whole lot without really getting too close to people.”
I wondered if the book’s vignettes, sometimes comic, sometimes heated — including scenes suggesting that U.S. House members are unmotivated to fulfill promises — have stirred objections, at the least from individuals and groups he cheerfully pricked .
Not really, Taibbi said, though he’s fielded letters from Christians suggesting that the teachings at Cornerstone Church are not representative of many believers and from 9/11 Truthers questioning his insistence that there’s no factual basis for believing Uncle Sam struck down the twin towers .
Taibbi can be full-court provocative. For instance, he holds that the craziness he chronicled reflects unease at a political system that doesn’t work for anyone except powerful interests ensuring that money flows to their advantage.
Separately, he posits that Americans want presidents who lie well. He told me the likely Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, seems more likely to be a good liar, if necessary, than the presumptive GOP nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain. Like President Clinton, Taibbi said, Obama “could basically say anything and people would believe him.”
Of Democrats and Republicans in Washington, Taibbi writes: “No voter wants to believe he doesn’t really matter, so he buys into the idea that there are two substantively different parties frantically competing for his attentions, the ideological fate of the country hanging on his decision every few years. It flatters the average citizen to think that way.
“The reality is that the dominant characteristic of our political system is the unchanging nature of the political consensus — while the two parties agree about most all of the important things, they disagree violently about the inconsequential stuff, providing the fodder and the drama for an endless political `struggle’ that plays itself out in entertaining fashion every couple of years” in congressional races.
While praying at Cornerstone, Taibbi writes, he heard church leaders advocate the trashing of the Harry Potter books, describe all gays as victims of childhood sexual abuse and claim that al-Qaeda possessed nuclear bombs with plans to deploy them in 2007 in seven American cities.
The author says he heard no objections.