Beliefnet
Imagine your eyes are closed and your hands are lifted toward the heavens. People around you are singing with an attitude of surrender and desperation. Some of those people are dancing in the aisles. Some are simply meditating on the words being sung. Now open your eyes. You're not at a Christian rock concert. You're at the Republican National Convention in New York City.

Surprised?

I certainly was when I read that the Republican National Convention's official list of celebrities included more than a few Gospel and Contemporary Christian music artists. (I use the term celebrity lightly. Early-'80s pinup star Bo Derek and Stephen Baldwin, star of 1996's "Biodome" are both on the list.) Headlining the musical entertainment are Michael W. Smith, a 25-year veteran of the Christian music world; Nicole C. Mullen, one of the newest divas to advance the kingdom; and Third Day, an Atlanta-based Christian rock band. Either the RNC was hard up for real celebrities, or they're planning on having a little church this week at Madison Square Garden.

In addition to lifting up the praises of W, are the Republicans really rolling out the red carpet for Jesus, possibly hoping he would give his personal endorsement to George W. Bush? If this is their goal, then they invited some of the best in the business. Because preparing big God entrances is exactly what Third Day, Mullen, Smith and other slated Christian performers are famous for-they usher in the presence of the Lord night after night in concert.

My first thought, obviously, was that the GOP was short on options. With Springsteen and company heading out on an Anti-Bush tour in October and true A-listers like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Dave Matthews Band, Jewel, and Alanis batting for the other team, I wondered if the Republicans ended up with names like the inspirational Gracie Rosenberger (No offense, but who is she?) and gospel newcomer Donnie McClurkin, who might just lose his heavily African-American (and very Democratic) fan base with this appearance.

Organizers, however, insist they aren't hard-up for celebs. "We have strong connections to Hollywood and all sectors of entertainment," says Frank Breeden, head of the convention's entertainment committee.

I'm left with a nagging feeling that this year, the entertainment choices seem more intentional, more calculated than in conventions past. It's true that more celebrities are getting out front with their beliefs. Heck, even blues prodigy Johnny Lang, another name on the Republican's short list, is rumored to have recently become born again. It's also true that the Christian performers are presenting not their usual godly material, but songs with a patriotic bent. Smith had a big hit with a 9/11 song three years ago. Mullen will be singing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

But pretty much any singer can get through the national anthem, and in the context of almost 30 years of the sharply separated realm of Christian rock, there's little separating these performers' identities from their faith. Few Christian musicians-and certainly not these musicians--shy from admitting that their foremost calling is to help engage an audience with the presence of Jesus. If that's suddenly not among their purposes, why have them perform? Why would they want to?

It's likely the Republicans, many of whom hail from the very Bible Belt communities where Christian rock is most popular, will enjoy these acts. And conservative politicians have long shown that they like to ride Jesus' robe-tails. But even if they succeed in rousing the delegates, what will the nation think? Cameron Strang, publisher of Relevant magazine, a bi-monthly periodical for twentysomethings with the motto "God, Life and Progressive Culture," thinks that the talent at the RNC may backfire. "I don't want to criticize Christian artists, but when Kerry gets Patti Labelle and Little Richard and the Republicans get Third Day and Sara Evans, there's an obvious 'cool' factor that is lost."

Not every musical entertainer on the schedule is linked to the world of Christian music. Namebrand country artists Brooks and Dunn, The Gatlin Brothers, and Sara Evans made the list, too. The influx of Christian rockers has more to do, perhaps, with the fact that Breeden is the former president of the Gospel Music Association, is the convention's entertainment mastermind. He insists that the Christian entertainers aren't there only because he had a problem finding entertainers who support the heart and soul of George W. Bush. "The roster of support among entertainers for Bush is very strong," says Breeden. "In fact, we've been working very closely with MTV for the past several months on some projects around our convention."

Therefore the question, simply, is why RNC didn't pull in some bigger names. Four years ago pop princess Jessica Simpson performed at Bush's inaugural ceremony, parodying the words to her own hit song. ("George Bush, I think I'm in love with you."). Her popularity has only skyrocketed in the four years since.

If the RNC has Hollywood connections and simply didn't want performers like Simpson, one can only conclude that the RNC is really trying to get God to show at their convention. And is inviting a few of his famous followers to lead the crowd in a couple praise and worship songs enough to get Him to give it a second thought? Might I suggest the Republicans just ask Him to attend? He's known for showing up for shindigs when simply invited. Just ask Michael W. Smith.

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