Why you shouldn't write Sarah Palin off

The rise of Rick Warren and the mega-church Bible Belt has boosted Palin's presidential ambitions.

"Everybody sing ee-oo," declaims the clean-cut thirtysomething at the front of the vast auditorium. Ten thousand Californian voices respond. Over a backing of soaring power chords, the soloist launches into an ecstatic, 1980s-style anthem: "If you're alive and you've been redeemed,/Rise and sing, rise and sing."

Pastor Rick Warren, America's most im­portant religious leader since Billy Graham, emerges from the wings, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, a trimmed CEO beard and a little more weight than his doctor might recommend. When he speaks, his words are as warm as the Orange County sunshine: the homily is a practical one, advising fathers to pay their children more attention. On gigantic television screens, Jesus on the cross tells John to look after His mother when he dies.

This talent for presenting simple biblical lessons for a suburban age is behind The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren's book detailing his 40-day plan for "Christian living in the 21st century", which is on the shelf of almost every evange­lical household in the US. It has become one of the bestselling non-fiction hardbacks in American history, turning the pastor into a sort of spiritual Oprah, with trademarked books and podcasts and appearances at Wal-Mart. Warren's face has been on the cover of Time; and he was chosen to offer the prayers at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Warren set up Saddleback Church in 1980, selecting the location - Lake Forest, a suburb of McMansions and shopping malls - for its transient but growing population. That first Easter Sunday, 200 attended; Saddleback has since grown into a sprawling, 120-acre campus with an average weekend attendance of 22,000. Once, the stereotype of evangelicals as Southern, rural and poor might have been true. Now, they are far more likely to be college-educated, upwardly mobile professionals.

Sixty miles south of Los Angeles, Saddle-back is one of the mega-churches (those with at least 2,000 congregants) that make up the stretch between LA and San Diego known as the "southern Californian Bible Belt". In its grounds, information booths carry maps directing visitors to several white marquees that offer different styles of worship; there are burbling crystal fountains and a baptismal pool that looks like it belongs in an upmarket spa. The teenagers' area, meanwhile, is deliberately scuffed-looking. It contains a big wall display on Aids in Africa - the issue over which Warren has had his greatest impact on evangelicals.

Aids has largely either been ignored by American evangelical churches or treated as a punishment from God. Warren's views are closely aligned with those of the conventional religious right in many areas - in 2004, he said that stem-cell research was "non-negotiable" and compared abortion to a "holocaust".

Yet, a year earlier, he had attended a church conference in South Africa with his wife, Kay. She was recovering from cancer and was keen to adopt a big cause. "So we went out to this little village and found this tent church," he has said. "It had 50 adults and 25 kids orphaned by Aids." He has since joined the Bono/Bill Gates philanthropy club, despatching 7,500 volunteers from Saddleback to developing countries. "I'll work with anyone to stop Aids - Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist," he says. "That really makes the fundamentalists mad."

Fresh blood

When I visit his office at Saddleback, David Chrzan, Warren's chief of staff, says that the media are looking to appoint Warren as the fundamentalist-in-chief. "But Rick would say outright that he's not the leader of the religious right. He doesn't want to be," Chrzan says. "The bottom line is that everyone needs a saviour - Republican, Democrat or Tea Partier.

“Over the past two or three decades, the church became so associated with the Republicans. Now, people are saying: 'Hey, we are for the church - we are not just two-issue people interested in homosexuality and abortion.'" In a 2005 survey of evangelical pastors, 51 per cent said that their congregation was predominantly conservative. By 2008, depressed by Bush's unpopularity in his final years, that figure had fallen to 33 per cent.

There is little evidence that evangelicals are any less agitated about abortion, stem-cell research or gay marriage. But since the recession, moral issues have dropped down the priority list. At Saddleback, too much government, not too little, is blamed for California's disastrous financial state. "Government got greedy," a pas­tor in Ray-Bans and a leather jacket tells me, "and started taxing business too much."

Most members seem to whistle the old tunes of the right even as they display new-found concern for Africa's dispossessed. Like the Tea Partiers, they are as dismissive of many long-serving Republicans as they are of Democrats and echo the call for "fresh blood" in Washington. "If Palin becomes a viable candidate, they might see her as one of their own - an evangelical person who might get to the White House," warns Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

So progressives who predict the defanging of the Christian right should remember that we have been here before. Ten years ago, a former heavy drinker who had found Jesus ran for the presidency, promising a compassionate and consensual brand of evangelical politics.

We all know what happened next.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party