Ground Zero Christian Center Kicks Off With Fire and Brimstone

Pastor Bill Keller's sermon only ran about 20 minutes, but he spent a good chunk of that time condemning me to hell. No, I'm not Muslim ("A wonderful religion for PEDOPHILES," says Keller's Web site). Nor am I gay, godless, or Gandhi (who is apparently suffering eternal damnation even though Keller concedes "he might have been a nice guy.") What has landed me on the preacher's hell-bound list is my Mormonism—"a cult from the pits of hell," as Keller describes it.

The controversial Internet evangelist came out swinging in his first Sunday service at the "9/11 Christian Center"—Keller's response to the proposed Park51 Mosque near Ground Zero. The Florida preacher says he will head a sermon every Sunday at a dowdy ballroom at the nearby Marriott Hotel until he finds a more permanent home. Plans are in the works to rent a facility nearby where Evangelical ministers will preach and "save souls," but the site won't be ready until January. Meanwhile, Keller said, he'll continue to lead services, pitting "the God of the Bible" against Allah in a quest to prove the superiority of his faith.

If the kickoff sermon proved anything, though, it was Keller's media savvy. Of the 60 to 70 people in attendance, about 20 were reporters—evidence that Keller's inflammatory rhetoric may be more appealing to the New York media than it is to most New York Christians. The congregation that did materialize—a mostly white mix of middle-aged couples and young adults—seemed more like scenery than anything else. Keller was the main event, and he was preaching to the cameras.

After recounting an Old Testament story in which Elijah courageously confounds the false prophets of Baal—you can guess which character he related himself to—Keller got right down to feeding a headline-hungry press with quotable sound bites.

"I want to talk about two of today's prophets of Baal: Glenn Beck and Imam Feisal Rauf," Keller said, directing his fire and brimstone at two of the most talked-about media figures of the past month.

On Beck (who is Mormon): "It was great that he got 3 or 400,000 Tea Party people to come to Washington. That was great. But his whole message of a nation that needs to turn back to God was so empty … The problem is, he doesn't believe in the Jesus of the Bible. When Beck gathers millions of people from his radio and TV programs and starts talking about Biblical theology, he is leading people into a lie from hell."

On Rauf: "He teaches the doctrines of Islam … a religion of hate, violence, and death." Later, he said Rauf was building a "victory mosque" to celebrate "a great Muslim military accomplishment."

And in case the sermon didn't provide reporters with enough material, the service was immediately followed by a lengthy press gaggle. An unflappable Keller stood confidently in front of a semicircle of skeptical reporters, answering each question with a blunt, well-practiced line. He has made a career out of shocking the press with obvious publicity stunts. During the 2008 presidential primaries, for example, he was interviewed by both CNN and Bill O'Reilly when he launched an ad campaign declaring: "A vote for Mitt Romney is a vote for Satan."

Since his nationally syndicated TV show was canceled for relentlessly hammering Islam, his ministry has been relegated to a Web site and a program on a small Florida TV station—and Keller understands now more than ever that his success depends on press coverage. One blogger at the service told me that he had recently gone on TV and blasted the preacher, only to receive a thank-you note from him the next day. "He loves the press," the blogger said.

For all the interviews Keller gave on Sunday, though, one question remained: is this project really an earnest (however inflammatory) attempt to save souls, or is it just a cynical stunt meant to antagonize the Muslim community? Keller insists his efforts are guided by God's love. "If I hated people, I'd be at home lying by a pool saying, 'I'm saved, to heck with everyone else!'" he said. "I'm here to save souls." So whose souls were on his mind Sunday morning? Well, one group got extra attention in the service's closing prayer.

"Lord, we have a lot of press here this opening day, and that's OK. We pray that they will ask themselves, 'Are you ready, if your heart stops beating in the next minute, to meet Jesus?'"

I may be part of the Satanic Mormon cult that will drag me down to a fiery grave—but at least I'm a member of the press. Pastor Keller will undoubtedly be praying for me.