Television preacher D. James Kennedy doesn't buy into the talk emanating from some circles in Washington these days that the Religious Right has lost the so-called "culture wars." In fact, as far as Kennedy is concerned, now is the time to declare "spiritual war," not run up the white flag of surrender.
"Not only are the culture wars not over, and not only have we not lost, but the fact is we are winning," Kennedy told an enthusiastic crowd of 1,800 who gathered in Ft. Lauderdale Feb. 26-27 at the Broward County Convention Center for Kennedy's "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference.
Kennedy's comments came in reaction to a widely reported statement made by conservative activist Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. In the wake of the failed drive to oust President Bill Clinton, Weyrich - the man who coined the term "Moral Majority" - issued a letter to supporters arguing that the Religious Right has lost the so-called "culture wars" and recommending that religious conservatives withdraw as much as possible from secular society.
Although he never mentioned Weyrich by name, Kennedy made clear his disagreement with "conservative leaders" who have "called for retreat."
"Surrender?" he asked. "Not on your life!....Thank God we have read the end of the Book. We know how this war comes out. Yes, we are fighting a spiritual warfare. We must fight it with grace, courtesy and love, but also with determination and zeal."
The Florida-based preacher insisted that most Americans agree with him, claiming the nation has been led astray by misleading polls. "Our nation should not be guided by polls," he said, a veiled reference to the fact that Clinton's job-approval rating has remained high despite the White House sex scandal. "This country has been deceived horrendously by false polling, and I think the American people need to wake up to that."
Kennedy asserted that public opinion firms routinely refuse to call residents of "11 conservative states" and they screen people with leading questions, excluding conservatives. According to his somewhat creative logic, since 11 states represent 22 percent of America's 50 states, one must add 22 percent to the number of Americans who say they disapprove of Clinton, thus reversing the results.
The Ft. Lauderdale conference, the sixth annual event sponsored by Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries, featured the standard litany of Religious Right themes -- strident opposition to legal abortion, harsh condemnations of the "gay agenda" and assaults on the "godless" public school system. (See "Missionary Man," page 14.) The gathering was also yet another declaration of war against church-state separation, religious pluralism and tolerance for diversity.
But it also featured an unusual mix of religious triumphalism and gentle chastisement of attendees for not doing enough to bring about a "godly" nation in America. Addressing the conference's opening session, Kennedy said Americans remain a moral people but insisted that they have been led astray by a debased popular culture and the "liberal media."
Kennedy painted a portrait of America overrun by drugs, teenage pregnancy, abortion, rampant crime, unwed mothers and divorce. He said he acknowledges that his opponents consider him controversial and warned the crowd to expect opposition as they prepare for battle.
Unlike the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson, however, Kennedy seems to have little interest in hogging the conference spotlight. Though militant in content, his opening remarks were brief. Kennedy then turned the emcee duties over to an associate and appeared only intermittently on stage thereafter, offering brief introductions of some speakers.
Kennedy's primary front person these days is Janet Folger, a 36-year-old anti-abortion strategist whom Kennedy lured from Ohio to run his "Center for Reclaiming America," a fledgling Religious Right political group that has taken on gay bashing as its primary objective. Once ensconced in Ft. Lauderdale, Folger quickly made a name for herself by spearheading a national ad campaign featuring "ex-homosexuals," people who claim to have been gay before converting to fundamentalist Christianity.
Folger is especially incensed by efforts to pass federal legislation increasing the penalties for "hate crimes," such as assaults on gays and lesbians. The drive took on heightened urgency last year after Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, was severely beaten and tied to a fence in freezing weather. Shepard later died of his injuries.
"The goal of this legislation is to try to silence us," Folger said. She asserted that if the law passed, it would be illegal to read the first chapter of the biblical book of Romans over the radio, an act she said is already illegal in Canada.
Folger also blasted the Supreme Court for striking down the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools. "We live in a country that does everything it can to keep its focus away from God," she asserted. And, not surprisingly given her background, she blasted the legalization of abortion and physician-assisted suicide.
Of the latter issue, Folger said, "That is something Satan really wants to be involved in." She added that the practice must be stopped because "some people don't accept Christ until their deathbed." Folger then waved around a large plastic bag that had an elastic band at the bottom, claiming it is an "exit bag" being sent down from Canada (by forces she did not name) so people in America can kill themselves.
Folger also blasted the constitutional doctrine of church-state separation as it applies to public schools. Playing fast and loose with the facts, she asserted that U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent in northern Alabama had "called out the prayer police to look for students praying" at DeKalb County public schools. (In fact, DeMent merely ordered an end to school-sponsored religious worship, pointing out in his decision that students may pray voluntarily on their own time. The case, Chandler v. James, was sponsored by Americans United. For more information on it, see "An Answer To Prayer," December 1997 Church & State.)
Kennedy and Folger were so angered by DeMent's ruling that they have launched a petition drive to persuade Congress to impeach him. Folger told the approving crowd that so far 60,000 names have been collected on petitions demanding DeMent's ouster. She did not point out that no member of the House of Representatives has agreed to sponsor an impeachment resolution or that it stands virtually no chance of passage.
The following day, Folger reappeared at a session called "The Assault on Christianity," which consisted mostly of clips of television shows and movies that Coral Ridge Ministries claims portray Christians in a negative light.
Curiously, Folger seems to blame church-state separation for the entertainment industry's alleged anti-Christian bias. At the session, she distributed a sheet titled "Restoring The Christian Voice," which she claims helps in "debunking the whole separation of church and state nonsense on which most of this rests."
Among other things, the sheet insists that church-state separation is not an American concept but rather appears in "the Constitution of the former Soviet Union." Folger added that Thomas Jefferson's views on the First Amendment are not important since "he had nothing to do with the Constitution."
At the session, Folger was joined by Jerry Newcombe, a Kennedy associate who has coauthored several books with the TV preacher. Newcombe asserted that Hollywood deliberately puts anti-Christian bias into TV shows and movies to promote a "godless culture."
As an example, Newcombe said several recent movies have featured "Christian serial killers," characters Newcombe said are ironic since, according to a Time-Life book he read about serial murderers, there has never been a Christian serial killer. (In reality, Newcombe added, many serial killers are homosexuals.)
Newcombe chastised conferees for being "a part of the problem" by going to see movies without first finding out what they are about.
The session was wildly popular, drawing a standing-room-only crowd with some 300 people turned away at the door. As it concluded, Folger passed out "life cards," listing companies that Coral Ridge Ministries has decided to boycott for alleged "anti-family" policies, such as funding Planned Parenthood. The companies include Target department stores, Johnson & Johnson, American Express and Levi Strauss. (General Mills has already apparently caved in to Coral Ridge's pressure, and the firm's name was blacked out on the card.)
Folger also emceed a curiously named "Homosexual Panel," which consisted not of homosexuals but of "ex-homosexuals" -- John and Anne Paulk, who gave their testimonies of how Jesus delivered them from the "gay lifestyle."
The Paulks' comments were mostly about their personal experiences. It was left to Robert H. Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, to ratchet up the rhetoric. Quipping, "I'm not a homophobe, by the way, although I play one on television," Knight asserted, "The end goal of gay activism is the criminalization of Christianity."
Knight insisted that another goal of the homosexual rights movement is to legalize sex between adults and children and told the crowd that hate crimes legislation "is the precursor toward thought crimes."
After accusing gays of advocating pedophilia, Knight said, "It is about going after the kids, ultimately. It's about teaching them in schools that gay is okay, and they might be gay and if they've even had a single thought about it, you might as well try it, otherwise you may damage your self esteem....So they're coming into the schools rapidly now under the guise of AIDS education and tolerance education."
Although Knight urged the crowd "to show that we don't hate homosexuals," he went on to call abortion, pornography and gay rights "an iron triangle," asserting that gay people are involved in promoting all three issues.
He also ridiculed marchers at pro-choice rallies. "They are usually pretty big, heavyset women," he said, "who look like they've been over working Oktoberfest for the last six years. You know, there's six beer mugs in each arm. All right, it's a stereotype, but I swear looking at that footage, that's what you see -- a lot of people who are angry, women who have shed their femininity and adopted a masculine outlook and are fiercely protective of abortion, which is the holy sacrament of feminism."
Lest anyone think he's a gay basher, Knight was careful to say, "I know people who are gay. Some dear friends of mine are."
(Nevertheless, gay bashing was a constant theme during the entire conference. On Friday morning attendees were entertained by Debbie and Angie Winans, gospel singers who did a live rendition of their anti-gay song "Not Natural." In the conference exhibit hall, "ex-gay" ministries distributed material, and one group sponsored a display accusing Clinton of being a stooge of the gay rights movement.)
Knight's rhetoric may sound extreme, but it was tame compared to the invective against legal abortion unleashed by Dr. Laurence White, senior pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston. Asserting that "America is in deadly peril," White insisted that the country will soon face judgment from God for 28 years of legal abortion.
White compared the United States to Nazi Germany, asserting that Nazi-era Germans kept religion and government separate "and their nation was destroyed. That retreat was facilitated by the lie of the absolute separation of church and state."
Continued White, "My friends, it's happening again. It's happening here in our beloved America." Legal abortion, White added, "makes Hitler look like a humanitarian by comparison." He urged everyone to get involved in politics but added, "Our God is not the mascot of the Republican Party....If the Republican Party cannot nominate a candidate with the courage to put an end to the slaughter, then we must look elsewhere for leadership."
The next day White led a workshop titled "Pulpits Aflame," during which he called church-state separation "the sharpest sword in the devil's arsenal, and it has immobilized churches all over the land."
Separation of religion and government, according to White, is among many "lies from the father of lies. The devil uses them to hinder and hamper the mandate of the church."
White blasted Christian pastors, especially "cowed separation-of-church-and-state boys," who are wary of jumping into politics for fear of losing their tax-exempt status. "We may lose our tax-exemptions," he said. "History may say the worst thing to happen to the Christian churches was tax exemption because it keeps us from speaking out."
Unlike Christian Coalition events, Kennedy's "Reclaiming America" did not feature a lot of speeches by elected officials. The only one to appear was House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). Armey substituted at the last minute for conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who was disinvited after Kennedy got wind of his new book, which criticizes the Religious Right for substituting politics for evangelism. The Texas Republican gave a rambling, low-key speech mostly about the importance of families. It included tepid calls for school vouchers, tax cuts and a space-based missile defense system.
"This is a good country," said Armey, "and we are good people. It's our country. Let's take it back."
But there was no mistaking the partisan political sentiments of the crowd. They routinely hissed or booed whenever Clinton's name was mentioned and cheered loudly when Knight talked about his desire to work for Gary Bauer in the White House. In the exhibit hall, one firm did brisk business selling hats, buttons and shirts embossed with the names of GOP presidential hopefuls, as well as bumper stickers reading, "I Support Ken Starr" and "Proud Member of the Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy." Bauer was the only Republican presidential aspirant given podium time. During his remarks Friday night, the former head of the Family Research Council criticized Weyrich, referring to him not by name but merely as "a conservative leader," for issuing his controversial memo.
Charged Bauer, "The fact that this conference is being held in the wake of that memo is very important. If that memo is right, this conference is ludicrous. But none of us believe that. Dr. Kennedy doesn't believe that, and I don't believe that. Words like 'I give up' can't be in our vocabulary."
Bauer urged judges all over America to display the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and added, "We will either rediscover virtue or we will lose our liberty." He asserted that in America, adultery has become the norm, then, barely a minute later, praised Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) "and the other House managers who stood for our Constitution." (Bauer, of course, did not mention Hyde's own adulterous affair that surfaced during the impeachment debate.)
In all, Bauer's remarks were unexpectedly low key. He drew the heaviest applause when he pledged to make opposing legal abortion the keystone of his presidential campaign. "I promise you this: On this issue, I will not be moved," he said. The remark drew a standing ovation.
Bauer was followed by right-wing radio talk show host Janet Parshall, who was recently named chief spokesperson for the Family Research Council. Noting her D.C. location, Parshall said, "I am a war correspondent from Babylon."
Parshall took the sharpest shots at Clinton of all the event speakers. Calling the Senate acquittal "a sham," she asserted that the president "has lost the moral imperative to govern the nation" and insisted that if the people had risen up to demand "that this shameless man be removed from the White House, the Senate would have done it."
Describing Clinton as a liar and "an unstable man," Parshall said America is engaged in a "moral and spiritual battle" but insisted that the tide is turning toward the Religious Right. She cited as evidence a recent poll by the liberal Center for Gender Equality that claims American women are adopting conservative ideas and that a majority now oppose legal abortion.
To rally the Religious Right's troops for conflict, Parshall told a story about George Washington at the Battle of Trenton. Asked by soldiers what they should do if they ran out of bullets, Washington replied, "Then use your bayonets."
Said Parshall, "We must use our spiritual bayonets. We must use the bayonets, for the nation must be taken for the love of God."
The conference concluded Saturday night with a banquet featuring Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.
But before Bright took to the podium, dinner-goers watched a tribute video to Kennedy, covering his career as a one-time dance instructor, his conversion to an ultraconservative strain of Presbyterianism and ascension to the head of Coral Ridge Ministries as well as his decision to use television broadcasting to reach millions of Americans. (This year is the ministry's 25th anniversary.)
Bright's comments were brief, as he seemed fatigued. That is perhaps explained by the fact that Bright has been periodically engaging in 40-day fasts to spur revival in America.
Echoing other event speakers, Bright began by insisting that the country is "morally and spiritually bankrupt." He added that the nation had drifted from its founding when the framers "dedicated this nation to our Lord."
The country, asserted Bright, enjoyed God's favor until 50 years ago when we experienced "those infamous decisions of the Supreme Court that began to change all of that. And this nation, in my opinion, is now under the discipline of God." Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, he argued, were destroyed because they rejected God. "Unless God divinely intervenes, we will follow the example of these nations," he said. "We can't shake our fists in the face of God and disregard his laws without feeling his discipline."
Continued Bright, "You have already been instructed in how to take [political] precincts for Christ. I urge you to get involved in elections...and help elect godly people to office....The Supreme Court has led a great revolution to turn our country away from God, and they need to be replaced. That won't happen unless we elect godly people from the precinct to the White House."
What does all of this mean? For church-state separationists, Kennedy's effort to make himself a national political force is troubling. The televangelist takes a hard line, and he's not ashamed of it. Unlike Robertson, Kennedy does not pretend to have Jewish or Roman Catholic support. At this gathering, "Christian" had one definition only: conservative Protestants who read the Bible as a manual for political activism and who see their interpretation of the scriptures as inspired, inerrant and infallible. Everyone else, in the words of Parshall, are "the lost" and their worldview is "hellish."
Kennedy seeks to "reclaim America," which raises the question of who he believes claims it now. Several speakers identified likely suspects -- "pagans," "the liberal media," "secular humanists," "radical homosexuals" and "extreme separationists." The concept of "taking back" the country from such forces and calls for "spiritual warfare," mixed generously with violent military metaphors, were constant themes.
To Kennedy, the "cultural wars" are being waged full throttle. And if his troops have their way, church-state separation and America's commitment to individual freedom may be the first casualties of that conflict.