The Religious Right Wants To Grab It All

By: Martin Dyckman St. Petersburg Times; Opinion Section Sunday June 26, 1994

Those who do not yet understand the religious right should consider the words of state Sen. Charles Williams, D-Tallahassee, as he addressed a National Day of Prayer rally in Lake City last month.

Williams was speaking of the Senate's refusal to take up his bill authorizing student-led prayers at graduations and other supposedly noncompulsory public school events.

"There was a lot of opposition from the South Florida Jewish senators who do not believe in Jesus," he said. "We all as Christians have one thing in common, prayer to God. I have been a Christian since I was a youth and I'm proud to stand up and say I'm a Christian. It's time we all stood up and let it be known that we are Christians. I want all of you to pray for me and Rep. (Randy) Mackey when we go back next year to see it passed." In fact, Jewish senators had accounted for only four of the 14 votes not to hear the bill (and for one vote in favor) but the factual baloney was the least of what was wrong with what Williams said.

His message, by omission, was that only Christians pray to God.

Williams did not disown the quote, as related by the LAKE CITY REPORTER, but stoutly denied the newspaper's reasonable conclusion that he was blaming Jewish senators for the defeat. Amid intense criticism, he called them to say that he had meant no offense. At least one, Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, said publicly that he believed him. But Williams had given offense to plenty of other people, if not to fellow politicians for whom thick skins are a job requirement.

Rep. Elaine Gordon, D-North Miami, who's retiring from the Legislature, shot off a letter that minced no words.

"What's the matter with you?" she asked Williams. "Don't you believe that Jews pray to G-d? Surely you can't be that ignorant!"

In making the comment, she pointed out, Williams had inadvertently made precisely the case why students of minority faiths (or no faiths) shouldn't be confronted with group prayers in a school setting.

"... I have no doubt that people like you would denigrate and humiliate them if they chose to refrain from participating in a prayer that the 'majority' imposed on them," she said.

When I talked to Williams some time later, it was obvious that he still didn't comprehend the import of what he had said and probably never would.

Why, I asked, had he thought it necessary to point out to a Lake City audience that Jews don't believe in Jesus?

"I didn't think anything one way or the other," he said.

My old political science professor at Florida State University, Steve Roady, is a devout Christian (and political liberal), raised as a fundamentalist, who finds it uncomfortable to be one of Williams constituents. I sought his reaction the other day.

"Show me a man's works and I'll show you his faith," Roady said. "Down deep, he has some very great questions about people who disagree with him theologically. I just think that's a fatal flaw. You can't do that in the United States of America."

Belief in an exclusive communion with God is commonplace on the religious right. Bailey Smith, a founding father of the movement, once told 15,000 people at a Religious Roundtable briefing in Dallas, "With all due respect to those dear people, my friends, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition that is fast taking over the Republican Party, has spoken of Jews being "spiritually blind" and "spiritually deaf."

If they want to think they have an exclusive right to God's ear and Heaven, so be it. It's a free country. People can think what they want.

But the danger is that some of them think they have an exclusive right to the country, too. Robertson has spoken of the Constitution as "a marvelous document for self-government by Christian people," and of separation of church and state as a "lie of the left."

This, and much more, is contained in an excellent new book, THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT: THE ASSAULT ON TOLERANCE AND PLURALISM IN AMERICA, published recently by the Anti-Defamation League. It should be read by all informed citizens. If your library doesn't have a copy, demand one. Or write to the ADL at 823 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.

The book names Florida among 18 states where the Christian Coalition has "majority or near-majority influence" in Republican Party organizations. Tom Slade, the state party chairman, denies they're in control. But yes, he says, they're in almost every county as grass-roots workers. "They're tireless workers," says Slade. "Very candidly, we welcome the hell out of them."

That's one way to put it. But though Slade, a conventional Republican, may not want to say it, the agenda of the religious right is not simply about the values they profess - which, in many respects are everyone's values - but about excluding everyone but their co-religionists from roles in the government. It is not about having a place at the table, but about owning it. As the ADL report puts it, they fancy "a city on the hill, which has only one neighborhood."

Up until now, the religious people I knew believed uniformly that lying was a sin. Truthfulness and honesty were immutable values.

How, then, to explain the Oliver North phenomenon? Here's a man who was convicted of lying to Congress, and who escaped prison only because of one of those constitutional "technicalities" -- the Fifth Amendment - that he would ordinarily deplore, and whose line is now that it's okay to lie to Congress because Congress lies to the people. Yet he's become a political savior to people who so sincerely believe themselves to be God-fearing that they shouldn't want to be anywhere near North during a thunderstorm.

Is the power he might acquire in their name worth the moral price of overlooking his shabby character? Some may say so, but God forbid they should try to teach MY kids anything about "values."