By Barry W. Lynn
Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park in California, and I go back a long way. He first took an interest in me when I criticized the highly partisan content and style of Christian Coalition voter guides back in l998 at a National Press Club event in Washington.
Drake called such public criticism “an absolute ungodly approach, absolutely Satanic approach.” He then urged his supporters to begin an “imprecatory prayer” campaign against me.
Even though seminary-trained, I was a tad uncertain about the meaning of this tactic. Imprecatory prayers, it turns out, are prayers that bad things — up to and including death — befall the “prayer” recipient. In other cultures, they would simply be called “curses” (and dolls might be involved).
Six months later, Pastor Drake and I were on CNN together one afternoon, and I happened to mention that he had been praying for my demise for some time. When I returned to my office, I discovered that he had faxed me a handwritten note informing me that he was “shocked” that I would bring up this “private matter” on national television. I was certain that I had not learned that “rule” at the seminary.
Pastor Drake is now back in the imprecatory prayer business, and two other AU staff members and I are the targets of his ire. Back in August we sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service asking it to investigate the possibly illegal intervention in a political campaign by Drake. He supported the election of presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on church stationery and his church-based daily radio program.
Drake claimed these were “personal” endorsements, but it would be abundantly clear to any observer that the use of the church letterhead was intended to convey a “weightier” endorsement than that of a single cleric. The stationery also lists Drake as the “Second Vice President 2006/2007 Southern Baptist Convention” and, indeed, on one radio broadcast he told listeners that he was throwing his weight behind Huckabee in his role “as Second Vice President.” So much for the “personal” nature of his endorsement.
We faxed our complaint to Drake as we sent it to the IRS, and the pastor sent out an angry press release two hours later calling for those imprecatory prayers against both Joe Conn and Jeremy Learing (whose real name is Leaming) and a presumptive continuance of the same against me.
His missive included sample prayers for the biblically semi-literate, which included, “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg; let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.”
All this led me to two immediate questions. First, since he had spelled Jeremy’s name incorrectly, was there a person named Jeremy Learing who should be notified? Second, did he really know my children? One is working at Google. The other is finishing law school at the University of Virginia.
My deepening sense is that the only desolate places they will be looking for pastry will be ordering baguettes in the most romantic distant corners of fancy French restaurants.
We didn’t learn much more until early February when an article appeared on a right-wing Web site informing readers that Drake’s church was indeed under IRS investigation.
Drake’s attorney, Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defense Fund, announced that all this was a “Big-Brotherish” response caused by Americans United. Drake announced the imprecatory prayer effort would be expanded.
The pastor is not discussing the particulars of his case much under advice of counsel, but he did say that he “loves the media.” Our latest tete-a-tete has gotten a reasonable amount of press coverage.
When distressed Christians write him and rebuke his tactics, he sometimes e-mails them back and notes that the tactic is God’s, not his own. (As in, “don’t blame me, take it up with God,” washing his hands of the whole thing.)
On the other hand we’ve had a number of people write us in similar disgust at Drake’s tactics and including some sizeable contributions (one even requesting that we send Drake one of our “a gift has been given to AU in your honor” letters).
Interjecting death prayers into the discourse over important legal and policy manners is pretty disgraceful. Pastor Drake has a competent legal team to defend his interests. If he prevails, he prevails, and what we thought was “wrong,” the IRS did not.
In that event, I’m quite sure he will declare victory.
This pre-emptive strike of curses, however, is properly seen as alien to American political and spiritual life. As a people, we decry fatwahs against writers who do not toe a fundamentalist Islamic line. We denounce threats of violence announced by Hindu fundamentalists. To his credit, even Governor Huckabee didn’t seem too pleased with the tactics telling the press that he preferred “the saving of souls rather than the damning of souls.”
I’ll be heading home now as I finish this column. An ice-storm is expected to start soon. As long as it doesn’t rain frogs....
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.