Passing The Right’s Torch

Who’s In Line To Succeed Pat, Jerry And Dr. Jim?

News me\xaddia outlets have been doing pieces lately on the long\xadevity of top-tier TV preachers and Reli\xadgi\xadous Right figures. “CBS Sun\xadday Morn\xading” had a lengthy profile of the Rev. Pat Robertson, showing him riding a horse (as you may recall, he used to own racehorses but anti-gambling supporters had him put those out to somebody else’s pasture), explaining how God told him to run for president but didn’t tell him he would not make it and promoting his high-energy milkshake.

Strange as many of Pat’s comments are, he’s not looking bad for 76. Regular readers of this column will remember that I went to his 70th birthday celebration dinner, almost certainly because I got on his invitation list by error.

Jerry Falwell, age 72, has also been in the news lately, appearing on CNN on Easter Sunday to announce that he will not support the presidential ambitions of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control. Just a year ago, there were dozens of reporters looking for an overview of Falwell’s life and career after he entered a Virginia hospital for the second time in a few months. Reporters kept calling me for comments for an “analysis” or a “feature,” but I think most of them meant “obituary.”

Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Paul Asay, in a piece picked up around the country, did a look at Dr. James Dobson’s activities as he hits the big 7-0. Dobson is depicted as interested in playing the card game Hearts (and not liking to lose) and watching old movies. But he is also engaged in learning new high-tech communications techniques, including “podcasting.” Dobson has already survived prostate cancer and a major heart attack nearly 15 years ago.

Asay’s article raises the question of whether anyone can replace the Focus on the Family founder. The consensus, although not the view of Dobson, seemed to be reflected by a professor of religious history at the University of Colorado who noted that “it’s very hard to find a successor.”

As I write this, I am scheduled to participate with Focus’ second most visible figure, Tom Minnery at a conference in late April in Nashville on the controversial topic of theological support for Hitler. In my interaction with him, Minnery has always been pleasant, but he doesn’t have anything like the charisma millions find in Dobson.

I’ve chatted with Gordon Robertson, Pat’s son and fill-in host for “The 700 Club,” but he’s not exactly a burning bush of enthusiasm. I have never met Falwell’s sons, but they seem to have little interest in the high-powered political maneuvers of their father.

Many on the Religious Right also seem to sense that with the aging of the top level of fundamentalist communicators, and the lack of any obvious successful successors, someone must step forward to fill the vacuum to come.

One candidate, Texas preacher Rick Scarborough, has now held two conferences in Washington to bring activists and politicians together. In March, he put on a “War On Christians” conference in which several members of Congress spoke to about 200 people about the generalized rot they saw in the country and who was to blame (and, yes, my name came up occasionally).

Other more local activists, including the Reverends Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson in Ohio, are already mobilizing parishioners for electoral activity in the fall using techniques which over 50 other Ohio pastors believe have crossed into illegal use of tax-exempt ministries. Those pastors have even held a press conference with Marcus Owens, the former head of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt division, to demand an expeditious investigation of the Parsley/Johnson efforts. If the Pars\xadley/Johnson scheme results in electoral victories for their chosen gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, their stars will rise in the skies of the Religious Right.

I have just come back from an eight-day road trip to California, Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio, and I still find it interesting that so many people don’t recognize the clout the triad of Robertson-Falwell-Dobson have in this country. This means they don’t always see the connections between them and a wide range of bad ideas: from pumping for “intelligent design” to restricting stem-cell research to censoring Harry Potter books.

However, when you quote these evangelists’ words to a crowd, they are usually horrified and often say things like “I didn’t know they were that extreme.” (I should note that some of what they say is so bizarre it sounds funny, thus making it easier for me to get material to keep people awake during after-dinner speeches.)

If there is a silver lining in the gentlemen most likely to accede to the thrones of television political evangelism, it is that their ideas are just as extreme and bizarre as the current crop entertains.

Scarborough, for example, says, “Every single step down the road toward Gomorrah that this nation has taken in the last four years has been initiated by a federal judge.” Johnson complains that the clergy who complained to the IRS about his politicizing of churches are waging a “secular jihad against expression of faith.” And Parsley, perhaps the most bombastic of all, says churches that fail to join his Religious Right crusade are “dwelling in what I call the Devil’s demilitarized zone.”

With comments like these, I’ll be able to keep audiences awake for a long time to come.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.