November 2001 People & Events

Religious Right Leaders Continue 'Blame America' Approach To Terror Attack

TV preacher Pat Robertson and several other Religious Right leaders have continued to claim that the United States was subject to a terrorist attack on Sept. 11 because the country has embraced church-state separation and turned its back on God.

Robertson and fellow religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell earned national scorn for suggesting Sept. 13 that the nation deserved the attack because of Supreme Court decisions upholding church-state separation, tolerance of gay people and legal abortion.

Speaking at an Oct. 1 ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of his Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson insisted that worse would come unless the country embraces a Christian spiritual revival. He called the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed more than 6,000 and brought down the World Trade Center in New York City, a "wake-up call from God."

Robertson told the crowd of about 1,000, "The Lord is getting ready to shake this nation. We have not yet seen His judgment on America. This thing that happened in New York was child's play compared to what's going to happen. It was a great tragedy. It tore at our hearts when we saw that suffering, but it was a wake-up call from God."

Afterward, Robertson told the Associated Press that he stands by his statement after the attacks in which he said that God is "lifting his protection from us." The statement suggested God is angry because of court rulings upholding church-state separation, legalized abortion, Internet pornography and materialism.

(Robertson's views have apparently not made him unpopular with the Bush administration. During the ceremony, Michael Little, chief operating officer of CBN, read a congratulatory telegram from Attorney General John Ashcroft.)

Robertson is not the only Religious Right figure blaming the attack on church-state separation and Americans' alleged spiritual shortcomings. Two days after the attack, a group of fundamentalist leaders issued a joint statement making many of the same arguments. Titled "What To Do When The Towers Crumble: A Biblical Response To America's National Emergency," the statement strongly implied that the attack was a result of the country's sinful ways.

"Our choices have consequences," it read. "Our rebellion has results. In many ways, the results of the recent days are a reflection of the crumbling foundation of America. "

The statement asserted that it is "now easier in many schools to bring a weapon than a Bible. Commandments are out and condoms are in....Our rebellion is bringing us destruction and allowing our enemies to triumph over us. We need to pray that God will restore the walls of his protection around our nation."

Signers include Robertson; Florida TV preacher D. James Kennedy; Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ; Charles W. Colson, Prison Fellowship; James Dobson of Focus on the Family; James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and Lloyd Ogilvie, chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

The statement attracted little media attention and, in light of the uproar over Falwell and Robertson's comments, was quickly hidden from public view. A Church & State search found no postings on any Religious Right website. However, the magazine was able to obtain the document from other sources.

Billy Graham's daughter, evangelist Anne Graham Lotz, echoed many of those sentiments on CBS's "Early Show" Sept. 13, telling the hosts, "I believe you can't shake your fist in God's face, as we seem to have done over the last few years. We have told God nationally, politically, corporately, 'God, get out of our schools, get out of our businesses, get out of our government and get out of the marketplace. And it's OK if you stay in church or a synagogue, but don't come out on the street.' And then God, who is a gentleman and doesn't force himself on anybody, just withdraws very gently by degrees."

In other news about the Religious Right:

James Dobson says people should let up on Jerry Falwell. In a statement issued Sept. 20, Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, said Falwell has apologized and it's time to move on.

"Jerry Falwell has apologized for what he said," wrote Dobson. "He was on a network program last night and said as clearly as he could that he should not have expressed those thoughts. It wasn't time to criticize one another and blame those who had nothing to do with the tragedy for what happened. He profusely apologized for what he said, and I think we ought to cut him a little slack at this time because we all make mistakes."

Dobson went on to give Falwell's views a back-handed endorsement, writing, "I think what he was trying to say is that the strength of this country is its commitment to ultimate values and beliefs. When a nation moves away from its core beliefs and begins to create a new value system as it goes along, it becomes a weaker nation and all kinds of difficulty can come out of that."

Concerned Women for America has a new president. Christian radio talk show host Sandy Rios assumed the position Oct. 15. She replaces Carmen Pate, who resigned in May of 1999 after serving just one year. The conservative Washington Times newspaper reported that Pate had "differences" with CWA founder Beverly LaHaye.

CWA claims to be the largest women's organization in the country, with 600,000 members. The organization's budget in 2000 was $12.5 million.

Liberals, News Media On Smear Campaign, Falwell Tells Donors

Although TV preacher Jerry Falwell claims to have apologized for his infamous remarks about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his ministry has sent a fund-raising letter to donors recasting his statements in a positive light and depicting him as a victim of the news media "wolf pack" and "liberal lies."

In an Oct. 4 appeal for funds, Jerry Falwell Ministries accuses "liberals, and especially gay activists" of launching "a vicious smear campaign to discredit him." It says Falwell is "being roundly vilified by the news media for remarks he made in a TV interview while calling for spiritual revival in America."

The letter, signed by Falwell's son Jonathan, compares Falwell to biblical heroes such as the Prophet Jeremiah and Queen Esther and says, "Liberals of all stripes, especially in the media, have seized on this opportunity to trash dad's deeply held Christian beliefs and to literally attack him day and night."

"It seems that Satan has launched a hail of fiery darts at dad recently," writes Jonathan Falwell. "He needs to know you still support him. Please return the enclosed Vote of Confidence Reply Card right away in the envelope I have provided within the next 5 days.... And with your card, please remember to include a special Vote of Confidence gift for Jerry Falwell of at least $50 or even $100 along with your signed card."

Falwell's critics say the fund-raising letter is a new low.

"This is truly outrageous," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Falwell has gone from apologizing for his hateful remarks to trying to cash in on them.

"I thought Falwell couldn't sink much lower than he did in his vicious remarks after the Sept. 11 tragedy," continued Lynn. "But this fund-raising letter is indeed a new low."

On Sept. 13, Falwell went on TV preacher Pat Robertson's "700 Club" program to discuss the terrorist attacks. With Robertson's concurrence, Falwell blamed the events on judges who uphold church-state separation, abortion rights activists, gay people, civil liberties activists and others who are "trying to secularize America."

Said Falwell, "I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this [the terrorist attack] happen.'"

When a wave of intense national criticism erupted, Robertson blamed the episode on Falwell. Falwell initially tried to explain away the remarks, saying they were taken out of context. Finally, however, he issued a full apology, going on ABC's "Good Morning America" Sept. 20 to admit the tirade was "stupid" and "indefensible."

The Falwell fund-raising letter says donations to his ministry have plummeted in recent days and claims "we have lost more than $500,000 in income since the terrorist attacks."

Jonathan Falwell complains that "even some Christian friends have remained silent while dad has faced the media wolf pack alone." In a P.S., he concludes, "[P]lease let Jerry Falwell know you don't believe the media distortions being spread about him."

House Vote Endorses 'God Bless America' Displays In Public Schools

The U.S. House of Representatives has expressed support for the display of the words "God Bless America" in the nation's public schools.

The resolution, H.Con.Res. 248, was introduced by Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) and immediately received the support of 61 representatives, who joined Brown as cosigners.

In floor speeches during consideration of the measure, lawmakers said the phrase should be displayed as a patriotic gesture following the tragedies of Sept. 11.

"I think it is very important that we bring this up today because while more than a month has passed since September 11 there is still a great deal of anxiety in America," Brown said. "The events of September 11 have affected us all, whether we lost a loved one or not. The freedoms that America took for granted before this date have been shaken. Now, more than ever, many people are searching for strength and solace."

The bill reads, "Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That it is the sense of the Congress that public schools may display the words 'God Bless America' as an expression of support for the Nation."

The non-binding resolution, which passed 404 to zero, expresses the "sense of the Congress," and does not force schools to display the religious motto. Senate leaders have not indicated whether the resolution will be considered in their chamber.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State questioned lawmakers' priorities.

"I am disappointed that the House leadership would devote time and attention to a resolution like this when our country faces critical issues of national security such as airline safety and bio-terrorism," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "I think they have their priorities out of line."

Groups Advise Bush To Drop Effort To Revive Faith Initiative

A broad array of national groups has urged President George W. Bush to postpone action on the controversial "charitable choice" provision in his "faith-based initiative."

In a joint letter to Bush Oct. 3, 44 major national labor, education, religious, civil rights and civil liberties groups, including Americans United, asked the president not to push for passage of the most divisive aspects of the "faith-based" package at a time when Americans are striving for national unity.

Recent news media reports have indicated that some Bush advisors want to press for the administration proposal now to take advantage of the bipartisan spirit in Congress and the country. On Sept. 25 The Washington Post reported that some Bush advisors believe the swell in religiosity after the terrorist attacks has created an atmosphere favorable to the faith-based initiative.

"There's an immediate need for an infusion of support to community-serving organizations," one anonymous advisor told The Post. White House Deputy Public Liaison Tim Goeglein later added that Bush hopes to sign the measure into law by the end of the year.

But the groups signing the letter to Bush urged caution. Any effort to advance the "charitable choice" provision of the faith-based package, they warned, would raise religiously divisive issues and meet with strong resistance.

"People of all faiths and those of no religion are uniting together as Americans," said the joint letter. "This is no time to divide us along religious lines."

The president's "charitable choice" proposal allows churches and other ministries to receive government grants and contracts and still discriminate on religious grounds in hiring staff. In addition, the provision threatens church-state separation, exposes needy Americans to unwanted proselytism and undercuts the independence of religious organizations. (Other aspects of the Bush faith-based plan such as tax incentives for donations to church-affiliated and other charities are supported by broad consensus and would likely pass the Senate with little opposition.)

Said the letter to Bush, "In light of the recent tragic attacks on our nation, we, the undersigned religious, civil rights, labor, education, substance abuse and health organizations, are writing to urge you to hold off on any attempt to move the 'Charitable Choice' aspect of your Faith-Based Initiative. While many of the undersigned groups support the major tax incentives you have proposed as part of this initiative, we are all strongly opposed to the religiously divisive 'Charitable Choice' provisions.

"Recent media reports have indicated that some advisors in your Administration are hoping to 'revive prospects' for the Faith-Based Initiative in the wake of the attacks, with some aides suggesting a new push for 'Charitable Choice,'" the letter continued. "While we applaud your recent efforts to unite and rally the nation and spur charitable giving to victims and communities, Charitable Choice is only a step backward toward divisiveness."

For the full list of signers of the letter, visit Americans United's website at www.au.org.

Texas Home Schoolers, Getting Public Funds Under Charter Program

Some home schoolers in Texas have recently begun receiving a windfall in tax support, thanks to a quirk in a new state education law.

The law, designed to fund a pilot project dealing with distance learning and Internet-based "virtual" schools, was never intended to extend to charter schools, critics say. Nevertheless, the Texas Education Agency has announced that home-schooled students taking part in a "virtual school" sponsored by a group called K12 Education Company qualify for funding as a charter school. As a result, the home schoolers may receive thousands in computer aid.

The K12 Education Company was founded by William Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education and ardent voucher booster. In Texas, the organization is acting as a subcontractor for the Houston Gateway Academy, a charter school founded by state Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock). The Bennett-run company will oversee a "virtual" spin-off of the charter school, which will offer instruction to children at home via the Internet.

Bennett's company could receive as much as $2.5 million in public funds, and that has some critics crying foul. "This sounds like a scheme to make Texas taxpayers pay for vouchers to fund home schools," Carolyn Boyle, coordinator for the Coalition for Public Schools, told the Houston Chronicle. "This is a backdoor way to fund home schools and would be a new expense for Texas taxpayers."

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), author of the bill to explore distance learning in Texas, says the measure was never intended to be a vehicle for funding charter schools. Shapleigh said the Texas Education Agency "is thwarting the will of the 180 legislators who unanimously passed this bill" with its interpretation.

Bennett's K12 firm is well connected in Texas. At a K12 open house in Austin in August, Melinda Wheatley, the group's vice president for Texas, told parents that some people "in the upper echelons of Texas politics" helped get the subsidy through. Wheatley told attendees that they would receive the "loan" of computers, monitors and printers under the program.

Former Houston school superintendent Rod Paige, now U.S. secretary of education, is a former member of the K12 board of directors. The group also has ties to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who supports school choice programs.

Advocates of public education believe the scheme is a ploy to subsidize home schooling through the back door. "This is a thinly disguised subsidy to home schoolers," said Eric Hartman, legislative director for the Texas Federation of Teachers. "If the legislature confronted this issue head on, it couldn't pass."

Priests For Life Head Ordered To Take Parish Assignment

The Rev. Frank A. Pavone, director of a network of anti-abortion priests called Priests for Life, has been ordered to assume duties as a parish priest in New York, a move that could decrease the influence of the controversial organization.

New York Cardinal Edward Egan reassigned Pavone in September, saying that a critical shortage of priests in the New York City area compelled him to end several special, non-parish assignments.

"We have assignments that need to be filled, and we don't have enough priests to fill them," Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, told The National Catholic Register. Zwilling noted that other priests have been reassigned from administrative duties and added, "This is a continuation of that."

There may be more to the story, however. Last year Pavone announced the launch of an aggressive multi-million campaign to use television and print ads urging voters to reject any Catholic candidate who supports legal abortion. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops later asked Pavone to suspend the campaign, saying it duplicated other church efforts.

Pavone ran afoul of the church hierarchy again earlier this year, when he announced a $12 million campaign aimed at women who have abortions but then later regret the decision. After meeting with Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, Pavone said he would coordinate his activities with Project Rachel, a similar project run by the bishops.

"We are shocked at what has happened and frankly can't make heads or tails of it," Anthony DeStefano, the group's executive director, said. DeStefano said he would run the group until a new leader is found.

Priests for Life was founded in 1991, and Pavone became its director two years later. At that time, he had the permission of Cardinal John J. O'Connor, then archbishop of New York. Last year, after Pavone announced he could target pro-choice Catholic politicians in ads, Americans United warned him that if the ads endorsed or opposed candidates, the tax-exempt status of Priests for Life would be jeopardized.

Baltimore Churches In Slugfest Over 'Faith-Based' Program

A Baltimore, Md., program designed to help troubled juveniles steer clear of criminal activity by partnering them with church mentors has been racked by charges of favoritism and political infighting.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley announced the program in February, calling it an "all-out crusade" to save 100 youths who had already had serious brushes with the criminal justice system.

Nearly 100 young people are currently in the program, and there are plans to expand it to 1,000, but some city church leaders are angry that they have been left out and are convinced that politics is the reason.

Bishop Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church, told the Baltimore Sun that the interdenominational Ministerial Alliance wanted to take part after helping to launch the program but were frozen out by O'Malley because they objected to some of the plan's features.

"He pretty much told us we could take a flying leap over a rolling doughnut," Miles told the Sun. "He was going to do it his way. We suggested an approach that would be more holistic....That's where he literally told us he didn't need us."

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, currently head of the Alliance, said he tried to mend fences with O'Malley but was rebuffed.

"I said, 'Mr. Mayor, I'm offering you 240 churches, mosques and synagogues to sit down and to see how we can make this work for Baltimore. What can we do together to make this work, because the members of the Alliance have some concerns about the way it is structured,'" Perkins said. "And that's when he said, quite frankly, he never intended to include that part of the faith community."

O'Malley claims the Alliance backed out on their own, but some ministers see a political angle, noting that the Alliance endorsed Carl Stokes, one of O'Malley's opponents, in 1999.

Sheldon, House Allies Promote New Church Politicking Measure

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, a California minister best known for his strident opposition to homosexuality, is promoting legislation in Congress that would allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politics.

Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC), is working with Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) to secure passage of the "Bright-Line Act of 2001" (H.R. 2931). The bill would allow churches to devote 20 percent of their resources to lobbying and 5 percent toward endorsements of political candidates.

Current law allows houses of worship and other non-profit groups that hold 501(c)(3) status to devote 5 percent of their resources toward lobbying and flatly forbids them from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. Religious Right groups have been complaining about the rules and want to change them.

Crane's measure is one of two pending in Congress that would lift the Internal Revenue Service's ban on political endorsements by non-profit groups. (The other is Rep. Walter Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act, H.R. 2357.)

Crane's bill is not currently moving in the House, but it has won support from two powerful Republicans Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas.

Sheldon, an ultra-conservative Presbyterian minister, was recently the subject of a fawning profile in the Pentecostal magazine Charisma. He told the journal he'd like to be remembered for destroying the "big lie" of church-state separation.

"There is no separation of church and state," Sheldon said. "There always has been, and always will be, a role for Christianity and the gospel in American public policy."

Although the Charisma article portrayed Sheldon as a major player in Washington, D.C., he is in fact so extreme that many political leaders are careful to keep him at arm's length. Nonetheless, he has some friends in high places.

In a TVC membership recruitment letter earlier this year, U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) called Sheldon "a wonderful person" and "among my dearest friends." Watts, who as Republican Conference Chair is the fourth ranking GOP official in the House, urged recipients to "please support TVC by sending whatever donation of support you can today."

More recently, Sheldon launched another one of the anti-gay diatribes for which he is best known. On Oct. 4, he asserted that private and public agencies giving relief aid to survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks should not help gays.

Sheldon's statement was sparked after he read news reports noting that some gay people whose partners had been killed in the attacks were receiving assistance.

TV Preacher Robertson Joins Liberian Dictator In Gold-Mining Venture

TV preacher Pat Robertson has solidified his partnership with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, hoping to launch a venture to find gold in the impoverished and war-torn African nation.

Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King outlined the deal in his Sept. 22 column. King noted that Robertson cited America's pursuit of financial gain and our focus on wealth as two of the reasons God had allowed terrorists to attack the country Sept. 11.

The columnist found the Robertson allegation ironic, given the TV preacher's own financial adventures.

Asked King, "What, pray tell, does the Good Lord make of Pat Robertson's gold-mining venture in Liberia with Charles Taylor, international pariah and one of the most ruthless, greedy and terror-producing heads of state in all of sub-Saharan Africa?"

Robertson founded Freedom Gold Limited in May of 1999. Registered as an offshore company in the Cayman Islands, the firm operates out of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach. Under the terms of the Robertson-Taylor agreement, Freedom Gold won the rights to explore for gold in southeast Liberia.

The company has found little gold so far, but King reported that the firm is committed to spending $15 million on exploration. If gold is found, Taylor's government will pocket royalties and rental fees.

King noted that under Taylor, Liberia totters on the verge of chaos. Twelve years after Taylor seized power, King reported, the government is unable to provide basic services to its people.

Wrote King, "[W]ith tens of thousands of Liberians slain, hundreds of thousands displaced throughout West Africa, a generation of young Liberian boys ruined by their conversion to child soldiers, women raped and mutilated, his country is in absolute ruins and is ostracized by the world community except for hustlers, mercenaries and the preacher/entrepreneur from Virginia Beach."

Freedom Gold officials told King that the firm has worked to be good corporate citizens in Liberia, pointing out that the company has built wells for drinking water and roads. But King noted that, thanks to Taylor, most of the country remains poverty-stricken. Taylor can hang on to power, King asserted, only because of "deep-pocketed foreigners and their unquenchable thirst for a buck."

"What a marriage," wrote King. "Can't you see it now? Robertson, fresh from his latest condemnation of sin, prediction of world collapse and visions of Liberian gold, sports his best 'aw, shucks' smile, throws his arm around Taylor who ought to be standing before a war crimes tribunal and coos: 'C'mon, Charlie, what's a little human rights between friends?'"