Oliver North stands in front of the Dahlgren Fire House in King George, Virginia, and exhorts the small gathering of supporters. Behind him is the open firehouse door and a row of volunteer firefighters, hands on hips or arms crossed at their chests, listening intently.
The earnest, gap-toothed face is a familiar one. So is the litany of conservative themes emerging from it: balanced-budget amendment, line-item veto, term limits.
But the ex-Marine colonel throws his own unique twist into his speech. Politics, he says, is a lot like combat: You need good troops and lots of ammunition. And to win his race for the U.S. Senate, North insists that he needs the prayers of his supporters"Im living proof of the power of prayer." He concludes his stump speech, "God bless you all; Semper Fi."
God and country. Praise the Lord and keep the ammunition flowing. Familiar themes, and popular ones in these parts. Throughout the South, 60 percent of voters tell pollsters that they are born again. Christians clearly have the power to swing elections, and Norths supporters are expecting the swing to be a decisive one.
Seven years after his meteoric rise to conservative celebrity-hood on the tails of the Iran-contra hearings, North is neck-and-neck with Democratic incumbent Charles Robb in the race for Robbs Senate seat. Both North and Robbwho has admitted extramarital activity with a Virginia beauty queenhave high negatives among voters, which led former GOP State Attorney General Marshall Coleman and former Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder to enter the race as independents, although Wilder withdrew when funds came up short. Norths stiff-backed, unrepentant testimony in the congressional hearings that became the surprise hit miniseries of the summer of 1987 electrified the nation, established him as a hero of the Right, and later got him off the hook after a jury convicted him of lying to Congress, destroying documents, and accepting an illegal gift.
But this crowd doesnt seem to care much about Ollies days as an unaccountable Washington bureaucratno, most of those gathered want to send him back to Washington to do battle with, in Norths words, the "unaccountable Washington bureaucrats." The irony doesnt seem to bother anyone.
Norths campaign, of course, is filled with ironies. Heres the man convicted of numerous felonies, running with the support of the Religious Right and attacking his opponent, Sen. Charles Robb, for defects in "character." For supporters at the Dahlgren rally, and those at North whistle-stops down the road in Bowling Green or Tappahanock or Charles City later that day, criminal acts such as perjury before Congress fit in the special category of what one North defender called "unsinful lies."
"Its okay to lie to protect your superiors," housewife, beautician, and born-again Christian Adriana Speare argued after a North appearance at the Bowling Green courthouse. After all, Speare said, "Abraham lied when he said that Sarah was his sister." (Abrahams lie, recounted in Genesis 12, was punished by God, who sent "severe plagues" on Pharaoh, who then evicted Abraham from Egypt. At press time, there have been no severe plagues reported in Virginia.)
Many Christian supporters of Norths candidacy defend his personal integrity, despite (or perhaps because of) his conspicuous disregard for the law during his last stint of public service. "Hes a family man," explained Jean Hunt, a Catholic housewife from Bowling Green who sat at a table filled with "Ollie Was Here" stickers as North addressed her hometown rally. "You dont hear rumors of him fooling around like Robb did."
Betty Gil, another North backer from Spotsylvania County who said she believes that the candidate is "a good Christian man," defended Ollies perjury and destruction of documents by quoting Rush Limbaugh: "What better bunch of people to lie to than Congress?" Another added the justification, "They lie all the time."
OLIVER NORTHS BACKGROUND may make him a questionable candidate to wear the armor of righteousness, but theres little question that the body politic is hungry for those bearing the message of virtue. Religious Right politicians, of course, have been calling for years for a return to "family values"as they define themand now it seems the conventional wisdom has shifted in their direction. Seventy-six percent of the country believes that America "is in moral and spiritual decline," according to a recent Newsweek poll, but you dont need poll results to recognize the deep sense that something is amiss in the land.
The recent successes of Religious Right organizations are not merely due to their vaunted grassroots organizing or their extensive mailing lists, although their use of such political tools has been estimable. Theyve tapped intosome would say exploitedthe growing sense that things are falling apart, and more important, the increasing recognition that the solutions to our cultures problems are as much spiritual as they are political.
The mainstream media have inadvertently aided the Religious Right by conveying the myth that the only Christians involved in politics are conservatives. The New York Times, for instance, defined the "Christian right" as "the term applied to people who are involved in politics to advance what they see as Christian principles."
In truth, of course, Christians of all stripes seek to "advance their Christian principles." Such definitions conveniently overlook the integral role progressive Christians played in the Civil Rights, anti-nuclear, and Central America movements. Even born-again, evangelical Christians are far from monolithic in their political attitudes. Only 37 percent of Virginias white evangelicals support North, according to a July survey, with 27 percent favoring Robb.
Nationwide, the 30 million evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United States arent as solid a conservative bloc as the media portray; born-again Christians are just as likely to be Democrats as they are Repub-licans, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll this fall. Another survey notes that 65 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats said that religion is very important in their lives. The difference is statistically insignificant.
And talk about the alleged political conservativism of born-again or evangelical Christians tends to ignore African Americans altogether. While African Americans are more likely than whites to describe themselves as evangelical or born again, only 3 percent said they support the Christian Coalition.
MEDIA exaggerations aside, theres no arguing with the recent success of the Religious Right in general and its dominant organization, Pat Robertsons Christian Coalition, in particular. After Robertsons brisk rejection by voters in the 1988 presidential primaries, the rap was that the Religious Right could pack precinct caucuses, where a small number of committed people could get a candidate nominated, but couldnt produce a victory where it counts, in a general election.
But far from disappearing into the woodwork after his loss, Robertson changed focus, from the high-profile run for the presidency to the down-in-the-trenches, nitty-gritty work of grassroots organizing. His vehicle: the Christian Coalition, formed with the goal "to take back this country, one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time, and one state at a time," according to executive director Ralph Reed. Soon after its 1989 founding, Robertson told the Christian Coalitions "Road to Victory" conference, "We want...as soon as possible to see a working majority of the Republican Party in the hands of pro-family Christ-ians by 1996."
Since then, the Christian Coalition has produced a skein of impressive wins, including the defeat of what they considered "liberal" school curricula in New York City, the nomination of Coalition-backed candidates in Minnesota, Iowa, Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere, andperhaps most significantthe virtual takeover of school boards and party organizations across the country, creating what one commentator called "a permanent Christian fundamentalist electoral base."
The Christian Coali-tion now boasts 900,000 members in 870 chapters in all 50 states, with a 1.6 million-name data base at its disposal and a budget of more than $12 million. Last year the Coalition distributed more than a million voter guides in church bulletins. A spin-off organization, the American Center for Law and Justice, has 18 lawyers on staff. According to Reed, "Youre seeing the pro-family movement on the cusp of that transition from being a social protest movement to being a mainstream political force that can win elections."
HOW SHOULD SUCH a force be countered? Some secular Demo-crats have gone on the attack against the Religious Rights role in GOP politics. This summer Rep. Vic Fazio, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, criticized the Religious Right as a "radical," "intolerant" fringe movement that threatens to take control of the Republican Party. "I dont think theres any reason why people who have religious faith...shouldnt be part and parcel of the political process," Fazio said. But, he asked, "Should they attempt to impose their own personal religious views and ethical beliefs on the party system?"
Fazio was immediately accused of "Christian bashing" and "religious bigotry" by Reed and other representatives of the Religious Right. Reed accused Fazio of trying "to divide the American people based on religion," and, likening it to George Wallaces use of the "race card" to divide Alabama voters 30 years ago, said, "Today Vic Fazio and the Democrats are playing the religious card."
Both sides of the quarrel over religion in politics have stretched the truth in their self-serving and caricatured portrayal of the other. The Rights claim that every critique of their political activity is motivated by bigotry against Christians implies that they are somehow above criticism. They cant, of course, have it both ways: If theyre gonna play hardball politics, they have to expect some brush-back pitches.
But its also true that liberalism has at times shown a thinly veiled disdain for religious belief. Some feel that many on the political Left have little understanding of religious faith and little tolerance for believers as players in the public debate. "Some of the [liberal] criticism of the radical Right is a little too broad," said Pat Lewis, communication director for the newly formed Interfaith Alliance, which seeks both to challenge the radical Right and affirm the contribution religion makes to public life. "It smacks of religion has no place in politics."
It is in defining that place that the disagreements begin. The Reli-gious Right is right in believing that their faith ought to be the basis of their politics. But their thinking is too narrow if they allow a political partyany partyto de-fine for them how it is to be expressed. Otherwise theyre acting more like a political organization made up of people who also go to church than like people of faith expressing their faith in the public sphere.
FOR PEOPLE OF FAITH, "politics" is a waya very important wayour faith is played out in the world. If we let others without that basis of faith define our politics, they are to an extent defining our faith and the way its expressed. Our faith should determine our politicsnot the other way around. Christians should identify themselves as Christians first and members of political parties or movements after that.
In the case of politicians like Ollie North and others on the Religious Right who put themselves forward as representing the Christian faith, its essential that Christians lead the response as Christiansand not merely to prevent the Right from responding with charges of "religious bigotry." The deeper reasons have more to do with evangelism than politics per se; its more a matter of defending how our faith is presented than of political correctness. The worst thing about North isnt his political beliefs, its the fact that he gives Christianity a bad name.
A significant part of Norths support is from goodhearted Christian people who care about moral values, see their society and culture unraveling, and want a spiritually based alternative. They dont see that coming from the secular-liberal Left and unfortunately havent seen it from within the church, either, except from the organized Right. Those legitimate moral concerns are easily exploited by demagogues and political profiteers, whose "old-time religion" often owes more to the American way than to the way of the Cross.
Theres no reason the Right should be able to claim exclusive ownership of "family values." Reactionaries like Dan Quayle or Oliver North shouldnt be the only ones calling for responsible fatherhood or personal moral integrity. Theres no reason that those of us who have long fought for social justice shouldnt also support individual moral behavior. Support for human rights neednt preclude holding up responsibilities as well. Such a genuinely independent, biblically based politics will look notably different than either Left or Right.
The success of Religious Right organizations in tapping evangelicals doesnt mean that Christian progressives should give up trying to reach biblically based people or communicating our values in moral and spiritual language. On the contrary, the challenge for us is to offer a home to people of faith who cant imagine another face of Christianity than the nationalized version theyve been presented in their churches.
Whether or not Oliver North becomes the junior senator from Virginia this fall, we will continue to be called to a biblical faith that holds politicians of all stripes to a higher standardand directs all of us, in the words of the psalmist, "in the ways of the righteous and the just."