Because of the inadvertent dropping of the word "not", a story in Thursday's Washington Post gave an incorrect impression of Norfolk City Council member G. Conoly Phillips' assessment of the religious convictions of his opponents for the Democratic Senate nomination from Virginia. Phillips says that while he is "a Christian first, a businessman second and a politician third," he does not mean to suggest that the other candidates are not also Christians.
Virginia Presbyterian leaders warned Tuesday that political candidates such as Norfolk City Council member G. Conoly Phillips who run "primarily" on religious grounds encourage bigotry and threaten the traditional separation of church and state.
A meeting of the Hanover Presbytery, attended by representatives of churches from about 30 counties in the Richmond area, adopted overwhelmingly a resolution clearly aimed at Phillips, whose candidacy, he says, is the result of a call from the Lord.
The resolution is the first public statement by organized religious leaders on the issue of Phillips' candidacy, which he describes as a "ministry." Phillips is an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk and describes himself as an Evangelical Christian.
Phillips has surprised many Democratic Party supporters by his comparatively strong showing in the delegate selection process that took place across the state April 15 as the Democrats elected representatives to the convention at which the party's Senate nominee will be chosen.
After being in the race about eight weeks, less tha any other seven candidates, Phillips claimed about 400 committed delegates to the party convention in June, making his the third largest contingent there. The frontrunner in the delegate counts is former attorney general Andrew P. Miller with nearly 1,000 delegates, while state Sen. Clive Duvall 11 is in second place with more than 400.
Phillips said in an interview that his trategy before the April 15 meetings was to concentrate on asking Christians groups for support. He and most of his staff call themselves "born-again," and while he says that he is "a Christian first, a businessman second, and a politician third," he does mean to suggest that the other candidates are not also Christians.
The resolution, written by the Rev. Michael H. Hall of Richmond, says: "Hanover Presbytery would alert all professing Christians to their call to work within the political system surrounding them for justice and truth.
"However, we would express concern over anyone seeking public offince primarily in the basis of his/her religious convictions or special calling claiming to possess a sure knowledge of God's will. Not only does such an action encourage bigotry in the separation of 'Christian' supporters from those who support other candidates but it also tends to ignore the separation of church and state so important to a heterogeneous religious society such as our own."
Hall said he became concerned about the issues created by Phillips' candidacy after attending the April 15 meeting in Chesterfield County, where Phillips' supporters elected 14 delegates, compared to Duval's 20 and Miller's 19.
"I became more and more alarmed," Hall said. "I was amazed at the naivete of people who would go along with this type off person, who claims to have a call from God, without questioning anything further. So I tried to put down on paper what it was that I found so repulsive."
Phillips has said in interviews that he has not taken positions on most issues because he has "not had time to study" them. Yesterday his campaign manager said that Phillips was spending the day "studying" and would hold a press conference next week to discuss positions on national and statewide issues.
"This typw of campaign could wreak havoc on our system by concentrating on what religion a person is rather than his ability in government or position on the issues." Hall said. "It could evolve into a situation where we have a Catholic Party, a Jewish Party, and so forth. Bringing religion onto politics this way sets a very dangerous precedent."
Phillips' campaign manager, Jerry Tiahrt, said that "Christianity per se is not an issue in this campaign. Conoly feels that his perspective as a Christian prepares him to serve, and a public official ought to be a servant." Tiahrt said he was not upset by the resolution and did not think it was directed at the Phillips campaign.
A lay leader at the meeting who is also Phillips' 3rd District coordinator did feel, however, that the resolution was aimed at Phillips and said it "might" have been prompted by pressure from other candidates.
Hall said, however, "I can guarantee I haven't talked to another candidate."
Hall said one reason for his alarm is that he sees parallels between the "aaivete" of the Phillips supporters, he has seen and the rise of Nazism in prewar Germany.
"One aspect is this Superman concept, that he's been called by God. This superiroity concept, that he has a 100 percent pure pipeline to GOd, has parallels to the rise of Nazism . . .He apparently feels that he is totally God's agent . . . I find this at best naive and at worst ridiculously phypocritical, as well as insulting to my profession and to those who are trying to be christians."