First, a frankly non-ecumenical confession. Throughout my spent youth and early middle-age, being in the company of fundamentalist Protestant clergymen has almost always made me very uneasy, even nervous. Undoubtedly, it has had a lot to do with our earlier disagreements over our respective public agendas. It seemed that nearly every summer they were busy trying to banish the sale of cold beer from a Saturday night ballroom or a Sunday afternoon ballpark. Of course, such matters of profound principle left no room for compromise. The ministers were always defeated.
Now, as some evidence of the Prince Valium-like listlessness of this year's tussle for occupancy of the White House, the campaign activity of fundamentalist ministers has become a very large story. It seems that every news room has its very own team producing either an indepth special report or the third installment in a five-part series emphasizing Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority.
Rev. Jerry Falwell makes an awful lot of people -- some of whom are supporters of Democratic candidates -- very anxious. Anxiety can make some people say foolish things. The Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State are back in business. They have not been much heard from since they provided us with an early-warning-system alert that the pope would arrive if Jack Kennedy won in 1960. People who are usually sensibile are writing and saying strange things about ministers and priests staying out of political campaigns and all political matters.
Some of the current rhetoric sounds like a direct steal of criticism leveled against the clergy and divinity students during the anti-war and civil rights fights. The apologists for, and admirers of, those earlier activists now are not only not encouraging the fundamentalists' involvement, but are even questioning the wisdom and the legality of the present activity.
Nowhere in his brochure or his prospectus does the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- a Baptist minister of and from Lynchburg, Va. -- reveal that his ministry led him to any black voter registration efforts or lunch-counter sit-ins in that earlier time. The Protestant religious people who did so in the 1960s were frequently more apt to be Episcopalian or Presbyterian and from outside the immediate area code where the civil rights were being sought. They earned the respect and admiration of most of us for their commitment and their courage. Their concern for "the least of these" rang true.
Now, the agenda is not voting rights, but Kemp-Roth. Instead of a Nuclear Test Ban treaty to be ratified, there is a SALT treaty to be stopped. Their spokesmen are not from nice families with names that part neatly in the middle. They wear polyester instead of Harris tweed, and they have names like Jesse and Jerry.
In the civil rights struggle, the clergy who were not good young men from the best divinity schools were usually black Protestants. In case anyone has forgotten, the late Martin Luther King Jr. was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. One of his closest colleagues was the Rev. Andrew Young. All of them were completing a historic mission that had been started in the 19th century by other ministers of the gospel, who meddled and who were narrow single-issue people: the Abolitionists.
You may not be able to find any reference to the evil of the new Department of Education in your Old Testament. The Christian Voice, a legislative watchdog group, could. But now is the time for a little non-denominational charity toward the Christian Voice, because that group's concern with truly "moral" public issues resulted in a perfect legislative report card for Rep. Richard Kelly, among others, Talk about grade inflation. Mr. Kelly could most recently be seen on a videotape in the instant replay of his interception and recovery of $50,000 that did not belong to him.
But stopping homosexuality remains a crucial priority for most of the fundamentalist groups. In 1978, voters, almost everywhere they were given the chance -- St. Paul, Wichita, Miami -- voted overwhelmingly against homosexual rights. The exception was California. There, a, proposition to ban homosexuals from teaching in the public schools was defeated in the November election -- undoubtedly much to the regret of the Moral Majority and the Christian Voice and their colleagues. But then everyone knows what California is like. What everyone may not know (or may not be saying if they do remember) is that the most respected and perhaps unexpected citizen of the state to oppose publicly that anti-homosexual proposition was Ronald Reagan. That was the same Ronald Reagan who in August sat on the platform at the huge Dallas rally sponsored by the Religious Roundtable. Reagan listened attentively that night while an ordained minister warmed up the crowd for the Second Inquisition by reminding them that Genesis tells the story of Adam and Eve, not of Adam and Steve. Today, Ronald Reagan is scheduled to be with Rev. Falwell in the latter's home precincts of Lynchburg, Va. Presumably, Mr. Reagan will be there to seek votes and maybe even make a moral pit-stop as he heads into the closing laps of the Presidential Derby.
Who says that these folks are only sing-issue types with closed minds? Remember: to be liberal is to be not judgmental.