Editor's note: Last week, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American businessman Donald Trump kicked off their campaigns for U.S. president. Pundits anticipate a heated rivalry between Clinton, who is a moderate, centrist Democrat and Trump, who is backed largely by right-wing Republican voters — especially evangelicals — according to the Pew Research Center. The Observer commemorates the historic contest by republishing this story from October 1988.
You can’t accuse Dayton, Tennessee of dwelling on the past. More than 60 years after the Scopes Monkey Trial brought this sleepy hill town to world attention, signs of its brief fling with celebrity are few and far between. On the edge of town a weathered billboard invites visitors to the Scopes Museum in the Rhea County Courthouse. It was there lawyer Clarence Darrow and politician William Jennings Bryan clashed over a Tennessee law banning evolution from the state’s classrooms. Outside the courthouse a plaque explains that teacher John T. Scopes was tried for “teaching man was descended from a lower order of animals.” It concludes simply, “Scopes was convicted,” not mentioning that the verdict was later reversed.
Apart from that, it’s hard to distinguish Dayton from thousands of other American towns bypassed and left for dead by the Interstate freeway system. But stay here a while and you begin to feel history mingling with the present — not in museums or monuments, but in a fervent and conservative Christianity that permeates life today much as it did when Scopes challenged its enshrinement in the Tennessee school system.
The evidence is everywhere. At almost every crossroads is a stack of signs directing travellers to backwoods churches with names like Church of Christ Pillar of Truth, Foursquare Gospel Church and Locust Hill Independent Assembly. Crudely constructed billboards advertising summer Bible schools and upcoming revivals are as common as speed limit signs. And with a frequency bordering on obsession, larger, flashier billboards decry the sin of pornography.
On the two-car ferry that takes you across the Hiwassee River into Dayton, a young attendant talks about the weather, the fishing, then religion. “Folks around here are real religious,” he says. “But you should see them in Kentucky.” Outside the Dayton Q-Room, a downtown pool hall, two men discuss a local softball tournament. A check of the Dayton Herald News for details reveals the standings in play thus far: Mixed Religions and Grace Bible tied for first, with Calvary Baptist and Graysville Church of God not far behind.
But nothing is more evocative than what happens early each Sunday morning at the Quik Stop convenience store on the Soddy-Daisy road. It’s there 76-year old Rev. Amos Cozart, the pastor of nearby Mount Mamer Zion Church, squares off in a savage weekly debate with 74-year-old J.M. Wright of Spring City, a hamlet as Wright puts it, “nearly to Rockwood.”
The issue is religion but the style is pure cockfight. “You’re hell-bound,” declares the wiry, neatly dressed Cozart. “No I ain’t,” retorts Wright, unshaven and shabbily clothed. “I choked the devil out 30 years ago. I don’t feel the devil in my heart whatsoever.”
To an unsuspecting Canadian buying orange juice, this is startling stuff. But the locals who drift in and watch take it in stride. They keep an informal tally of points with their amens.
The argument ranges all over the map. Cozart belittles Wright’s notion that true baptism is by immersion. “You go in a dry devil and come out a wet one.” Wright disparages Cozart’s status as ordained clergy: “If they stopped paying you $275, $300 a week, you’d disappear.” Cozart attacks Wright’s interpretation of the Bible: “You come to my church and you’ll hear the Gospel with no sugar-coating.” Wright declines: “Them ni---rs would never let me out alive.” Cozart loses his temper: “You need to go home and pray ‘til the roof raises up.” Responds Wright: “I pray it wouldn’t.”
“They’re just like this every week,” says the woman behind the counter. After more than an hour the debate becomes a contest on who knows the Bible best. Cozart takes the offensive, claiming to know how many letters are in the Bible (3,566,480) and how many times specific words appear — for example, “father” (1,500), “mother” (325), “boy” (three), “girl” (twice) and “eternity” (once). “If you don’t believe me, count ‘em,” he challenges.
Beaten, Wright stares out the window towards the gas pumps, tapping his finger on the top of the soda-pop cooler.
Out in the parking lot before the first of his three Sunday services, Cozart explains why he turns up for these battles. “He’s the biggest bigot in the county, and I pray that one of these Sundays I can reveal the true Gospel to him.
“Besides, it warms me up for preaching.”
If you don’t hear much about Christian liberals in American politics, it’s because they lack the organization, the wealth and the media bombast of the Christian right. As individuals they seem more reserved about their religious motivation. Even though many come from the Bible-Belt milieu that supports the Christian right, liberals are not as inclined to publicly affirm the divinity of their cause.
“Yes, I would say my motivation is Christian,” says Marien Franz, “but I’m just trying to hold up a different standard, plain morality.” Franz is a Christian at the heart of the American political process, a lobbyist who works in the corridors and committee rooms of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Her cause is peace, her goal a law that would allow people of conscience to earmark the military portion of their taxes for non-military purposes. Her method is quiet Christian diplomacy. Over lunch in the bustling House of Representatives dining room, Franz, a Mennonite originally from rural Kansas, explains how she differs from the legions of other lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
“I like to talk about what in the world conscience is and how it can have such a demanding claim on your life that you have no choice but to follow it. It’s probably the most important thing I do and probably the most difficult thing I do.”
“It’s not unusual to go into an office, have an aide say I can only have 10 minutes, then find myself still there an hour and a half later. You see it in the body language — a little loosening of the tie perhaps – which says I’ll think I’ll allow myself the luxury of a little introspective time’.”
Franz’s pacifist roots run back to her childhood during the Second World War. She has been fighting “this evil called war” ever since, and has no illusions about what she’s up against. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being squeezed between the military and the industrial and it gives me a complex.”
Nor does she seek instant or dramatic success. “This bill for a peace tax has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1971. To put it in perspective, you have to understand that the bill to give women the right to vote was introduced in 41 different Congresses before it passed in 1920. That’s 82 years — we’re just teenagers.”
Rev. Jim Oines of Phoenix, Arizona, is a liberal Christian whose convictions lead him outside the political process just as surely as Franz’s lead into it. Oines, a Lutheran, can’t stomach the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, policies vigorously supported by the Christian right. He defies the law by harboring refugees from the war-torn region who’ve entered the United States illegally.
Oines and members of his parish in Phoenix’s poor Hispanic barrios are part of the Sanctuary movement, a loose-knit network of churches, synagogues, college groups and private citizens which ads Central Americans fleeing death squads and civil war in their own countries. “I prefer to talk about doing sanctuary rather than describe it as an organization,” says Oines in his small, cluttered office. “It’s people responding to a need . . . something that moves back and forth between acting, reflecting and organizing.”
The Reagan administration hasn’t taken Sanctuary lightly. During the early 1980s the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) harassed, bugged, vandalized and spied on Sanctuary workers and parishes in an effort to bring the movement to its knees. “They even sent paid informers to infiltrate our Bible study group here,” recalls Oines.
“They argued this wasn’t a Bible study group, that it was a political rally. The fact we talk about political things, like the Bible does, seemed to them to mean there was no way this could be religious.” Oines and others have since filed suit against INS. “We have a clause in the Constitution that says governments shall establish no religion. But the reality is that this government has taken upon itself to say what religion is and what it is not.
Oines excuses himself for a minute. “I’d like you to meet someone.” He goes down to the church basement and comes back with a shy 21-year-old who calls himself Anival. Quietly, with Oines interpreting from Spanish, the young man describes the torture and murder of his father and brother by extremist forces in El Salvador.
In a cramped office down the hall, Oines’ Sanctuary colleague Anna Marie Broxterman is on the telephone making arrangements for Anival. She pauses between calls to answer a question about her religious motivation. “Spirituality and social justice,” she replies. “You can’t have one without the other.”
But it’s tough to find a Christian liberal in America these days who’ll come out swinging against the Christian right. Criticize, yes; but rebuke as they are often rebuked, no. Says Marien Franz: “I don’t see myself as working against them, only for my own position.” Adds Oines: “I don’t think they all have bad intentions, but I think they get used.”
Rev. David Eaton pastors All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. He has been pilloried time and time again for his activist ministry. “To some people on the religious right I’m a militant. If you’re black you’re a militant, if you’re white you’re a radical.”
But labels don’t bother him. Eaton tells a story which is a parable for Christian liberals living in a conservative time. “About eight or nine years ago when one of the abortion counseling centers here was being picketed by the religious right, several of the ladies came up to give me hell — my church supporting abortion.
“I received them very graciously and listened very intently, and assured them I would have nothing to do with any type of program where persons don’t receive counseling or which tried to persuade a person to have an abortion.
“About four years later, the youngest of these women called me because she was being ostracized out of her very conservative church. She had become pregnant out of wedlock and didn’t know where to turn. She came all the way from Tennessee and said, ‘I remember the hostility we came at you with, and I remember how loving you were to us’.
“I sent her to the very place she had picketed, she got the counseling, decided to have the child and is now married and living in Pennsylvania.”
Eaton pauses to reflect. “You can’t allow yourself to become bitter. I think this is the type of contribution the liberal church can make — not so much the positions we take, but how we take the positions. Because the persons on the right are so bitter, and so angry, and so hateful that they are almost pleading to be ministered to.
“I really feel that persons who understand the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and who happen to be identified as liberals, who understand walking that second mile, turning the other cheek, have a much more vital ministry to perform than the persons on the right. Though we may be perceived as being small in numbers, we can be disproportionately influential.”
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