IFAS | Freedom Writer | May 1996 | speak.html

The Religious Right
doesn't speak for me

By Ami Neiberger

On a bright Sunday morning in March, I found myself dashing across a church parking lot because I had woken up late. Suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. Someone had covered every single one of the hundreds of cars in the church parking lot with fliers. I plucked one off a nearby car with a sense of foreboding. I already knew what it would say.

The flier beseeched "righteous" Christian voters to defeat liberal candidates in the upcoming city commission runoff, claiming that they were "stealth" candidates out to push a radical gay agenda down the throats of God-fearing constituents. Both of the "liberals" were women Democrats and they were faced by two male Republican candidates endorsed by the Christian Right. Those fliers were yet another glaring example of the local Religious Right's negative-campaigning efforts to scare voters into endorsing its agenda, and this distribution was another chapter in a lengthy local battle.

As I stood there in the parking lot with that flier in my hand, I felt a sense of deja vu, and wondered how long we would have to combat the antics of the Religious Right. I shook my head and sighed and continued on my way to the Sunday service. Passing through the church lobby, I stopped at a table where a sign identified the fliers as "voters' guides."

Altogether, there were three different fliers being distributed. One of the fliers in the building was a paid political advertisement, and it was in violation of Florida statutes. The partisan fliers in the parking lot contained a specific candidate endorsement. All of them were distributed on church property and all of them were part of the Religious Right's smear campaign. I fumed inwardly throughout the church service, wondering what I should do.

Should I leak the fliers to the newspaper so that it could publish a story? I had a column with me in my purse that was supposed to be printed in the newspaper the very next day. I could change it to include the new information, but what would I say? After all, this was my own church. Was I doing something horribly wrong by fighting the Religious Right? Was I stabbing my own people in the back?

The questions I asked myself that day are the same questions that I have asked myself dozens of times over the past two years. Yet I keep finding the same answers.

During my first semester of graduate school at the University of Florida in October 1993, I became an op-ed columnist for the Independent Florida Alligator. With a circulation of 32,000 and a readership of 49,000, the Alligator is the largest independent student-run daily newspaper in the United States.

My early reputation in the Alligator was built on columns that talked about being a Christian in a secular society. The local churches were thrilled to have a "conservative Christian" columnist in the Alligator, a notoriously liberal newspaper. I was even asked to speak in front of my church. I was featured in the state denominational newspaper and was profiled in a national Southern Baptist magazine, SBC Life, in an article entitled "Christian Columnist Provocative."

I was no stranger to the conservative Christian community in our city, because I had spent my undergraduate years at the University of Florida and had lived immersed in the Christian community. I was an active member of a Southern Baptist church and a founding member of an interdenominational committee which organized city-wide prayer gatherings. I was known locally for not only my extensive involvement in campus Christian organizations, evangelism and charity work, but also for my mission work in the former Soviet Union.

Only one year after becoming a columnist, the bombshell dropped which forever severed my ties to the local Religious Right. After much consideration, I opposed the Religious Right over the gay rights referendum.

I had grown accustomed to "taking flak" for my editorials in the Alligator, but that editorial in October 1994 changed my life. After it printed, an acquaintance arrived on my doorstep uninvited and beseeched me for over an hour to change my mind. A letter accusing me of "stabbing in the back" my own people was sent to my parents' home. Letters sent to the newspaper office condemned me and admonished me to recant my evil opinion.

A former member of my Sunday school class at church wrote to the Alligator, saying that I "wouldn't know a Christian view of law and politics if it rose up and bit me on the rump." To make matters even worse, two reconciliation charges were leveled against me. (Reconciliation refers to the Christian practice of "going to thy brother" to iron out differences.)

The highly personal nature of these attacks was disturbing to me, but I think that these experiences have taught me a great deal about how the Religious Right operates. Who knows how many people sit silently in their churches because opposition to the conservative Religous Right agenda brings accusations of religious insincerity and moral slippage? How many are sitting there in silence?

As I sat in the pew on that Sunday in March, mulling over what I should do about those fliers, I couldn't help but think about the past two years. After the bombshell column in October 1994, I continued attacking the Religious Right on the op-ed page with my editorials slamming the Christian Coalition. My attacks on the Christian Coalition's politicking garnered me the treat of a lawsuit from a former friend. It seemed as if all of my efforts had brought me a lot of trouble, and I found myself wondering why I fight the Religious Right.

The most important reason for me to fight the Religious Right is a deeply personal and religious one. I believe that conservative politics corrupts the church's mission. Pushing a conservative political agenda through the churches defiles the purpose of the church, divides its members, and destroys the credibility of its witness. As a Christian, I have often felt ashamed by the actions of so many who claim allegiance to Christ. I don't want people to think that all Christians agree with the politics of the Religious Right.

If there is anything I have learned from the past two years it is this: even one voice can make a difference. And that one voice is rarely ever alone. The numerous letters and words of encouragement that I have received over the years from other Christians who also oppose the Christian Right testify to this fact. Don't believe the Christian Right when it claims to represent all Christians. It may try to silence voices of dissent, but it cannot snuff out every voice.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.