"Christianity is a good force in the world; people who pervert it are doing a God-awful thing," observes the Rev. James Watkins, pastor of Old South Church, in Kirtland, Ohio.
Jim Watkins, 49, is a husband, father, pastor, author, educator, and community activist who confronts the religious right every chance he gets. He's been a minister since he was 21. "I started preaching when I was 17," he told Freedom Writer, "I started p reaching before I had a lick of sense!"
Watkins' introduction to Christian fundamentalism came early. At age 6, he made an adult profession of faith, and was immediately baptized at the Lamar Heights Baptist Church in Memphis. Years later he attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lou isville. He completed his master's degree at the Memphis Theological Seminary.
"The religious experiences people have are quite important, but I wouldn't require someone else's religious experience to sound like mine. God is bigger than our experiences with God."
Once a rabbi asked Jim if he thought the rabbi should convert to Christianity. "Are you happy in your faith?" Jim asked. The rabbi responded that he was. "What more could I want for you?" Jim replied.
"At 42," he said, "I asked myself, 'If I didn't happen to be born into the state religion of Memphis, Tennessee, where would I be now?'"
Because they know what Christianity is supposed to be, Christians are often the best antidote to the radical religious right. It took a while, but Watkins finally realized what was going on. He had been a Southern Baptist minister for 20 years, before joi ning the United Church of Christ in 1991.
"The religious right's theology has turned into pathology," Watkins quipped in his usual witty style.
"Frankly, I didn't just start fighting the Christian right one day. Before the religious right was in existence I was fighting their way of thinking on evolution and the separation of church and state. Christianity does not have any special legal status i n this country, and neither should it. Baptists were once committed to what I believed in. The Baptists left me."
Writing is one of the many ways Watkins functions as an activist. "I have attempted to perfect the 500-700 word essay" he said. While he's lost track, he said his Op-Ed pieces have been published in 45-50 newspapers in the last ten years, including The Plain Dealer and USA Today.
"USA Today and the local paper are the way to reach mainstream America," Waktins said. "This has to be done repeatedly. It is important because we believe in mainstream values — a mainstream notion of what America is all about — versus the re ligious right version of American culture. We need to present this bite-size; we have to reeducate our own people. Big, thick books will not do this.
"The religious right can turn a lie into the truth by simply stating it on 'The 700 Club' all week. The big lie technique — like 'God thrown out of public schools!'
"You know the truth about that! There are a wide variety of religious activities that are permissible on the school grounds.
"But, you see, the religious right has to have an enemy. Fundamentalists are not a positive force, they're a negative force; they react against; they really don't have that much that's positive to offer. They can scare you to death and say, 'Give us the p ower!' They don't tell you what they're going to do when they get it! That's the way authoritarians always operate. They always have to have something to save you from — humanists, libraries."
With an abiding love for public education, Watkins is involved in his local school board elections; he's a plaintiff in an Ohio school voucher case; and he writes extensively on what's wrong with school vouchers. A popular speaker, he addressed the Ohio E ducation Association on how they can resist the political agenda of the religious right.
Jim is a leader in the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). "As you know," he said, "AU is an educational group. When we started our own political action group, we sent a survey to our school board candidates to deter mine their views on such things as school sponsored prayer and biblical creationism.
"Creationism," Watkins commented, "should be taught in mythology classes."
"In the last election we were able to keep the religious right candidates off the board. In November we want to take the other religious right person off the school board.
Another role Watkins plays is to help groups in other Ohio counties. "I call them together, give them material, and encourage them. I've become the anti-religious right guru in northern Ohio."
Prior to challenging the Christian Coalition, he established himself in the community. "You first need to establish yourself as a responsible hardworking minister," he said. Then one day he attended a Christian Coalition meeting.
"I sat up front, in my black suit, with my Bible. I stood up, and said to the director, 'I have a question. Would you accept a challenge to a formal debate about the efficacy of this organization?' 'Any time you're ready,' he responded. 'Well,' I said, 'y ou'll be hearing from the League of Women Voters.'
"The paper stated, 'Local pastor challenges Christian Coalition to a debate.' Then, a follow-up headline read, 'Christian Coalition official withdraws from debate.'
"I think more ministers should be doing this. The Christian Coalition is good with one-liners before a group, but they can't sustain their arguments.
"The religious right folks don't want the majority of the public to know what they're doing; they want to manage their exposure to the public.
"Why don't more of us simply challenge them to debates in our locality? Rarely will they say 'yes.' These people are not invulnerable, they can be defeated. They've gotten as far as they've gotten on brass, they have no history. We have to get more brassy . We have to take the battle to the enemy. Look at all these civic clubs are looking for speakers.
"When I speak, I ask myself, 'How can I get them on board?' The way to beat the religious right is to preempt the middle. When we do, the religious right doesn't have any direction to grow.
"What is called conservatism today is not American conservatism. Look at Barry Goldwater. Look at Norman Rockwell — each to his own conscience. Religious pluralism is what has made this country great.
"We can't lose the common touch, we must get with the roots. The average American is worried about the pace of change in our culture. We need to identify with him. I know the world's in a mess. The problem is, the religious right doesn't have the answer.< p> "The central question in modernity is the rapidity of change. People get disoriented and they reach back. 'Oh God, the way it was in the fifties!' The rise of fundamentalism in every culture is aided and abetted by the rapidity of social change.
"What's the answer? The answer is — the mutual respect for different points of view. A person can be a good American without holding your points of view. It's the willingness to live in a larger community with different religious points of view. We have t o agree to disagree agreeably. The religious right does not disagree agreeably!"
Jim Watkins may be contacted by phone at (216) 256-3329, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his new home page, Mainstream Opinion, at http://www.mainstreamop.org.