August 10, 1996

The Counterpart of
the Religious Right
by Peter Steinfels

Dear Beliefs:

I keep reading about the religious right, the religious right. Is there a religious left? What is the left-of-center counterpart to the religious right, anyway? And why do I never read about it?


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Dear Puzzled:

You wouldn't read about the religious right either if its leaders had their way. Most of them consider the label pejorative, hopelessly associated with "far right," "radical right" or "extreme right." They prefer the softer "religious conservative movement" or "pro-family movement" or simply references to their various organizations: the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and so on.

Nonetheless, because of the sweeping character of some of their proposals, the intensity of their public stands and the sheer power of alliteration, the label has stuck.

That is doubly unfair, the leaders protest, since no one ever writes about their adversaries as the left, religious or otherwise. So while their own, often-bickering movement is given an aura of unity and extremism, their nameless opponents escape similar scrutiny.

Oddly, some of those opponents have a mirror-image complaint. The religious right gets all the attention, they say, and the religious left none. Of course, they would like the attention without the label "left," which carries overtones not only of extremism but of subversiveness as well. They don't even want to be called "liberal."

Jim Wallis, the editor of the pacifist magazine Sojourners and a tireless organizer of an alternative to the religious right, prefers the label "progressive evangelical." The Interfaith Alliance, a new challenger to the religious right backed by top leaders of the National Council of Churches, is trying to grab everybody's favorite description, "mainstream."

But the real reason there is so much less attention to what might qualify as the religious left is simpler: Politically, it barely exists.

Unquestionably, there are devoted leaders (see above) whose religious convictions lead them to continue support for the welfare state, affirmative action, full employment, less inequality of income and wealth, stronger safety and environmental regulations, legal abortion, gay rights and a high wall between church and state.

So far they have been unable to constitute themselves as an independent agenda-setting force with grass-roots muscle, and not just junior partners in other people's coalitions.

Does that help?


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Dear Beliefs:

Only a little. You still haven't answered my question about the left-of-center counterpart to the religious right. Some pundits compare the religious right's role in the Republican Party to the role the labor movement once had (and hopes to re-establish) in the Democratic Party. Religious right versus labor left? Sorry, it doesn't ring true. They are more like two ships passing in the night than true ideological adversaries.


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Dear Still Puzzled:

Here's a suggestion: the real opposite number to the religious right is the lifestyle left.

The lifestyle left includes people who are religious and people who are not. It includes some welfare-state liberals and some anti-government libertarians.

What unites the lifestyle left is the belief that in regard to the widest possible range of basic choices about how to live, the state should refrain from exerting its influence. The more basic the question, the less the role of the state.

An eloquent statement that the lifestyle left could adopt as a charter is found in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling on Pennsylvania's restrictions on abortion. The passage refers to the Constitution's protection of "the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy."

"At the heart of liberty," the passage continues, "is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life."

Clearly there is more than a vague link here to freedom of religion. The religious right, however, thinks the courts, and the lifestyle left, have extended that notion to the social breaking point, where "the right to define one's own concept of existence" or "the mystery of human life" means leaving fundamental societal questions -- like when the lives of the unborn or the dying can be ended, or what constitutes a marriage -- up to individual choice rather than social consensus.

So who constitutes the lifestyle left? Obvious nominees: the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and most other abortion rights advocates, the Hemlock Society and other supporters of suicide assistance, gay rights groups endeavoring to legalize same-sex marriage, numerous artists, entertainers and even advertisers dedicated to systematically pushing the envelope of socially admissible life styles, and the commentators and critics who rally to their defense.

In some cases, this constellation of groups is linked organizationally; more generally, the groups are united by sympathy and a shared ethos. They see an attack on one as an attack on all. And most of them are lodged in the Democratic Party as deeply as the religious right is in the Republican.


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Dear Beliefs:

Lifestyle left? I see the ideological symmetry. But wouldn't these people object to the label? Why not just lifestyle liberals?


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Dear Puzzled:

Why not just religious conservatives? The point is that the concerns of the lifestyle left -- the renegotiation of longstanding social and legal norms on matters of life, death, family and sexuality -- are no less sweeping or adamantly pursued than those of the religious right.


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Dear Beliefs:

So can I expect to read analyses of whether the lifestyle left has a lock on the Democratic Party or its platform? Will I see polls examining whether the lifestyle left's agenda is out of sync with traditional Democratic voters? Will I learn about Democrats' plans to keep the lifestyle left's profile low at their convention? Am I the only one whom this lack of symmetry leaves


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Dear Puzzled:


Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

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The Fundamentalist Left!?
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

A story carried by Newhouse News Service is titled "Religious Left -- Growing Numbers of Evangelicals Leaning Away from Conservatism." We're informed that 64 percent of white evangelicals, and 67 percent of black evangelicals "have a favorable opinion of the Christian Coalition," while 20 percent of white evangelicals and 18 percent of their black counterparts give Ralph Reed and company low marks.

Writer Lulia Lieblich tells readers that "Like many of their more conservative peers, they (liberal evangelicals) believe the Bible is the inspired word of God -- albeit recorded by imperfect scribes -- and they are committed to promoting what they see as biblically based values, from equal rights for minorities to environmental stewardship." And more: Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, is "one of a growing numbers of highly visible evangelical Christians who are social progressives."

It seems that such diversity in religious ranks must surely be telling us something about the utility of belief. What kind of "god" is it that crafts so convoluted and twisted and vague a doctrine that its meaning is unclear? We're amused how both sides on so many issues can invoke the authority of "their god" and the bible in defense of ideology. Besides, is religion really a sensible basis for deciding what right and proper for human beings?

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Decency Act Ruled
by Conrad Goeringer

June, 1997

In another precedent-setting case, the U.S. Supreme Court announced this morning that it was declaring as unconstitutional the controversial Communications Decency Act, the federal government's trendy, "pro-family" attempt to regulate content on the Internet. The high court's 7-2 ruling reflected a lopsided victory for free speech advocates, and upheld earlier rulings issued by two federal judicial panels. Writing for the majority in Reno v. ACLU, Justice John Paul Sevens declared, "Notwithstanding the legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from harmful materials, we agree ... that the statute [CDA] abridges 'freedom of speech' protected by the First Amendment."

CDA was enacted and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 as part of a wider telecommunications reform agenda; it attempted to prevent the distribution to minors of "indecent" or "patently offensive" materials in cyberspace, with penalties up to $250,000 and two years in prison for violators. Decency, religious and political groups lobbied hard for the legislation, and solons in Washington were equally diligent in crafting the wording of CDA in hopes of surviving a constitutional test. Wrestling with traditional problems in censorship, the CDA framers attempted to describe "indecency" as anything that "depicts or describes in terms patently offensive, as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

But Justice Stevens reflected the court's opinion, noting that "The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech. As a matter of constitutional tradition ... we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it."

"We agree with the three-judge district court that the statute abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. The [CDA] is a content-based regulation of speech," added Justice Stevens.

Dissenting from the majority were Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Reuter news service, in an early dispatch, reports that the two jurists "agreed that the law was unconstitutional in that it would restrict adults' access to material they otherwise would be entitled to see," but "said they would invalidate the law only in those circumstances."

The law was challenged by an array of civil rights and free speech groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union. The primary backer of CDA was the government; the Clinton administration ordered a vigorous defense of the act through the Justice Department even after enforcement was suspended by order of the two federal panels. In recent days, though, there have been reports that White House advisors have been backing off their support of the legislation, considering it a lost cause. The President's spin doctors, though, still worry that without CDA or similar schemes, Mr. Clinton (and presumably Vice President Gore, a contender for the 2000 presidential race) may be perceived as "soft on smut." The new White House strategy will be announced in a policy statement that calls for "self regulation" by online service providers and new technologies.

"Son Of CDA"

Even with the demise of the Communications Decency Act, and the temporary retreat by the administration, censorship legislation remains alive and well on Capitol Hill. Religious groups like the Christian Coalition remain firmly committed to enacting laws which "protect families"; and this morning's ruling only dealt with problems in defining "indecency", not "obscenity."

The court's verdict in Reno v. ACLU also rests on some delicate technical points. The justices rejected arguments that the internet is similar to the television and radio industries, where there is a long history of government regulation concerning content. There could be a "technology ambush" for civil libertarians here, as the internet continues to evolve, acquiring more of the features already evident in the TV and radio broadcasting industries. Public loyalty to civil liberties also remains highly ephemeral and volatile; and calls for internet regulation seemed to evoke support from diverse groups.

Still, the defeat of the Communications Decency Act -- even with the prospect of a "Son of CDA" in the congress -- remains a victory for civil liberties. Stefan Presser, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that "Essentially the Supreme Court of the United States took an idea from the 18th century, that is free speech, and said it has enduring quality, and will extend into the 21st century, because government will not be allowed to censor what's on the Internet."

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Stossel Boldly Bashes
Scientific Theories
review by Pete Schulberg
The Oregonian, January 9, 1997

The heat may be on ABC News about its use of hidden cameras and hard-hitting exposes, but John Stossel doesn't seem to be letting all the attention get to him one little bit.

Stossel's latest provocative special, "Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So," launches salvos on big business, government, bureaucrats, the media and, last but not least, scientists and their theories.

Not a whole lot left, is there?

As Stossel says in Thursday's special, "The truth usually comes out." And in trying to find the truth, Stossel is no shrinking violet as he reports on various theories that he claims are closer to junk than substance.

"Sometimes," Stossel tells us, "activists trust the science to fit their agenda ... and bureaucrats use it to protect their turf."

Vintage Stossel. And we certainly see our share of squirming bureaucrats and sputtering government scientists attempting -- not well -- to explain their positions.

A host of juicy examples of largely accepted findings are served up.

Despite all the publicity about how we eat too much salt, Stossel concludes -- with the help of experts -- that only a third of us really have to worry and that the government's guidelines are silly and unrealistic.

We've all about the dangers of dioxin, but Stossel surmises that the government went way overboard in closing down the town of Times Beach, Mo., by imposing a massive, ever-continuing, politically inspired cleanup of a dioxin mishap. As Stossel shows us, there was a major dioxin accident 20 years ago in an Italian town. But instead of fencing in the place, the folks there built a park and now everybody is happy, safe and healthy.

The most surprising debunking is saved for last -- that there's no evidence that crack cocaine addicted babies grow up with concentration prob. lems or become easily frustrated.

Stossel takes issue with Dr. Ira Chasnoff, who in media interviews played up crack baby problems. Magazines and networks took Chasnoff's initial conclusions and ran with them.

"Crack babies even tend to do better than babies of alcoholic mothers," Stossel says.

Seems the original crack baby research was flawed. "They wanted to get published," says Clare Coles of the Emory University School of Medicine.

Stossel even introduces us to a smart, creative 18-year-old old woman -- a former crack baby.

"You were pushing junk science," Stossel tells a clearly uncomfortable Chasnoff, who admits that effects of cocaine on babies are difficult to qualify.

"The original research on crack babies is a good example of what science is not. It's not a one study endeavor. It rarely comes in a blinding Hash of revelation. learn about our world slowly, bit by bit. Scientists offer theories and most are eventually proven wrong."

Wrong, right or somewhere in between, when Stossel talks, people listen. Even before he tasks, as it turns out. In a pre-emptive strike The Oregonian received a packet of news media material from Environmental Media Services, an environmental and public health media watchdog group, charging Stossel with being anti-regulation, anti consumer and anti-environment. The group backs government controls on dioxin and silicon breast implants.

It is true Stossel loathes government regulation and has taken issue with the usefulness of the FDA DA and EPA.

But Stossel's stuff makes us think and ponder. And that's not junk.

Pete Schulberg's column appears in the Living section.
He can be reached by phone at 221-8562, by fax at 294-4026,
by e-mail at
or by regular mail at 1320 S. W. Broadway, Portland, Ore. 97201.

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Baptist Convention
President "Forgot"
by Chuck Shepherd

August, 1997

St. Petersburg Baptist minister Dr. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention and who had been accused of misspending church funds and falsifying documents, explained why he had told an interviewing committee (when applying for the position of president) that he was single, when actually he had been married and divorced twice: "I forgot [those marriages]." (He noted that the marriages had been brief.)

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Stole Church-Fire Donations?

Baptist Leader Faces Charges
by Pat Leisner
The Associated Press

NOTE: A later AP story, "Baptist Leader Lyons Indicted," says nothing about the diversion of ADL funds intended to rebuild black churches that were burned in arson fires.
-- Cliff Walker, Positive Atheism editor

February 26, 1998

St. Petersburg, Florida -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the leader of one of the nation's largest religious groups, was charged Wednesday with racketeering and theft for allegedly opening a secret bank account and diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in church money for his personal use.

Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was accused of defrauding the Anti-Defamation League of nearly $250,000 it donated last year to rebuild black churches in the South that had been burned.

Lyons was charged with one count of racketeering and two counts of theft. He was released on $100,000 bail. As he arrived in court, Lyons said he planned to clear his name. If convicted, he could face 30 years in prison.

A former church worker whom Lyons is accused of having an affair with also was charged with theft. Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler, was arrested in Milwaukee, where she lives

The convention claimed to have 8.5 million members, which would make it the largest African American denomination in the nation. But the indictment called that figure "a complete hoax" and put the convention's membership at between 500,000 and 1 million.

Prosecutors said Lyons and Edwards inflated membership figures to attract private contributions in exchange for the convention's product endorsement. The pair then diverted the donations to personal accounts, according to the indictment.

Lyons opened a secret bank account shortly after being elected in 1995, prosecutors said, and he gave church money to his wife, Deborah Lyons, his daughter and a church worker, Brenda Harris.

The 88-page indictment said Lyons and Edwards began defrauding several banks in June 1995 and continued until August. It did not give a total of how much money the two were suspected of stealing.

Lyons, 55, became the target of a federal grand jury investigation last year after his wife was charged with setting fire to a waterfront house that he owns with Edwards. He was suspected of using church money to buy the real estate, as well as cars and jewelry for Edwards.

Lyons has denied having an affair with Edwards or misusing money. Last year, Deborah Lyons admitted setting the fires, saying she had a drinking problem. She was sentenced to five years' probation.

In recent months, Lyons has survived repeated no-confidence votes from the church membership. He has publicly apologized but admitted only to serious errors in judgment.

"I have sinned," he said in December. "And I have displayed human weaknesses and frailties."

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Baptist Leader Lyons Indicted
The Asociated Press

NOTE: This unsigned story, unlike the February AP story titled "Baptist Leader Faces Charges" by Pat Leisner, fails to mention that Lyons is accused of defrauding the Anti-Defamation League of nearly $250,000 it donated last year to rebuild black churches in the South that had been burned.
-- Cliff Walker, Positive Atheism publisher

July 3, 1998

TAMPA, Florida -- (AP) The Rev. Henry Lyons, the embattled leader of one of the nation's largest black church groups, was indicted today on federal charges that he cheated corporations out of millions of dollars to buy cars, jewelry and other luxuries.

Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., made arrangements to surrender for an afternoon court appearance before a U.S. magistrate.

He was named in 56 counts including fraud, extortion and tax evasion. They carry a maximum of 815 years in prison and $25 million in fines if convicted.

These allegations come on top of accusations of racketeering and grand theft brought by state prosecutors in February. Lyons, 55, has pleaded innocent to the state counts.

Indicted with Lyons today were Bernice Edwards, 40, former director of public relations for the convention, and Brenda Harris, who was director of meetings and conventions for the Baptist group.

Authorities said proceeds of the frauds went into accounts to support a lavish lifestyle, including country club memberships, trips, cars, jewelry and houses.

Edwards, a convicted embezzler from Milwaukee, was named in 25 counts; Harris on eight.

Edwards also faces state charges of racketeering and, like Lyons, has pleaded innocent.

The indictment accuses the three of conspiracy, bank, mail and wire fraud, making false statements to financial institution and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, money laundering, interstate transportation of security obtained by fraud, and use of a false Social Security number.

In announcing the indictment, U.S. Attorney Charles R. Wilson said he believes that the majority of Baptists would be "sickened and disgusted by the conduct alleged ... and are cheering the return of this indictment."

The indictment was the result of a year-long federal grand jury investigation, Wilson said.

Lyons, Edwards and Harris used the National Baptist Convention to steal and extort millions of dollars from a host of corporation and organizations, according to the indictment.

Lyons is accused of using his convention leadership position to fraudulently solicit contributions, then not use the money as represented; fraudulently obtain loans with false statements and forged documents; and defraud corporations of significant sums of money.

Wilson said the fraud totals into millions of dollars.

He acknowledged some of the federal charges overlap with state charges, such as the accusations that Lyons spent money on himself that had been donated to help rebuild Southern churches hit by arson.

"We feel there's a substantial federal interest that needs to be vindicated in this case," Wilson said of the overlap.

Lyons has weathered a stormy year since his wife, Deborah, set fire last July to a plush Tierra Verde waterfront home Lyons owned with Edwards, whom he put on the church payroll.

Later, she said it was a drinking problem and not a jealous rage that prompted it. The July 6 fire caused an estimated $30,000 damage to the luxury home.

In the aftermath of fire, allegations surfaced that Lyons cheated on his wife and misused church funds, buying expensive jewelry, a Mercedes-Benz and the $700,000 home for Edwards.

With her husband watching from the front row of the courtroom, Mrs. Lyons pleaded guilty to first-degree arson and was sentenced to five years probation. The judge also ordered her to be evaluated for alcohol and psychological treatment.

The uproar prompted some prominent Baptist pastors to call for Lyons to step aside.

But the preacher emerged from the convention's annual meeting last fall with a vote of confidence. He had been elected in 1994 for a five-year term.

He has denied wrongdoing or having an affair and refused to step down. Lyons also is longtime pastor of the Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.

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