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Why the Religious Right has Failed to Influence Politics.

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson. Both previously worked with the Moral Majority: Thomas was Jerry Falwell's spokesman, and Dobson was Falwell's personal assistant. The two are now critical of the emergence of conservative Christian groups into politics, and they've collaborated on the new book: "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" (Zondervan Publishing).

43:46

Other segments from the episode on August 18, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 18, 1999: Interview with Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson; Commentary on the record label Excello.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 18, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081801np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "Blinded by Might": an Interview with Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, two former leaders of the Moral Majority criticize how the religious right has tried to use politics to change America. We talk with pastor Ed Dobson, who served on the board of Moral Majority and was Jerry Falwell's assistant, and Cal Thomas, a syndicated political columnist who was the Moral Majority's vice president for communications. Dobson and Thomas have collaborated on the new book "Blinded by Might."

Also, some Nashville and Louisiana blues. Rock historian Ed Ward remembers the record label Excello.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First the news.

(NEWS BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Political analysts are watching the Republican presidential campaign and speculating about how much influence the religious right now has. My two guests, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, used to be in the leadership of the Moral Majority, the group led by Jerry Falwell, which mobilized the religious right into a formidable political constituency and helped elect President Reagan.

Now in their new book, "Blinded by Might," Thomas and Dobson argue that the religious right has failed to transform the culture through political power and that politics should no longer be the emphasis of conservative religious leaders.

Ed Dobson was on the board of the Moral Majority and worked as Falwell's assistant. He left politics 11 years ago to dedicate himself to serving as pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Cal Thomas is a syndicated political columnist and the former vice president of communication for the Moral Majority.

Cal Thomas explains why he's now saying the religious right has failed.

CAL THOMAS, CO-AUTHOR, "BLINDED BY MIGHT": The objectives we stated in the Moral Majority platform, which was formed in 1979, were to end abortion, to do something about the rapidly spreading drug culture, to restore the traditional -- that is to say, male-female married, heterosexual -- family, to clean up television and the general cultural sludge, and to improve our defense capabilities.

If you judge a person or an organization according to the standards for which they were created or by which they stand, then you would have to say that in virtually all, if not all of those objectives, we failed to be successful through the political system.

This is primarily because our fundamental problems in America are not economic and political, they're moral and spiritual. And this area, the moral and spiritual, the internal, is best addressed by the church and its transforming message of individual lives. Politics has a place and nowhere in the book are we calling for withdrawal or retreat or back to the catacombs by religious conservatives. Far from it. We think too few vote and vote intelligently. We think that active participation in the public life of our nation is a good thing.

But we do say that we misplace our faith when we think that by changing the leadership in Washington -- in the White House, in the Congress, on the Supreme Court -- that that in and of itself is going to correct the collective problems of this country, which are far deeper than that and can only and uniquely be addressed by the church.

GROSS: Ed Dobson, would you like to add anything about how you think the religious right has failed?

ED DOBSON, CO-AUTHOR, "BLINDED BY MIGHT": Well -- well, I would like to add that -- that all of that involvement has not been a complete waste of time. While what Cal says is true, I think on two specific issues the religious right has made a contribution to public life here in America.

Number one, with the founding of the Moral Majority, millions and millions of Christians registered to vote. So on the one hand, we brought into the political process millions of new votes. And then number two, the Moral Majority and the religious right has forced public dialogue and discussion on moral issues such as abortion.

So on those two issues, I think we have made a significant contribution. But have we accomplished what we set out to do? The answer to that is no.

GROSS: Now, do you think that the problem is that the politics haven't been effective or that some of the people pushing the agenda were deceitful or demagogic in their political approach?

THOMAS: Well, I think all of the above, Terry. I do think that politics is about compromise. It's about consensus. It's about winning what you can in the short term, and then pressing on toward ultimate objectives. But the message of the church is truth. It is no compromise. It is God speaks, and that settles it. When those two kingdoms come in conflict, as Chuck Colson wrote in a book by that title a few years ago, then one side or the other has to give.

And people who stand for moral truth -- those who believe in God's word and that it is not negotiable, that the 10 Commandments were commandments and not "voluntary initiatives," as Ted Turner has said he'd like to rewrite them -- are confronted with a political system that is all about compromise and consensus and not getting your way all of the time.

Now, when those two kingdoms conflict, one of them has to give. And when a political person gives, he or she is often branded a compromiser or a traitor to the cause. When a theological person gives, a person from the pulpit, very often they are -- they have their theological pocket picked, and they have to compromise what is ultimate truth in order to gain access to political power.

Then when you add the seduction of the fund-raisers, who pick a limited number of issues because they've been field-tested into bringing in money and have been shown that they touch the hot buttons of individuals -- issues like abortion, particularly the gay rights movement and its success, and then gun control, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with eternal truth -- gun control, for example, taxes and some of these other things -- then their eternal message that has real power to transform lives is compromised in favor of access to political power.

I'm afraid that the same thing is likely to happen to the conservative wing of the Christian church as happened to the liberal wing, that it will become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, just like the National Council of Churches has virtually become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democrat party. And it will lose its fundamental and most powerful witness and message.

GROSS: Ed Dobson, you've been out of politics for 11 years, and you've just been devoting your energies to being the pastor of a church in Grand Rapids. Why do you personally think that religion and politics should be separate?

DOBSON: Well, I think you have to know, first of all, that I was born and reared in Northern Ireland, and that's a place where the line between religion and politics, for the most part, does not exist. And ministers and clergy not only preach in the pulpit, but serve as leaders of political movements. And the dangerous mix of politics and religion in Northern Ireland, at least in my opinion, has greatly and adversely affected the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ.

Once a minister engages in politics, you have to identify the enemy. Then secondly, you have to defeat the enemy. Then thirdly, you have to whip all of your followers into a frenzy to oppose the enemy. And Jesus said we're to love our enemies. So while, on the one hand, I vote, I'm informed, I'm engaged personally in the political process, I believe, as a pastor, that I'm supposed to speak for the kingdom of God. And when I engage in political activism, I run the risk of politicizing Jesus, and Jesus was not white, was not Republican and was not even American.

GROSS: Last February, Paul Weyrich, who was one of the founders of the Moral Majority, wrote an open letter saying something similar to what you are both saying. He said that "Attempts to restore morality through the political process have failed. Conservatives should build up parallel institutions," he said, "like home schools and religious radio."

So Ed Dobson, do you think we're seeing a larger movement within the religious right to get away from having pastors in politics?

DOBSON: Yeah, I think so. The reaction to our book from political activist religious leaders has been rather negative. For example, Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, said that our book is more dangerous than the child pornography sold at Barnes & Noble. James Dobson of Focus on the Family wrote that he hoped the book would fade into the night. Jerry Falwell said he has not read the book, will not read the book and will not comment on the book.

But when you get beyond those religious leaders, what I'm hearing from the rank and file, from pastors, from lay people, is "Thank God someone has finally stood up and offered an alternative to the church being the primary center for political activism. You're right, and we're glad you said it."

GROSS: Now, skeptics would say, "Well, sure. This is a great time for you guys to be distancing yourself from the religious right, since the religious right seems to have lost a lot of power and isn't as strong -- doesn't have as strong and effective a leadership as they did when, say, Moral Majority or Christian Coalition were at their peak." So what would you say to those skeptics who are maybe a little cynical at you now distancing yourself from the religious right?

THOMAS (ph): Well, first of all, I don't consider myself distancing myself from my brothers and sisters in the religious right. I have not changed my moral position on any of the issues. All I am suggesting is that there's a better and greater way to bring about the transformation that we all desire and that our country so desperately needs. So I don't see what we have said as distancing ourselves from the religious right. I think it's time that we honestly looked at ourselves with a more critical eye and stopped putting so much time, energy and effort into political transformation from the top down.

GROSS: So instead, you think the transformation...

DOBSON (ph): I would agree.

GROSS: ... should come from within the church, as opposed to within the political arena?

DOBSON: Well, a lot of people in the religious right are greatly discouraged about how dark and awful the moral situation is in our country, and there's no question we're in moral and spiritual decline. But as a pastor, I think it's a wonderful time to be alive because the truth is economics do not have the answer, politics doe not have the answer, education does not have the answer. They all contribute. The ultimate answer to all of our problems is spiritual, and we have the message. So I am more enthused and excited about the darkness of the hour because of the alternative, which is Jesus Christ and the power of the gospel.

GROSS: Cal Thomas, let me ask you the question about the skeptics who would say that, sure, this is a good time for you to be distancing yourself from the religious right, since it isn't as powerful as it used to be.

THOMAS: Well, the skeptics have always been the skeptics. They were skeptical when we were proclaiming the possibility of transforming our culture through the political system, and now they're skeptic that we have lost faith in that as the ultimate deliverer. So the skeptics will always be there.

If the church gets this message right, that real power is not in Washington, but is in the spirit of God to transform and change lives, then the ultimate impact and effect not only on Washington but the entire nation will be something so profound that it will transcend politics. Indeed, it will impact -- it cannot help but impact politics.

The Columbine High School students went back to school on Monday, and they had metal detectors, and they had IDs, and they have cameras, and they have new sophisticated locks on the doors. But they still discovered some newly-painted swastikas on the school building. You have to change the hearts. You can do all of these external things, but until you change the heart of an individual, you haven't changed anything.

GROSS: My guests are Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson. Their new book is called "Blinded by Might." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(ID BREAK)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are the co-authors of the new book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" Cal Thomas is a syndicated political columnist and the former vice president for communications for the Moral Majority. Ed Dobson is a pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He formerly worked for the Moral Majority as Jerry Falwell's assistant, and he served on its board of directors. He's avoided political activity for the past 11 years.

Cal Thomas, in your new book, "Blinded by Might," you write about the "aphrodisiac of political power" and how when political power descended on Lynchburg, the headquarters of the Moral Majority, it had the impact of an asteroid.

What are some examples of how you think Jerry Falwell and other highly-placed people within the Moral Majority were changed by that aphrodisiac of political power?

THOMAS: One of the stories we tell in the book was on the nomination in 1981 of Sandra Day O'Connor by Ronald Reagan to the United States Supreme Court. A few of us had done some research on her record as a legislator in Arizona, and found that on the issue of abortion, she was somewhat suspect, at best, and highly questionable at worst.

And so we raised some of these things. I recall raising it on "Nightline," and I was severely criticized by one of the top leaders in the Moral Majority -- not Jerry Falwell, someone else, for it. And it quickly became evident to me that access to power and the presumption of influence was more important than standing on principle.

Jerry did an interview in another book in which he said Ronald Reagan called him and assured him that he would be satisfied with Sandra Day O'Connor, and could he bring the troops in. That meant he was supposed to silence the criticism of other conservative religious leaders who had legitimate questions about now Justice O'Connor's record.

And Jerry says in the book, in that interview, that he has not been disappointed in her. She has brought dignity. She was the first woman. An important barrier had been -- had been struck down. And yet she has been the swing vote on all of the abortion cases that have come before the United States Supreme Court, and has voted on the side of the pro-choicers.

So this is what I mean by politics forcing many people to compromise and dilute their message to perpetuate the illusion that you are having influence and access to political power. Politicians are happy to compromise the church in that way.

GROSS: Well, you know, some people who start preaching about the glory of God end up really wanting to bask in their own glory and wanting their followers to worship them. And I'm wondering if you feel you saw examples of that on the religious right.

DOBSON: It's subtle. I mean, there are some people who had never even taken the White House tour who were from small churches or small states, who all of a sudden were ushered into the White House as part of this new, powerful political-religious alchemy that had been created and were standing next to the president of the United States and having his -- having their picture taken with him. That is very seductive.

I was born in Washington, D.C. I've grown up here. I went to school here. I've lived here most of my life. I've seen the politicians come and go. I don't fully put my faith and trust in any of them.

But it can be extremely seductive for a lot of these preachers and other religious leaders to be ushered into the White House, into the Oval Office, into some of the bigger rooms, the closest thing we have to a scared building in a secular establishment in this country, and stand next to a president, Ronald Reagan, that they had admired from afar, probably voted for and put great faith in to do good things for America. The tendency then is not to criticize when that president or any other president with whom you feel some affinity does anything wrong.

And that's one of the other great problems. The seduction of power keeps many people from speaking truth to power because they don't want to be shut out. They want to be invited in, and they want to send out that direct mail with the picture of them standing next to the president so that people are convinced they're actually making a difference and will send in those small checks and again create the illusion of a multi-million-dollar empire that is going to take over America.

GROSS: Cal Thomas, you were the vice president for communications at Moral Majority for several years, and you write a little bit about the Moral Majority's fund-raising techniques and your -- you now say that you were uncomfortable with a lot of the direct mail campaigns. Now, I remember some of the Moral Majority direct mail campaigns would say things like "The homosexuals are on the march, and they're trying to convert your children."

And so a lot of the direct mail campaigns were really based on playing on people's -- stirring up people's hatred and playing on their fears of people who were different from them.

THOMAS: You're quite correct. I might add that everybody does it, left and right, by the way. The left sends out fund-raising letters that says Jesse Helms or some other appropriate enemy of the moment, Gary Bauer, whoever, is -- "If they take over America, they're going to bring cameras into your bedroom and police your private activities."

So the direct mail people work both sides of the streets. They're kind of fund-raising hookers. They'll go with any customer who pays them the money. And if you look at them -- and I've got a file full of this stuff from both left and right over many years -- it's all basically the same thing, playing on fears, playing on prejudices, in some case religious, in other cases sexual, and sometimes even racial, in order to get those checkbooks open. The envelopes are designed in certain ways. It's all apocalyptic.

I say in the book that I asked a prominent fund-raiser once, naive as I was at the time, "Gee, why don't we ever send out a positive fund-raising letter telling people what we've done with their money?" And he looked at me and he said, "You can't raise money on a positive." That deepens the cynicism not only about religion in the minds of the non-religious, but also about politics. Nothing is ever achieved, no one ever succeeds.

One of the things Jerry Falwell said, seemingly jokingly, in a fund-raising meeting once, was, "You know, I'm glad Ronald Reagan's in the White House, but I'm afraid that people are going to think we're succeeding and won't send any more money." I think that pretty well sums it up.

GROSS: Did either of you have a turning-point moment where you thought, "Well, I can't continue. I have to leave politics and just stay to" -- Ed Dobson, in your case, keep to being a pastor, Cal Thomas, in your case, write a political column, but don't be a part of a religious-political group? Was there a turning-point moment?

DOBSON: Well, for me...

GROSS: This is Ed Dobson speaking.

DOBSON: Yes. When I came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I sat in my office early on and asked myself the question, "What does it mean to be a pastor of a local church in Grand Rapids, Michigan?" And I concluded that I was called to teach the Bible to Democrats and Republicans, to pro-life, to pro-choice, that the larger issues of the gospel transcend those issues, as important as they are.

And so I made the commitment that we, as a church, would not pass out voter guides. We would not do voter registration. We would not pass out petitions. We would not march for or against anything. That's not to say that I don't preach on moral issues. You cannot preach the Bible without preaching moral issues. What it does mean is that we are not a center for political activism in this community. We are a center for spiritual reformation, transformation, and an emergency room for broken-down people.

GROSS: Cal Thomas, did you have a turning point?

THOMAS: I don't think there was -- I hate to use the word "evolution," being a conservative, but the process for me was evolutionary. I mean, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I'm not perfect, either, and I'm certainly not sitting here today raining down judgment on other people with whom I used to work.

There were many good things, and still remain many positive, wonderful things about Jerry Falwell and many of the things that he did, a lot of which were never even covered by the media. Jerry can be an incredibly generous individual, personally and institutionally in terms of -- not just in terms of money, but in the time he gives to invisible causes and invisible people, at least invisible in terms of media coverage and attention.

The thing that frustrated me more than anything else was, I think, the fund-raising. Later it came to be the utter futility of trying to change things from the top down.

GROSS: Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson are the authors of a new critique of the religious right called "Blinded by Might." They'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas, two former leaders of the Moral Majority, the group that politically mobilized the religious right.

Dobson and Thomas have written a new book called "Blinded by Might" in which they criticize the religious right's attempts to use politics to transform American values.

They say in spite of delivering money and votes, the religious right has failed to make America a more moral place. But in the process, leaders of the religious right have been corrupted by power and money.

Ed Dobson is a pastor who served on the board of the Moral Majority. Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist who was the Moral Majority's vice president for communications.

The leading candidate on the religious right now for the Republican presidential nomination is Gary Bauer. He's founder of the Family Research Council. How would you say the Family Research Council fits into the larger religious right?

CAL THOMAS, "BLINDED BY MIGHT": Well, I think the Family Research Council, the material that they send out, is incredibly well documented and researched and very, very relevant to the times in which we live. I read a lot of it. I'm on their mailing list, and I think that they do a great work. They are separate from the church, and I think this is fine.

I like the name, Family Research Council. There's nothing Christian or Jewish or Muslim or religious, even, in it. And they generally don't get into a lot of theological jotting and tittling, they just speak to political and moral issues, and I think in a very effective way.

They are a spin-off of Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, of course, and he still has a great interest in that. So I have no problem with what they're doing in Washington. I think they're doing a very effective service. Gary Bauer, of course, came out of that as the head of it. I think Gary is a layman, he's entitled to run for president, he's an incredibly moral and decent man, a good family man, a man of tremendous personal integrity. I've known him for a number of years.

I just think that he is -- he has the right message for the wrong age. If these things were willingly accepted by the masses, we wouldn't have the problems that we have now. And as I've told him to his face, you know, God bless you, if you get the nomination, I'll vote for you. But I don't think you're going to get it. Because if people were willing to accept your ideas, we wouldn't have the problems that you're trying to address.

GROSS: What's left of the Christian Coalition? How strong do you think it is now as a force in American politics?

ED DOBSON, "BLINDED BY MIGHT": Well, there is, outside of the Christian Coalition, there is a large mass of conservative people who get up every morning, who go to work, who love their family, who attend church, who are concerned about the kinds of issues that we addressed in the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition.

And there is a consensus. It's not a large percentage of people, but it is significant, within this country who are decent human beings trying to honor God and honor their family.

THOMAS: Terry, I was interested in a piece I read in "The New York Times" a couple of weeks ago. We talk about what too close involvement from religious conservatives with politics and what the state can do and the damage it can bring to the church's primary and fundamental message and witness.

Two former top aides of the Christian Coalition, who had resigned, told "The New York Times" that they were involved in some deception when they were with the Christian Coalition. Specifically, they said they inflated the mailing list. They counted dead people. They double-counted some members. Anybody who called up with so much as a question got immediately added as a member.

And then, they said, to impress the television cameras when the networks or local stations would come in to do a story, they hired temporary workers to give the illusion of a massive operation that was all out of proportion to its actual size and influence.

So this gets back to the point I was making earlier about compromise and the seduction of power.

GROSS: Looking at the Republican presidential hopefuls, it seems as if most of the top candidates are -- have distanced themselves from the religious right. The Republican candidates, the most prominent ones, have been described as taking positions as subtly but fundamentally more inviting to gay and lesbian voters than at any time before.

Governor Bush has said he would have no qualms about hiring homosexuals. Elizabeth Dole has said that she would not turn away from money from a gay Republican group, and -- which her husband Bob Dole did when he was offered money by a gay Republican group, he gave the check back. John McCain said he could envision a gay president someday.

Republicans also haven't been making abortion the centerpiece of their campaigns. What's your translation of that?

THOMAS: Well, my own translation, from being a political animal in this town for many years, is that many of these Republicans do not want to set themselves up as easy targets for the Democrats. I sense that Governor Bush of Texas has learned this lesson quite well. His Republican colleagues are criticizing him for not being more specific and not being stronger on some of the cultural-moral issues.

But I think I know, I've spent a little time with him, why that is. August of 1999, a year before the conventions, what, 15 months before the next election, is a bad time to start raising your level of visibility. Those things will come soon enough. And we'll remember the past election cycles where the labor unions and others affiliated with but outside the formal structure of the Democrat Party set up the Gingrich-Dole monsters as wanting to starve your grandmother and kill off your children and all of these other things.

So they're trying to keep from being demonized. And I think it's a good strategy, frankly.

GROSS: So are you suggesting that antigay politics and abortion -- antiabortion politics will enter their campaigns further down the road?

THOMAS: Well, there is code language going on right now. Many of the candidates -- well, certainly the leading candidate, George W. Bush, is speaking in code. He talks about if he's elected president, naming justices to the Supreme Court who will follow the Constitution and not make law.

Now, in the past that's been code for strict constructionist, for not reading things into the Constitution, as conservatives believe, and not only conservatives, Lawrence Tribe believes too, of Harvard, it's not there. Even Tribe has said that while he agrees with the outcome of Roe versus Wade, he thought it was poorly decided legally.

So I think that that's code, and it's a way of assuring or trying to calm the masses of religious conservatives. Don't worry, I'll be OK on this. Well, I've learned not to trust politicians of any stripe.

I mean, Dwight Eisenhower gave us Earl Warren, who was the scourge of conservatives for many in this country. Richard Nixon gave us Harry Blackman, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe versus Wade. George Bush gave us David Souter. Reagan also gave us Anthony Kennedy, who's been another swing vote not only on abortion but also on, you know, school prayer issues and other religious-oriented things.

So it's never a slam-dunk when you get a Republican elected. And the code sounds nice, but can they be relied on, once they get in there, to nominate the right people?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are the authors of the new book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" And they argue that pastors and religious leaders should not also be political organizers, that -- and these are people who used to work for the Moral Majority.

Cal Thomas, my guest, is a syndicated columnist and the former vice president for communications for the Moral Majority. Ed Dobson is a pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He formerly worked with the Moral Majority as Jerry Falwell's assistant, and also served on the Moral Majority's board of directors. He says he's avoided political activity for the past 11 years.

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guests are the two authors of the new book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" Cal Thomas is a syndicated political columnist and the former vice president for communications for the Moral Majority. Ed Dobson is the pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He formerly worked for the Moral Majority as Jerry Falwell's assistant. He's avoided political activity for the past 11 years.

Gary Bauer, who is part of the religious right and is seeking the Republican Party nomination for president, recently said, "There is virtually nothing to show for the religious right's 18-year commitment to the Republican Party."

How much do you agree with that, Ed Dobson?

DOBSON: Well, I think that's a pretty accurate statement, and I think it's based on some of the things Cal has already mentioned in this interview, that politicians are politicians. Politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, will tell you what you want to hear but go do what they want to do, period. And the nature of politics -- I don't want to be overly cynical, because not all politicians are like that -- but politics is politics.

GROSS: Yet, I mean, I think there are more restrictions on abortion, legislation giving gays equal rights has been slowed and in some cases reversed. The religious right helped get Newt Gingrich elected speaker. The Republican majority in Congress was voted in with the help of the religious right. Reagan and Bush were helped in their successful presidential elections by the religious right.

So isn't that a lot in terms of accomplishments?

DOBSON: Well, I mean, Terry, you're entirely...

THOMAS: It's all illusion.

GROSS: It's all illusion? Cal Thomas, in what sense is that all illusion?

THOMAS: It's illusion, it's all illusion. It -- if you look at -- look at the abortion rate. It's down about 200,000 per year, not because of legislation but because of the tremendous work of crisis pregnancy centers, pro-life groups, and other activists around the country moving out into their communities and telling women the truth and offering solid, hands-on alternatives to abortion.

The gay rights movement, a threat to some, continues to move forward. We're on the verge of seeing same-sex unions approved, apparently, in the state of Vermont. In New Jersey and several other states, adoption by single-sex or same-sex couples can -- by single individuals or same-sex couples can now be done. The Boy Scouts of America, supreme court ruling in New Jersey, they cannot exclude homosexual Scoutmasters.

So I don't see -- the prisons are overflowing, recent reports from the Justice Department, an all-time record high in people who are incarcerated. People say, Well, the crime rate is down. Really? Well, how many neighborhoods in big cities would you be willing to walk at night? Not me.

So it's all illusion. And politics is about illusion. The church of Jesus Christ ought to be about substance, and it ought to be something far more substantive.

You mentioned a moment ago something Ed did I wanted to follow up with. We have this story in the book. James Dobson, no relation to Ed, head of Focus on the Family, wrote me a note after his meeting with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader. And we were in this private correspondence debate about what could really make a difference in the political system.

And he wrote me a handwritten note on the airplane going back to his headquarters in Colorado Springs from Washington and he said, in a euphoric state, "Cal, you're all wrong, you're all wrong. Both Newt and Trent made me promises that they're going to get to our agenda." And I wrote him back and I said, "Jim, check your wallet. You had your pocket picked. They're politicians. Of course they're going to tell you what you want to hear."

The poor guy. "Stick to the family. Let the rest of us stick to the politics."

GROSS: Homosexuality has been the -- one of the real villains for the religious right for many years. And I'm wondering if you both feel as strongly about homosexuality as you did in your Moral Majority days.

DOBSON: Well, Terry, if you're asking what do I believe the Bible says about human sexuality, the Bible clearly states that human sexuality is a gift from God to be practiced within the commitment of lifelong heterosexual marriage, and that all sexual expression outside of that is beyond God's creative intent and outside the boundaries of what God wants.

So while some like to focus on homosexuality, or I should say the practice of homosexuality, all sexual expression outside the commitment of heterosexual marriage is sin. And does that mean we go around beating people up because of the choices they make? No. We can offer a message of hope and forgiveness and reconciliation.

GROSS: Ed Dobson, you have been serving, I believe, on the World Council of Churches consulting group on global HIV and AIDS, and I'm wondering -- I've heard fundamentalist preachers preach that AIDS was God's way of punishing homosexuality. And I'm wondering what your thoughts are about that, and if you've...

DOBSON: Well, that's...

GROSS: ... changed your thoughts at all about AIDS.

DOBSON: Well, first of all, I've never preached that. I don't believe that to be true any more than it would be the judgment of God on hemophiliacs or on millions of people in Africa who are suffering from HIV. HIV is a terrible disease, and 11 or 12 years ago, the board of our church -- we were talking about, What if Jesus were to show up in Grand Rapids, Michigan? Where would he go and what would he do?

Well, we decided he probably wouldn't appear in the pulpit of our church, because he didn't have a great affinity toward religious leaders when he lived on planet earth. But rather, he would go to the most despised people in our community, which we concluded 11 years ago were people with HIV.

So we thought if Jesus would love people with HIV, why aren't we? And so for 11 years in quiet ways, not public ways -- we have no program for this, no organization for this, we don't write fund letters about it -- we have just quietly loved people with HIV, period. And I believe that that's -- the tension of the Gospel is, on the one hand, you're committed to God's truth, yet on the other hand you're bringing God's healing to a broken world.

And I think the religious right has done well at declaring truth, has done incredibly poor at demonstrating the love of Jesus in a broken world.

THOMAS: I agree with everything Ed says. I think that very often, preachers -- be they on the right or the left -- are selective in their preaching of the Gospel. It's a cafeteria kind of theology. They'll take one or two items that make them feel good, one or two items they'll denounce that they aren't practicing at the moment, and one or two items that will bring in the money.

But they'll ignore the rest of it. For example, one of the people we interview in the book, Kay James (ph), an African-American woman who has held a number of responsible positions in and out of government, says it's a curious thing, when she goes to white churches, all they want to hear is about abortion and the attempts by government to stop it.

But when she goes to African-American churches, all they want to hear is about racial justice. A lot of the white preachers never address the issue of racial justice, but that is about as biblical an issue as you can get. And I'm concerned about the selectivity of the Gospel, which makes it rejected and not appealing to an awful lot of people who need to hear the entire program.

As far as homosexuality is concerned, I feel a lot of conservative preachers unfairly single that out when given the past, from Jimmy Swaggart to Jim Bakker, and now with Newt Gingrich divorcing his second wife while bragging he honored the Contract with America, he has been unable or unwilling to honor contracts he made with two women that he married.

Frankly, I think that that is a greater threat to the stability of a nation, the breakup of the heterosexual family and the abandonment of children by their fathers, mostly, sometimes by their mothers, than a lot of these other things the direct mail people are making money off of.

GROSS: Now, Ed Dobson, you've in a way done exactly what Cal Thomas said, you've left politics, you've been devoting yourself solely to being a pastor for the last 11 years. And I'm wondering how that change has affected your life.

DOBSON: Well, it's been very liberating, in the sense that I no longer feel responsible to change America or even to change my own community. I only feel the responsibility to speak the truth and to love people unconditionally.

And we're attempting to do that in a partnership with 12 African-American churches. I just recently preached in an eight-week series on racism in the church. We're involved with homeless people in our community, we're involved in helping people get off welfare, get jobs, help them as individuals and as families without government help.

We believe that we ought to practice our faith and demonstrate justice within the community of faith, and ultimately that will have a transforming power in the community, and hopefully ultimately in the nation.

At the same time, I'm encouraging people to vote and be involved in the political process, but not to put their faith and trust in politics, only in God.

GROSS: Is anyone trying to convince you to get back into politics?

DOBSON: Yes, I get letters almost every week from national organizations and local organizations wanting me to pass out information in our bulletins. I even got suggested sermons to preach on the issue of gambling, of petitions to be signed. Pastors are under constant pressure from national organizations to utilize the people they have in their pews to be engaged actively in the political process.

And we have chosen not to do that. And that has not been a pleasant choice. We're under constant pressure to change that. But I believe once you start down the road of political activism, first of all there's no end to all of the causes. Number two, it ends up distracting you from your primary mission. And number three, it ultimately doesn't change a single person.

GROSS: Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas are the authors of a new critique of the religious right called "Blinded by Might."

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward plays blues recordings from the old Excello label.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Cal Thomas, Ed Dobson
High: Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, former Jerry Falwell spokesman, and pastor Ed Dobson, formerly Falwell's personal assistant, are now critical of the emergence of conservative Christian groups into politics. They've collaborated on the new book: "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?"
Spec: Religion; Politics; Moral Majority; Christian Coalition

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Blinded by Might": an Interview with Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: AUGUST 18, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 081802NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Remembering Excello
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: Nashville isn't a city famous for blues music. And yet between 1952 and 1975, Excello Records, a label based there, released hundreds of records. For the most part, they weren't hits, but they influenced performers from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones.

In the first of a two-part series, rock historian Ed Ward covers the first five years of Excello, showing how it grew into an important regional label.

ED WARD, ROCK HISTORIAN: Late at night just about anywhere in the United States in the 1950s, you could find WLAC on your radio dial, broadcasting on a clear channel out of Nashville.

One of its most famous shows was "Ernie's Record Parade," which played blues. It was sponsored by Ernie's Record Mart, a pioneering mail order business.

Order one of Ernie's surprise packages, and you'd be rewarded with a recent hit and a number of other records, most of which bore the distinctive orange Excello Records label.

Excello grew out of Ernie Young's retail distribution and jukebox business after he discovered, at the age of almost 60, that his jukebox customers were having trouble finding the blues and gospel records they wanted. Young formed two labels, Nashboro (ph) and Excello, to record some local groups and began releasing them in 1952.

(GOSPEL SONG EXCERPT, "EVERY CHILD OF GOD")

WARD: Young was too ambitious. Jamming gospel, blues, and country onto one label confused distributors. So he soon abandoned country, shunted the gospel releases onto the Nashboro label, and let Excello concentrate on blues.

(EXCERPT, "BABY, LET'S PLAY HOUSE," ARTHUR GUNTER)

WARD: Excello had mostly regional hits, which helped keep them in business, but many of the records they issued had a lasting impact. One of their first, Arthur Gunter's "Baby, Let's Play House," was one of Elvis Presley's favorite records, and he made his version of it famous.

Few of Excello's early artists became well known, although the label's documentation of Nashville's little heralded blues scene is invaluable today.

(EXCERPT, "CALLING ALL COWS," BLUES ROCKERS)

WARD: The Nashville blues sound was less sophisticated than the one coming out of Memphis, but records like the Blues Rockers' 1955 "Calling All Cows" were among the building blocks of early rock and roll.

The mail order business really took off, which led to Excello being approached by a man named Jay Miller in Crowley, Louisiana, who was developing a stable of artists that needed a recording outlet.

The alliance with Miller would lead to some of Excello's most exciting releases.

(BLUES SONG EXCERPT, OTIS HICKS)

GROSS: Otis Hicks, whom Miller dubbed Lightnin' Slim, was heavily influenced by the more successful Lightnin' Hopkins from Houston, but he was the first of the Louisiana-based artists to have hits with Excello.

Miller's house band was Guitar Gable and His Musical Kings, a local combo popular with blacks and whites, and commonly credited with starting the swamp rock sound which swept Louisiana in the 1960s.

(ROCK SONG EXCERPT)

WARD: Miller's stable of artists included not only Lightnin' Slim but also Lonesome Sundown and Lazy Lester, who were to build solid bodies of work. His success with them attracted a young harmonica player from Baton Rouge.

(EXCERPT, ROCK SONG, JAMES MOORE)

WARD: "Kingby (ph)" was the first record by James Moore (ph), better known as Slim Harpo. And with its release in 1957, a whole new era began to dawn for Excello.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. We'll hear more about Excello Records later this week.

(BLUES SONG EXCERPT, "BUS STATION BLUES")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Purdick (ph). Dorothy Farabee (ph) is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

(BLUES EXCERPT)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Ed Ward
High: Rock historian Ed Ward remembers the blues label Excello.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Excello

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Remembering Excello
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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