Southern Baptists Give Hero’s Welcome to Oliver North
ATLANTA (AP) _ Thousands of Southern Baptists waved American flags and sang ″Yankee Doodle Dandy″ in a patriotic salute to Oliver North, who urged them to battle a ″Sodom and Gomorrah″ in the nation’s capital.
″To some, he’s controversial. But to the vast majority of us, he’s an American patriot,″ the Rev. Richard Lee, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors Conference, said in introducing North on Monday.
In a scene that could have been borrowed from the movie ″Patton,″ the former Marine lieutenant colonel who became a central figure in the Iran- Contra affair stood before a 40-by-60-foot American flag. He portrayed himself as the victim of a congressional ″inquisition.″
He urged the crowd of more than 15,000 Southern Baptists to become more politically active to counter ″a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah on the banks of the Potomac.″
Only a handful of people protested. ″To me, his coming supports the merger of Christian faith and politics, which is idolatry,″ said Jerry Gentry of Decatur, Ga.
But North’s speech to the pastors conference was only a preview of the patriotic tenor of this year’s convention, which opens today. ″Call to Prayer for Spiritual Awakening in America″ is the theme for a Wednesday revival and President Bush is to speak Thursday.
Les Roberts, a director of missions from Phoenix who handed out flags before North’s talk, said the denomination is riding a wave of patriotism from the nation’s success in the Persian Gulf War.
″Southern Baptists are tremendously patriotic. They always have been. There is a commitment to country and to God,″ Roberts said. ″I think Oliver North represents a commitment to God.″
The convention also is the first one since 1979 in which the denomination’s so-called moderate faction is not expected to pose a challenge to the fundamentalist majority.
Thousands of moderates last month formed their own group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and announced plans to bypass the convention.
Also Monday, Harold C. Bennett, the denomination’s chief throughout the fundamentalist-moderate conflict, announced that he would retire in October 1992.
″I’ll be 68 by that time. It’s time to retire,″ he said.
A medley of patriotic songs from ″Yankee Doodle Dandy″ to ″God Bless America″ were sung in the Georgia World Congress Center before North was introduced as an ″American patriot.″
North spent a week in 1987 telling Congress in televised hearings about his efforts to sell arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages and to use the profits to help the Nicaraguan Contras. In his speech, he compared himself to Moses and his prosecution to an inquistion.
″This long, incredible ordeal has been a little like a Red Sea to us,″ he said.
At times holding a Bible aloft as he mixed a conservative political agenda with the mannerisms of a Baptist evangelist, North said there is ″a desperate need for revival in this nation that we might turn back to him.″
He struck a particular chord when he said the Constitution was designed to ″protect godly people from the government, not the government from a godly people.″
North was convicted in 1989 for helping to fabricate a chronology of the Iran-Contra affair, destroying documents and accepting an illegal gratuity.
The convictions were set aside by an appeals court. Last week, the Supreme Court let stand the appellate court’s order that the trial judge in North’s criminal case must review the testimony to determine if witnesses were influenced what North told Congress under a limited grant of immunity.