Senate Chaplain Nixes Appearance

Posted January 31, 2007 at 6:55pm

Senate Chaplain Barry Black informed Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Wednesday that he was canceling a planned appearance at a religious conference set for next month after a left-leaning civil liberties organization urged him to pull out due to the organizer’s controversial political and religious beliefs, a spokesman said Wednesday.

According to the chaplain’s spokeswoman, Meg Saunders, Reclaim America originally invited Black to attend in the fall of 2005 and billed the conference as a generic religious meeting. Saunders explained that Black, who attends a number of conferences each year, agreed to participate because it would not conflict with the traditional nonpartisan, nonsectarian role of the Senate chaplain.

But following a review of the group’s Web site Wednesday, Black determined it was, in fact, both a political and highly sectarian event and quickly informed the organization and Senate leaders that he was not attending.

“He was not happy, particularly in light of the fact that in the beginning … we were not given the full information,” Saunders said, explaining that the original invitation was “very vanilla.”

A spokesman for Reclaim America declined to comment.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry Lynn, who first questioned Black’s decision to attend the Reclaiming America for Christ event in a letter to Black delivered Wednesday, praised the chaplain’s speedy decision. “I’m delighted that he’s made this decision,” Lynn said, adding that “[Black’s] office is uniquely designed to provide spiritual guidance across the board” to the Senate community and that Reclaim America is “about as contentious and controversial and extreme as you can get.”

Founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy, Reclaim America is an offshoot of Coral Ridge Ministries, one of the largest evangelical organizations in the United States.

According to the group’s Web site, which at press time still listed Black as a speaker, the bulk of the speakers are luminaries of the conservative Christian movement, including author Ann Coulter, anti-abortion activist and Catholic priest Frank Pavone, Focus on the Family’s Tony Perkins and Eagle Forum Founder Phyllis Schlafly, among others.

Topics to be discussed at the two-day conference include “making America safe for the unborn,” “America’s Christian moral heritage,” “Reclaiming America through evangelism,” “How to recruit and mobilize your pastor and church,” “Communicating with grassroots” and “Islam and ‘future Jihad,’” according to the site.

A brochure for the event extols Christians to attend by warning that “the only thing evil requires for its triumph is for Christians to say and do nothing. … Once-silent Christians are standing up, speaking out, and rolling up their sleeves to get involved in the civic life of the nation,” and describes the conference as a way to become “informed and equipped in the campaign to return America to her godly heritage.”

Kennedy’s flagship organization, Coral Ridge Ministries, has long been at the center of the so-called culture wars. For instance, the organization last year produced a video that claimed to show proof that Darwin’s theory of evolution was responsible for the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust.

In his letter to Black, Lynn notes that “the Senate chaplain’s job is to provide a variety of religious services that recognize the broad diversity of faith in America. Dr. Kennedy’s ministry does not recognize or value this diversity. Rather, he argues that certain types of Christians — those who agree with his interpretation of the Bible — are the rightful owners of the country and that the nation must be ‘reclaimed.’”

Saunders said that Black was upset that conference organizers had not “revealed” the intent behind the event in their original invitation and said he has been very careful during his tenure as Chaplain to be involved in anything that even hints at partisanship or sectarianism.

After reading the Web site, Black quickly decided to reject the invitation, Saunders added, explaining that because of the “political nature of the [conference], it definitely would jeopardize his standing in the Senate community.”