By John W. Whitehead
October 21, 2002
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas has been called a "gay-bashing, low-life, neanderthal, Republican slime-ball," "hypocrite, disgusting coward," "idiot," and "lying, narrow-minded, bigoted, ratty twerp." And this is just a sampling from hate mail posted on his own website, Calthomas.com. Often grouped with commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Thomas is a less sensationalistic, more thoughtful antidote to the talk radio host. While his following has grown from an initial column in the Los Angeles Times in 1984 to a current weekly syndication in 540 newspapers, his opinions on what America should be doing both abroad and at home still earn him the weekly ire of left-leaning readers. "I can’t judge myself," he says. "I have to leave that to God." The one-time political pundit seems to be doing just that, replacing his faith in government with a belief in God. "During my years of hands-on political activism, I never converted anybody to my point of view," Thomas says. "However, I did have, and have had, and am having on many occasions the privilege of leading somebody to Christ." Breaking from the penning of his latest polemic, Thomas talks with John W. Whitehead about the state of Christianity, its innocuous involvement in politics, and how real change can be wrought.
oldSpeak: You worked for the Moral Majority from 1980 to 1985. At that point in time you were closely aligned with Jerry Falwell’s viewpoint–that is, what is generally referred to as advocating that Christians aggressively affect culture from their religious viewpoint and dominate it, if possible. With your book Blinded by Might (Zondervan, 2000) and other articles and statements by you, it seems as if you have turned 180 degrees in your thinking. What happened?
CT: Buy the book.
But what prompted the thinking in that book?
Well, I simply went back and took a close look at Scripture. As a result, I took those out-of-context quotes and misquotations you hear from a lot of people and began to read them in context. For example, the most misused Scripture for political agendas by conservatives is the one about salt and light in Matthew 5:13. This verse, in particular, is one that is ripped out of context with the implication that Christians can change an unbelieving generation, culture and government system that cares nothing about the true things of God; that is, other than a couple choruses of "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps after a terrorist attack or a stupid argument over whether "Under God" should be left in the Pledge of Allegiance. This is all civil religion taken to the extreme. If you read in context the salt and light verse along with the rest of the New Testament and what God expects out of unbelievers and the government and the state and even by extension culture, there is no expectation and no commission for believers to change the hearts or minds of unbelievers through the power of a fallen state in a fallen world made up of fallen people. There is, however, a commission to go out and make disciples–disciples of Jesus Christ, not the Republican Party. But this is not to be done as part of a conservative movement and not as an agenda and certainly not as part of a fundraising scheme.
The Christians that you complain take Matthew 5:13 out of context argue that salt is a preservative and in order for society to remain somewhat free to preach the gospel, Christians have to get out there and get heavily involved in politics and the arts. You don’t agree with that?
There is nothing wrong with being, as they say, "involved in politics." I vote in every election. There is nothing wrong with Christians being involved in politics– running for office and serving in office if they can get elected. The problem is that we must make a clear distinction between what individual believers do and what the ordained clergy do who are set apart to preach the gospel and to represent a different kingdom.
Are you saying a preacher can’t run for president?
No, they can. But I think that’s a step down. If a preacher goes through the Scripture, he will touch on every moral issue that confronts us–from honesty in government to the disgrace of Senator Torricelli of New Jersey to interpersonal relationships involving loving your wife and not committing adultery to even abortion and homosexuality and drugs and all of these other things. It’s all in Scripture. During my years of hands-on political activism, I never converted anybody to my point of view. I never had anybody write me and say, "You know, I’m not a Christian, but the power of your argument that one shouldn’t commit adultery has convinced me to stop fooling around with my mistress and go back to my wife." I never heard that. However, I did have, and have had, and am having on many occasions the privilege of leading somebody to Christ. Indeed, someone who I am thinking of right now who was committing adultery, who was on drugs and is not anymore, who was bordering on alcoholism and has given it up. Thus, I have seen that transformation by the power of Jesus Christ that I have never seen through politics.
What about legislating morality? Many evangelical Christians argue that they must be heavily involved in making sure, for example, that abortion is outlawed. I read a lot of the direct mail from some of the Christian groups–the mega-ministries, if you will–and they are extremely anti-gay. They want to pass laws that would ban homosexuality. Are you saying that the Bible doesn’t speak to that?
Well, I would like to pass a few laws that would ban lying and bearing false witness and all of that. However, some of these preachers and others who are so heavily involved in some of the issues that you mention have no problem with gluttony or with 300 pounds and lying about people and bearing false witness and sending out fundraising letters that are flat-out lies and spending the money on other things. That’s just the way it is. So I find it rather curious that some people who claim to be righteous or to appeal to a standard of righteousness are less than that in their personal lives. Again, I think that all of these issues that you mentioned–abortion, homosexuality and the rest–are not the cause of our decadence. They are a reflection of it. They reflect a culture that worships the golden calf of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages. Throughout the Old and New Testaments and throughout history, Lincoln, Solzhenitsyn and many others have warned what happens when a nation of people forget God. He gives us over, Paul notes in Romans, to our own depravity. And that’s what we are seeing.
Legislation can follow a turning back to the things of God. However, there are politicians who run on a certain platform about cleaning up America. But once then they get in office, they forget what platform they ran on. Take Tim Hutchinson, for example, of Arkansas. He is a Baptist and is active in his church. But he had an affair with his secretary, divorced his wife and remarried his secretary. Then there’s Newt Gingrich with all his hoopla about the "Contract with America." The Republicans had the big blowout in ‘94 and were assured that revival was going to hit America because the Republicans were in control. Not much changed. As a matter of fact, nothing changed. And this is the danger of putting your faith and trust in princes and kings. Jesus trusted no man–not because He was a cynic but because He knew the heart of man.
There is that now-famous statement Jerry Falwell made on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club television show shortly after 9/11. Falwell indicated that the reason the terrorist attacks happened was God’s judgment because of gays and abortionists. There are many fundamentalist Christians who would not disagree with this.
I once asked a professional fundraiser, "Why don’t you ever send out a positive letter on what you are doing with people’s money?" And he said, "You can’t raise money on a positive." This is reflected in the direct mail and the publications we receive in the mail from the various Christian groups. It’s the same on the left, by the way. I have a suspicion that some of these fundraisers are working both sides of the street. I know it to be true in at least one case. One fundraiser actually raised money for a Christian group and at the same time raised money for the liberal group fighting the Christian group. The checks clear the banks. So what does he care? That’s like a hooker. They don’t care who their customers are as long as they get paid.
You didn’t really answer my question.
The general idea that something we do either causes God’s pleasure or anger is bogus. James said, "Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Light in whom there is no shadow or turning." Now, obviously there are consequences if you commit adultery. If you have sex with somebody who has syphilis or gonorrhea or AIDS, you are going to get some physical consequences from that. However, God isn’t sitting there like Santa Claus, saying if you’ve been good you’ll get toys for Christmas and if you’ve been bad you’ll get a piece of coal in your stocking. That’s just not a New Testament concept. Now there are consequences and benefits to living a godly life if you are in Jesus Christ. If you are outside of Christ, then nothing you do is good. Paul says that our righteousness is like filthy rags. Nothing you do is appealing to God.
Do you believe that God judges nations?
Yes. But as Isaiah says, all nations are a drop in the bucket or less than nothing. So that ought to be humbling to Americans instead of this nationalistic notion that we are better than anybody else is. This whole concept that you see in some books that somehow God has blessed America more than anybody equates God’s blessing with materialism. Blessing is equated with how much money you have in the bank and how many missiles you have and how many members the Armed Forces have. America is a wonderful country. However, the idea that God loves Americans more than he does people in the Sudan who are being killed for their faith is idolatry. The same goes for someone who converts an Islamic in an Islamic country and puts himself under the penalty of death for the cause of Jesus Christ. God is no respecter of persons.
Recently, I was talking with a Christian about some unethical actions taken by a large Christian group. And although she agreed with me that what the group was doing was completely non-Christian, she said that since they have a lot of money, God must have been blessing them. However, to my way of thinking, if God blesses with money then Hitler, and anyone else who ever lined their pockets, was blessed by God.
It’s called the prosperity gospel. You see it on these evangelical television shows –crazy ideas like if you have enough faith, you will never get sick. If you have enough faith, your bills will be paid. It’s totally bogus, totally. The problem is that you have an enormous number of believers who are biblically illiterate. Thus, they allow others to interpret Scripture for them rather than digging into it for themselves.
They let the priests do it.
The very Protestants who criticized the Catholic Church for what it used to do don’t really read the Bible now, either. Thus, the Protestants are doing the very same thing. They’re letting the Protestant priests interpret the Bible for them.
One of your first questions concerned what changed me. I was a regular Bible reader, but I was doing some of that myself–I was letting charismatic people who were very persuasive and could have sold me a vacuum cleaner, even if I didn’t need one, interpret and "spin," in the words of modern politics, the Bible to say things that it didn’t mean. But when I got into the Bible for myself and really sought what God expected of believers, I found something completely different from what I have been told.
This kind of blind following the blind mentality is also applied to key issues. For example, some of the major Christian leaders vehemently argue against gays, saying there is a gay agenda and that the gays are taking over. What should be the Christian response to this?
I think you can affect the issue in a positive way, which I believe I do in my newspaper column. You can argue, for instance, about the benefits of traditional marriage. But there is a bottom line–that is, I believe there is a greater threat to the country from heterosexuals divorcing and people living together without being married than I do from the so-called gay rights movement. Preachers who argue against homosexual marriage–which I am against–and legitimizing the gay lifestyle–which I oppose–don’t speak a lot and don’t preach a lot about the consequences of divorce, abandoned children and women who are making less money after they divorce. I find these to be a greater threat to the family. However, you can’t raise money on those issues, and that’s the whole point. The issues that are put on the front burner are those that raise the money and get the attention. We are being sold a phony bill of goods. If the heterosexual family is restored in America, it will go a long way toward solving the crime problem, the drug problem and the problem of suicide among teenagers. The largest cause of death among the young is suicide because they have lost hope. They don’t feel anybody loves them because their parents split or, if they are still together, they are working all the time. You’ve taken care of a huge number of social problems, but you can’t raise money on it. And that’s why it’s not a front burner issue for a lot of the so-called conservative Christians.
Are you saying that conservative Christians have sold out?
That’s kind of a loaded statement.
There is a question mark at the end of it.
I would say they’ve more than sold out. I think they’re convinced in their biblical ignorance, with all due respect, that somehow the problems we have in America are organizational and not spiritual. They deny this, but you have to judge them on their behavior. The mentality is that if we can just get the right combination of people in the House and the Senate and the White House, everything will be fine. In an off-the-record interview, I recently asked a leading Republican what the Republican agenda would be if Republicans win back the Senate, keep the House and have the White House. He said, "Actually, that might turn out to hurt us because the people’s expectations might be too high." This is an economic conservative and a social liberal. He is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and all the rest, and he is a top Republican in Washington, DC. Now imagine that. If we get unified government under the Republicans, it might be worse than having divided government. That’s what I mean when I say you can’t put your trust in princes and kings. These people are politicians before they’re anything else. Even some of the Christians who get elected know they can’t have an ultimate effect unless they become part of the deal. Three evangelical senators–Humphrey of New Hampshire, Coates of Indiana and Armstrong of Colorado–said a few years ago that you lose more than you win in this town.
Should abortion be outlawed?
Well, it used to be illegal. It should revert to the individual states to decide. Constitutionally, that’s where it belongs. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and his colleagues extended the right to privacy and equated it with what the Founders contemplated in terms of the privacy in your own home. Those who wrote the U.S. Constitution never conceived that a right to privacy would mean you could kill your unborn child.
What are you going to do with the women who are forced to get "back alley abortions"?
There weren’t that many of them, and people will always do things despite the law. We have laws against bank robbery, but five people were killed in Nebraska a couple of weeks ago and there were laws on the books. We have laws about guns and the misuse of them, and people still use them illegally. "The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who could know it?" said the prophet Jeremiah. Laws are not about full compliance. Otherwise, we would repeal every law on the books because none of them are fully complied with. Look at all that’s going on with the corporate scandals, the fast outs, Ken Lay and Martha Stewart, to name a few. There are plenty of laws on the books about these things that they are alleged to have done. However, the laws weren’t sufficient to deter them from acting illegally.
I would like to see the laws against abortion reestablished. And I believe the laws will be reestablished when people once again view human life as something sacred. But that’s not happening now. Take Frank Lautenberg, for instance. When he was picked by the Democrats in New Jersey to run in place of Robert Torricelli, Lautenberg made an interesting statement. The first thing out of his mouth was not about terrorism and the possibility of a war with Iraq. What were Lautenberg’s first issues? The first thing out of his mouth was maintaining a woman’s right to choose and the sanctity of the environment. So we’ve done a total flip now. Trees used to be renewable resources. Now they’re sanctified and unborn babies, who used to be sanctified, are disposable.
Realistically, outlawing abortion is not going to happen–at least in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, should Christians return to protesting in front of abortion clinics, picketing and even contemplating Operation Rescue tactics?
Abortion is basically a censorship issue. Those people who are screaming for choice should become censors. What I mean is that choice presupposes access to information so that choice will be fully informed. We have truth-in-labeling laws. You can’t go into a grocery store in America and, by federal law, not see information about the tomatoes and the string beans or whatever in a canned or bottled package–caloric content, fat everything. There’s a federal law mandating that so you can choose whether to eat those 12 grams of fat or go for the light stuff. The same is true in truth and lending. When you go into any bank or savings and loan to take out a loan, federal law requires you to get certain information about the loan–the interest rate, payback time, penalties for not doing so, your rights, etc. A car dealership, by federal law, has to have a sticker on the window giving you all kinds of information. But if you go into an abortion clinic, you don’t have to get any information at all. They’re not required to give you anything. Women who are seeking an abortion should be shown a sonogram of what they are about to destroy. Most of the women I’ve talked to on the lecture circuit who have had abortions and regret them say that if they had only known, if someone had told them about the alternatives, if they had seen a picture of their baby, they would not have had an abortion. And that’s not restricting the information. It’s giving women the same kind of information that’s available in the grocery store, the car dealership and the bank.
And on cigarettes.
And cigarettes. If we approach this not as laws restricting abortion but as giving women more information so their choices can be rational, it’s a winning strategy in my judgment.
What about the argument that America was founded on Christianity?
But I hear it every day.
I know, but that doesn’t make it right.
The argument is that the goal should be to reclaim America for Christ and, in effect, have the Christians take over.
Well, it was never the Christians’ country to begin with. I personally don’t want it to be a Christian nation for the same reason that I don’t want the federal government aiding the church. I think Bush’s whole faith-based initiative thing is one of the biggest camel noses in the tent that I have seen in my life. I wasn’t aware that God declared bankruptcy under Chapter 11. There is no mandate or expectation in Scripture that the state should fund the work of the things of God. I think that is extremely dangerous.
But there’s another side of that. The church is not reaching out and helping the poor, as it should. You have people who need information, for example, about abortion. They need information about HIV. Why couldn’t the government come in and fund things like that as an outreach ministry? The churches simply aren’t doing it.
Well, that’s the churches’ problem. You know...
It really becomes the poor people’s problem. They can’t get the information or the help they need.
Then the government shows up at the church door and says, "I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you." We ought to shut them out as fast as if it were Satan showing up and saying, "I’m from Hell, and I’m here to help you." I think that’s a bad bargain.
What about the proposed legislation that would allow churches to become more involved in politics?
From the beginning, people on Capitol Hill called me up and tried to enlist my support. They were shocked when I told them that I’m opposed to it. However, I must say that although the law restricts churches in terms of politics, it doesn’t seem to apply to African American churches or Jessie Jackson would have been in jail a long time ago. Jackson goes in and endorses candidates and takes up offerings, even for political reasons. So does Al Sharpton. It’s a double standard.
Why is it a double standard?
It’s a double standard because the IRS is not going to go after a prominent African American preacher. It just isn’t going to do it. They don’t mind coming after Bob Jones University because attacking the fundamentalists doesn’t cost them a lot. But the government is not going to come after a Black preacher. It just isn’t going to happen. The heck with the law. They are just not going to. You know it, and I know it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Democratic or a Republican administration. It just isn’t going to happen.
In the end, this all can be argued from both angles. I don’t think the preachers or the churches should be restricted in their free speech rights. I don’t see a real New Testament mandate for the church to be a tax-free institution. If you take a benefit from government–whether it’s a check under the faith-based initiative or people are allowed to deduct their contributions to the church and the church’s land is tax free–then churches have to expect that the government is going to expect certain things from them.
There is no constitutional right to tax exemption. It’s a privilege.
That’s exactly right. So if the churches want to be free and open and involved in politics, let them give up their tax breaks.
They’re not going to do that.
Well, of course they’re not. Then they ought to expect that the government will demand something in return. Again, if they want to take the law away and let them preach whatever they want, fine. But is it wise for them to do so? Are there people in the congregation who are so ignorant that they will only know how to vote if their pastor tells them?
You have a bigger problem then. I would not be part of any church that preaches politics in the pulpit. I just wouldn’t. I would be highly insulted if my pastor took time out of the sermon and told me who to vote for. It would outrage me. I would leave and find another church to attend. I don’t go to church to hear about the kingdom of this world. I go and worship with my fellow believers to hear about the kingdom not of this world.
Many argue that there must be a moral consensus in order for there to be rule of law and for a country to remain free. Otherwise, you end up with Mao’s alternative–morality begins at the muzzle of a gun.
Mao did say that power comes out the barrel of a gun. But it’s also been said, "No, it doesn’t. It comes out of an empty tomb."
But if you don’t have the preachers–Jerry Falwell, Jim Dobson and others–out there rallying the people and saying, "Let’s all get out there and vote Republican. Let’s get heavily involved in politics," how will we ever get that moral consensus?
Let’s look briefly at history. Look at Prohibition and the anti-cigarette movement that were parallel movements. Prohibition dealt with a symptom, not a cause. Alcoholism, drunkenness, women being abused by their drunken husbands who would spend the rent at the saloon before they staggered home and fell into bed and shouted at their kids and beat their wives, that was a legitimate social problem. But the Reformers addressed the problem with legislation instead of trying to change hearts. And what was the result? They created a Mafia underground of bootleg gin, and people got their booze anyway. So they helped fund organized crime. Thus, one legitimate social ill that was attacked produced a greater social ill that is still with us today. We have to be careful. The church has become so much like the world in addressing the problems of the world. It’s amazing. We have fundraisers. We have televangelism. We have all our own stuff. We criticize the world. But I spend less and less time criticizing people and more and more time trying to love them into the kingdom. This world is passing away. It’s like the hotels we stay in on the road. If we don’t like the wallpaper, we don’t pay to have it changed because it’s a temporary home. Any movement has to be judged on its results. All that effort in Prohibition didn’t produce any real change, and all the effort in the ‘80s by the Moral Majority and others didn’t produce any real change.
The Christian Right has failed?
It has in its objectives. The major objectives were to stop abortion and end the gay rights movement. We were going to put the family back together. We were going to cure the drug problem. We were going to fight for a strong national defense. Those were the five top issues of the so-called Religious Right in the ‘80s.
But George W. Bush was elected.
Thanks to the Supreme Court. I love Bush. I’ve known him and his family for years. I greatly admire him and think he’s a whole lot better than his predecessor is in many, many ways. But George Bush is not going to force me to be faithful to my wife, to be an example to my kids, to be honest in my financial dealings, to not take drugs and the rest. He can’t do that, either by edict or by legislation. That has to come out of the heart, which means it comes out of religious conversion. It comes out of loving God, rather than loving things and my lower nature.
On your website, you have a hate mail page.
You are very well disliked.
Wouldn’t it be better for you to tone down your views and appear to be a likable guy? Wouldn’t that lead more people to Christ?
I am doing that in my personal relationships. My newspaper column and television appearances are platforms. They’re means; they are not ends. At one time, I thought my career was an end. I was going to be rich; I was going to be famous; I was going to be powerful; I was going to be a player in the media. I realized this was a form of idol worship.
Some people believe you are hate-filled and that you’re a hate monger. Do you think that deters from your religious mission?
Well, I don’t know. I’m not high enough above things out in space to have a big view. People on the Left such as George McGovern and Ted Kennedy are on record as saying nice things about me personally. In fact, I just got a letter from McGovern the other day. I would hope that my conservative friends would say the same in my personal relationships. These people feel that I am not a hypocrite in terms of my relationship with Christ and the way I try to manifest His example and teachings. I can’t judge myself. I have to leave that to God.
As you look out on the landscape, what do you see in terms of Christianity in the next 20 years or so? Where is it headed?
I am not a prophet or the son of one. However, I can only tell you what the Scripture says. The whole world is headed down. We’re talking about weapons of mass destruction. I’m reading the latest stuff from the Middle East and what these things can do to people—everything from small pox to serum gas to nukes—all of these things. The prophecy beginning in Daniel and extending to Revelation is on the verge of coming true; that is, if the current situation is not just a preview of coming attractions. I think this is a marvelous time for believers. There is tremendous interest in the apocalypse and Armageddon. End times issues are front-page news and lead stories on the evening news on television. Everywhere people are talking about massive disaster and millions killed.
But shouldn’t people look forward to the future? Is hope for the future important?
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust anything but Jesus. Christ is the solid rock I stand upon. All other ground—Republican, Democrat, environmentalist, pro-life, anti-gay—is sinking sand.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.