Memo To Pat And Jerry: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

On several occasions TV preacher and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson has told the press that I seem to do little but follow his activities and complain about them. It makes me sound like a political stalker.

Now I'll admit I take a great interest in the curious and bizarre comments he makes, as well as his odd manner of changing his views when it benefits him directly. How else to explain his early criticism of President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative as a "narcotic" for ministries foolish enough to accept government funds, followed only 20 months later by acceptance of a half million dollars for one of his charities from the same government trough.

I did, however, miss a comment he made on the Fox News Channel in August, in which he announced, "Liberals always lie." Now that is quite a sweeping accusation. It is my experience that, generically, no group not Democrats or Republicans, not Baptists or atheists, not conservatives or progressives are inherently and uniformly truth-tellers or big fibbers. Of course, many tend to "spin" the facts in the direction that most benefits their arguments, but that is different than "lying" knowing one thing is true but deliberately saying something else.

Lately, though, I've seen both Robert­son and his colleague Jerry Falwell take pot shots at me with information I have repeatedly told them is not true. Robert­son, for example, continues to tell national television audiences that I believe that a public fire department can't go to a burning church without violating the separation of church and state. He apparently uses this "anecdote" to demonstrate my radical, wacky beliefs.

Trouble is (for him), I never said it and don't believe it. Journalists who have heard the claim and bothered to research the point fail to find evidence of me saying it. The reason is that fictional attributions don't show up in Internet news databases.

To further demonstrate the difference between opinion and falsification, Pat has also called me "lower than a child molester" because I reported some churches to the Internal Revenue Service that seemed to be engaging in illegal campaign activities. His distasteful characterization is, I suppose, a matter of opinion. Maybe he thinks that tax law enforcement is worse than child abuse.

Falwell has also been on my case a lot lately, primarily over my opposition to Rep. Walter Jones' bill to allow church electioneering.

In a recent letter to his supporters, Falwell explains that he has "always suspected" that I use the "reverend" title, which reflects the fact that I am an ordained minister, to "deceive the media and the public." There is, of course, nothing deceptive about my title. I went to divinity school just like Falwell did, though it doesn't take anyone who's heard us long to realize that we didn't go to the same one.

Nevertheless, Falwell went on to say that I once gave him an "unclear" answer when he asked me if I had pastored a church. My "steel trap mind" remembered the question, in the "green room" of CNN's then-temporary setup for live editions of "Crossfire" at George Washington University prior to its 15th anniversary show. I gave him the same answer I give everyone: I was a local pastor for a few months in North Barnstead, N.H., in one of those small churches that can only stay open in the summer when the population swells with vacationers. After that I went to work for the national office of the United Church of Christ in Washington. Where is the ambiguity in that? He wants people to think I made up my degree, have never ministered a day in my life and am conning people into thinking I'm a person of faith.

That is galling. It is compounded by his comments that I "do not want churches to speak out on the issues of the day" and thus opposed Jones' bill. During my testimony to Congress, in a hundred interviews on the topic and in speeches across the country, I have never said that houses of worship can't talk about what they see as the moral issues of the day. Just the opposite is true. My sole concern is that churches should not be able to endorse candidates on behalf of their church or use church resources to advance partisan political election campaigns. That's all. Dr. Martin Luther King did not endorse a single candidate from the pulpit, yet he changed the moral landscape of America. I wouldn't want it any other way.

Yet Jerry continued to denounce me for wanting to "silence" the church on the issues. Ironically, when the Jones bill was crushed (and Jones said that he had heard I the character who made this bill so necessary may not really be a minister), Falwell wrote another missive telling pastors that although the bill failed, they can still speak out on moral issues. If he was a truth teller, he would have been saying that from the beginning.

Sometimes I write letters to these fellows to try to correct their declarations that are flatly false. Sometimes I send Federal Express-delivered packets of material to prove things they say are false. They never respond; they simply repeat the false statements. I doubt that there is any real way to get through to them. Maybe I should just put up signs outside their homes with the words: "We disagree about so many things that there is no reason for you to make up things you know are not true."

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.