It Was Thirty Years Ago

IMG_8348.JPG

"It was 30 years ago today..." No, not the lyrics from the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, but August 11, 1988, the day 25,000 people took to the streets in North Hollywood, California. What were these people doing on that Thursday afternoon?  Taking a stand for the historical Jesus and protesting a soon-to-be-released motion picture called The Last Temptation of Christ that defamed and mischaracterized Jesus. I was privileged to be the “tip of the spear” in organizing and leading the protest preceded by a news conference. I invited some of my friends to participate, such as football great Rosey Grier, Jewish broadcaster Dennis Prager and former sportscaster Jane Chastain. I also invited some well-known Christian leaders to participate, such as Don Wildmon from the America Family Association and Bill Bright from Campus Crusade. But first, a little background.

Rumors had spread that MCA-Universal was bankrolling a movie based on pagan writer Nikos Katzanzakis' novel The Last Temptation of Christ. MCA-Universal brought in award-winning director Martin Scorcese to direct the film. Given the controversial nature of Katzanzakis' book, MCA tried to keep the movie script under wraps. However, copies were leaked, and Christian broadcasters began to decry what many considered a highly offensive if not blasphemous portrayal of Jesus. The "Jesus" of MCA's film was a lustful and confused person, bearing little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels whom two billion Christians worship as Lord and God.

Despite the pleas from multitudes of people to not release the film, MCA turned a deaf ear and wrapped itself in the First Amendment, claiming it had every right to produce the movie. No one questioned whether MCA had such a right—the issue was whether MCA should go forward with a film based on a script that was offensive to millions of people. By late July 1988, it was clear that MCA had no intention of shelving the film despite the outcry. At the time I was the afternoon talk show host on KKLA-Los Angeles, the flagship station for Salem Broadcasting. KKLA’s North Hollywood studios were two miles from the entrance to Universal Studios and MCA-Universal’s headquarters and I had been actively covering the controversy behind The Last Temptation of Christ for months. Thus, I was in the right place to give a voice to the thousands of people who were troubled by the film. I figured the best way to for people to express themselves was to organize a public rally and march. The event was set for noon on August 11, 1988, at the entrance to Universal Studios in North Hollywood, preceded by a news conference at 11 a.m.

IMG_4693.JPG

By 11 a.m. on August 11, 1988 several thousand people had gathered at entrance of Universal Studios awaiting the news conference. As I looked out at a dozen or more television cameras and many more print journalists, I began addressing the media by reading an open letter to MCA that expressed the sentiments of literally millions of people. A helicopter buzzed overhead filming the spectacle and I was told that a local Los Angeles News station reported a "13-mile backup on the 101 Freeway" due to a "massive protest" in North Hollywood.

After my presentation I introduced a relatively-unknown young singer named Steve Gooden. Steve had a recording contract with MCA, but in light of MCA’s funding of The Last Temptation of Christ he decided he could not use his talents for MCA. After referencing Charles Sheldon's book In His Steps, Steve put truth above consequences and tore up his recording contract as the cameras rolled. It was an emotional moment, as Steve, with tears in his eyes, collapsed into the arms of Rosey Grier.

IMG_4839.JPG

After Steve Gooden came Don Wildmon who was on the front lines condemning the film. Following him was Atlanta Pastor Richard Lee who brought petitions with over 100,000 signatures urging MCA to not release the film. Other speakers included Bill Bright, Dennis Prager, film director Ken Wales, Rosie Grier, radio personality Rich Buhler, Rabbi Chaim Asa, and Jane Chastain. When the news conference was over, it was time for the noon march. By this time, according to the North Hollywood Police’s estimate, there were 25,000 people present, causing the Police Chief to comment that “It looked like a Dodger game was let out on Lankershim Boulevard.”

As we began to march to a nearby park I saw literally thousands of placards, many hand-made, condemning the film with statements such as “The Greatest Story Ever Distorted” and “Don’t Crucify Christ Again.” There were chants of “boycott MCA” and people singing “Amazing Grace.” After about a 15-minute march the throng began to arrive at the park where under sunny skies we sang songs, prayed, and closed with “God Bless America.” 

Up to that point in America the majority of people involved in public protests and demonstrations seemed to be on the radical fringe. On August 11, 1988 it was different. Women pushing baby strollers, senior citizens, children, off-duty police--all came together to take a stand for the Jesus of the Bible. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and Muslims stood in unity despite theological differences. It was the most unifying event I had experienced in my lifetime, only surpassed by the national unity that followed the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks.

I agreed with the sentiments expressed by Don Wildmon, who said during the news conference, “This is a movement.” For the vast majority of the 25,000 protest participants it was the first time they publicly stood up and spoke up for Jesus. It was a day that showed good triumphs over evil, and it was a reminder that unless Christians speak up and stand up, the secular Hollywood industry will continue to push the envelope with scripts that attack the faith of the majority of Americans. The unified voice of Christians was heard, and many of the largest movie theater chains refused to show the movie. It was a lesson that speaking up and taking a stand can make a difference. Will the next generation of Christians have the same passion and resolve to stand against evil and offensive portrayals of Jesus? I hope so. It was 30 years ago today that 25,000 people showed how it can be done.

The U.S. Supreme Court - Why the Nominee Matters

Roberts court 2017.jpg

As I write, the White House has indicated that President Trump’s nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy will be announced today, July 9, 2018. Why is this such a big deal?

First, it is the prerogative of a President to nominate people for the Supreme Court when there is a vacancy. The U.S. Constitution says the President’s choice is subject to the “advice and consent” of the Senate. A nominee must receive 50 votes from the 100 Senators (51 if the President’s party does not hold a majority in the Senate) to be confirmed. 

Republicans made 10 Supreme Court appointments between 1969 and 1992 (Nixon to GHW Bush) and another three from 2000 to the present (George W. Bush to Trump). Clinton and Obama, combined, only appointed four Justices. Six of the GOP nominees replaced Justices appointed by Democrat Presidents. With 13 appointments by Republicans, why, then, is there currently a 4-4 split between liberal and conservative Justices rather than a conservative (i.e., strict textualist) majority? Three reasons.

1. GOP Presidents had to nominate a “moderate” candidate when Democrats controlled the Senate in order to get the candidate approved by the Senate.

In years past, when a Republican President nominated someone determined by Democrats to be “too conservative” (i.e., a strict constructionist, interpreting the Constitution solely on its text), if the Democrats held the majority in the Senate, they could reject the nominee. This happened twice under President Nixon, and once under President Reagan. (Robert Bork was Reagan’s nominee. When he was voted down by the Democrat Senate majority, the now retiring Anthony Kennedy took his place). Thus, despite both Nixon and Reagan trying to create a conservative majority on the Court, Senate Democrats blocked the efforts, and more moderate candidates like Kennedy had to be nominated. In Nixon’s case, the “compromise” candidate was Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in the seminal abortion case Roe v. Wade in 1973.

2. Some nominees from Republican Presidents turned out to be liberal once they were on the Supreme Court.

Whether it was an “ideological shift” or the candidate was not properly vetted, several justices nominated by Republican Presidents voted with the liberal justices. These included Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter. Others nominated by Republican Presidents who were not ideologically conservative sometimes voted with the liberals. These Justices, who had the “swing vote” to break a 4-4 tie among the nine Justices, included Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy was the swing vote in the 2015 case of Obergefell v. Hodgesthat imposed same-sex marriage on all 50 states, finding a right to gay marriage in the Constitution.

3. No longer is a “supermajority” of the Senate needed for confirmation.

Before 2017 the Senate rules required a supermajority of 60 Senators to cut off further debate and bring a vote on a nominee. Without the 60 votes, the candidate could be “filibustered,” meaning prevented from ever receiving a yes or no vote. In 2017, following President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the GOP majority changed the rules so that now only a simple majority (50, since Vice President Pence breaks any tie) is needed to bring a nominee to a vote on the Senate floor. Currently at least three Democrat Senators are up for re-election in November 2018 in states that Donald Trump won in 2016, and all three of them voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch. If the result for President Trump’s next nominee is the same, then it won’t matter if two moderate (“pro-abortion rights”) GOP Senators (Murkowski and Collins) vote for or against the nominee, and it won’t matter if ailing GOP Senator John McCain shows up to vote (he has not voted in many months due to his cancer treatments).

The current Court is made up of four ideologically liberal Justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan) and four ideologically conservative Justices (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch). If President Trump follows through with his campaign promise to conservatives and evangelicals and nominates another ideologically conservative Justice (as he did with Gorsuch) there will be a reliable conservative majority for the first time. That conservative majority could increase to 6-3 if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg retires or dies (she is 85 years old and in poor health). A conservative majority would be a firewall against liberal judicial activism, and could even undo some of the damage that the Supreme Court inflicted on America when it imposed same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion on demand (1973). Thus, there will likely be wailing and gnashing of teeth by the Democrats who may stop at nothing to deny President Trump his prerogative of nominating a replacement Justice to the Court. Regardless of the nominee, expect terms and phrases such as “out of the main stream,” “extreme,” “will set back civil rights,” “will set back women’s rights,” “will set back LGBT rights,” and similar predictable allegations. Democrats continue to call “foul” the fact that when Justice Scalia died in 2016, President Obama nominated liberal Merrick Garland as his replacement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that the Senate should wait until a new President was in place before any replacement nominee would be voted on. Since Republicans held the majority in the Senate, Democrats were powerless to bring Garland to a floor vote. Thus, when Trump was elected, McConnell’s move proved to be genius for conservatives.

Finally, from the purported short list of nominees (Amy Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge) I find all three as ideologically conservative, and expect that each is an originalist/textualist in the style of Justice Scalia who would interpret the Constitution rather than make law based on what they “feel” “ought to be.”