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In God they trust

Published Feb. 24, 2006

In an unadorned classroom at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, about 30 men and women are sitting in metal folding chairs, praying.

"Lord," one man says in a low voice. "We come together tonight to really look into the history of America, Father, how your hand has really been on this country."

"Amen," the others murmur.

This is the Christians in Government class at Bell Shoals Baptist Church.

Students in this class want to remake America. They want to bring it back to what they say it once was: a nation established by Christians, for Christians.

They're taught that this is their birthright. They need only reach out and take it.

Bell Shoals Baptist hasn't been afraid to reach out. In the past year, the sprawling megachurch of some 6,000 souls has turned up at the center of the county's most heated political battles.

All last year, members of Bell Shoals' issues committee fought against a proposed bikini bar on State Road 60. In the fall, they spearheaded a protest against the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance at Newsome High School.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday nights, the Christians in Government class quietly met in a low slung building behind the main church.

Taught by a shy, ponytailed man named Leon Pondo, the class's goal is to train students in the ideology that drives the Christian activist movement.

Each class starts with a prayer, for guidance. For wisdom.

The classroom has industrial carpet, fluorescent lighting and a projection screen. Tonight, the lights are out so the class can watch a video. On the screen, a man in a red tie and dark suit stands in an old-fashioned study.

This is David Barton, vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, champion of a controversial alternate history.

On the screen, Barton talks about the Founding Fathers. Many of them were evangelical Christians, he says. He says that Benjamin Franklin called for prayer at the Constitutional Convention. He says that, through prayer, George Washington made himself bulletproof during the French and Indian War.

Studies show, he says, that 97 percent of Americans believe in God. Only 3 percent are atheists.

"We've been robbed," Barton says. "Robbed by the 3 percent. The 3 percent has taken away our heritage. We've got to get involved and take it back."

The lights come up. The students applaud.

Every Wednesday evening before class, Beth Peifer, 30, drops off her kids at other Bell Shoals programs.

Camden, 2, and Chloe, 4, go to church-run play groups. Allyson, the 13-year-old, attends Breakpoint, a worship and Bible-study meeting for teens.

Peifer doesn't like to highlight the fact that she became pregnant with Allyson when she was only 17 and unmarried. She figures anyone who cares can do the math.

A thin woman with long hair and luminous eyes, Peifer was a preacher's kid. Some of her earliest memories are of being in church.

"It was like home," she says. "I didn't differentiate between that and my house."

When she got pregnant, she said, her father and his church didn't condemn her. They took her in. But years later, Peifer said, her father had a crisis of faith. It led him to a liberal theology that his daughter cannot share and doesn't want to discuss.

She's more comfortable talking about her out-of-wedlock motherhood than she is about her father's religious shift. She prays for him.

For Peifer, her faith is a stronghold in an increasingly hostile culture - a culture that promotes unmarried sex, one that allows babies to be aborted. That's why she's sitting in this class every Wednesday night.

"In order not to lose our ground," she says, "we have to hold on with both hands."

Another Wednesday night, another topic - perhaps the most controversial of all. A guest speaker takes charge.

John Stemberger is a lawyer from Orlando. His spare time goes toward Florida Family Action, a conservative lobbying group. Stemberger's topic tonight is homosexuals and their agenda.

"We find ourselves living in an age where there's no truth at all, according to secularists," Stemberger tells the class.

No one, he says, is saying that homosexuals shouldn't have a right to vote, a right to sell property. "This is about special rights."

Namely, marriage. Once gays can marry, he said, they will want to adopt, too.

"Now the picture is not two guys in holy matrimony, in bed together, so to speak. Now the picture is three little children sandwiched in between them."

"What are two lesbian moms going to teach a little girl about how to love a man?" Stemberger asks.

"Nothing," someone calls out.

"They have nothing to offer these children," Stemberger says.

Then he says, "Can we just pray for a second?"

"Father," he begins as the students bow their heads, "We want to be clothed with grace. We want to be clothed with humility. . . . There is nothing in us that should be self-righteous, that should be judgmental."

Another night. Pondo asks if anyone in the room remembers being taught the Bible in public school. Many say yes.

Then Mark Nash speaks up.

He points out that "we've got non-Christians in public schools now. Jews, Muslims. There has to be some kind of balance, because it's not fair to them . . . it's an issue of tolerance."

"Up until the 1940s, that "tolerance' wasn't there," Pondo says. "What changed?"

"Well, we didn't have the mix of people we have now," Nash says.

"You can be tolerant, but you don't have to be accepting," Pondo says. "As long as we're in the majority of what's still a Judeo-Christian nation, we're more closely resembling a Christian nation than a Muslim one."

In the back, Bruce Porter mutters, "Although they want to change that. Muslims."

Porter, a taciturn, crew-cut mail carrier, always sits in the back row. "People in this country are too fond of their rights," he says later.

But that's not what Nash thinks. Unbeknown to his classmates, Nash is a South Tampa liberal.

A baby-faced 44-year-old, Nash took early retirement from his marketing job a few years ago in order to care for his dying father.

Now, he spends his time playing tennis, volunteering with Metropolitan Ministries, and organizing fundraisers for Democrats.

He signed up for this class, he says, after Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms moved to block gay-pride displays from county libraries.

When he told his liberal friends what he was doing, "a lot of them looked at me like I'd lost my mind," he said.

He wanted to see what the other half thought, he said. In class, Nash can be counted on to argue against Pondo and the other students.

The other students speculate among themselves as to whether he's a Christian.

He is. But his liberal Christianity is very different from what's preached at Bell Shoals.

And he's not alone in questioning what he hears.

Every class, J.W. Pope always sits in the front row.

Pope says he accepted Jesus as his savior when he was in elementary school. He says he was a virgin when he married two years ago at 26.

Yet Pope is a man of contradictions.

As a teacher at Mulrennan Middle School, Pope teaches an American history very different from the version presented in the Bell Shoals class.

"The cool part of the Constitution," he tells his students, "is that there's room enough for everyone. There's enough argument to go around."

In his classroom, he celebrates the American tradition of debate and diversity. But he also says that if he could, he would also teach the Bible as divine truth.

"I want heaven to be crowded," he says. "I want a Bible-believing, Christian nation.

"But what does that mean?" he asks himself. "When people want a Christian nation, are we talking about the Dark Ages, the Inquisition? That's not Christian, that's psychotic."

He thinks about his favorite student from last year, a bright, lively Muslim boy.

"How would it be fair to the parents of a non-Christian student to teach the Bible?" he asks. "I honestly don't know how to answer that."

In the next breath he says:

"The only way I can say this - and it's not meant to sound trite - I believe that what I have is the only way."

The argument Pope is having with himself is as old as the nation, said Isaac Kramnick, a Cornell University professor of government and co-author of The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness.

"There has always been debate over whether the government is a secular institution or a divine institution," he said.

In the past 20 years, he said, the latter view is gaining ground. Conservative Christian revisionists like Barton are part of that movement.

Kramnick has studied Barton's materials. He said Barton is correct on one point: many of the Founding Fathers were devout Christians.

"Where he's totally wrong is when he says that the framers of the Constitution intended to create a Christian government," Kramnick said.

In fact, he said, Article Six - which forbids religious tests for public office - "caused a furor across the country" when it came time to ratify the Constitution, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, it won out in every colony.

The Christians in Government class winds down in November. As the holidays approach, attendance dwindles. Everyone is just too busy.

By December, only a handful of students attend the class' final session and Christmas party.

It doesn't seem like the class has turned out many actual activists.

Bell Shoals continues to work for Christian goals - for example, church leaders help collect petitions in an attempt to put a ban on gay marriage on the ballot.

Most students return to their lives: kids, soccer practice, grocery shopping.

Nash, who played devil's advocate, went back to his South Tampa existence. "I was really disturbed by that perspective, that lack of outreach" in the class, he said.

Peifer is preparing to homeschool her 13-year-old daughter. She said she wants her daughter's high school experience to take place away from the pressures of secular culture.

For J.W. Pope, the class has strengthened his interest in social change.

In the past, he says, he's toyed with the idea of running for office. Now, he's thinking about it more seriously. School Board, maybe.

Recently, he said, he was reading the Bible and a verse in Deuteronomy about the duties of a king jumped out at him.

It was, he said, almost a description of the duties of an American citizen:

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of (the) law . . .

It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or

When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.

- Proverbs 29:3, quoted on the cover of the course folder for Bell Shoals Baptist Church's "Christians in Government" class



Our Godly Heritage

Our Founding Fathers and Original Intent

Educational Revisionism

Christian's Responsibility to Culture

Understanding the Homosexual Lifestyle and Agenda, Part I

Understanding the Homosexual Lifestyle and Agenda, Part II

Protecting Traditional Family Values

Anti-Christian Bigotry

Sanctity of Life

The Religious and Political Origins of Thanksgiving

"What Is Rama-hanu-kwanz-mas?" Keeping Christ in Christmas

Source materials

Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution and Religion, by David Barton. Argues that the Founding Fathers intended the nation to be Christian, but that judges have undermined that intent.

Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, by David Limbaugh. Describes what Limbaugh calls discrimination against Christians, such as the removal of Nativity scenes from municipal property.

Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America, by Mark R. Levin. Accuses the Supreme Court of betraying the ideals of the Constitution.