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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Heinz Kerry Criticized Christian Right in Speech

In a 1994 talk, nominee's wife said the group 'broadcasts its hatred.' Kerry camp stands behind the comments.

September 04, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry, issued a broadside against the "Christian right" in a 1994 speech, saying that it "broadcasts its hatred" and appealed "to the dark corners of the human soul."

Since the mid-1990s, conservative Christians have grown in importance to the Republican Party and now form a key base of support for President Bush's reelection effort.

This week, Kerry campaign officials stood by her comments.

"Her comments were a simple plea for the practice of Christian values in the public debate, instead of misusing issues of faith to divide Americans along partisan political lines," said Jeff Lewis, Heinz Kerry's chief of staff. "Sadly, her warnings turned out to be prophetic."

The speech, given three years after her husband, Sen. H.J. Heinz III, died and a year before she married Kerry, was made the National Council of Christians and Jews. The group was giving Heinz Kerry an award for "building bridges."

The lengthy speech touched on many issues, including the threat of DDT pesticides on lizards in Borneo, Indonesia. In discussing world events, she observed that "fearsome shadows" were lurking in America, threatening to create a "fractious and mean-spirited place where it is dangerous to be different."

"Americans have a ... newfound suspicion of those who are not like us," Heinz Kerry said. "We see it in the political rise of the so-called Christian right.

"Rather than preach Christ's gospel of love and tolerance, this group broadcasts its hatred for homosexuals and liberals and minorities and feminists," she added. "The movement calls itself Christian, but its appeal is to dark corners of the human soul -- fear, loathing, the desire for uniformity, the need for conformity."

Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, said Thursday that Heinz's remarks represented an unusual attack on Christian conservatives and that she disagreed with the substance of the comments.

"She has a right to her opinion ... but there is no reason for anybody to be suspicious about Christians," Combs said. "I certainly don't have a hatred for homosexuals. Certainly, there are minorities in our group. I am a woman and don't hate anybody ....I don't agree with her comments at all."

Although Democrats have traditionally received little support from conservative Christian groups, Kerry is not ceding the territory to Bush; he has created a "people of faith outreach program," Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan said.

"We have one of the largest efforts any Democrat has made to reach out to people of faith," Meehan said. "Sen. Kerry and Teresa are both practicing Catholics who regularly attend Mass. What we don't do is what President Bush has done, which is to get church membership lists and get church organizations to conduct the effort."

Critics of Christian conservatives say Heinz Kerry's remarks ring true about some elements of the movement; they point, for example, to comments made by Jerry Falwell, who suggested that gays, abortion-rights supporters and liberal civil rights activists were partly to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There is an element of the right wing that is motivated by religious extremists who promote intolerance," said Steven Fisher, communications director for Human Rights Campaign, which promotes gay, lesbian and transgender equal rights. "But there is also strong support in religious communities for tolerance, even where they don't support gay marriage. It isn't fair to say that Jerry Falwell represents all the Christian religious communities."

John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, said Heinz Kerry's rhetoric represented a fairly common criticism of the Christian right during the 1980s, although it had begun to moderate by the 1990s when the Christian movement presented itself with a less strident face.

Such criticism today is fraught with peril, Green noted. "It takes a deft politician to hit the activists in the Christian right and not hit the people who are simply strong in their Christian values." He said that 1994 was a year when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized the Christian right, a decision that partly explained the strong gains Republicans made in congressional races that year.

Alison Renteln, a political science professor at USC, said the context of Heinz Kerry's speech about pressures for conformity represent a fair evaluation of American culture. Renteln wrote a book, "Cultural Defense" that examined the unwillingness of courts to admit evidence about differing cultural values.

At the time Heinz Kerry attacked the movement, she was a registered Republican in Pennsylvania and played an influential role in the state party, but she had espoused support for moderate causes in her speeches and her philanthropic agenda.

The 1994 speech came during the tough Senate race that pitted Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), against then incumbent Sen. Harris Wofford, a Democrat who had won Sen. Heinz's seat in a special election after his death.

During the campaign, Santorum got into a tiff with Heinz Kerry, who had considered entering the Senate race herself. Heinz Kerry called Santorum "Forrest Gump with an attitude" and said he was "short of public service and even shorter on accomplishments."

Santorum suggested that Heinz Kerry was being influenced by Kerry, and said that her late husband would have supported his campaign. Santorum is closely aligned with the Christian right. He declined to comment Thursday.

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