From Beatnik to Religious Right Figure : New Moral Majority Leader Took His Own Path

United Press International

The son of a Baptist preacher, Jerry Nims rebelled as a youth growing up in California. He wore his hair long, grew a beard, played piano in a blues band and studied at San Francisco State University, a popular roost for left-wingers flocking to the words of Marx and Lenin.

In the vernacular of the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a beatnik.

A couple of decades, a few philosophical adjustments and several bends in a strangely crooked road later, Nims finds himself today as the new leader of the Moral Majority, the resonant voice of the religious right.

"I think it's a fair call to say it was not a fundamental fundamentalist background," said Nims, 53, grinning. "I'm sure if you had gone to the Calypso Club when I was playing in a blues band, looked at me then and now, I would imagine that would be a bit of a juxtaposition."

'Cause Some Indigestion'

Added Nims, "My coming out of the social sciences department at San Francisco State and becoming president of the Moral Majority is akin to somebody going to Liberty University (founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell) and emerging as president of the ACLU. I'm sure that would cause some indigestion at Liberty University."

A millionaire businessman who once worked as a Hollywood agent and started a company to develop the first 3-D camera, Nims seems on one hand a peculiar selection to head a lobbying organization founded by Falwell in 1979 on the values of the nation's most rigid political and religious conservatism. But on the other, with a deep religious conviction and a savvy business manner, he seems a most logical choice. That logic led Falwell to surprise conservatives by calling a November news conference to announce Nims as his hand-picked successor.

"Being the leader of the Moral Majority is a surprise. It was a decision that came up just like that," said Nims, snapping his fingers. "We were in a meeting, Jerry turned to me and said, 'You're the guy to be president of the Moral Majority and the Liberty Foundation (conservative think-tank) because I'm leaving.' It had never crossed my mind. I said let me think and pray about it. It all happened in a week."

Very Much in Charge

Falwell, who left the helm to devote more time to his church and family, did not venture far from his prized projects; he remains on the Board of Directors. But Nims, an affable man with a quick wit and an eye for a daring entrepreneurial opportunity, is very much in charge.

A successful businessman, Nims is no stranger to the good life. Fancy cars, a pecan farm in Social Circle, Ga., once owned by the late football great Norm Van Brocklin, and a well-appointed estate in north Atlanta are the most obvious signs of his wealth. His office sits on the second floor of the carriage house adjacent to his home. The long driveway that winds past the stonewall and a stand of young magnolias is visible from one window; the swimming pool and tennis court from another.

A dapper dresser with a tanned visage and his hair fashionably slicked back, Nims hardly looks the part of a religious right standard-bearer. The Atlanta Constitution referred to him as a "hot-tub Baptist," a label that elicits his indignation.

Speaking of his work as a sort of businessman-missionary in Eastern Europe in 1970s, Nims bristles, "Would a 'hot-tub Baptist' do that? Of course, I don't even know what a 'hot-tub Baptist' is."

Nims, whose father was an alcoholic who was saved at a Skid Row mission in Los Angeles and later became an activist preacher in Northern California, traces his own religious conversion to a Campus Crusade for Christ retreat in 1967. It was a step that Nims, ever the careful calculator, thought through logically. He became a teetotaler, toned down his partying ways and married Jacqueline Fain--a former Miss Teen-Age Atlanta--who worked on the Campus Crusade staff. They have three children.

In much the same way, Nims had viewed communism up-close at San Francisco State, determined it held no meaning for him and bolted for the conservative side, often engaging in spirited debate with his ultra-liberal professors.

However, it was not until a decade later that Nims immersed himself fully into this conservative religious philosophy after meeting Francis Schaeffer, a Christian author who ran a fundamentalist commune in the Swiss Alps. Nims became a Schaeffer disciple, spending hours and then days at the commune. Their friendship produced a major work in 1981 when the two collaborated on "A Christian Manifesto," a conservative response to Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" that has become one of the most influential books of the religious right.

First Meeting With Falwell

It was Schaeffer, who on his deathbed in 1984, admonished Nims to set aside his globe-trotting entrepreneurial activities and put his religious beliefs into action. He directed Nims to Falwell.

Nims and Falwell first met at a religious seminar more than six years ago. Each was impressed with the other.

"He's a nice guy, really a lovely man," Nims said of Falwell. "He's the sort of guy you can have dinner with and really enjoy yourself."

"The first time I spent some time with Falwell, we were driving in his pickup truck in Lynchburg (Va.). We were having a conversation on very serious subjects and he suddenly let out this yell at the top of his lungs--'Yeeeooowww!' Then he looked at me and said, 'I just wanted to see how your nerves were.' On the outside, I managed to hold myself together; on the inside, I jumped out the window."

Falwell borrowed money from Nims to buy a Florida television station and made Nims his manager. Then in 1986, Falwell asked Nims to manage his television ministry, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour." Then last year, when Falwell took over the PTL ministry from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Nims went along as his executive director and became one of the most visible players attempting to sort through the beleaguered ministry.

Both Falwell and Nims severed ties with PTL last fall, amid much infighting among PTL patrons, after failing to return the ministry to respectability or sound financial footing. Nims still shakes his head in disgust.

"I think (PTL) had a definite impact on the religious community, both televangelists and people who are not on television," Nims said. "But I don't think it's impacted the conservative movement because those who were in charge at there had nothing to do with the conservative movement."

From Falwell, Nims inherits the torch of the religious right as well as an annual budget of more than $8 million, a mailing list of 6 million names and a monthly newsletter with a readership of 2 million. His aim is to broaden the organization's constituency by reaching out to blacks and Jews, groups often not associated with the Moral Majority in the past. Among Nims' immediate goals is to study the problem of the nation's poor and develop workable solutions to the welfare system.

Nims also plans a nationwide voter registration drive before the presidential election and a renewed emphasis on the First Amendment, particularly the passage guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, which Nims claims is quietly eroding.

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