Religious Right Drums Up Support for North

From Religious News Service

If you send $25 to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, he’ll mail you an audio tape of Oliver North delivering a “Freedom Message” at the television evangelist’s Liberty University last May.

For a $20 contribution, the Concerned Women for America is offering a “beautiful full-color picture” of North being sworn in at the Iran-Contra hearings that catapulted him to national fame last summer.

These two organizations, along with other conservative Christian groups, are trying to set off a new wave of “Olliemania,” as the former White House aide and ex-Marine prepares for the Iran-Contra trial some time after the November elections. The key charges against North center on his role in the unauthorized operation to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.


With a national petition campaign aimed at garnering the signatures of millions of Americans, the pro-North groups hope to persuade President Reagan to grant their fellow “born-again” Christian a presidential pardon.

Hoping for Funds

But the campaign is not only for the love of “Ollie,” a former Roman Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism a few years ago; leaders of the so-called religious New Right are counting on the North cause to help put them back in the political spotlight and raise some sorely needed funds.

“There haven’t been many issues on which to galvanize the religious right in the past year or so,” explained Richard Viguerie, known as the direct-mail marketing whiz of the conservative movement.

“Ollie is a certified five-star hero in a movement that is particularly short on heroes at this time,” said Viguerie, pointing out that there is no presidential candidate to rally conservative Christians the way President Reagan did. “Certainly George Bush isn’t a hero,” he added.

Taking the lead in the pro-North drive has been Falwell, the evangelist based in Lynchburg, Va. “In my judgment, petty partisan politics have made Ollie North, his family and the very lives of the Nicaraguan freedom fighters pawns in a liberal campaign to humiliate President Reagan,” Falwell charged in a recent fund-raising letter.

Petitions Gathered

After declaring nearly a year ago that he was resigning as president of the Moral Majority and leaving politics, Falwell is back as chairman of the political action group. His ministries have gathered nearly 2 million signatures on petitions that will be delivered to the White House some time before the trial opens, according to Falwell spokesman Mark DeMoss. Other conservative Christian groups are spearheading their own petition campaigns.

Like other initiatives by the religious right, this one is stirring controversy. Arthur Kropp, president of the liberal People for the American Way, charged that Falwell is exploiting the North issue to reap a “financial bonanza” through direct-mail fund raising.

DeMoss vehemently denied any attempt to exploit North. On the money, however, he was more qualified: “To the best of my knowledge, the money raised has barely covered the costs of the campaign.” He declined to say how much the pardon campaign has taken in.

But fundamentalist leader Robert Grant said responses to fund-raising appeals highlighting the plight of North have provided a financial shot in the arm to organizations that had seen contributions plunge in the wake of the televangelist sex-and-money scandals.

‘We’ve Made It Work for Us’

“I wouldn’t put any dollar figure on it, but we’ve made it work very much for us,” said Grant, who heads two national conservative groups, Christian Voice and the American Freedom Coalition.

Apart from fund raising, conservative Christian activists are hoping that a groundswell of support among the nation’s estimated 60 million evangelicals and others will encourage Reagan--who has called North a national hero--to exercise his virtually unlimited power of pardon some time before he leaves office next January.

But with the latest national opinion polls showing people almost evenly divided on the matter of a pardon, there is no guarantee of a North revival--not even among his fellow “born-again” Christians. As Richard C. Cizik, spokesman for the National Assn. of Evangelicals, put it:

“Lt. Col. Oliver North sincerely believes that what he was doing was right for his country. But he went too far.”

Interviews Refused

Attempts to reach North through his lawyer were unsuccessful. North has repeatedly refused to be interviewed by the press.

In drumming up support for retired Marine officer, fundamentalist leaders have not told their followers--many of whom have traditionally harbored suspicion toward Roman Catholicism--that North spent most of his life as a dutiful Catholic.

During the early 1980s, North and his family attended St. Anthony’s Catholic parish in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Va., according to Father J. Bryan Hehir, a priest there. Hehir was also the principal drafter of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace, which called for a halt in the development of all nuclear weapons.

Citing what he termed “priest-parishioner confidentiality,” Hehir has refused to say anything about the circumstances surrounding North’s decision to leave the Catholic Church. But rumors have long circulated in church and government circles that North was upset by the bishops’ strong anti-nuclear stance.

Church Affiliation

North now belongs to the Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Va., where he and his wife, Betsy, take part in a Bible study group, according to several members of the church. The parish is part of the national Episcopal Church but describes itself as charismatic, an expression of Christianity that emphasizes the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” such as speaking in tongues.

Raised in a pious Catholic family in upstate New York, North is known to have attended Mass daily while at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In his book, “Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North,” journalist Ben Bradlee Jr. writes that North began drifting from his “relatively tame Catholicism” while stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 1978, when he had a “personal religious experience that transformed his life.”

At the time, North walked with a slight limp and suffered pain in his back--a result of a 1964 car accident. After talking with North about the power of prayer one day, his “born-again” commanding officer, Lt. Col. John S. Grinalds (who today is a brigadier general), reportedly began to pray over North and place his hands on him.

According to eyewitnesses named by Bradley, North was stunned when he got up and discovered that the limp and back pain had seemed to go away. He later became active in the Officers Christian Fellowship, a primarily evangelical organization that offers Bible study and spiritual solace to military officers.