Church and Fate

A separatist minister loses at the church polls.

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In God he trusts: Reverend James W. Watkins. - Walter  Novak
In God he trusts: Reverend James W. Watkins.
The command center is a modest affair: a desk, books, a computer, boxes of files, a poster of Malcolm X, lots of Bibles and crosses.

It's here, in the second-floor office of his Mentor home, that James Watkins charts the triumphs and pitfalls of his fight against conservative Christian America. With the click of a button, he can spread the word to his believers, saying things like "If Pat Robertson were not a billionaire, he would be viewed as a crackpot Southern religionist in some revival tent off the backroads down South."

His salvos against the Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world elicit equally fervent responses. He gets plenty of e-mail calling him, depending on the day, a "pinko liberal," an architect of the New World Order, or a hero. He also gets a steady stream of orders for T-shirts he's selling over the Internet these days -- the ones with a sketch of Jesus, laughing, framed by this line: "FOR CHRIST'S SAKE . . . LIGHTEN UP!"

Since 1996, Watkins has been head of the Northern Ohio Chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, taking a high-profile role in the fight to keep the lines distinct between religion and government. It's a battle that has become increasingly prominent in recent months. Three weeks ago, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Ohio state motto, "With God, All Things Are Possible," violates the church-state separation. And in December, in a case brought by Watkins and seven other plaintiffs, U.S. District Judge Simon Oliver ruled that Cleveland's voucher program also violated the constitutional line between church and state.

But Watkins -- that is, Reverend Watkins -- has paid a price. Since 1993, he has been a minister at Old South Church, a United Church of Christ in Kirtland. That is, he was until six weeks ago, when he was fired after a meeting of church members.

The specific reasons why remain a bit murky. After the vote by the congregation to dump Watkins, the church issued a statement noting only that he was given an opportunity to speak and join in the debate about whether he was "the appropriate leader" for the church. More than two-thirds of the membership thought he wasn't, though his supporters are quick to point out that a portion of the congregation was on a Caribbean cruise at the time of the vote.

"I still have no idea," says Lorraine Schupp, a lifelong member of Old South Church, about the reasons why church members felt it was time to let Watkins go. A supporter of Watkins, Schupp was so turned off by the process that, after casting her vote, she left the meeting early.

"I didn't like the way it was done," she says. "That, to me, is just not a Christian way -- the comments and the accusations."

One person not surprised by his ouster is Watkins himself. He says there has been a whispering campaign against him for several years, and that the effort to have him removed intensified last year, after some Old South members learned that he was looking for a new church to call home each Sunday.

Watkins is a former Baptist minister who joined the United Church of Christ 10 years ago, after deciding that he no longer agreed with what the Southern Baptist Convention had become. He has never been shy about sharing his convictions, whether in politics or religion. In 1995, not long after coming to Ohio, he formed Citizens for Political Responsibility, an organized effort to identify members of the Christian right who were vying for seats on the Mentor School Board.

A prolific writer of op-ed articles for newspapers, Watkins has long used the Christian Coalition as his favorite punching bag. "What I saw at the local Christian Coalition meeting was hysteria, hostility, anger, paranoia, hate, innuendo, and rumor-mongering of the worst sort," he wrote in one opinion. "By what possible standard can any of this be called Christian?"

Watkins admits that his high-profile activism didn't sit well with some Old South members who didn't share his liberal views. But that's not why he thinks he was fired. What really bothered church members, he says, was that he "radically demanded that they take their religion seriously." To Watkins, being a good Christian is a matter of living religious values all week -- not just showing up for church on Sunday.

"Church life for an awful lot of people is essentially a check-in with God, and then go and live your life with whatever the values of the culture are," he says, which strikes him as hypocritical. "When you're at church, claim that the values of the culture are just killing you -- and then go out and participate in them like mad."

Secular politics may not belong in church, but church affairs can be highly political, as evinced by the reaction of fundamentalist critics such as Reverend Phillip Vollman, a minister at the Shiloh Christian Church in Leroy Township. "[Watkins is] an apostate heretic who has no business behind a pulpit," says Vollman. "He ought to go to work for the Clinton administration. Everything that is orthodox, everything that we hold dear to the faith, that man rails against. He is a phony. Frankly, I don't know what took those good people [at Old South Church] so long to see it . . . The man is a bastard, B-A-S-T-A-R-D. Amen."

Watkins has had several UCC churches and social activism groups around the country express interest in his services. In Kansas, a group that formed in response to last year's decision by the Kansas Board of Education's to deemphasize the teaching of evolution is even considering hiring him as its executive director. But he wants to stay in Northeast Ohio, though he's becoming increasingly anxious about finding employment.

In the meantime, he's got two websites to keep him busy, T-shirts to sell, and opinions to dispense to the masses. His latest treatise is sure to rile up a few conservative Christians, which is just the way he likes it.

The title: "Thank God for the Homosexual."

Andrew Putz can be reached at [email protected].

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