Is this what Paul meant when he said to be all things to all men? Four years ago, John Whitehead warned fellow Christians—in speeches, articles, books, and videos—that their religion was under attack by Nazilike secularists. He called it "religious apartheid."

"From the removal of crosses and nativity scenes, to the prohibition of individual prayer in schools, religion is being systematically separated from American society," he wrote in a June 1994 editorial for Rutherford magazine, the house organ for his Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia. Elsewhere he ominously informed us that "Clinton is quietly constructing a despotic government and a new society of intolerance to traditional values."

Today Whitehead says he likes Clinton and, if it weren't for the President's position on abortion, would vote for him. "No modern President has done more for religious rights than Clinton." He has also publicly called on conservative Christians to stop using antihomosexual rhetoric. In 1996 he criticized Colorado's Amendment 2 (an amendment prohibiting state and local governments from passing laws that ban discrimination against homosexuals), which Focus on the Family strongly supported. In 1997 he opposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and is critical of the current Religious Freedom Amendment. His magazine has even run positive reviews of several violent and disturbing films, including The Last Temptation of Christ ("a sympathetic and reverent treatment of Christianity's origin").

With just this evidence, one would be tempted to conclude that a captain of the Religious Right has had a leftward political conversion. But factor this into the enigma: When First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talked about a right-wing conspiracy to bring down her husband, many people saw John Whitehead and the Rutherford Institute sitting at the center of the web.

The Rutherford Institute is currently involved in 230 legal cases; but since last November, one case dominated all others. It alone changed the Rutherford Institute's moniker in media reports from "a religious liberties group" (USA Today, 1995) to "the conservative legal foundation paying Paula Jones' legal bills in her sexual misconduct case against President Clinton" (Salon Magazine, 1998).

That Whitehead would ally himself with such a controversial case alienated plenty of past supporters who were eager to support religious liberties but not a political vendetta. Other supporters have been turned off by the other changes the 52-year-old Whitehead (and thus his organization) has been undergoing.

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John Wayne Whitehead almost seems to be deliberately antagonizing his supporters. If so, it wouldn't be the first time. In the 16 years since he founded his pioneering religious-liberty ministry, the Rutherford Institute, Whitehead has been arguing for Christians to engage "secular" culture. He pursued lawsuits to fight religious discrimination eight years before Pat Robertson founded his American Center for Law and Justice—back when Christians were quoting Paul's disdain for "ungodly" courts (1 Cor. 4:3; 6:1-11). He told evangelicals to be politically active six years before Robertson ran for President—when many conservative Christians still rejected politics as dirty. And now he is enjoining Christians to engage the most pervasive instrument of secular culture—popular culture—by encouraging Christians to produce art, film, and television—and this in a day when "engaging popular culture" for many evangelicals means boycotting Disney.

So is John Whitehead once again two steps ahead of the curve, or is he just unstable?

Soldier, hippie, prophecy zealot
While many conservative leaders point to the 1960s as the beginning of America's moral downfall, John Whitehead looks back with fond remembrance. His office is covered with sixties' icons: the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beat Poets. A lava lamp illumines his desk. He says he was a sixties radical; he doesn't regret it; and yes, he inhaled.

Ironically, he "got radicalized," not in the context of the college campus, but in the army. He signed up after college eager to fight against communism in Vietnam, but a congenital back defect kept him stateside. Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, as a supply officer, he says, "All I could see was a lot of incompetence. It was just this big killing machine that demanded a total lack of freedom."

Lieutenant Whitehead registered a formal complaint when a captain made a joke about the killing of four Kent State students the day before. Whitehead participated in antiwar protests whenever he could, and a peace symbol adorned his windshield. Every time he drove to the base, his superiors made him scrape his newest one off with a razor blade.

Whitehead eventually got out of the military alive and entered the University of Arkansas law school, where he became a stereotypical left-wing radical. He grew his hair long (it's still long for a 52-year-old) and continued to participate in demonstrations. He also began his writing career, working for the underground student newspaper, The Grapevine. Among those he interviewed while on the paper was a young University of Arkansas law professor running for Congress: Bill Clinton (who lost that election). The hot topic of the interview? Whether then-embattled Richard Nixon should be impeached over Watergate.

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Later that year, Whitehead received his law degree and began work at a prosperous law firm. He was a young idealistic lawyer angry about injustice. But a brief trip to J. C. Penney changed his life forever.

Before college, Whitehead had never read a book from cover to cover. As a freshman he read Ian Fleming's James Bond thriller Goldfinger and was hooked on books. He especially loves science fiction, on the screen or on paper (it doesn't even have to be good science fiction; he loved the 1996 Tim Burton film flop Mars Attacks). So when he saw what he was sure was a bestselling science fiction book at J. C. Penney ("Eight Million Copies Sold!"), he bought it and devoured it. The book was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth.

"It spooked me right into heaven," he recalls. "The thing that got me was that actual prophecy had come true. I couldn't stop reading after that."

Left, right, left
Today Whitehead isn't sure if he thought being a lawyer was a bad career, or just a bad career for him. But after he converted he knew God didn't want him to be a lawyer. God wanted him to be a preacher. Whitehead gave away his clients to other lawyers, and he and his wife, Carol, packed their belongings (and $300) into a 1965 Dodge and headed out to Hal Lindsey's Light and Power House seminary in Los Angeles.

About six months after he enrolled, an elementary teacher approached Whitehead for legal help. She had worn a crucifix to her classroom, and when a student asked what it was, she was reprimanded for answering his question and threatened with losing her job. Whitehead explained the teacher's rights to the principal, and he backed down from his threats.

After that success, several more friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends began asking Whitehead for legal help. On the side, working for free with other legal organizations and law firms (his wife worked as a legal secretary for one), Whitehead did what he could. In the process, he made peace with the fact that he was a Christian and a lawyer.

But others did not make peace with him. He was told by some believers that Christian involvement in the courts was unbiblical. "Religious people had mostly withdrawn and were not participating in their culture," he says. "Some of it was due to fear of discrimination; for others it was a conscious choice."

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Whitehead combated the attitude through penning articles for Christian magazines and publishing his first book, The Separation Illusion: A Lawyer Examines the First Amendment. The courts, he says, were an integral part of American democracy; to avoid any lawsuits was to cede the battleground: "Once you say you're not going to be involved in that part of culture, you create a vacuum, and other voices are going to fill it up."

Whitehead also sketched out proposals for an organization that would try such cases without charging the clients. Church leaders and lawyers cautiously backed the idea in theory, Whitehead says, but knew it would never work. The conservative Christian world was simply too antilawsuit to gain any kind of financial support.

In 1979, the Whiteheads moved east, and John began practicing again in the Washington, D.C., area. Before long, he could not afford the rent for his office and was forced to move his practice into his basement. Still, he took pro bono religious-liberty cases. One case, defending a family arrested for home schooling their children, cost Whitehead $25,000 of his own money. But he won the case. He was broke but now convinced that he was on the right track.

"A friend of mine offered to pay our house payment for a year; still, I knew the path I was on was no mistake," he says.

One year into the Reagan presidency, John Whitehead published his The Second American Revolution. In essence a repackaging of The Separation Illusion, the book utilized militaristic imagery, righteous indignation, and "fighting words." But the times had changed since the book's first incarnation. Evangelicals were now warming to the idea of political involvement. Jerry Falwell, who would be one of Whitehead's closest allies for years, founded his Moral Majority in 1979. Pat Robertson was gaining influence through his television empire. James Dobson founded Focus on the Family in 1977 and created his more political Family Research Council in 1982. Conservative evangelicals had been credited with electing Reagan. By 1982 evangelicals had caught up to Whitehead's notion that it was okay, perhaps even necessary, for conservative Christians to be involved in the political process.

"He has definitely contributed to a higher visibility of the issues," says Stephen T. McFarland, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom for the Christian Legal Society (CLS). "And he helped to stiffen the backbone for believers when it came to getting involved." Still, McFarland's CLS has been around for 36 years, and he doesn't think Whitehead singlehandedly brought Christians into the courtroom.

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The Second American Revolution sold over 100,000 copies, making Whitehead a minor celebrity in the Christian media, regularly appearing on radio programs such as Dobson's. Whitehead's office phone began ringing with Christians claiming they were suffering religious discrimination. They'd kept silent for years, they said, but now knew they could do something about it.

Whitehead suddenly found himself with enough money, enough cases, and enough interested lawyers to create his organization, the Rutherford Institute, named for Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the early 1600s who, in his book Lex Rex, "resisted the idea of divine right of kings." (Rutherford also wrote a treatise supporting religious persecution. Says Whitehead: "Nobody's perfect.")

Whitehead says he likes Clinton
and, if it weren't for the
President's position on abortion,
would vote for him.

After his conversion, Whitehead became as extremely right wing as he had been left wing. "I swung to the other side. I thought I had to," he explains. "I became a Christian from being a Marxist, so I still believed the one central idea that Christianity has this political thing tied to it."

One friend in particular convinced him that Christianity had specific political implications—Rousas John (R. J.) Rushdoony, the father of American Reconstructionism (also known as Theonomy). Rushdoony, who helped found the Rutherford Institute, sat on the group's board for a number of years and wrote the introduction to The Separation Illusion. As a Reconstructionist, Rushdoony believed U.S. laws should reflect biblical teachings, which meant supporting the death penalty for sinners such as abortionists, homosexuals, and "incorrigible sons."

It is an association that to this day Whitehead can't shake. Ask Religious Right watchdog groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State or the Institute for First Amendment Studies about Whitehead, and Rushdoony's name will be one of the first things you'll hear. But even if Rushdoony were to be excised permanently from Rutherford's history, there are enough quotes from Whitehead himself in his early years with the Rutherford Institute to make the watchdogs nervous:

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1. "Courts must place themselves under the authority of God's law." 2. "All of civil affairs and government, including law, should be based upon principles found in the Bible." 3. "Take the initiative. Sue rather than wait to be sued. That's where we've been weak. We've always been on the defensive. We need to frame the issue and pick the court." 4. "Public schools are … satanic imitations of the true God's institutional church."

John Whitehead argued that America is a Christian nation and that the Constitution was written to protect the right of states to uphold Christianity through law.

Now, he says, he doesn't really believe those things anymore. In fact, he says he is surprised that leaders of the Religious Right still do. He recently attended a meeting of Christians he had not seen in several years (he won't say how long or what group) and says, "I was surprised at how dated everything appeared. It seemed that there was no evolution of thought, no real evaluation of things.

"I'm not a Darwinian," he explains, "but I believe that people's brains evolve. There are things today you believe that you won't ten years from now."

Or, as Whitehead's hero would say, "The times, they are a-changin'." Whitehead places Bob Dylan second only to Jesus on his heroes list; the Beatles come in third. He and Dylan, he says, have walked the same path from radical progressive, to politically conservative Christian, and halfway back again. "If you look at Slow Train Coming, which Dylan recorded shortly after his conversion, there's a lot of political stuff on there. But as Dylan rethought things, he realized this is not what Jesus is all about." Whitehead believes Dylan is still a Christian but, as not every Dylan song is about Jesus anymore, neither is every Rutherford lawsuit about Christian liberty.

Whitehead's "evolution of thought" began when he started having second thoughts about his earlier hero's notion of Lex Rex, where law is king: "I kept coming back across this concept where the adulteress is brought to Jesus and he lets her go. You know, that was capital punishment, and he lets her off. The way Christ looked at people was not in terms of the law but was in terms of the fact that they were human beings. Human beings can be above the law at some point, if you look at it from Christ's compassionate viewpoint."

That idea—that the law was not ultimate, that the gospel transcends the law—changed the way Whitehead saw some issues, especially regarding homosexuals and non-Christians.

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"We didn't change our basic beliefs, but we did change how we approached subjects. For example, we're now making clear that gays have rights. They pay taxes. They're American citizens. Are we going to allow discrimination against them in this day and age in America?" He argues for the broad interpretation of the antidiscrimination laws that already exist and has never argued strongly for any new protection.

Whitehead says many of his past fundraising letters were homophobic in that they viewed homosexuals as the enemy, and he regrets sending them. He has made public announcements saying so not only to the Washington Post but also to the Washington Blade, D.C.'s homosexual newspaper. That has angered conservative critics (including Family Research Institute president Gary Bauer).

"Not only was I wrong, but a great majority of evangelicals are out to lunch on the subject," he told the Post.

Alexis Crow, chief counsel for the Rutherford Institute, told the Blade, "Other Christian groups spout all these words like 'God is love; hate the sin but love the sinner,' and … when [we] make a move to do that … we get attacked. Come on hypocrites, get on the bandwagon!"

Whitehead is unapologetic. "Christians have lost their witness to the gay community," he says. "The people at the Blade are just amazed that we would hold this view, that we would protect their rights. They think that Christians are out to do them in." He pauses. "Actually, there is a large Christian element that would do them in and yells at me over the issue. There's a word for that. It's called homophobia."

Whitehead places Bob
Dylan second only to
Jesus on his heroes list.

"The Rutherford Institute is being punished by some in the Christian community for not doing the popular thing and for standing true to its principles," Whitehead wrote in a March fundraising letter. "A number of Christian, pro-family groups are working in concert to blackball the Rutherford Institute and spread false gossip about our work."

Whitehead is making a conscious effort now to make the Rutherford Institute known more as a civil-rights organization rather than simply a religious-rights one. This means making sure it is not known as merely a Christian-rights organization. He says that while Rutherford doesn't actively seek cases, they are taking more related to religious discrimination against non-Christians. In their monthly litigation report they mention several:
1. A Jewish inmate in Arizona was denied kosher meals. 2. An Orthodox Jew air force chaplain was required to wear regulation headgear instead of the traditional yarmulke. 3. A Muslim father had his children taken from him even after he was found innocent of abuse. 3. Native Americans were charged with felonious possession of raptor parts, even though they were using them in a religious ceremony. 4. A Hindu religious leader was forced to serve jury duty.

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In fact, this report does not explicitly identify any of the litigants as Christians, save one case where Amish hunters were punished for refusing to display hunter orange on their buggies.

That is not to say Whitehead's organization isn't defending Christians against discrimination. In fact, Whitehead says an overwhelming majority of their cases are about Christian religious freedom. Still, he sees helping non-Christians as part of Rutherford's ministry.

"We're working to help this pretty highly placed Tibetan [nun] who works with the Dalai Lama," says Whitehead. "When she came here, we talked about Christianity. She knows and I know I'm not going to be a Buddhist and she's probably not going to be a Christian. But the point is she takes it as it is. It's not a Buddhist lawyer helping her; it's a Christian lawyer. And we're for real. We're practicing what Christ preached. That's where the satisfaction is: that she could come to us knowing who we are."

Whitehead leans back in his chair and pats his leather-bound Bible lying on the shelf behind his desk. "I've got my Bible back here," he says, "but I'm not going to bring it out for everyone who comes in here and say, 'Oh, let's read John 3:16 together.' We're service oriented. We preach by acting."

Crow, who has been with Rutherford since 1989, says Whitehead hasn't changed as much as he says he has. "He has always worked for the underdog," she says. "And today homosexuals are an underdog. What I see as the difference between 1990 and now is that John has the confidence in himself to go with his instincts and not so much by the conventional wisdom of what it is to be a contemporary Christian in America. He's always been a particular way, but never felt he could reach out in the way we are now."

But Whitehead gives another reason why he's no longer decrying America's fast track to hell in a handbasket: the country is actually better off than it was.

"You could write a book like Religious Apartheid today [a 1994 book and film in which he likened the ACLU and government officials to Nazis], but you'd be straining it." Christians, he says, are now more free.

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"Everything in Religious Apartheid was footnoted. It was happening. To us, at that time, it looked like that. Then Clinton got in and there was a significant shift in the way he viewed things. In my view, Clinton stopped appealing to the private-interest groups and decided to set a legacy. He tried to promote Christian teachers in schools and Christian rights in the workplace. And everything else started shifting. The President had a lot to do with that. It was his State Department that recognized Christians are being persecuted in China. Bush and Reagan never did that. Other than the partial-birth abortion thing, I'm with that group that says he's doing a good job as President."

He qualifies that last statement. This is, after all, the man who approved hundreds of thousands of dollars of his organization's money for the Paula Jones case. "As President," he reiterates. "His private life is another matter."

Why Paula Jones?
When asked about the Jones case, Whitehead leans back in his chair a good 45 degrees, placing his hands behind his head. He looks like he's going to take a nap while he answers "the Jones questions." He even closes his eyes, opening them only to hear the questions he knows are coming: Why did you take the case when you're known for religious-liberty cases? Didn't this make you appear to have a vendetta against the President? What did you hope to gain from this case?

Milton Berle used to tell reporters, "That's a lousy question; ask me another." If he was unsatisfied with that one, he'd grab any notes out of the reporter's hand and flip through questions until he found one he liked. John Whitehead, a Southerner, is too polite for that, so he'll just nap.

For the record, here are the answers: (1) He took Jones's case because "we believed her" (he also believes Anita Hill, whom he lectured with at Oral Roberts University Law School and who babysat for his kids) and because sexual harassment is a "human-rights issue"; (2) he believes the case may actually help eradicate rumors of a vendetta because reporters will now ask his opinion instead of guessing at it based on his earlier writings; (3) in terms of what he has to gain, he says, "The press hasn't historically cared about religious-liberty cases, but they read our press releases now."

Time to wake up.

Whitehead says he hoped publicity from the case would result in a higher public profile and more support for the Rutherford Institute. Instead, he estimates that the case has cost the organization $400,000 of that in legal expenses—and hundreds of thousands more in lost donations. Hundreds upon hundreds of letters poured in from angry supporters. Moody Broadcasting network and other radio stations dropped his program Freedom Under Fire. Donations dropped so substantially that the organization recently had to lay off seven of its sixty employees, close its Washington office, and rely on its reserve funds. More than two years after taking the case, it's suddenly over—with an $850,000 settlement and no apology.

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The postlawyer
It is obvious that Whitehead's passion long ago moved beyond the Paula Jones case. When talking to him, one gets the sense that his real excitement may have moved beyond the legal world altogether. Whitehead hasn't actually argued a case in years. He spends his office hours managing, being interviewed, "setting vision," and writing. Lots and lots of writing. He has written 15 books by now and produced as many videos to go with them, but he is still looking for a publisher for his latest project.

Too bad; he considers it his masterpiece. There are no Nazis breaking down doors to enforce tolerance in this one. There are not even any courtrooms or mentions of Supreme Court decisions. This one is about art. This one is about popular culture.

Grasping for the Wind, the title of Whitehead's video series and book, is, on the surface, about "humanity's search for meaning." But it's no Francis-Schaefferesque jeremiad on the fall of Western culture. He may start at Rembrandt's Adoration of the Shepherds and end up at the punk group the Sex Pistols, but he leaves the viewer/reader feeling as though neither ideal satisfies (or damns).

That Whitehead really likes—loves—pop culture may be somewhat hard to pick up from the video series, but it is clear from his office. Except for one small corner papered with diplomas, the office is a wall-to-wall shrine to late-twentieth-century entertainment. There is a John Wayne autograph next to an inflated, four-foot Godzilla. A Superman action figure stands guard on a table next to the alien from Alien. On Whitehead's desk, a Jurassic Park dinosaur carries the torso of some poor, dismembered action figure in its mouth.

Whitehead is convinced Jesus was not just a pop culture phenomenon of his day, but a pop culture participant. "We're supposed to enjoy the good things in life like Jesus did. He drank wine with people, had a good time, told jokes, and was a normal human being. There can't be an automatic litmus test to these things. You can't say a movie is automatically bad just because it has nudity in it or violence."

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Whitehead—who insists that all Christians should at least watch each year's nominations for the best picture Oscar—gets visibly irritated when people criticize all movies as evil. Before he became a Christian, one of the first things Christians told him to cut out was his film viewing. For a man who was used to watching three or four movies a day when he was on vacation, it wasn't easy. But at the Light and Power House, where he and his fellow students would sit around and discuss the religious aspects of Woody Allen films, he became convinced Christians were doing themselves a disservice by disengaging from the culture.

If Whitehead has a crusade today, it's to involve Christians in popular culture. Like his efforts in other avenues, he does not want to see Christians cede the battle because they don't like the battleground. Movies, television, music, and art are the language of the people. If Christians cannot speak that language, he says, it doesn't matter what they say—they won't be heard.

"We're told to be salt in a world where people can't name the vice president, but they can name everyone on tv," he says. "And for salt to work, it has to be on something. It can't just sit there." But like his crusade 20 years ago to engage Christians in legal culture, it has not been an easy case to make. When he tried to use his Rutherford magazine to this end, with subjects like "The X-Files and the Return of Metaphysical Horror," conservative readers rebelled.

"Your sugar-coated coverage of the Beatles was one-sided," complained one reader. "If I wanted to patronize the secular media, I would have read Time."

"Everyone agrees that the origin of rock music is found in rebellion … against authority, against morality, and against God," wrote another. "To justify communicating the message of the Gospel with the carnal rock/rap sound is a lie."

Faced with two mutually exclusive facts —Whitehead wanted his readers to hear his message; his readers didn't—Whitehead relaunched the magazine as a separate publication supported by subscriptions, not donations to the organization. Donors now got the Rutherford Institute Litigation Report, purged of all pop culture. The magazine, rechristened Gadfly, was purged of all Rutherford Institute references.

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"If you picked up Gadfly magazine without knowing who published it, you'd be perplexed," wrote a glowing review in the Washington Post. "If you picked up Gadfly knowing that it's published by the Rutherford Institute … you'd be even more perplexed. … It's a cultural magazine that fits no identifiable ideology. It's odd, eccentric, and eclectic."

Indeed. But though about half of the magazine's writers are not Christians, Whitehead would disagree that the magazine has "no identifiable ideology." "We're not afraid to address Christian topics, but it's within the context of the magazine. We did an issue called 'Does Fame Kill?' and included a sidebar on 'Did Fame Kill Jesus?' We don't sneak it in there. It's always relevant. I wrote a piece on Francis Bacon [an existential expressionist painter known for his gruesome paintings and sadomasochistic homosexuality], but if you read the article closely, it's about Christ and Bacon's view of Christ. But it's honest. There's no sneak."

Still, most conservative evangelicals are going to be uncomfortable spending a few hours with a magazine that's often dark and bloody. Whether Christians will eventually follow Whitehead down his road of pop cultural immersion remains to be seen. Actually his case for what Christians will gain by going down this road remains to be seen. So far, Gadfly has only 10,000 subscribers. Many Christian critics predict it is not going to make it.

But he has heard that before. Back when he told Christians they had to get involved in the courts. Back when he told Christians they had to get involved in politics. Back when he wrote, "Getting involved in politics will eventually mean Christians running for office. This will include attending and eventually taking control of party conventions where grass-roots decisions are made." Back a decade before Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, or even before Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.

Is John Wayne Whitehead our future?

Ted Olsen is assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY magazine.

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