Religion takes center stage in La. race Aide quits, questions Duke's Christianity

November 13, 1991|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

LIVINGSTON, La. -- To outsiders, the down-and-dirty Louisiana governor's contest is all about racism and Nazism in the 1990s.

But it's the unlikely campaign issue of Christianity that has this Bible Belt state buzzing as ex-Klansman David Duke and former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards plunge toward Saturday's runoff election.

Mr. Duke, a Republican state legislator, seems to have gotten the worst of the exchange, which features allegations of blasphemy against Mr. Edwards and claims that Mr. Duke's religious conversion is a fraud.

Yesterday, Mr. Duke's candidacy was dealt a serious blow as news spread that a top aide had quit the campaign because of his strong doubts about "David's relationship with Jesus."

Mr. Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and American Nazi, has begun quoting Scripture as he campaigns for the state's highest office as a born-again Christian. The theme of religious redemption, while a new one for Mr. Duke, is closely related to his claim that he has changed and no longer holds extreme racist and anti-Semitic views.

But Bob Hawks, a campaign aide whom Mr. Duke publicly thanked from the podium at his election-night celebration Oct. 19, believes that Mr. Duke is lying about his religious conversion.

"The straw that broke the camel's back," Mr. Hawks said, came during an interview Mr. Duke gave to a Christian television station in WestMonroe, La.

"Duke was asked what church he belonged to, and after hesitating for at least a 20-second delay, he named some Church of Christ, which later proved to be untrue," Mr. Hawks told WDSU-TV in New Orleans.

"When Duke had to lie about his church affiliation, he certainly would lie about his relationship with Christ or anything else," concluded Mr. Hawks, a former Tennessee state legislator who had been the campaign's statewide coordinator.

Mr. Duke denies the allegation and claims Mr. Hawks was planted in his organization by Democrat Edwards.

At a rally last night in New Orleans, Mr. Edwards ridiculed Mr. Hawks, calling him a "fool." He poked fun at Mr. Duke's charge of dirty tricks: "Listen, the people we planted in his campaign have not yet been identified."

The phony-conversion charge threatens to undermine support for Mr. Duke from fundamentalist Christians, a crucial segment of his coalition of alienated white voters.

"It looks like Duke was playing a bluff and it got called," said Stan J. Makielski, a political scientist at Loyola University in New Orleans. "It could hurt him because his candidacy was based on the idea that he was a new face and not a politician. Now he looks like just another lying politician."

The controversy could drive away as much as 2 percent or 3 percent of Mr. Duke's support, analysts said, at a time when he seems to be finding it increasingly difficult to reach 50 percent.

The Duke campaign's defensiveness over the issue was evident at a raucous campaign rally Monday night in heavily rural Livingston Parish, 50 miles north of New Orleans.

One speaker, who identified himself as an ordained Lutheran minister, tried to reassure the whistling, stomping, all-white crowd of 1,500 that Mr. Duke's conversion was "genuine."

"We have prayed together . . . shared the Scripture together," said James Rongstad, who was Mr. Duke's private pilot in his 1990 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

"If you're going to vote for Duke, you're doing the right thing," he proclaimed, prompting cheers that shook the worn wooden walls of theFairgrounds Pavilion.

The crowd was shown a campaign slide show featuring two shots of Mr. Duke kneeling in prayer. Each time, the audience yelled its approval.

Finally, Mr. Duke himself appeared onstage to warn that America was in danger of losing "the Christian values we were founded on." When he acknowledged Jesus Christ as the "higher force" guiding his life, the crowd broke into deep, rhythmic chants of "Duke, Duke, Duke."

As they left, supporters were handed glossy leaflets depicting Mr. Duke's opponent as a blasphemer.

"Edwin Edwards Mocks Christ," blared the headline over a photo of the then-governor, his arms outstretched with lipstick on his palms and ketchup on his shirt to simulate religious stigmas. The photo was taken at the press corps' annual satirical dinner in Baton Rouge, the state capital, in 1984.

The flier reprinted a 1984 newspaper interview in which Mr. Edwards said he could not accept the notion that Jesus died and came back to life "because that's too much against natural law."

Mr. Duke has criticized Mr. Edwards' views on the Resurrection, in an attempt to undermine his political support from voters in heavily Roman Catholic southern Louisiana, a traditional Edwards stronghold.

Mr. Edwards dismissed the attack as a rehash of old charges, but a last-minute campaign commercial has been produced to rebut them.

"If these skinheads knew anything about the Bible, when they looked at this picture they'd know that Jesus was not stabbed in the chest. He was pierced in the side in fulfillment of biblical prophecy," Mr. Edwards told reporters Monday.

Mr. Edwards, who is divorced, described himself as "a practicing member of the Catholic Church."

"While I am not a perfect person, I feel that I will certainly not be held in any kind of accountability for any thoughts that I may have had," he said.

Wayne Parent, a Louisiana State University political scientist, said that the campaign debate over religiosity was "hurting Duke a lot more than Edwards."

The Edwards vote, he explained, is not as closely tied to religion as is Mr. Duke's.

Mr. Edwards, a three-time former governor, often has boasted of his exploits as a gambler and womanizer. But he is also a teetotaler who in recent years has been relatively candid about his personal shortcomings, Mr. Parent said.

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