Right Hook

Evangelicals in awe of hostage hero Ashley Smith fire up the family-values campaign, while Limbaugh and Coulter bash feminists.

Published March 19, 2005 12:55AM (EST)

It was a media obsession for much of this week: Ashley Smith, the blond, widowed waitress who freed herself from captor and Atlanta courthouse murderer Brian Nichols, using little more than chapter and verse from Rick Warren's Evangelical bestseller "The Purpose-Driven Life." And some warm buttered pancakes.

In the wake of George Bush's reelection, credited largely to the nation's alleged "moral-values" revival, perhaps America was overdue for a charismatic new media hero -- this time a faith-based one. Smith is the nation's new "Pfc. Jessica Lynch," concluded the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday, but "with a crystalline memory and perhaps a less choreographed narrative. In some ways, she epitomizes the many Americans clinging to the edge of the middle class, working multiple jobs, making mistakes, finding loss and redemption, and enduring tragedy, all while looking for wisdom and comfort in self-help books and Scripture."

Religious conservatives across the country seized the moment not only to talk about loving their enemy but furthering their cause, be it spiritual or political. The fact that the crimes Nichols is charged with would normally lead many right-wingers to call for him to be given not pancakes, but a lethal injection, went undiscussed.

"Ashley demonstrated the kind of faith that has made this country strong and strengthened families to overcome unspeakable tragedies such as this one," said Larry Jacobs, vice president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, in a statement. "Our great country has always been a nation that believes in hope, the power of Love and the power of families." Jacobs then turned to a new document being championed by the religious far right, "The Natural Family" manifesto.

"I think God gave this young lady a supernatural empathy and compassion for someone that most anybody else would have tried to kill," said H.B. London, a vice president for ministry at Focus on the Family. "Every Christian organization in the country will want to tell her story."

"So many stories are made up these days. We'll have to see if all this turns out to be true, but it certainly sounds true," wrote blogger Lee Warren, one of many who believe Smith "loved her enemy" -- in the appropriate way. "Smith is a model for the biblical principle of loving our enemies. She knew what the news reports were saying about Nichols and rather than lashing out at Nichols, she loved him."

"I was on the road today," Warren continued, "returning from a business trip and I heard a guy call into Rush Limbaugh's show to talk about the incident. He believes that Smith developed 'feelings' for Nichols during the ordeal and that's why she responded the way she did. He said that he came up with his theory after listening to her and watching her body language. Limbaugh disagreed with him and saw the situation for what it actually was -- a woman living out her faith in Christ."

"I think God was in that apartment with them," Limbaugh said during his Monday radio broadcast. "I think God was in there and I think there's no question, you cannot dispute there was a bond. There was a bond between these two, but I think it's a mistake to think that it's the kind of bond that leads to conjugal love or a relationship or dating or anything like that. It's far above that. Far, far, far above that, folks."

While waxing transcendental, Limbaugh took the opportunity to weigh in on the shortcomings of the modern feminist movement. He praised as gospel an e-mail sent to him by a fan named Julie McGurn, from Madison, N.J.: "Hey, Rush, the whole episode perfectly encapsulates what's wrong with feminism and how it fails to see the true nature of women. On the one hand you've got the PC feminist idea that giving a five-foot deputy sheriff with a gun will make her equal to a man in physical strength. On the other hand, you have an example of an authentic feminine strength in Ashley Smith. She was able to use her wits, her intuition, and even motherly concern. She made him pancakes when he said he wanted some real food, to figure out that this guy didn't have it in him to continue. She talked him down. Women are good at that. The first case plays to women's weakness, physical stature, the second case plays to women's strength, relationships and nurturing. But will the feminists get that? Doubt it."

"Not only will the feminists not get it," Limbaugh emphasized to his listeners, "they will actively oppose this notion of the outcome."

Speaking of feminism, inevitably there were those who felt an urge to preach some wisdom regarding the female law officer overtaken by Nichols in the Atlanta courthouse. The inimitable Ann Coulter expressed her own notion of faith in "girl cops" on Thursday, in a column titled "Freeze! I just had my nails done!"

"How many people have to die before the country stops humoring feminists? Last week, a defendant in a rape case, Brian Nichols, wrested a gun from a female deputy in an Atlanta courthouse and went on a murderous rampage. Liberals have proffered every possible explanation for this breakdown in security except the giant elephant in the room -- who undoubtedly has an eating disorder and would appreciate a little support vis-`-vis her negative body image.

"The New York Times said the problem was not enough government spending on courthouse security ("Budgets Can Affect Safety Inside Many Courthouses"). Yes, it was tax-cuts-for-the-rich that somehow enabled a 200-pound former linebacker to take a gun from a 5-foot-tall grandmother."

Noting that the recaptured Nichols was later escorted back into court by 17 guards and two police helicopters (which she likened to "P. Diddy showing up for a casual dinner party"), Coulter offered a solution that referenced Larry Summers, whose controversial speech about women in science led one female academic to write that she became physically sick after listening to it.

"I think I have an idea that would save money and lives: Have large men escort violent criminals. Admittedly, this approach would risk another wave of nausea and vomiting by female professors at Harvard. But there are also advantages to not pretending women are as strong as men, such as fewer dead people. Even a female math professor at Harvard should be able to run the numbers on this one."

"Reclaiming America for Christ" -- all of it
Will the ongoing Ashley Smith Revival help religious conservatives stake out even more ground across America's political landscape? It's widely known that evangelicals have several devotees inside the faith-based Bush White House, but according to the Rev. D. James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., there's still a long way to go.

Kennedy outlined the mission of "reclaiming America for Christ" during a national conference at Coral Ridge in February.

"As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society," he wrote in a pamphlet handed out to attendees. "We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government ... our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors -- in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

One conference goer explained the imperative in terms of immigrants living in the United States. "The country is getting further away from Christian values, and we're being stifled," Debbie Mochle-Young of Santa Monica, Calif., told the Christian Science Monitor. "Other nationalities are coming to live here and say, 'We want our beliefs,' but they don't let you have yours."

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who spoke at the gathering, expanded on the need for a wholesale religious takeover.

"We have God-sized problems in our country," he said, "and only God can solve them."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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