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Holy Wars

Liberals, conservatives and gray areas in Charlotte's Christian Churches



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"I have often told folks," he says, "that God commands individuals and churches to be both "salt and light." While "light" is informing folks about the love of Christ and his redemption of mankind, salt is about being a change agent. When salt gets in a wound it inflames and causes irritation. In short, I have been the proverbial "salt in the wound' on occasion because I and others, in trying to rid society of behavior that is un-Christian and wrong, will inflame certain segments of the public."

James began to dish out the salt during what he calls "the great arts war of 1997." He was a county commissioner by then, and he and his fellow conservatives lashed out at the production of Angels in America, a play with a homosexual theme staged by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre. Because Charlotte Rep had gotten Arts and Science Council funding, some of which was public money, James and his allies attacked the morality of a play with such a message.

He believes they accomplished at least two things: They helped energize the Christian right, and they pressured the arts community in Charlotte -- or at least part of it -- to move in the direction of self-censorship.

"That was, in my opinion, a win," he says. "The key is to keep vigilant and make sure the other side knows that you mean business."

James is clear about his public crusades. These are causes that go beyond politics; they are, instead, a defense of good in the war against evil, a defense of the truth against those who don't even think it exists.

"Most evangelical Christians," he declares, "don't even view liberals as being Christians. To be called a Christian means accepting that Christ is the only intercessor between God and man. Historically, this inability to accept that Christ is the only way to God is, I think, at the heart of why liberals espouse some of the views they do. Without the anchor of Christianity ... they just make it up as they go along."

James says he's happy there are like-minded people in the pulpits of Charlotte. He mentions Loran Livingston at the Central Church on Sardis Road, but also says that Dan Burrell at Northside Baptist is now "the most active."

Burrell, for his part, clearly intends to be outspoken. But his style on the surface is quite different from James'. If James is abrasive and combative by nature, Burrell is a genial, sandy-haired man with a sense of humor that can be self-effacing, and he rejects the arrogance that can sometimes go with a passionate faith.

"This is not about me," he says. "Left to my own devices I'll be a disaster. The only hope I have is what Christ has done through me."

Burrell at 43 sees himself as part of a new generation of fundamentalists. He is intelligent, well-educated, a teacher by training before he entered his current occupation. But he also has a black and white view of the public debate.

"It's a conflict of world views," he declares. "I believe I am fighting for eternal truths."

Burrell came to Charlotte from Florida four years ago, having already established himself as an activist. He says he's "ardently pro-life" (all four of his children were adopted from crisis pregnancies), and in Palm Beach County during his previous ministry he fought against spousal benefits for gay couples. He lost that fight, and in Charlotte, he believes, it's too soon to tell. But he says it's a battle that has to be waged, and the only acceptable outcome is to win.

"I was recently at a meeting at Myers Park Baptist," he recalls. "They asked me to speak on the possibility of dialogue. I was happy to do it. I enjoy talking about this, and I don't take it personally when people disagree. But I had to ask why? Dialogue isn't going to result in a change of mind on my part, and I doubt if it will on theirs. This is a fundamental difference in the way we view truth."

Burrell is working hard behind the scenes to put together a coalition of like-minded churches, some white, some black, some large, some small, to defend the fundamentalist understanding of the faith. He says there really isn't any choice.

"Compromise," he concludes, "is the life-blood of politics, but the death-knell of theology. We are fighting over the absolute authority of the Scriptures."

Breaking Left/Right Barriers
If Burrell is right, if Charlotte's churches have drifted in the past generation into a kind of holy war of ideas, who is winning? Is it the conservatives, as Bill James believes? Do they have the liberals on the run? Or is the truth more subtle than that?

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