We have a fight over prayer that’s not just about how and when one should talk to God.
Last week, Sam Olens, one of three Republican candidates for attorney general, put up his first TV ad of the primary. The 30-second spot addressed Olens’ courtroom defense of the opening invocations given at meetings of the Cobb County Commission — which he led as chairman.
One of his primary rivals, former federal prosecutor Max Wood of Macon, took exception.
Wood said that he has held his tongue when Olens has mentioned the topic in front of GOP crowds. “But when he came out with a television commercial touting himself as some big hero in support of prayer, I thought the whole story should be told,” he said.
In a press release, Wood pointed out that, last year, Olens and the Cobb Commission permitted an atheist to give the opening prayer. “As a Christian and as an American, I am insulted that Olens would allow a man without faith to stand up at a public meeting and encourage others to give up their religion,” Wood wrote.
It’s true. Smyrna atheist Ed Buckner was one of seven county residents who, with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a federal lawsuit to halt the practice of invocations before government meetings in Cobb.
This is the court battle that Olens speaks of winning. Immediately afterward, in July of last year, Buckner served notice that he wanted to give the invocation at a county commission meeting.
In an interview this week, Olens said that, under the First Amendment, he had no choice. Picking and choosing who could give a public prayer would only have landed the county right back in court.
Buckner’s invocation turned out to be a protest, naturally. At the time, Olens called it “repugnant.” The commission chairman sent the atheist a letter saying that Buckner had proved that he was not interested in spiritual communication and would be not be allowed to repeat the stunt.
But to deny the atheist a chance to pray, as Wood suggested, would have been folly, Olens said. “What he is saying is, if you don’t like the law, don’t apply it, which is a strange position for an attorney general,” Olens said.
Wood’s response was biting. “[Olens] used an invocation, which is supposed to be a holy moment, as a political tool to ingratiate himself with a broad section of the Cobb County community. That is part of what I resent there,” Wood said.
“One’s faith is more important than one’s legal analysis,” he added. “If he’s going to present himself as a person of faith, then he should be thinking about these issues as a person of faith, and not like a lawyer.”
There is a subtext to this discussion that both candidates were reluctant to discuss. Olens is Jewish. And a Jewish candidate has never been elected to a statewide constitutional office in modern Georgia — as a Democrat or Republican.
Elliott Levitas, a Democrat from DeKalb County, served five terms in Congress — until he was defeated in 1984 by Republican Pat Swindall.
Kevin Levitas remembers the implied messages used to defeat his father. “He’s not one of us.” And “We need a good Christian in office.”
Times have changed. Over the past two decades, shared interests — Israel by far the most important — have made Jews and evangelicals more comfortable with each other.
Kevin Levitas, a Democrat like is father, is now one of several Jewish members of the Legislature.
Former Cobb County prosecutor Debra Bernes, who is also Jewish, won a 2004 seat on the state Court of Appeals in a nonpartisan statewide vote and is seeking re-election this year.
But the base of the Georgia GOP remains overwhelmingly conservative and Christian. Olens understands this. The topic of prayer for his first TV ad wasn’t accidental.
Prominently featured in the video is the Rev. Ernest Easley of Roswell Street Baptist Church, one of Cobb’s largest churches — and certainly the most influential.
Olens has also snagged the endorsement of several GOP leaders, including House Majority Leader Jerry Keen of St. Simons Island, a former head of the Georgia Christian Coalition.
Olens leads both Wood and state Sen. Preston Smith of Rome in fund-raising — a sign of significant support within the GOP establishment.
But Olens doesn’t want to become the Jewish candidate any more than Barack Obama wanted to become the African-American candidate or Ralph Reed — whom Olens supported in his 2006 bid for lieutenant governor — wanted to be identified as the Christian candidate. Labels limit.
“My ad stands for itself and accurately represents my record of fighting for the conservative values that Georgians care about,” Olens said in a statement issued Friday.
Wood, for his part, likewise feels restricted. The former prosecutor said he has never mentioned Olens’ religion — and resents any suggestion that his frequent mentions of his own Christian faith are intended to draw a distinction.
“That is political correctness run amok,” Wood said. “The fact that someone else I’m running against has a different religious view of the world should not prohibit me from exercising my First Amendment rights to talk about my faith. Because that’s who I am.”
As for the issue of prayer, Wood said, that’s ground chosen by the former Cobb County Commission chairman. “He has a 12-year record of public service,” Wood said. “Why did he choose to bring this into the public discussion? Because he’s trying to corner me as someone who’s against him because of his religion. And that’s simply not true.”