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Most of us have strong opinions about public figures, especially politicians and especially those we’ve never met. But my grandfather taught me never to speak ill of the dead. So I’ll pass on passing judgment on the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who seemed to spend so much of his life passing judgment on anyone who didn’t fit his narrow view of what is right and good and Christian.
No doubt his family and friends loved, admired and respected him very much.
“Jesse Helms is one fine gentleman. He loves the Lord and that came through in everything he did,” Religious Right stalwart Paul Weyrich wrote in 2005.
The gentlemanly Jesse Helms known by Weyrich was not the bigoted Jesse Helms known by so many African-Americans, homosexuals, liberals and others who were the targets of his mean-spirited words and deeds over the decades.
Clearly, the man who once called the University of North Carolina the “University of Negroes and Communists” was a product of a particularly exclusive, judgmental and nationalistic strain of Christianity.
In an insightful Commonweal article in 1995, journalist and professor Ferrel Guillory explained “the political theology” of the Baptist born and bred senator from North Carolina.
“He grew up a Southern Baptist at a time when few of its white congregations questioned the prevailing racial segregation of the region and when the denomination’s pre-Depression struggle between fundamentalists and modernists still echoed,” Guillory wrote.
“To those who read the Bible literally and who rejected efforts to mesh the scientific with the religious, disagreements were more than mere differences of opinion between reasonable people . . . Anybody who did not agree, it was automatically assumed that they were non-Christian, or even atheist. ‘
Helms saw atheism, socialism and liberalism “infecting” his Christian nation. To “halt the long decline,” Guillory wrote, “the senator proposes his brand of conservatism — a brand rooted in the Bible but practically oblivious to the implications of such critical passages as the Sermon on the Mount.”
In 2002, just before he retired from the Senate, Helms agreed to meet with the rock star Bono, one of the world’s leading advocates for fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Helms, who had spent many years slashing foreign aid budgets, had rendered his judgment on AIDS loudly and clearly. In 1995, for example, he told The New York Times that the government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”
But after talking to Bono, Helms apologized and said he was ashamed. “I have been too lax too long in doing something really significant about AIDS,” Helms said.
What did Bono tell him?
“Christ only speaks about judgment once and it’s not about sex but about how we deal with the poor, and I quoted Matthew, ‘I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry and you fed me.’ Jesse got very emotional, and the next day he brought in the reporters and publicly repented about Aids. I explained to him that AIDS was like the leprosy of the New Testament.”
If a rock star can have that sort of impact on Jesse Helms, there’s no telling what Jesus can do.