Peace-monger

Chuck Carlson and his disciples are taking it to the streets, demanding that pro-life churches practice what they preach and condemn war in Iraq

Chuck Carlson stands in front of Calvary Community Church holding the sort of sign you'd expect to see at confrontations outside abortion clinics. "PRO-LIFE," the placard reads in bold red and blue letters on a white background.

Carlson appears hopelessly out of place. He's picketing a church that is home to a large congregation of conservative Christians, the kind of evangelicals who not only solidly oppose abortion but who also tend to read the Bible as literally as possible, think of the Earth as only a few thousand years old and vote Republican.

He gets mostly quizzical looks from the nicely dressed folks making their way to the meeting hall, and it's not hard to understand why. Holding an anti-abortion rally in front of Calvary Community Church makes about as much sense as surrounding the national headquarters of the NAACP and singing "We Shall Overcome."

And yet it's here, outside this mega-church astride the Black Canyon Freeway south of Thunderbird Road, that Carlson and six others have chosen to hold a demonstration.

Almost none of the people walking by stop to ask why the 66-year-old north Phoenix resident is holding the PRO-LIFE poster in one hand and a large yellow sign with the message "IRAQ? WWJD?" in the other.

But Carlson knows that even the passers-by who avoid him can decode the message of his second placard. It was the conservative Christian community, after all, that made popular the latter four-letter code – short for "What would Jesus do?"

For Carlson, the answer to that question is plain. No follower of the Prince of Peace, he says, should support a preemptive strike against another nation, even one as troublesome as Saddam Hussein's Iraq. To Carlson, himself a conservative Christian, it's simply inconsistent to be pro-life and not be anti-war.

Carlson and his born-again compatriots are just one of several unusual groups that have added to the swelling ranks of the anti-war movement in Phoenix. Organizers expect a crowd of between 2,000 and 5,000 protesters in Patriots Square Park on Saturday, February 15 – which would make it the largest peace gathering in Phoenix since the Vietnam War era. Similar rallies are planned in cities around the nation that day, and many will draw far larger crowds. But in a conservative town not known for public displays of political passion, such a turnout would be remarkable. Last September 27, a crowd of 1,500 protested outside a fund-raising dinner for gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon that was attended by President Bush. Organizers say the crowd was a surprising mix of not only the college students and lefty types who tend to show up at such gatherings, but of others who object to President George W. Bush's militaristic rhetoric – including middle-class parents, liberal and moderate members of the local clergy and even some hawkish conservatives uncomfortable with the idea that the United States would strike first.

But perhaps the most unusual participants were Carlson and his comrades, who not only oppose a war on Iraq, but have chosen an extraordinary way to advance their agenda: They target local churches that refuse to take a stand against aggression.

Chuck Carlson left his job as a mining consultant in 1996 to dedicate himself full time to a cause that he'd first struck upon during the Gulf War. At that time in 1991, he belonged to a Southern Baptist congregation and was shocked that the pastor had nothing to say about the large loss of Iraqi life in Operation Desert Storm. Today, Carlson is a member of Mountain Valley Community Church, an evangelical congregation. Laughing, Carlson says his pastor's "probably wondering when we're coming to his church."

After leaving his job seven years ago, he and six like-minded friends founded a company they call We Hold These Truths. Largely an Internet venture (www.whtt.org), We Hold These Truths is not tax exempt like other religious-based groups (Carlson says he wants to avoid the restrictions on political activity that come with nonprofit status). The organization pays him no salary and mostly operates with volunteer labor.

Carlson spends his time spreading the group's message that American churches have not done nearly enough to foster peace. Only recently did he hit on the plan to hold demonstrations at places of worship in a program he calls Project Strait Gate, named after a biblical passage.

The demonstrations – for the most part polite affairs, which Carlson prefers to call "vigils" – involve no bullhorns, chanted slogans or violent clashes with police. Carlson, a white-haired grandfather of average height who sports a goatee and dresses smartly, asks his companions not to raise their voices or accost church members, and he purposely keeps the events small. If more than 10 of his members show up to a vigil, Carlson splits up the group and sends some to another church to picket.

"We're not trying to overwhelm anybody," he says.

Project Strait Gate's appearance at Calvary Community Church on February 2 was the group's eighth event since October. Most of the protests have taken place at large evangelical community churches, but Carlson and his friends have also shown up at Catholic and Episcopal institutions.

He acknowledges that some of the places he has targeted, including the Catholic and Episcopal churches, are member organizations represented by the Arizona Ecumenical Council, which has made an unequivocal statement of opposition to war in Iraq. However, Carlson believes individual churches also have an obligation to make their positions known.

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