Making Book on Bill Owens

Questions about the religious right are this GOP candidate's cross to bear--or is that bare?

Images from around the globe are popping up on public monitors in every library. Web surfers can call up pornographic images while little kids and everyone else walks by.

Back in 1994, librarians were assuring politicians that of course they weren't building collections of pornography.

"Now," says LaRue, speaking of the Internet revolution, "real pornography is coming into the library. We're aghast. We don't want to be redefined as peep shows, where teens can come in and look at dirty pictures."

LaRue says patrons have started objecting to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, since images of naked women flash on screens. "We're going to get sued by the ACLU or the Christian Coalition, no matter which way we go," he adds. "Of course we don't want to deliver pornography. But in our scramble to look moral, we could stop the flow of ideas, especially in such areas as homosexuality and women's rights. We could shut down people's ability to ask questions."

As incoming president of the Colorado Library Association, LaRue is particularly concerned. He's written about it extensively--on the Web, of course (www.sni.net/~jlarue/iff.html).

And he wonders what it means that gubernatorial candidate Owens carried the religious right's cross during the last major statewide debate on what some called obscenity and others called censorship.

"As governor," says LaRue, "Owens would be sympathetic to those who want to restrict materials."

And what materials would be restricted? As Don Mares asked Denise Mund during the 1994 hearings, is it the image of two men kissing?

More and more of Jamie LaRue's patrons may be bothered by such images. The Internet isn't the only thing that's changed libraries. Christian fiction and information used to be on the fringes of library collections. But "over the past five years," LaRue says, "the flood of commentary, ideas and Christian fiction has moved into the mainstream."

In many ways, librarians are the natural foes of conservative propagandists who call for censorship. But based on the sophistication of the Christian right's propaganda, especially the slick magazines and materials churned out by Focus on the Family, LaRue says he has to admit the religious right has the edge in quality over such liberal organizations as People for the American Way. These days, he adds, the right's message is portrayed more effectively than the left's. "Just on the basis of the literature," he says, "the traditional liberal left has lost the common touch."

A cultural shift could bring a "clean-it-up, pretty-it-up approach" that might stifle the flow of information, he warns. "Ten years ago, the hot issue was condom distribution in schools. Conservatives used that to inflame moderates," he says. "Every generation takes a swing at something."

But something besides a generation's mood is at work here. Focus on the Family is hammering hard at libraries and urging their followers to do the same; many of the complaints his library receives sound remarkably alike, LaRue says.

LaRue heard a more sophisticated complaint from Owens. During their stroll through the library two years ago, Owens gently lobbied LaRue on the idea that librarians need to "tone it down" when it comes to protesting what they see as censorship.

"He was very deft about it," says LaRue.
And Owens is deft in explaining what his purposes were in pushing SCR 94-1. The measure appeared to be full of subterfuge--hidden motives, hidden agendas--especially in its early form when Owens carried it. But he strongly denies that he practiced any subterfuge.

"I can't speak to others' motivations," he says of his compadres Mund, Malpas and the other out-front members of the religious right. "My reason is a narrow reason. I think communities should have more power than they have in Colorado."

Republicans like Dottie Wham say they really don't know what to expect from Owens if he should become governor. She describes him as being on the "right of the middle" of the GOP, while she's on the "left of the middle." As for the gubernatorial race, she says only, "Tom Norton would make a fine governor."

The right wing of her party scares the hell out of Wham.
"The problem," she says, "and I don't relate this to Bill, is an intolerance of others' views, based on the Bible, literally. Where Bill is on that I have not talked to him.

"But it's so much bigger than he is or the race is. It has to do with the country, whether we continue to go to a theocracy, not a democracy."

The call is a lot easier to make for Democrats. Don Mares recalls SCR 94-1 as clearly part of the religious right's agenda. "And Owens supported it," says Mares. "That gives you some idea where he stands. Of course it raises red flags."

It's the librarians, among others, who will be caught in the middle if the religious right opens a new front in its "culture war."

So Jamie LaRue ponders the prospect of a Governor Owens.
"He's bright, he's extraordinarily astute politically," says LaRue. "And he would get a bully pulpit."

Bill Owens has a sense of humor, and he knows how to use it. As a campaigner, at least, he doesn't come across as a grudge-holder. He schmoozes with the press quite easily and is eager to present himself as just an ordinary guy with ordinary tastes--though he wants to go off the record to try to prove that point.

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