CUMMING, Ga. (BP)–What has come to be known as the religious right was not started by James Dobson, Jerry Falwell or Ralph Reed. Many people today credit a beautiful, vivacious entertainer and mother of four who was three times named the most admired woman in America. Anita Bryant, a Miss America runner-up who had three million-seller records, in 1977 opposed a local ordinance in Dade County, Fla., that would have forced private religious schools to hire practicing homosexuals as teachers. That stand cost her a career, her seemingly storybook marriage and nearly her life.
Bryant presented a concert recently as part of a God and country worship service at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. “Every time she performs, Anita Bryant stands for Jesus, and I appreciate that so much,” said Richard Lee, First Redeemer’s pastor. “I believe many people will be in heaven because of this lady, and I believe her ministry and impact have just begun.”
Laying a well-worn Bible on the podium, Bryant took the platform wearing a bright red military-style jacket with gold braid and buttons. “This is my uniform because I’m a soldier in God’s army,” she told the congregation.
She opened an hour-long concert telling the congregation, “I hope you don’t see Anita Bryant the performer, but a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Her voice was strong and clear and she had the professional stage presence of someone who is more than comfortable on a large stage in front of lots of people. This was her first church concert in more than a year.
Bryant first appeared on stage at the age of 6, recorded her first record album at 16 and was named Miss Oklahoma and a Miss America runner-up in 1958. That same year her popular recording of “Till There Was You” sold a million copies and was followed the next year by two more million-sellers. Her records outsold those of contemporaries Perry Como, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. She now has recorded more than 40 record albums and CDs. In 1961 she made the first of seven trips overseas with legendary entertainer Bob Hope, who she still calls “Boss,” to entertain men and women in the U.S. military.
During the 1960’s and ’70s she was one of the most recognized and sought- after celebrity spokespersons in advertising, endorsing Coca-Cola, Holiday Inn hotels, Kraft Foods and the Florida Citrus Growers, for whom she made 86 television commercials. She published the first of more than a dozen books in 1970, sang at the White House 11 times, and performed “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the funeral of President Lyndon Johnson and at halftime of the 1976 NFL Super Bowl. Bryant was voted “Most Admired Woman in America” three times by readers of Good Housekeeping magazine, and a Gallup poll said she was one of the top 10 most recognized women in the world.
But her popularity — and her life — dramatically changed in 1977. The entertainer and her well-known husband and manager, Bob Green, who had coauthored several books with her, publicly opposed an ordinance in Dade County that would have forced the private religious school where their children attended to hire practicing homosexuals.
Her high-profile opposition attracted the attention of the national and international news media, and served as a rallying point for homosexuals across the country. They boycotted the products she endorsed and picketed her performances. One homosexual activist, disguised as a reporter, threw a pie in her face during a news conference — an act you can still see on homosexual advocacy websites, as even today she serves as an icon of opposition for the homosexual community.
“Back then I couldn’t go anywhere without bomb scares, kidnapping threats and protection like the president of the United States gets, although God was always my protection,” she told Baptist Press. “I thought it was a local issue and [I] was just a Christian mother trying to do right by my four children. But it became a national issue, and my life was turned upside down. It annihilated my career, because they threatened anyone who had anything to do with me,” she recounted.
Bryant said what she was never able to communicate to the homosexual community was that her opposition wasn’t personal.
“I wasn’t against people, but against a law that would force my children to be exposed to a practice that I believe is contrary to Scripture. But I think what Satan meant for evil, God intended for good. He woke a sleeping giant in Christians and churches who supported me then and still do,” she said. “I never present a concert or make an appearance that someone, usually many people, come up afterwards and tell me how much they appreciated my stand. Men who wouldn’t normally go to a music theater come up and say, ‘I just had to come shake your hand and tell you I appreciate you.'”
The hate mail, pickets and overt opposition are gone now, and in fact, she said many homosexuals and former homosexuals have come to see her perform in Branson, Mo., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “Many come up after the show and say they loved it. I think they see firsthand that I’m not a woman full of bigotry and hate as I’ve been pictured. My motivation was always love — love for my children and love for the homosexual who I believed was not practicing a lifestyle but what I called back then a death style.
“But all that’s in the past,” she said. If she could speak to the homosexual community today, Bryant said she would tell them, “God loves you just as much as he does everybody else. He loves us so much so that he doesn’t want any of us to die and be destroyed in our sin. I’ve never said, ‘This is what Anita Bryant says,’ but this what the Word of God says. So I think my position was always one of love.”
The pressures of the controversy strained her marriage as well as her career. In 1980 Bryant and her husband divorced. In a culture of tell-all books, she’s never talked publicly or written about causes of the divorce, writing only that, “It’s no one’s business what happened but the Lord’s.”
But the divorce caused the collapse of the remainder of her career when churches and Christian ministries stopped calling. She was 40 years old, a single mother with four children and no way to make a living. She and her children moved in with family in Oklahoma and, in her official biography, “A New Day,” available on her website, www.anitabryant.com, she says she went into a deep depression and a 10-year period she calls her wilderness experience.
“I had said I would never divorce and when it occurred, I felt self-hatred,” she writes. “But God’s love prevailed and in time He replaced my thoughts of suicide with a desire to live, take care of my family, and serve Him.”
After a year, she moved her family to Selma, Ala., and opened a dress shop with some Christian friends. After several years, she moved to Atlanta and then Nashville to re-start her professional career. There she came in contact with her childhood sweetheart, Charlie Dry, who had spent 16 years as a NASA astronaut and test crewman. They were married in 1990 and moved to Eureka Springs, Ark., where they developed and presented a variety show for several years. They moved the stage show to Branson, Mo., in 1995, and three years ago to Pigeon Force, Tenn., where they purchased a theater, the Music Mansion, and performed until last fall.
Today, Bryant and her husband are working on a new vision for their theater which they plan to reopen soon under a new name — Miracle Mansion.
“God called me to share the gospel when I was saved at 8 years old, and I’ve hardly done a record, book or performance that I haven’t used it to witness for Jesus Christ,” she said. “We seem to have a unique way of ministering to people through the theater. I’ve always offered a Bible study for the musicians and others who work in our show, and people stand in line for hours after a show asking for us to pray with them. We’ve led many to faith in Christ.
“God has given me a lot of new songs over the years. Even during my wilderness experience, I was still writing songs. And they’re fresh and new because they came from the Holy Spirit,” she said. “Some are children’s songs, some are inspirational and some are patriotic — like ‘God Have Mercy on America’ which tells where I believe our nation is today since leaving God’s standards and principles.” She’s produced a CD album of those songs that is available on the website along with an album of her most popular hits, another of gospel songs and her last book.
“I want to help reclaim the performing arts to glorify God, and [I] have such a heart to minister to kids. I have a dream to start a Christian school for the performing arts for gifted children. It would be a place where they could learn about and use the gifts God has given them, but not be taken advantage of,” she said.
“Several people have told me that in my later days God would use me very effectively, and I don’t know what form that might take. I just want to be in his will, going wherever he wants me to go and doing what he wants me to do.”
Asked if she had any advice for Christians confronting today’s culture, Bryant said, “Follow Christ. Don’t be afraid to speak his words and to put him first. He’s not just Lord when we come to church and worship him — he’s Lord of all. He’s Lord of the government. Freedom was his idea. Family was his idea. Marriage was his idea. Don’t be afraid to speak when he leads you, regardless of the consequences.”
Asked how Christians can pray for her, Bryant thought for a long time, taking the question quite seriously. “I don’t want to be anything but in the total will of God. I would hope they would pray that Charlie and I will continue to put him first and everything else will fall into place. Sometimes we get impatient and try to make things happen instead waiting on God. But I want to wait on the Lord and follow him. That’s what people can pray for us.”
And it appears a number of opportunities may be on the horizon for this world-renowned entertainer. A Christian television network is interested in broadcasting from the 2,000-seat theater in Tennessee. She’s talking with publishers about a new CD, books and possibly a video. Bryant said she wants to minister in local churches as she did at First Redeemer, which will be broadcast on an upcoming segment of “There’s Hope,” Lee’s broadcast ministry which is seen nationally on the Inspiration Network Wednesday evenings at 10 p.m.
“This past year we’ve been seeking God’s guidance in what to do with the theater in Pigeon Forge and with the new songs the Lord’s given me. And I love to sing and minister in churches. I don’t know where it’s all headed, but I know that he’s going to remain first in my life. And wherever he leads, I want to follow.”
Bryant can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected]. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: A NEW DAY and A LOVE FOR KIDS.