Originally created 01/13/04

Liberal Baptist preacher challenges county



CLARKESVILLE, Ga. -- A faded tattoo decorates the 70-year-old biceps of Bo Turner.

Its message, "Jesus is a liberal," is always good for making a few Baptists mad. But ruffling feathers and bucking the norm are a daily routine for the motorcycle-riding Habersham County preacher.

Turner was one of two plaintiffs in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays Habersham County had posted in two of its public buildings.

And although Turner and ACLU won the public battle, Turner admits his private conflict is long from over.

"The weather's cold, and so is my reception wherever I go," Turner said of Clarkesville, the Habersham County seat where he served as mayor for two terms in the 1980s and in which he currently resides.

Like the ACLU, Turner felt the Ten Commandments placement in government buildings violated an important separation between church and state.

The preacher has received two deaths threats since his involvement in the case. He's disappointed but not surprised by some of his neighbors' reactions.

But playing the outsider is a role he has come to relish.

Turner has preached at the small Tallulah Falls Baptist Church in the North Georgia mountains of his childhood for 24 years. But he eschews the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism of his youth, opting for a kinder, softer approach to religion.

"We're all God's young'uns," Turner said. "God loves me because I'm crazy."

Turner said a few good things come with old age: not caring what people think anymore and a little bit of wisdom.

When he was younger, Turner worked in the business world. He served as general manager and vice president of a Northeast Georgia company that manufactured automobile switches.

Turner described himself as an agnostic then. He had long abandoned the fundamentalist religion of his youth. But Turner got bored with the business world as his 30s drew to a close.

He enrolled in Wake Forest University's theology program. Turner hoped to find some answers about the religion he had pushed aside, and he eventually received a masters' degree and a doctorate in theology.

At Wake Forest, Turner was encouraged to look at the historical context of the Bible and, most importantly, ask questions.

"If you take the Bible literally you have to commit intellectual suicide," he said.

Turner began to develop his own truths in the faith and now the "liberal Baptist" does not believe in the idea of a literal heaven and hell. He thinks God is genderless and does not consider homosexuality wrong.

Upon graduating from Wake Forest, Turner served brief stints as a mental hospital chaplain in Georgia and a prison chaplain in Florida. He then found his way back to Georgia and into teaching. He taught high school history in Habersham County for 18 years, retiring when he was 60. He also began to pastor at Tallulah Falls where he has remained for over two decades.

Turner credits some of those Wake Forest professors and his tenacious personality as reasons he is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. He said it would have been easy for him to stay out of the Habersham Ten Commandments case, but it was something that he could just not do.

"We're not encouraged to think. I encourage my little flock to think for themselves," Turner said of his congregation, which averages between 20 and 30 people each Sunday.