By Donald Wittkowski
Mixing piety and patriotism, Oliver North spoke of his devotion to God and country during an appearance Sunday at an Ocean City church that attracted an overflow crowd of admirers inside the building but drew protesters outside.
In remarks to more than 1,000 churchgoers at the Ocean City Tabernacle, North talked about his spiritual awakening while he was still serving in the military and how his religious beliefs continue to guide his life.
North, 74, repeatedly referred to the teachings of the Bible during a 30-minute speech that took on a sermon-like quality at times, but also touched on U.S. history, military heroics and contemporary society while mingling in humorous personal anecdotes.
“The truth is right here in this book,” he said, holding up a copy of the Bible.
Only once during his remarks did he briefly mention his appointment as the new president of the National Rifle Association, a position that has drawn criticism from gun opponents, including protesters who carried signs and chanted slogans denouncing North while marching outside the Tabernacle.
North did not discuss his role in the Iran-Contra affair, the political scandal in the 1980s that made him a household name. While serving then as a staffer with the National Security Council, North was part of an illegal plot in which former President Ronald Reagan’s administration used the proceeds from the secret sale of arms to Iran to aid the Contra rebel forces in Nicaragua.
North was convicted in the Iran–Contra affair, but was successful in fighting his convictions and having them reversed. All charges against him were dismissed in 1991.
Before the Iran-Contra scandal elevated him into a national figure, North was a decorated combat Marine. He said a pivotal moment in his life came in 1978, when one of his Marine commanding officers placed a Bible in his hand and told him, “You have got to get to know your Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”
It was at that time that he committed himself to Christ, beginning a religious transformation that continues to profoundly shape his life 40 years later, North said.
North told audience members at the Tabernacle that if they know of anyone who is in need of spiritual guidance, they should rely on the Bible to help them “save someone else’s life for eternity.”
“I urge you, using that book and your behavior, show them the way to Jesus Christ,” he said.
He began his remarks with a religion-tinged history lesson, discussing how the Founding Fathers were influenced by their Christian beliefs while crafting the Declaration of Independence. He said the Declaration of Independence is the only manuscript of its kind that pays homage to “God Almighty.”
The Ocean City Tabernacle, North said, has benefited from the religious freedoms promoted by the Declaration of Independence by becoming “this wonderful refuge for Christian families to come to.”
North was a media personality when he formerly hosted the program “War Stories with Oliver North” for Fox News. He also served as a political commentator for Fox News, but retired from the network following his appointment as NRA president.
During his speech Sunday, he played video clips from his Fox program that showcased the heroics of American soldiers. At one point, he asked current and former members of the military, as well as law enforcement officers who were sitting in the audience, to stand and be recognized. He also asked their spouses to stand up.
“Those are our American heroes,” he said while the audience applauded.
North also spoke fondly of his wife of 50 years, Betsy, their four children and their 17 grandchildren.
Drawing laughter from the audience, he recalled a comical moment during a trip that he and his wife took to Israel in January. He said they were standing in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel when a busload of American tourists pulled up.
One of the tourists asked him, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look a lot like Ollie North?”
North said he responded, “It’s a good thing I look like Ollie North because I’m sleeping with his wife.”
The befuddled tourist, not knowing he was talking to the real Oliver North, chastised him about his remarks, North said.
North’s appearance at the Tabernacle was part of a summer series of speakers and special events. More information is available by visiting https://octabernacle.org/.
On Sunday, North delivered two separate speeches in front of packed crowds. North, who is a best-selling author, had a book signing and posed for pictures with churchgoers after his first speech.
Michael Galantino, who lives in Berwyn, Pa., and has a summer home in Ocean City, had North autograph a copy of his book, “Under Fire: An American Story,” which chronicles his trial and role in the Iran-Contra scandal.
“He’s a special man,” Galantino said, pointing out North’s place in U.S. history and politics.
One Ocean City couple, Diana and Steve Harvey, sat in the front row to listen to North’s first speech. They said they were inspired by his remarks.
“I expected him to be good, but he was fantastic,” Steve Harvey said. “The man is a born evangelist.”
Diana Harvey said she thought North spoke from the “heart and soul.”
Outside the Tabernacle, however, protesters carried signs condemning North’s appointment as the new NRA president. Some of the signs read, “Protect kids, not the NRA” and “Worship God, not Guns.” Protesters also chanted, “No more NRA.”
Caren Fitzpatrick, an Atlantic County freeholder, criticized North and the NRA for not opposing assault weapons.
“I believe in sensible gun control. But assault weapons should be for the military, not for civilian use,” Fitzpatrick said.
Protesters Leslie and Andy Skibo, a married couple from Ocean City, also expressed outrage about assault weapons. They said they are concerned about school safety.
“I’m here for my children and grandchildren,” Leslie Skibo said.
Andy Skibo held a sign that read, “Jesus didn’t own an AR-15,” referring to the semi-automatic assault rifle used in some of the mass school shootings and other public attacks.
“We want responsible gun control,” Skibo said. “I don’t believe people should own an assault weapon. That’s what this whole issue is about – responsible gun control.”