Bob Weiner Jr. says he called some of his "friends" one day in April and suggested that they organize to support President Reagan on aid to the rebel forces in Nicaragua.
"I asked them, 'What do you think about a rally?' And they all felt good about it," Mr. Weiner says.
And so, on the eve of a crucial vote in Congress, the rallies were held on as many as 70 college campuses across the U.S. Events like this have made the little-known Mr. Weiner popular with conservative Republican strategists.
Mr. Weiner's friends are leaders of 50 chapters of the Maranatha Christian Church, whose members revere Mr. Weiner as the church's founder, sole "apostle", and chief conduit of revelations that he says come from God.
Maranatha (pronounced mahr-uh-NATH-uh) derives its name from the word in Greek and Aramaic translations of the Bible meaning, "O Lord, come." The Maranatha Christian Church, whose first political cause involved anti-abortion demonstrations, has attracted 3500 to 4000 members, mostly of college age.
The group, with headquarters in Gainesville, Fla., imposes unusually strong discipline upon its members. But Mr. Weiner insists that his church position was unrelated to the Nicaragua rallies. "I personally got involved as a private citizen," he explains.
Mr. Weiner has had some explaining to do lately. His exotic blend of Bible-thumping, born-again Christianity and conservative politics is drawing criticism from an increasing-number of angry parents, Maranatha dropouts and other religious leaders. They complain that Maranatha uses a form of mind control that isolated students from their parents and then guides decisions on such personal matters as career choices, politics and marriage.
Last year, a committee including Baptists, Presbyterians and other evangelical Christian groups finished a yearlong investigation of Maranatha, concluding that Mr. Weiner's religion "has an authoritarian orientation with potential negative consequences for members." The committee added, "We would not recommend this organization to anyone."
Another critic is Ann Lindgren, the president of Citizens Freedom Foundation, a group of cult-watching Freedom Foundation, a group of cult-watching parents that was originally organized to combat the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. She says Maranatha is generating similar problems. Mrs. Lindgren says her group has reports of two suicide attempts and several cases of psychiatric hospitalization involving people who had recently left Maranatha. Their conditions were described as being similar to drug withdrawal.
Others defend the church, "I think that Maranatha has gotten a bum rap," asserts Ralph Reed, a former College Young Republican leader who has formed Students for America to lobby for President Reagan's policies on campuses. The 4000-member group, he says, includes over 1000 members from Maranatha.
Republican Rep. Mark Siljander of Michigan says of the Maranatha followers, "I've been very impressed with them. They certainly don't look like they're under mind control to me." One thing that impressed Rep. Siljander was the fact that between 60 and 100 Maranatha members volunteered to go door to door for him during a tough 1982 primary fight.
In 1982, President Reagan sent Mr. Weiner a congratulatory note saying, "I know the young people whose lives you have enriched with your ministry will become splendid citizens and responsible caretakers of our heritage of liberty."
Morton C. Blackwell, a former special assistant to President Reagan, says he suggested that the president write the letter lauding Maranatha. "I've not seen anything in their doctrine which is outside the Christian tradition," he says.
Mr. Blackwell, a longtime conservative activist, currently holds intensive, two-day seminars to teach conservative young people how to become political organizers. So far, he says, about 10% of the 400 people who have gone through the seminars have been members of Maranatha. One of them, Claude Allen, directed young volunteers for the successful 1984 campaign to reelect GOP Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Mr. Blackwell notes that Maranatha is "especially good at generating crowds."
Time magazine illustrated its report on the political battles over proposed aid to the Nicaraguan rebels with a picture of a crowd of unidentified students rallying on the University of Florida campus at Gainesville, Fla. In the foreground is the 40-year-old Mr. Weiner, holding a sign. In the background are some of his followers from Maranatha's chapter at the university.
Dennis W. Richardson, a 23-year-old graduate student, remembers watching a similar rally forming on the campus of Pennsylvania State University. At first it looked to him like a random group of students. "As I got closer, I realized it was all Maranatha.the whole church was out there."
Mr. Richardson knew them all because he had been a member of Maranatha the previous year. He says he spent nearly every evening in the week with the group. Some of the time was devoted to Maranatha's theories on relating Bible passages to U.S. political history. He was assigned a "shepherd," an older member of the group, who told him God wanted him to leave his fiancée. Mr. Richardson says he complied.
He recalls seeing students in a room being touched by Mr. Weiner and then falling over backward as if in a fit of religious ecstasy. "They definitely cost me a year of normal thinking," says Mr. Richardson, whose parents took him off to an isolated cabin in the woods and had him "deprogrammed." He is busy reviewing courses that he did poorly in during his religious experience last year.
Two universities have moved to expel Maranatha from their campuses. The University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, removed the group in 1982 after one Maranatha member, said to be despondent over the alleged signs of his past life, sexually maimed himself.
Kansas State University removed the group in 1983 for a variety of reasons; including charges that it deceptively held a fund-raiser without disclosing that Maranatha was to receive the funds.
Mr. Weiner blames most of his problems on parents who don't understand what he is doing. "You've got to understand, we're dealing with young people that are on drugs, that have had a lot of personal problems," he explains.
The student at the University of Waterloo, he says, "was doing tremendous until all of a sudden one day he does this crazy stunt. It wasn't our problem. We didn't cause the problem, the boy already had the problem."
Former Maranatha leaders, however, assert the Maranatha does not focus much of its effort on saving problem youths. Rather, it seems to be seeking potential campus leaders, "We were looking for good-looking kids, athletes," recalls Mike Caulk, 36, who recruited for Maranatha at the University of Michigan.
Mr. Caulk spent eight years working his way up through the ranks of the church to become pastor of the University of Michigan chapter. Like Mr. Weiner and other leaders of the group, he has no formal religious training.
In 1983, Mr. Caulk led 75 members of his chapter out of Maranatha after a fight with Mr. Weiner over the practice of "shepherding," or the use of older church members o establish a tight, pyramidal structure of controls over the younger members.
At the top of the pyramid, Mr. Caulk complains, is Mr. Weiner, who issues decrees from Maranatha's "International Office" in Gainesville, Fla., decrees that are sometimes based on what he says are his personal revelations from God. "They preach capitalism, but the system is socialistic," Mr. Caulk says.
Mr. Weiner admits he has had difficulty with the control issue, difficulty that he attributes to putting younger, more inexperienced leaders in a counseling position over new members.
"There are a lot of these guys who were trying to be like me and they didn't have the gift to do that," he says. "Some of them were overzealous and caused a lot of problems."
Mr. Weiner says his religious "gift" grew out of what was called the "Jesus Movement" in Southern California, a rebellion against drugs and drug-related hedonism led by fundamentalist religious leaders in the late 1960s.
A college dropout and a former Air Force enlisted man, Mr. Weiner says he was "born again" at the hands of Albie Pearson, a former Major League baseball player and part-time evangelist.
After that, Mr. Weiner said he realized he had a calling to save young people from drugs and marijuana. The idea to form a church came in 1972 after he had preached at a series of revival meetings in a Methodist church in Paducah, KY.
Mr. Weiner is a short, vigorous man and a dynamic speaker who often reassures his followers that they are an elite force, the religious equivalent of the Green Berets-a spiritual army that is destined to "kick in the gates of hell."
In some of his speeches, Mr. Weiner reminds his "army" that it has a rendezvous with destiny. "We are the instrument that God is going to use," he says. "We've got to have a vision for dominion. We've tot to take over the sciences, the arts, every area has to come under our dominion."
Mr. Caulk and some of the other early converts found themselves in a demanding system. One of the demands was that they give at least 10% of their earnings to the church. Another was that they give up dating. When they felt that God was suggesting that they marry someone, they would submit that person's name to their pastors for approval.
The pastors would submit the names to Maranatha's regional offices for approval and sometimes the names went from there to Mr. Weiner at Maranatha headquarters. Frequently, names were rejected as not really being in conformity with God's will.
Mr. Weiner says the rules on dating approval have since been relaxed, but he defends the principle of giving people spiritual guidance in dating to help them remain "pure."
Maranatha grew like a fast-food franchise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As soon as one campus chapter became active, Mr. Weiner would take leaders and seed money from it to form a new chapter on another campus.
Mr. Caulk, who also pioneered chapters at Auburn and the University of Mississippi, says he thinks that part of Maranatha's appeal came from students themselves. "Kids on campus really didn't have much structure from their parents," he says. "They were looking for somebody to give it to them."
Kathy Myatt, a nurse who entered Maranatha at the University of Kentucky in 1979 when she was 23, says, "I was to hear from God on every area of my life." At the time of the tampon-related health scare, she says, she was told that the Lord had informed the elders of the church that tampons were unsafe.
When she questioned some of the church rulings, she says, she was accused of having "a spirit of independent thinking and rebellion." This, she was told, was an evil spirit that had to be removed from her.
Jeff Reed, 23, ran in to Maranatha at California State University's Long Beach campus two years ago. His shepherd in the group persuaded him to change his major from fine arts to education. Then he was told not to fraternize with women because Mr. Reed was said to have an "effeminate spirit."
"I was supposed to talk to men and pick up some of that male character," he explained.
Brad Scales, 25, joined Maranatha at Michigan State University. He remembers attending a training seminar for Maranatha leaders in Gainesville where he was told to memorize 80 three-by-five cards that showed him "how to recruit anybody in the course of a casual conversation."
"They had us write to our congressmen on various issues. They'd say we're not going out to lunch until you write at least three letters," he says.
Bob Tedford, 26, a student of Kansas State University, says he was told to make journalism his major as part of the group's plan to take over the campus paper. "Our pastor told us it was okay to deceive someone, but only if it was for that person's own good," Mr. Tedford says.
His charges that Maranatha manipulated the lives of student members and deceptively concealed the source of members' activities later led to Maranatha's deletion from the university's student sanctioned activities list.
Former Maranatha members say any tendency toward independent thinking triggered immediate shunning by their Maranatha friends.
"I was suicidal for six months," says Ms. Myatt, who remembers long bouts of crying. Mr. Reed says, "I felt like I was pushed out of an airplane at 50,000 feet." Mr. Tedford says, "Mostly what I felt was guilt. I felt if I had really tried it would have worked, but no matter how early I got up in the morning to read the Bible, no matter how long I spoke in tongues, no matter how many people I won over, it would never be enough."
Mr. Weiner says the group no longer practices shunning. "We made some mistakes in that area," he says, adding that when his church reached a higher level of "maturity", it dropped the practice.
Maranatha invited a test of the maturity of its religion in 1982, when, in response to complaints by parents, it asked a California cult-watching group, Christian Research Institute, to certify that Maranatha was a legitimate church.
Maranatha flunked the test. The Institute convened a panel of Bible experts and other church experts on cults. The panel said Maranatha's doctrines were "all too frequently" taken out of Biblical context and interpreted in an arbitrary manner. It warned that Maranatha's stress on Mr. Weiner's personal revelations make them "equal to, if not superior to, the Word of God."
Mr. Weiner still fulminates about the findings of the committee, "Who appointed them? Who put them up to be the judge of every Christian group in America?" but then he pauses, composes himself, and adds:
"But I love the guys on the committee, I really do, and I've forgiven them for what I feel is the way they've mistreated me."