If you want to feel good about being a Democrat, just watch the kind of debate held in Florida last night among the GOP’s presidential hopefuls. To be sure, the candidates were not in control of the questions, which CNN selected from citizen U-Tube submitted clips. That said, it’s fair to assume that those asked reflected the perceived core interests of the candidates and their Republican primary voters. No healthcare, economy, environment and scant little about education came to the fore as the eight white men scrambled instead to claim who best could protect us from illegal immigrants, abortion and taxes, not to mention insure our well stocked gun closets. As to Iraq, John McCain and Fred Thompson (more tepidly) proclaimed we’re “winning”. McCain let us know (repeatedly) that he shared Thanksgiving with the troops and the former Law & Order DA that he was tired of our defeatism. Rudy and Mitt led the charge on immigration accusing each of harboring illegals and defending their own toughness. The focus on immigration shows how important this issue has become, along with it an unmistakable xenophobic undertone. Romney’s defense -- it was his contractors who brought illegals to the Governor’s Mansion – included reference to someone with a “funny accent”, assumably Hispanic. I wonder how it made members of that fast growing community feel to have the way they talk characterized as “funny”?
God was a big presence at the Republican debate. Again, CNN chose the questions but at times one would think that those on stage were competing for leadership of a church rather than a secular democracy. Indeed, being not merely God-fearing but Christian seemed to be a core qualification for the presidency. Do you believe in the Bible (a leather bound copy of which was put forward by the questioner)? Then followed a series of answers that included professed belief in divine revelation, “God’s word” as Romney put it. Mike Huckabee was fast to remind us of his special qualifications being an ordained minister and student of theology, an obvious edge for any aspiring President. What would Jesus’ position be on the death penalty also came into play giving the former Arkansas Governor one of his now trademark laugh lines. Among the many subtexts of the evening was the question, not asked but implied, as to whether a Mormon has the proper bone fides to steer the Christian ship of State.
Mitt Romney is considering addressing the issue of his faith much as did Jack Kennedy during his primary battle against Hubert Humphrey in 1960. Then as now there is the question of whether their respective authoritarian churches would allow for independent governance. Ironically both served Massachusetts (where separation is fiercely respected), each with a track record of unfettered public service. As such, the whole religion issue is somewhat of a red herring, and a very disturbing one at that. In the case of Romney it is particularly so because the questions raised seem to revolve around whether he is a “real” Christian. Taken at its face value, what does that, and last night’s debate, say about potential Jewish, Moslem, Hindu or, dare I suggest, atheist candidates for public office?
The religious issue raised in JFK’s campaign was put to rest and he did become the first Roman Catholic President. The Pope did not rule the land as had been suggested. This year, half of the Democratic candidates are Catholics, which, in light of 1960, is good news. Of course, none is a front-runner and Kennedy remains the only Catholic to have held the office, which may say something as well. As to Mormons, Republicans seem to be concerned about their relationship with Christ and the New Testament neither of which should have anything to do with leadership of our democracy. If there is any concern, it should rather be directed at the theocratic tendencies of LDS Church seen in the role it plays in Utah where the line between church and state is sometimes wafer thin. That said, being a Mormon doesn’t seem to stand in the way of Republican Orin Hatch or Democrat Harry Reid in carrying out their duties in the US Senate.
The large shadow cast by religion on our presidential campaign, and it extends to both parties, is the legacy of the past decades of social conservative dominance. Among the most important byproducts of the US Attorney scandal was the revelation that 150 graduates of Liberty University’s fledgling law school “committed to academic and professional excellence in the context of the Christian intellectual tradition” now serve the Bush Administration. What we’ve seen over the last years is not so much America’s turn toward God, but a systematic effort on the part of the theocratically minded to effectually gain appointive or elective power at all levels of government. It is an effort so chillingly detailed in Michelle Goldberg’s book, Kingdom Coming. This past October, both Frank Rich (in his column) and David Kirkpatrick (in The Times Magazine) wrote about the waning power of, and changes in priorities for, the Evangelical movement. Perhaps so, but the damage is done and what they have wrought won’t soon disappear. They have left an indelible impression on our public square, one that is largely religiously exclusive. If you want high office in America today you’d better get God on your side and don’t even consider expressing the slightest doubt that there is a God, because your candidacy will be dead on announcement.
It is this atmosphere that accounts for the display of unseemly pandering done by Republican candidates at the recent “values” conference. It also mandated that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama inject professions of faith into their campaigns. It is the very same phenomenon that produced the sickening embrace of Rudy and Pat Robertson. Mr. 9/11 Mayor now linked with the good reverend who agreed (with Jerry Falwell) that the towers had fallen as retribution of ungodly acts of abortionists, gays and the ACLU. Pardon me, but even in writing about it, I feel compelled to go out and wash my hands. Yes religion is front and center even seen in Rudy’s complaint, “You had a Democratic debate and not a single one of those Democratic candidates used the word Islamic terrorism.” While the brunt of his message decried painting Islam with one brush, the continued insistence by Republicans of using terms like Islamo-Fascism is yet another symptom of this holy war, us vs. them, syndrome employing guns over there and ballots over here.
If you had any doubt about the urgent need to reassert the separation of church and state, then watch the unfolding Republican campaign and debates. I neither question their heartfelt faith or that religion enriches their personal lives. But don’t bring it to the office, and don’t impose it on my home. They may claim that faith is essential to public service and to us as a nation, that it provides a moral compass. The record doesn’t necessarily support their assertion. The deeply religious Mitt Romney couldn’t bring himself to disavow waterboarding last night any more than could the Orthodox Jew Michael Dukasey at his confirmation hearings. Perhaps God wants global peace and a good meal on all of our tables, but getting either will depend on us. There is a lot to do in a world that, among others, men professing a religion they want to foist on us have mucked up. Taking that or any religion out of the mix is an essential first step if we are to right the ship of state. I wish one cold be optimistic that we’re on that course, but at least I haven’t lost my capacity to dream.