From email@example.com Wed Aug 23 07:51:21 2000
from: AMERICAN ATHEISTS
Election 2000 - A religious "Cold War" of words?
AANews, # 806, 22 August 2000
Mike Benson of Newhouse News Service describes it as "Thomas Jefferson's worst nightmare."
Baltimore Sun writer Jim Anderson wonders if it isn't turning into "a more-pious-than-you" debate.
Even Herb Gooch, political science professor at California Lutheran University in California talks about "a kind of arms race -- a God race -- to out-moralize each other."
It may sound a bit like a conflict between extremist groups in the Occupied Territories of Israel, or maybe a squabble at an ecclesiastical conclave; but the references are to the year 2000 election campaign.
The religious tone of the White House race is pervasive and unabated, as candidates from both parties continue to drape themselves in the rhetorical mantle of "values," morality and religion. Within the Republican Party, where religious right groups still play a pivotal role in delivering votes, George W. Bush's version of "compassionate conservatism" includes frequent appeals to religious belief, and promises that his presidency would place a high priority on faith-based partnerships and social services. Democrats responded early in the primary season by promising to "take back God" for the party; Vice President Al Gore then announced his support for "partnerships" between government and religious groups as a way of addressing social ills. Weeks later, Gov. Bush followed suit, and upped the ante by promising to create a Federal Office of Faith-Based action funded by $8 billion in tax credits, grants and other monies.
* Political conventions, once the site of ugly but spirited debacles, passionate rhetorical fist-fights, and the demise -- as well as the launch -- of political careers have now become staged "pageants" with gavel to gavel scripting. Both the GOP and Democratic conventions were replete with religious symbolism and rhetoric, all of it competing for the 60 million or so potential ballots from people identified as "born-again Christians" -- and voters -- according to a poll released earlier this year by Barna Research Group. John Suarez of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State told Scripps Howard News Service, "The current campaigns are way out of bounds."
"These people are running for a secular office," Suarez added. "They're entitled to their individual faith, but I think it's a mistake to mix the political process with religion." Suarez added that Bush and Gore "are more interested in showing how religious and faithful and how good they are," while managing to avoid substantive issues like poverty, environmental concerns and health care.
The Democratic convention managed to give the Republicans a fair run for the money in identifying the party with moral redemption. Larry Witham of the Washington Times noted that last week's political convention in Los Angeles "included a wide appeal to religion" and "was a departure from a secular imagine that once aimed to harmonize the party's diverse interest groups."
"In Their Own Words..."
Examples include the invocation delivered by L.A. Roman Catholic prelate Cardinal Roger Mahony, and even the address of gay rights activist Elizabeth Birch who told delegates that homosexuals "were all created by God." Acceptance speeches were generously weighted with religious terms and references. The final transcript of George W. Bush's speech at the GOP convention on August 3 abounded with references to God, faith and other religious terms. Churches, for instance, "remind us that every soul is equal in value and equal in need," the Republican nominee declared. Underscoring his goal of decimating the separation of church and state by including religious organizations in the administration of social welfare programs, Bush went on to cite the work of the "Sharing and Caring Hands" ministry in Minneapolis, and added that "Synagogues, churches and mosques are responsible ... not only to worship but to serve." Bush also referred to his own personal faith, declaring "I believe in a God who calls us, not to judge our neighbors, but to love them." In all, we count nine of these sorts of rhetorical references which peppered Bush's acceptance speech.
Incredibly, GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney had the fewest religious references in his acceptance speech. His was a boilerplate convention pep talk which praised Bush, blasted the Democrats, and included the traditional and perfunctory hit list of issues ranging from national defense to reforming the tax code.
His counterpart, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, was also low-key in accepting his party's nomination for the vice presidency. His single reference to anything clearly identified as religious belief was a line declaring: "As every faith teaches us and as Presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan to Clinton have reminded us, we must as Americans try to see our nation not just through our own eyes but through the eyes of others..." Lieberman seemed to be toning down the preaching from his original outburst he delivered earlier in Nashville, Tenn. when he informally accepted Al Gore's offer to run in the number slot. There, Lieberman mentioned God 13 times in 90 minutes, thanking the "Dear Lord " for "bringing me to this extraordinary moment in my life." ( Baltimore Sun columnist Jim Anderson notes: "He omitted any mention of Warren Christopher who headed the Gore vice-presidential search committee, who may also have played a role in his choice.")
* Tom Kisken of Scripps Howard News Service notes that while Bush is working to link Al Gore with the moral vulnerability of the Clinton era, "Gore is taking every opportunity to affirm connections to faith and family." He adds, "Lieberman, the first Jew on a presidential ticket, is a man of deep faith who quotes the Torah and talks at length about his beliefs."
Well, not technically. Barry Goldwater was half-Jewish when in 1964 he ran for the presidency, but that campaign was overshadowed by issues like the Vietnam war and the nuclear arms race; and Goldwater attended Episcopal services. The nation had seen John Kennedy four years earlier become the first Roman Catholic to gain the nation's highest electoral office. The brouhaha over Lieberman is not just the fact that he is an Orthodox Jew, but rather reflects the whole religious tone of the election 2000 campaign, and the proximity of issues such as school prayer, abortion, gays rights, media violence and "values" in general.
Distracting voters is the question of Lieberman's "Jewishness" -- an issue which has drawn out hate groups, fringe types and even more mainstream political pundits. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, undermining his efforts at a public relations makeover, asked whether Lieberman, as an Orthodox Jew, would be "more faithful" to the United States or Israel. Late last week, William Tatum, publisher of the black New York weekly Amsterdam News charged that Gore had selected the Connecticut senator as his running mate "for the money," and that Jews around the world had essentially purchased Lieberman's slot on the Democratic ticket.
"The word went out all over the world to Jews in every pocket of every civilization and near-civilization," wrote Tatum, "that the that the major protector of Jews in this world, the American government, is now available. But in order to get it, you've got to buy it."
The remarks raised more than a few eyebrows, not only for their resemblance to hoary, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories a la "The Protocols of the Learned Elder of Zion," but because Tatum should a) know better how they might be interpreted and b) he happens to be married to a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, and would hopefully have some rudimentary awareness of the origin of such thinking and rhetoric. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League characterized Tatum's remarks as an "insidious and an anti-Semitic canard employed by anti-Semites, racists and conspiracy theories through the centuries to bolster their absurd claims of Jewish control." Others, like Cornell West, professor of African American Studies at Harvard, see the issue in more complex terms, though. West told the Washington Post that Jews and blacks enjoy a common linkage as oppressed groups who have been subject to prejudice and xenophobia from a larger, majority culture. "And seeing one group soar higher, to greater successes, the other group that has been hated even more has its expectations elevated, meaning: Why not us?"
Lost in the rhetorical shuffle, though, is the fact that while many Jews in Israel are excited about Lieberman's inclusion on the ticket, they are in the midst of a culture war fueled by the very Orthodoxy which the Democratic vice presidential candidate leans toward. Secularists in Israel have endured everything from political confrontations to pitched street battles with Jewish zealots over issues such an observance of the Sabbath (a practice observed strongly by Mr. Lieberman), and the question of the Palestinian state. Indeed, Israeli politics is held hostage to a small handful of religious parties like the SHAS which exercise a disproportionate control in the country.
>From the U.S. perspective, there is the delicate issue of the status of Jerusalem -- is this city to be the locus of a new Palestinian nation, or the capital of Israel? Equally contentious is the call by the Chief Rabbinical Council to establish a committee to study the prospect of building a Jewish synagogue on the most explosive and contested piece of religious real estate in the world -- the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Even most rabbinical authorities warn against the scheme, and the bulk of Israeli progressive secularists see it as a dangerous religious crusade that could trigger repression and even all-out war in the Middle East.
American Jews, while pleased that Lieberman has broken the ethnic barrier in politics, greet the Democratic number two pick with a combination of pride and anxiety. "Many are disappointed that the highest profile Orthodox Jew in the nation's political scene espouses faith in such unorthodox Democratic causes as school vouchers..." notes Christopher Noxon of Reuters. "A few are simply uncomfortable watching their heritage become a hot political commodity." Declared one Democratic precinct grunt, a secular Jew from an Orthodox family: "I don't feel at all elated. It makes me very uncomfortable. The fact that he's Jewish is great -- but I wish he and everyone else would stop talking about it." Similar sentiments were expressed by Rabbi Michael Lerner, who publishes the magazine Tilkkun and has been an occasional advisor to President Clinton.
"I'm glad Gore picked a Jew -- I just wish he had picked a different one," Lerner said. "The Jewish people are the most consistently liberal force in America, which Lieberman doesn't present at all. He would have been perfectly at home in the former President Bush's cabinet."
* No matter what Gore and Lieberman do in terms of invoking God, the most blatant appeals to higher powers and religious faith are still emanating from the Bush campaign. Writing in this month's issue of George magazine, Aaron Latham dissects Bush's fixation with his "religious journey," and sense of destiny that he is called by God to occupy the White House. The piece is part biography and psychoanalytic dissection, segueing from politics to Bush's sense of guilt and loss over the death of a younger sister. Then there is redemption theme here in the form of religious epiphany, a "reawakening" complete with sermons, weekend retreats with the Rev. Billy Graham, and Bush's involvement with a men's Monday night Bible study circle. George W. has spoken of his own life in terms of that of the Biblical Saul of Tarsus, AKA St. Paul, a case study of redemptory behavior. The Pauline revelation became part of George W.'s life about the time he and a close friend had their fortieth birthday celebrations at the Broadmore Hotel in Colorado Springs. After a high of hard drinking and, perhaps, more, Bush seemed to undergo a transformation, and pledged to give up the bottle and instead start reading the Bible. There, he discovered the writings and story of Saul.
"George W. identified with the story," notes George writer Aaron Latham. "Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. W. met him on the road to Colorado Springs."
* Not since the days of Jimmy Carter has there been such a bold embrace of religious rhetoric and ideology in a political campaign. Both party platforms call for the inclusion of religious groups in the public square and the operation of government social programs. Also looming on the cultural horizon could be shriller demonizing of the internet, television, movies and other mass media, followed by constitutionally suspect "Tipper stickers" and other flirtations with government censorship. Sen. Lieberman, for instance, cosponsored the Media Violence Labeling Act introduced last May which proposes to regulate the videogame and movie industries with a single national rating system under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission. Wired Magazine noted that while web site would not be covered by the legislation, the measure "sets the stage" for a future effort.
In others words, both portions of the First Amendment -- be it the right of free expression or the separation of church and state -- are not faring well as the election 2000 race heads for November.
For further information:
http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/eleclob.htm (Archive of stories on election 2000)
http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/elec14.htm ("Bow, grovel and pray -- Demos retreat, Republicans preach," 8-17-00)
http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/elec4.htm ("Candidates cite faith as credential for public office," 12/23/99)