Sunday, April 17, 2005

American Jihad

The New York Times > Washington > Frist Set to Use Religious Stage on Judicial Issue

As the Senate heads toward a showdown over the rules governing judicial confirmations, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's nominees...The telecast also signals an escalation of the campaign for the rule change by Christian conservatives who see the current court battle as the climax of a 30-year culture war, a chance to reverse decades of legal decisions about abortion, religion in public life, gay rights and marriage.

"As the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the left has been repudiated in almost every recent election, the courts have become the last great bastion for liberalism," Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the telecast, wrote in a message on the group's Web site. "For years activist courts, aided by liberal interest groups like the A.C.L.U., have been quietly working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms."

As a child I learnt about the Scopes Monkey Trial, along with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, the assassination of President Lincoln and the bombing of Pearl Harbor at my mother's knee. Thanks to Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken, Elmer Gantry was a cultural icon and the war between fundamentalist demogogues with their rural white trash constituency and civilized, educated, humane Americans was a recurrent theme. I never knew any fundamentalists as a child and no one I knew knew any: they were mythological beasts.

Everyone was of course religious, but the going religion was the Religion of Ike: Catholic, Jewish or Mainline Protestant, different denominations were just a matter of family tradition and personal style--and it didn't matter what you believed as long as you "lived right."

With this heritage, Americans will not go for the current regime's jihad. In a tight race, where Americans' view on substantive policy issues are in the balance and Republicans can play to the gallery with the cult of personality, the fundamentalists can tip the race. But if Republican policies are unacceptable, as they are on Social Security, and they can't produce a candidate with more eye-appeal than his Democratic rival, the white trash vote will not give them a majority. The repugnance for white trash fundamentalist demagogues is broad and deep: we don't want Elmer Gantry.

Unless, of course, the Democrats blow it in an effort to play to what they take to be their base: a small minority of elite urban Americans who are overtly hostile to religion in any form, however innocuous, and see no difference between Methodists who go to church for the sake of their children, cafeteria Catholics who buy what they like or liberal Episcopalians like me and fundamentalists on jihad.

It just isn't that hard. Democratic candidates don't have to make noises about their deeply held personal religious convictions or claim to be born again or promise to block the teaching of evolution in the public schools or to impose further restrictions on the availability of abortion. They only have to affirm their belief that religion is generally a good thing, that there are objective standards for right and wrong (without saying what they are), and that interpreting separation of Church and State to mean that kids can't sing Christmas carols in school is simply silly.

On the way back from my last conference I read Madeleine Albright's memoir, Madame Secretary on the plane. Marrying into the Albright family she joins the Episcopal Church but confesses that she finds it difficult to give up the kind of piety she grew up with as a Catholic--the rosary and devotion to the Virgin Mary, etc. When she learns that her grandparents were Jewish, and that three were killed in the Holocaust, she's confused and notes that she doesn't go to church as often as she used to, but that she does make a point of going on Christmas and Easter. This is the kind of story Americans can understand and the kind of religious conviction, however minimal, with which they can sympathize--the sort of story Democratic candidates should tell.

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