MAXWELL:  Politics rent by religion

12/27/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I am on a three-week vacation, and I have done my best to tune out politics of the Beltway kind. But what is a news junky, a newspaper columnist yet, to do when reports of the president’s impeachment and impending trial in the Senate crowd the front pages and fill the airwaves?

Alas, I succumbed to habit and watched members of the House of Representatives sink into a brand of Salvador Dali’s “critical paranoia,” the revenge of hypocrites in this instance. I became sick to the stomach, not out of disgust, as many Americans say they are, but out of fear that we, as a nation, have climbed a forbidden wall, one from which we will not descend without more crippling divisiveness.

The “forbidden wall” that we have scaled?

It is the Republican Party’s most recent sin _ with the rest of the nation assenting with its silence _ of trying to establish a latter-day theocracy in a land that, despite claims of being founded on Christian principles, is instinctively secular in its politics. I am convinced that this transmutation is eroding what has been the semblance of pragmatic governance in the nation’s capital.

Not only has this new style upset the political order in Washington, but it also has further alienated average voters from the federal government. The long and short of this trend is that the Republican Party, especially the House majority, has become the lap dog of the Christian right.

The result?

As I see matters, Washington, with Republicans installing the major guideposts, has lost its centrist soul. Bipartisanship has become the exception, not the rule. Unlike the eras of Everrett Dirksen and Bob Michel, who kept their party affiliation and religious beliefs appropriately balanced, today’s Republicans _ Bob Livingston, Henry Hyde, Bill McCollum, Dick Armey, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay _ are ideologues afflicted with what Paul Jersild, professor emeritus of theology and ethics at the Lutheran Seminary, calls “messianic pretension.”

Jersild, like many other serious political observers, believes that, because the GOP has adopted the tenets of the religious right, Washington politics has become hopelessly rancorous and divided. Common ground, he argues, will remain next to impossible as long as religion stands in as proxy for politics.

“As a theologian, what strikes me as particularly fascinating is the impact of religion and morality on the new ideological direction of the Republican Party,” Jersild wrote recently. “It is a certain kind of religion and morality, which seems to be more interested in the moral weaknesses of individual politicians than on the moral impact of their policies. It is a viewpoint particularly apparent in the South.”

In light of Clinton’s impeachment by the House and the Senate’s charge to decide the president’s fate, Jersild points to the extreme platforms of groups, such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, that want to replace America’s humanist esprit with an intolerant religion dressed up as political conservatism.

“What happens when you unite religion and politics in this way is that politics becomes a religious and moral crusade,” Jersild commented. “Political goals become divinely sanctioned, with human agendas becoming God’s agendas. It brings a spirit of absolutism into political life, destroying the very potential of politics as the art of compromise.”

Compromise. Consensus. Civility. Where have they _ the heart and soul of American democracy _ gone?

They have been lost to the vituperation of the GOP, which American voters turned to in 1994 to set the nation back on what we mistakenly thought was the right moral course. Well, Newt & Co. went too far by jumping in bed with the Christian Coalition and other religious groups.

“As far as I can see,” Jersild said, “the American future will be much more promising when the Republican Party is able to move away from its religious and ideological extremes and return to the viable middle of American politics.”

A return to the “viable middle” any time soon, however, is virtually impossible, because religious zealotry and messianic pretension lack common sense, the main ingredient of compromise, consensus and civility.

Polls conducted shortly after the House impeached William Jefferson Clinton showed increases in the public’s opinion of the president’s job performance. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup survey showed a 9 percentage point increase, from 64 percent to 73 percent. The ABC News-Washington Post poll gave Clinton a jump of 3 percentage points, from 67 percent to 70 percent.

Why this jump in the people’s appraisal of the president’s job performance and their objection to impeachment and removing him from office?

I have a theory, but I like that of Jersild, written while the impeachment hearing was under way: “I believe the opposition of our citizens to impeachment is rooted in their common sense, which tells them that transforming the sexual misconduct of a president (including his desire to keep it secret) into an impeachable offense is as much the result of partisan politics as it is a noble stand on behalf of morality and the future of the nation.”

The nation’s pundits should join the GOP’s self-anointed, partisan high priests in listening to average voters, who, as Jersild argues, have been saying all along that, yes, the president’s conduct has been reprehensible, but it does not justify overturning two elections.