Behind the campaign 'holy wars'

The level of religious talk is unprecedented in recent politics, but now it is explosive.

From the start of Campaign 2000, most presidential contenders have put religion front and center.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has spoken often of how Jesus Christ changed his heart. Vice President Al Gore, seeking to add flesh to a wooden persona, has also come out as a born-again Christian. Even Sen. John McCain, caught in a maelstrom over his attacks on leaders of the Christian right, has spoken movingly of religious experiences he had while a prisoner in Hanoi.

This trend toward confessionalism shows how much character and morality have superceded policy positions in the minds of voters. Peace and prosperity - and a public desire to move beyond the Clinton scandals - have widened the forum to include unprecedented talk of faith in public life.

But events of the past week have also shown how treacherous a minefield religion can be in politics. For Republicans, in particular, both in the presidential campaign and in the congressional flap over the appointment of a new House chaplain, the GOP has discovered anew how difficult politics can be when the highly personal realm of religion enters the picture.

There's a "very deep ethic in American society in which Americans take their religion very seriously, but they also believe in tolerance," says Brent Coffin of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. "When certain rhetoric is used, it begins to set off alarms."

At week's end, Senator McCain appeared to be the loser in the spiral of events triggered by Governor Bush's visit a month ago to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in South Carolina. McCain seized on the visit to criticize Bush for not distancing himself from the school's ban on interracial dating and its anti-Catholic stance. In the Michigan primary last week, the McCain campaign sought to portray Bush as anti-Catholic.

And in a separate attack, the Rev. Pat Robertson, a Bush ally, put out automated phone calls in Michigan decrying McCain and calling his campaign co-chairman, Warren Rudman, who is Jewish, "a vicious bigot" for negative things he'd written about some religious conservatives.

The drumbeat of McCain's anti-Bob Jones campaign continued until early this week, when Bush apologized to Roman Catholic leaders for failing to disassociate himself from the school's views.

But then McCain - who's not known for subtlety in his political life - went on the attack against leaders of the religious right, in particular calling Mr. Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance." Especially striking was the venue for his assault: Virginia Beach, Va., the home base of these two men.

It was clear McCain was writing off the Virginia primary, where religious conservatives make up about one-third of the GOP electorate, and aiming his pitch at the more moderate corps of Republican voters in California, New York, and Ohio, who will vote on March 7 in the biggest day of primaries this year.

But McCain's gambit may have backfired. Instead of appearing to broaden the GOP tent - by welcoming moderates into the Republican fold, as his advisers said his speech intended to do - he appeared divisive and exclusionary. He also seemed a bit out of his depth, as he lauded the actions of other religious right activists, James Dobson and Charles Colson, whom experts on politics and religion say belong in the same camp as Messrs. Robertson and Falwell.

"I think McCain's come out behind," says John Green, an analyst of the religious right at the University of Akron in Ohio. "He was trying to criticize Robertson, not the broader Christian conservative community. But I think the Christian conservatives see it as an attack on them."

The irony, Mr. Green says, is that McCain's attacks come even as the influence of the religious right in GOP politics has been fading - and McCain may have had the effect of giving the movement a boost.

The Catholic-versus-Protestant dimension of the recent religious skirmishing has struck analysts as a throwback to an era that many thought was long gone. In 1928, when the Democratic Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic nominated by a major party for president, fears of the pope hindered Smith's campaign. By 1960, when Americans elected their first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, the nation seemed to have moved beyond those concerns.

But the Bob Jones flap - which brought to light statements by university officials calling Catholicism "a satanic system" - has renewed discussion of theological differences between religions that have, in recent decades, started to find common causes. The real divide, say theologians, is between the secular and the religious, not among religious groups, who are battling largely for the same thing: a more moral society.

On Capitol Hill, though, Republicans are trying to find a graceful way out of another political mess that has fueled charges of anti-Catholicism. When the committee charged with recommending a new chaplain for the House of Representatives selected a Catholic, key House members rejected the appointment and put forth a Presbyterian instead. Democrats have seized on the issue to try to woo voters as they seek to retake control of the House.

But in the end, politicians of all stripes enter the sphere of religion and politics at their peril.

"The colors of religion are so vivid that it risks blinding those who get involved with it in the public sphere," says Michael Novak, a theologian at the American Enterprise Institute. "After all, people are willing to die for their religion."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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