Wage political war not holy war

Playing the metaphor game with politics is very easy. It naturally lends itself to all kinds of comparisons. There is sports, as in Gore has Bush playing defense. There is drama, as in Bush needs a second act. And, of course, there is wrestling, which as a combination of sport and drama seems to cover all the bases.

But when you get right down to it, politics is probably best understood as war. The risks are often high. The tactics often ignore rules and are more concerned with results. And that old maxim about faith and war - there are no atheists in foxholes - holds just as true in presidential politics as it does on the battlefield.

We have all been reminded of this more than a few times over the past six months. Al Gore regularly quotes scripture in his speeches. George W. has told us his favorite political philosopher is Jesus Christ.

And lately Joe Lieberman is telling anyone who will listen that his faith is the guiding force of his life. This week, Dick Cheney began talking about Christ, though there's no word yet about whether he has long desired to chuck it all for the life of poverty and divine enlightenment - not yet, but hey, we still haven't hit Labor Day.

This kind of talk is not exactly news.

Faith is good politics. Our political pantheon may be secular by constitutional definition, but it is not exactly filled with nonbelievers - though we could always debate Jefferson.

That doesn't mean that our presidential aspirants are lying. I have no doubt that each one is sincere and honest in his faith and his words about it.

But their current motives, well that's another question altogether. There is something about the emphasis; the need this year to mention God even when the topic is far afield, that smacks of pandering.

While most voters are content, there is a feeling among some that something has gone wrong in America, that the bottom line has come to overwhelm the common good - in part this is what fuels Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader. And all these words about faith are reaching out to these voters, a message of understanding.

In small doses, there is nothing particularly wrong with this, but there reaches a point where the invoking of faith becomes a sort of crutch - a way to answer questions without providing specifics. And this hurts in two ways.

First, do Bible lessons dictate specific liberal or conservative answers to policy questions? For instance, both Bush and Gore are born-again Christians, but they arrive at different policies on issues like Social Security and tax cuts.

And that leads into the second problem with too much religious talk in politics. For all its trivialities - and there are a lot of them - what goes on in Washington is often serious. Sometimes it's very serious. But rarely do politicians argue publicly that even high-drama policy debates turn on questions of theological right and wrong.

And considering the relatively low percentage of philosopher kings in Congress, this is a good thing.

It is easy in Washington to get caught up in the game of good guys versus bad guys, but that form of identification rarely works. Politics is about differences of opinion - a clash of ideas and generally both sides believe they are right.

When we get into questions about "what would Jesus do," we are basically setting the table for increased acrimony. We have enough of that already.

After all, war isn't pretty. There's no need to make it holy war.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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