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 The Threat of Religion 

August 17, 2004 
The New York Times reported recently that many churches are in effect backing President Bush for reelection. I find this disturbing because I find Bush disturbing. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.But judging by the flood of letters to the editor this story provoked, many liberals find it disturbing because they find religion in public life disturbing.

One Times reader asks, “What happened to separation of church and state?” Another instructs us, “This kind of piety fuels much of the madness and misunderstanding in the world, whether in the form of the Ku Klux Klan or international terrorism.”

Well, as far as I know, church and state are still pretty much separate. The Constitution merely forbids Congress to make any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or abridging the free exercise thereof.” This provision applies to Congress and can therefore be violated only by Congress, not by churches, even if they support particular candidates.

And if anything afoot violates it, it’s the threat of revoking churches’ tax exemptions if they engage in political activity — a threat that doesn’t seem to be directed against, say, black churches that openly endorse Democratic candidates. John Kerry recently took the pulpit in one such church to attack Bush, a widely publicized event that didn’t cause liberals to cry out against the political abuse of religion. Nor are these on-again, off-again separationists alarmed when such clergymen as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton address Democratic conventions.

Of course nobody really thinks of Jackson and Sharpton as serious religious figures. They are political jive artists who excite more mirth than reverence; their religion, such as it is, never gets in the way of their real interests. Jackson, serving as Bill Clinton’s “spiritual counselor,” brought his pregnant mistress to the White House as he ministered to Clinton’s carnal weakness. Sharpton won fame — or rather infamy — in the Tawana Brawley hoax and confirmed his standing as a “civil rights leader” by egging on racial violence in New York City.

[Breaker quote: Liberal tolerance in arms]So liberals and Democrats don’t mind religious figures too much, so long as they are obviously, flamboyantly fraudulent. Even so, it’s hypocritical to complain that church-state separation is threatened only when Republicans find religious supporters.

Religious habits are actually good predictors of voting patterns. Those who attend church regularly tend to vote Republican; those who don’t tend to vote Democratic. These are demographic facts of life in America today; and though white Protestants are no longer the majority, they are still America’s ethnic core, and come November they will vote overwhelmingly for Bush.

John Kerry, sensing his party’s estrangement from the heartland, has been stressing his attachment to old “values” such as patriotism (“I’m reporting for duty”) and a carefully unspecified “faith” (rumored to be Catholicism). But, with the grace of a man walking a tightrope while wearing skis, he adds the reassuringly hackneyed nuance that he won’t “impose” his religion on others by acting as if he actually believed in it. That would violate the separation of church and state, you see. Just like the Ku Klux Klan and international terrorism.

Insofar as my paltry intellect can penetrate all these nuances, I gather that liberal Democrats differ from conservative Republicans not in substance, but in finesse. Liberal Democrats, deep in their hearts, disapprove of (or “personally oppose”) abortion and sodomy just as passionately as their opponents do, but they are able to restrain the impulse to, yes, impose their convictions. In their tolerant way — and what are liberals if not tolerant? — they make room for those who disagree with them about these evils, though they are a bit less magnanimous toward those who call them evils; for calling evils evil is a threat to tolerance and to the separation of church and state. So liberals call evils “differing points of view,” while those who call evils evil are “religious fanatics.”

Even that phrase seems redundant, since liberals never speak of “irreligious fanatics.” Tolerant as they are, they recognize that only religion leads to fanaticism. That’s why we need to separate church and state, while keeping a close eye on Mel Gibson. To be sure, religion may be practiced discreetly, among consenting adults; but when it rears its head in politics, it’s time to sound the alarm by writing letters to the Times.

The liberal attitude toward religion was captured in the old British comedy revue Beyond the Fringe by the progressive-minded clergyman who said, “I think we’ve got to get away from the idea that God is holy or something.”

Joseph Sobran

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