Politically Holier Than Thou


Though it seems as if the last national election ended the day before yesterday, the next grand tilt between our two major parties is once again upon us.

The 2006 congressional elections are still 11 months away, but the Republican and Democratic war drums are beating loud and clear. As is the custom in our fair republic, both parties are already hard at work hyperbolically portraying each other as the devil's spawn, whose path of destruction can only be halted by the victory this fall of the sons and daughters of light. All of which is just a quaint way of saying, please vote for me and my friends.

Normally, this kind of blow-hard rhetoric is laughed off by most voters. But the problem these days is that all too many of us get our news and opinion solely from sources who agree with us.

Plenty of Issues

There are plenty of meaty issues on which this year's election can be fought. The conduct of the war on Islamist terrorism is one, as is the related issue of the war in Iraq. Though Democrats think the shift in public sentiment against the war is a clear advantage, they also have to beware of demonstrating what scholar Daniel Pipes has called a "Sept. 10, 2001" mentality about terrorism. Such a blunder would hurt them badly.

Yet looming above the Republicans' heads is the specter of a lobbying scandal that centers around former GOP powerbroker Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff, who appears to have used money raised (or extorted, depending on your point of view) from Native American casinos and other scams to buy off a host of our nation's public servants could do great damage to the Republicans.

If nothing else, he'll serve as a reminder of how corrupting power can be (as well as provide Pennsylvanians who are about to allow the building of legal casinos with a sobering thought about the influence of the billions that gambling will place in the hands of a few).

In only 12 years since it won control of Capitol Hill, the Grand Old Party has shown us that it can be just as corrupt and arrogant as the Democrats they turned out of office in 1994, after they had ruled the roost for almost 60 years.

But to listen to many of the grass-roots partisans for the two parties, substantive debate about America's real foreign-policy options or the question of public integrity is in scarce supply.

Instead, we are hearing – as we have never ceased hearing since the hyper-partisan 2004 presidential joust – more and more rhetoric in which political differences are framed as choices of absolute good and evil. Even worse, religious imagery is never far from the lips of those seeking to influence the vote.

A great deal of attention was garnered last month when the Republican Jewish Coalition challenged the Union of Reform Judaism over its policy statements opposing the war in Iraq and other Bush-administration policies. The Jewish GOP group claimed the Reform movement was not only wrong on the issue, but wrong to frame the debate as a religious one.

The RJC can hardly claim neutrality, and you can bet that it won't be placing any full-page ads condemning an endorsement of the war by any synagogue or church group. But the questions they raised are good ones for both sides of the political aisle to ponder, even if Republicans aren't in any position to make them stick.

To be fair, the URJ statement pointed out that it wasn't claiming to speak for "all" Reform Jews, or even for the community as a whole, though polls probably show that they have more Jewish support than their Republican foes.

But the tone of the Reform statement, which invoked scripture, as well as similar statements from other liberal religious leaders in the past year, show a clear attempt to claim more than the moral high ground. Rather, such efforts to brand the war in Iraq as "immoral" bespeak a mindset that views its opponents as inherently illegitimate from a religious point of view.

It's all well and good to look to Jewish sources for inspiration (and there's a strong tradition in the study of Torah in which debates between majority and minority opinions are carried out with civility and respect), but the danger here is that this can be interpreted as a religious call to political arms. And unlike purely secular debates, those parsed in sacred terms have a way of dividing the world a little too neatly between good and evil.

If that seems familiar to observers of the American political scene, it is because that is exactly the offense that Conservative Christians have been accused of by their liberal critics.

In recent months, Jewish leaders – such as the URJ's Rabbi Eric Yoffie and the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman – tore into the religious right for what they believe is an attempt to impose a religious agenda on American politics.

Calling the Kettle Black

To the extent that they are opposing the imposition of purely religious, and even denominational, preferences on our country's laws, they have a good point.

But they squander it by indulging in over-the-top rhetoric, whereby they have seemingly accused Conservative Christians of plotting to take over the country and establish a theocracy (as Foxman has), or compared the religious right to the Nazis because of their stand on gay marriage (as Yoffie has).

Such comparisons are ludicrous.

And they are also ill-timed when you consider that these attacks on the religious right are being carried out at a time of rising international anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel.

That such Jew-hatred is endorsed by liberal Protestant churches while opposed by most Conservative Christians is something that doesn't seem to factor into the partisan hysteria on the left.

But there is a larger point to be made that seems to be as hard for the religious left to understand as it has been for many on the right. There are issues on which a moral imperative can be invoked. But claiming our faith mandates a specific stand on foreign policy or at what rate taxes are set isn't exactly kosher.

If the Torah can be invoked, as it has been by some liberals, to demand that there be no decreases in public entitlements, then what really sets them apart from their counterparts on the religious right who speak in the same foolish fashion?

Only their own belief in their own good intentions.

Otherwise, it is the same game of imposing religion on politics. What they deem wrong when it's done by their foes is just as wrong when they do it themselves.

While all of this hyperventilating does little to enlighten the public, it does serve the parties well by firing up their respective bases, an essential element to help turn out the fiercest partisans. The fact that this sort of thing coarsens the public debate and makes compromises – the essence of democratic politics – harder to achieve than ever is nothing to be proud of.


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