The Boston Phoenix
March 23 - 30, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Let us prey

From politicians to the pope, an unprecedented religious war of words has infected the culture -- and the media

by Dan Kennedy

In a culture in which it is customary to celebrate our religious diversity, March 12 -- a Sunday, appropriately enough -- was, for connoisseurs of the awful truth, a moment to savor.

It began in that day's New York Times Magazine, with an essay by conservative British expatriate Andrew Sullivan, a bitter rant in which Sullivan compared the anti-Catholicism of Bob Jones University to the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan, and railed against the "double standards" under which bigotry against Catholics is tolerated. That evening, Jack Shafer posted an angry retort in Slate, writing, "If anti-Catholic bigotry exists in America, it might have something to do with the Catholic Church's past conduct." Shafer noted that Pope John Paul II had just apologized "for 2000 years of Catholic wickedness," and closed with the observation that Catholics had, until the 1960s, prayed for the "perfidious Jews." And just to bring these twin outbursts full circle, the Reverend Sean Raftis, a Jesuit priest, posted a reply to Shafer in which he asserted, "The KKK holds the same attitude as does Slate, so I hope you are at peace with your intellectual company."

Even granted that this was an intra-denominational battle (Shafer says he comes from a family of lapsed Catholics), there was something inevitable about this ugly exchange. For the better part of a year, religion has played an unusually prominent role in our public life. It began with George W. Bush talking about his "faith based" approach to social programs and Al Gore letting us know he guides his life by asking himself, "What would Jesus do?" Sure, there was something vaguely nauseating about their public exploitation of private religious beliefs, but at least their rhetoric was inclusive and reasonably high-minded.

By the time Bush and Gore had clinched their parties' presidential nominations, though, their -- and especially Bush's -- invocation of the Big Guy had degenerated into the nastiest airing of religious resentments that had been heard in many years. Evangelical Protestants went after Catholics. Catholics went after evangelicals. The Jews got dragged into it by the Reverend Pat Robertson, as well as by one of Bush's wackier advisers. On Capitol Hill, a battle that broke out last year over the denomination of the House chaplain has yet to be resolved. Now, even the pope's apology and his historic visit to Israel this week look -- at least in terms of American media culture -- like little more than additional fodder for an escalating war of words over religion. To cite just one example, in a closely argued and otherwise positive piece on the pope's apology, Leon Wieseltier argued in the New Republic this week that John Paul's ambiguous stance on the Holocaust and Israel make him "what Jewish law calls tovel v'sheretz b'yado, one who immerses himself in purifying waters while he holds in his hand an insect that makes him impure." Wieseltier's imagery is vivid, and most assuredly not in keeping with the spirit of ecumenism, a spirit that increasingly seems to be receding into the past.

"These resentments are there. The macro picture is that we as a culture are starting to come to terms with pluralism," says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University. "I think the ecumenical moment is gone, and what we're seeing now is a reassertion of tribalism -- on all fronts, and that would include religion." Balmer adds that this isn't an entirely bad thing, explaining, "The most successful religious movements in American history have been well-defined and exclusive." But he warns against the excesses of the Republican primaries, in which Bush and his chief rival, John McCain, tried to pit evangelicals and Catholics against each other for craven political advantage. "For demagogues," says Balmer, "it's a wonderful opportunity for mischief."

To Michael Goldman, a Boston-based political consultant who worked on Bill Bradley's campaign, the lesson of the Republican primaries is disconcerting. "We like to think of ourselves as having moved into an ecumenical world, and yet right beneath the surface are the differences that cause religions not to be acceptable to each other," says Goldman, who's Jewish.

It's easy to exaggerate these differences. The Robertson-inspired attacks against McCain may have hurt him in South Carolina, but that state was always Bush's to lose. McCain's "Catholic Voter Alert" may have hurt Bush in Michigan, but Bush actually won the Catholic vote in other states. Perhaps the electorate-at-large is too sensible -- or too inattentive -- to be swayed by political attempts to play on supposed religious prejudices.

Nevertheless, after a generation, at least, of playing down religious differences, the recent trend toward wallowing in them is disturbing and potentially dangerous.

If religious differences look more dangerous here than elsewhere, it may be because of Boston's long history of religious resentment. Greater Boston's Irish-Catholic majority has been at the pinnacle of the political and business establishment for the better part of a century. Yet, even today, the slightest hint of anti-Catholicism is instantly met with a recounting of the 1834 torching of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, and the NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs that once adorned the doors of Yankee shops.

Then, too, Boston was the home of the only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who, in order to overcome the prejudice that had sunk Al Smith's candidacy a generation earlier, delivered a speech to Southern Protestants in which he promised to maintain the separation of church and state. The fact that he even had to give such a speech was testament to the bigotry that still existed in 1960. What's interesting is that, in the minds of many Bostonians, such bigotry lives on. "Someone once described the Boston Irish as the only oppressed majority in the world. I think we have to be very careful we don't slip into self-pity," says Monsignor Peter Conley, the editor of the Pilot, Boston's archdiocesan newspaper.

Thus it was unsurprising that the McCain campaign's "Catholic Voter Alert" made an especially big impression on Boston Catholics such as Mike Barnicle, who, on his WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk show, railed against Bush's Bob Jones appearance. Bush may have shown a disgusting lack of leadership by failing to speak out at Bob Jones, but he's hardly an anti-Catholic. Of course, anti-Catholicism is real, but Bob Jones University is the wrong place to look for it. What made Bob Jones safe for McCain to attack was the exotic nature of its right-wing bigotry -- its invocation of the Church as "a satanic counterfeit" and "the Mother of Harlots."

In fact, the vast majority of anti-Catholic bigotry comes not from the religious right but, rather, from the political and cultural left, which condemns the Church for its stands against abortion rights, against the full humanity of lesbians and gay men, and against the ecclesiastical equality of women. Now, a liberal should not have to apologize for being pro-choice, pro-gay, and feminist. However, these stands guarantee an ongoing clash between the liberal elite -- which does, after all, control much of the discussion in the mainstream media -- and observant Catholics. This in turn breeds considerable resentment among such Catholics. "Because the Catholic Church does not go along with the popular culture in terms of sexual morality, we have to accept that we will be criticized by those who are part of the new orthodoxy," says Monsignor Conley.

In a recent New York Times article, Peter Steinfels noted the patronizing sneer behind the phrase "thinking Catholic," the term liberals use to describe Catholics who reject their religion's teaching on gays and abortion rights. Michael Goldman points to the use of a similarly condescending phrase -- "recovering Catholic" -- to describe liberals who are ex-Catholics or who remain in the Church but no longer accept its teachings on some issues. "No one calls themselves a `recovering Jew.' No one calls themselves a `recovering Protestant,' " notes Goldman.

This culture clash extends to the ongoing debate among Catholics as well. For instance, Newsweek religion reporter Ken Woodward, a conservative Catholic, castigates author (and Boston Globe columnist) James Carroll, an ex-priest and a Church critic, as "second rate" and "a self-hating Catholic" for his reformist views. Carroll declines to respond to what he calls Woodward's "personal attack," and characterizes his views this way: "I'm an unapologetic liberal out of the Vatican II school of Catholicism." Such squabbling among Catholics underscores an important point: the Church is huge and diverse. The debate over social issues such as abortion and gay rights (not to mention welfare reform and the death penalty, where the hierarchy holds the liberal position) takes place not just between the Church and its critics, but within the Church.

If Catholics are sometimes the victims of bigotry, they are hardly exempt from being the perpetrators as well. During the Republican primaries, Representative Peter King (R-New York), a Catholic, won plaudits for switching his allegiance from Bush to McCain in response to the imbroglio that broke out over Bush's speech at Bob Jones. That praise might have been tempered somewhat if more people had known what King said several years ago about the wholesale movement of evangelicals into the Republican Party: "We're going to turn ourselves into a party of barefoot hillbillies who go to revival meetings."

Indeed, bigotry against evangelicals is far more pervasive than is bigotry against Catholics. "There's a smug arrogance toward these people," says Peggy Wehmeyer, who covers religion for ABC News. She points to occasional surveys -- inevitably trumpeted as surprising -- showing that evangelicals, as a group, are at least as educated and affluent as members of other religious groups. "What are they supposed to be, swamp people?" Wehmeyer asks. She adds: "I don't think there's a vicious campaign to keep them out of the public square, but there is an ignorance and sometimes an arrogance." Melissa Charbonneau, the White House correspondent for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, speaks of the marginalization that evangelical Christians sometimes have to endure: "I had a news producer who once told me, `You'll have a hard time getting anybody to look at you because you work here.' "

It's because of sensitivity about that prejudice that McCain's attack on Robertson and the Reverend Jerry Falwell backfired, bringing out huge numbers of evangelical voters on Bush's behalf while largely failing to stimulate the Catholic vote. As Wehmeyer sees it, many conservative religious voters who may not look to Robertson and Falwell for leadership nevertheless believed that McCain was challenging their beliefs -- and that they had to take a stand.

A Protestant-versus-Catholic battle of a different sort is now going on in the US House of Representatives. Last year, Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed a commission to help him choose a new chaplain. The commission presented Hastert with three names from which to pick; he interviewed them, and selected a Protestant minister. But given that a Catholic priest actually got the most votes from the commission, and given that the House has been served by a succession of Protestants since the 1830s, the Catholic members of the commission protested.

Not surprisingly, the Catholics were also Democrats, for the most part, and they saw the selection of the chaplain as an issue they could use against Hastert and his Republican majority. The issue remains unresolved -- a sign that the partisanship that has so marred government in recent years now extends to religion as well.

If Catholics and evangelicals have been yelling at each other during the campaign this year, there's another religious prejudice that has been just barely whispered: anti-Semitism, always present but rarely acknowledged. In South Carolina, McCain was hit with a slew of Robertson-driven anti-choice ads that targeted not him but, rather, one of his closest supporters, former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, who's pro-choice and who might have been named attorney general in a McCain administration -- and who just so happens to be Jewish. "There's no question in my mind that it's anti-Semitism," Rudman told the New York Times' Frank Rich. "The way they pronounced my name in phone calls! They're unhappy it's not Finkelstein."

Then there was a bizarre column in the Austin American-Statesman by Marvin Olasky, a Jew-turned-evangelical-Christian and Bush supporter, who labeled three journalists who've had nice things to say about McCain as "worshipers of Zeus," an expression taken from the Tom Wolfe novel A Man in Full. Wolfe used the phrase to apply to characters whose outlook is wholly secular, but the journalists cited by Olasky -- Rich and the Weekly Standard's William Kristol and David Brooks -- are all Jews. (Maybe ZEUS, in Olasky's mind, is some weird anagram for YHWH.) Rich seems unfazed by the whole thing, but he did tell me that he worries about the ratcheting up of religious rhetoric in general. "It's exclusionary," he says. "Whatever religion a politician is boosting, a lot of people are going to feel left out. It's commercializing religion for partisan advantage."

That theme is echoed by Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist and former vice-president of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Thomas has harsh words for the media, charging that they know little and care less about religion. "The closest the press gets to the Bible is the Gideon in their hotel room," he says, adding: "The media always loves a battle. When you can mix in religion, which is always a ready-made controversy, they love it even more." But Thomas has even harsher words for the combatants themselves. "It's all driven by fundraising and demonizing the other side," he says.

In a culture such as ours, that is irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst. This is a remarkably religious society, more so than perhaps any other industrialized democracy. Mark Silk, who is the director of Trinity College's Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, in Hartford, sounds an optimistic note, pointing out that this year's charges and countercharges have overwhelmingly involved questions of religious bigotry, not of religion itself. When the worst thing one can be seen as is a bigot, that's progress, Silk notes.

At the same time, though, Silk acknowledges that public life is becoming entwined with religious concerns in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. The next president, after all, will be either a man who blurted out "Christ" when asked to name his favorite political philosopher or a man who has embraced the WWJD slogan. "We're living in a time where the religious presence in the public square is more salient than it has been," says Silk. "That means there's going to be some frictions and sparks and all the rest of it. I don't think it's really new, but it is a significant departure from the recent past, and that means there's some sorting-out that's going on."

And that's a reason for worry. Because beneath the ecumenism that supposedly unites Jews, Catholics, and Protestants (not to mention Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and members of other minority religions -- as well as those who embrace agnosticism and atheism, the most publicly reviled belief systems of all), beneath the declarations of mutual respect, beneath the pious bloviation about the importance of religion as some sort of abstract entity, lies a fact no one want to talk about. And that is that religious fervor is all about having a monopoly on the truth. I'm right, you're wrong. I'm okay, you're not okay.

"Religion does give offense, because I'm construing the world differently from the guy next to me," says Newsweek's Ken Woodward. That, after all, is the essence of religious belief. And it's why religion and politics make for such a volatile mix -- and why politicians ought to know better than to exploit religion for cheap partisan gain.

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

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