March 4, 2000
THE COMBUSTIBLE MIXTURE OF RELIGION AND
Both George W. Bush and John McCain have
exploited religion for political gain in recent weeks. But the
differences are large and growing. Bush apologized for his excesses.
McCain's exploitation was deliberate, even malevolent and grew
intemperately with time.
After losing the New Hampshire primary by a
wide margin, Bush needed to jump-start his campaign. He did so in South
Carolina by speaking first at Bob Jones University, a school that has
banned interracial dating among its students, whose president, Bob Jones
III, has called the pope the ''Antichrist'' and referred to the Catholic
Church as a ''satanic cult.'' Bush's goal was to motivate the state's
conservatives to back his candidacy. He did win in South Carolina.
Only days later, the Michigan primary was
held. As criticism mounted about the anti-Catholic character of Bob
Jones, Pat Robertson defended Bush on his CBN show, ''The 700 Club'' and
took credit for Bush's South Carolina victory because the Christian
Coalition had organized every county in the state. (It was for that sort
of partisan activity that the Christian Coalition lost its tax exempt
In fact, Robertson held a press conference a
day before the South Carolina primary in which he denounced former Sen.
Warren Rudman, McCain's campaign chairman, as a ''vicious bigot''
because of Rudman's criticism of the religious right. Robertson taped
that message and had it sent into thousands of Michigan homes.
A furious McCain retaliated by issuing a
''Catholic Alert,'' in which an anonymous voice called thousands of
Catholic homes in Michigan noting that Bush spoke at Bob Jones
University which ''has made strong anti-Catholic statements,
including calling the pope the `Antichrist,' the Catholic Church `a
satanic cult!' John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized
this anti-Catholic bigotry, while Gov. Bush has stayed silent.''
Up to this point, the charges and
countercharges seemed somewhat normal in a closely contested political
fight. But after McCain won Michigan, surprising pundits and the state's
Republicans, the candidates went in opposite directions.
Bush wrote a letter to Cardinal John O'Connor
of New York, released to the press, saying, ''Some have taken - and
mistaken - this visit as a sign that I approve of the anti-Catholic and
racially divisive views associated with that school....Such opinions are
personally offensive to me.'' He then apologized, adding that in his
speech to the students, ''I should have been more clear in dissociating
myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice. It was a
missed opportunity, causing needless offense, which I deeply regret.''
By contrast, McCain took another path. First,
he denied for days that he was behind the calls to Michigan Catholics.
Later, after the polls closed, he acknowledged paying $8,000 to a
telemarketing firm to make 24,000 phone calls.
Second, in a speech on Monday in Virginia
Beach, Pat Robertson's home town, McCain said, ''We are the party of
Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson.
''Neither party should be defined by pandering
to the outer reaches of American politics, and the agents of
intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left,
or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right.''
Those caustic comments were published on
Tuesday when Virginians went to the polls. They backfired. Bush won with
53 percent of the vote, while McCain got 44 percent. He galvanized
conservative Christian voters, a fifth of the electorate, to vote for
Bush by 6-1. And he did not persuade enough moderates and liberals to
offset them. One woman who had been leaning toward McCain, voted for
Bush, saying ''I don't like the character he's been showing, especially
the religious issue he brought up.''
After losing, McCain went further, accusing
Robertson and Falwell having an ''evil influence'' over the Republican
Party. ''To stand up and take on the forces of evil, that's my job, and
I can't steer the Republican Party if those two individuals'' have such
influence on the party.
Gary Bauer, who surprised his conservative
supporters by backing McCain weeks ago, called on him to ''retract his
recent statements and apologize to Pat Robertson and the Reverend Jerry
Falwell, as well as to all men and women of faith. Comparing these
respected leaders to the demagogic race-baiter Al Sharpton and the
anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan was unfounded and unwise.''
McCain did finally issue an apology. But he
will probably fail in his goal to motivate Catholics to vote for him on
''There is a sad irony,'' said Deal Hudson,
editor of ''Crisis,'' a Catholic magazine. ''Bush has done his best to
reach out to Catholics, that no other presidential candidate has done.''
Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.