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March 4, 2000
Column #966

THE COMBUSTIBLE MIXTURE OF RELIGION AND POLITICS 

     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 status.) 

     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 Super Tuesday. 

     ''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.

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