Forget the race card and the "N" word. Election ’08 is dominated by the religion card and, when Jews are a chunk of the electorate, the "A" and the "I" words. The reception for Pope Benedict XVI at the White House on Wednesday only adds geometrically to this continuing erosion of church-state lines this year, because he comes with a political agenda.
The presidential campaign has been stuck in the religious muck from the start.
On the Republican side, much was made from Day One about Mike Huckabee’s appeal to the Christian Right and John McCain’s lack of same. Now that McCain is the party’s nominee-in-waiting, the big fear among Republican strategists is that the Christian Right will sit out this election. McCain, therefore, is stepping all over principles he always claimed to hold dear in order to win over the evangelical set.
On the Democratic side, the "political" news in the last week focused on an ill-phrased remark by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and a "debate" last Sunday focused almost entirely on religious values as interpreted by Obama and his rival, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Officially, the evening was billed as a "Compassion Forum" on issues of faith and justice, and was held at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. It was the kind of evening that, just a few years back, would have had both the ACLU and Madalyn Murray O’Hair holding hands in despair.
The forum was just a side show, though, because Obama spent most of the past week explaining away "the remark." In San Francisco last week, he was trying to explain why he has a tough time getting through to voters in small towns. Obama sought to pin the blame on a decades-long slide in the available jobs in such areas. Given that, he said, "It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter. They cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations."
Immediately after those remarks became public last Friday, the firestorm hit. There is good reason for this: the so-called "faith vote" is considered key to the Keystone State, both this Tuesday and on Nov. 4.
Religion, however, has been an Obama campaign staple — for good and ill — from the moment it looked like he could actually win the nomination.
The blame for this goes to his name, on the one hand, and on the other to his relationship to a flat-out black supremacist anti-Semitic pastor (there, I finally got in the "A" word). These have repeatedly caused him to emphasize his good Christian values and his love for Jews and for Israel (the "I" word; for non-Jews, the "I" words is Islam).
It is true; Obama’s middle name really is Hussein. That does not make him a relative of the late Saddam Hussein or a buddy of the elusive Osama bin Laden, however. He has as little use for them or any radical Islamist as, say, Benjamin Netanyahu.
That has not stopped the political attack dogs from keeping such idiocies afloat, however, forcing Obama into rhetoric that often makes him sound more like the late Jerry Falwell than John Kennedy.
After months of debates and speeches, and many hours spent listening to XM’s Potus ’08, I remain uncertain about what a President Obama would do in office. Nevertheless, the senator is getting a raw deal, including from some Jewish circles, which have pounced on his middle name and his relationship with the controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And these circles have used both the A and the I words with absurd abandon.
It is said, though, that all politics is local and, truth be told, this kind of religious-oriented campaigning has been going on in America since the republic was founded. To this day, "Gimme that Ol’-Time Religion" remains a campaign theme in many parts of the country.
From my days as a politically active teenager in Lower East Side politics, religion was always a factor among Jewish voters and so were the A and I words. While it made sense to me, however, that a candidate for Congress, or the presidency, or even governor, needed to be pro-Israel, I never did understand why that held true for every other office in the land. How can a municipal dog catcher’s race in a Jewish suburb of Podunk influence the course of events in the Middle East?
Of course, the easiest way to sink a candidate in my old stomping grounds was to roll out the "A" word against him or her. It did not matter if it was true. It worked, and that was all that mattered.
Alas, that tactic is still alive and well in our own front yard of Bergen County. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a political reformer by nature, and Democratic party chairman Joe Ferriero have been locked in battle for several years now. This year, that battle is playing out in the town council elections in Teaneck.
Ironically, Ferriero’s apparently hand-picked slate should make any municipality proud. Team Teaneck’s three candidates sound like the beginning of a bad joke but actually can be the harbinger of great things to come: "Once there were three candidates — a reverend, a Muslim, and an Orthodox Jew…."
In order to secure victory for the Ferriero Three, however, the "A" word has been trotted out, and the opposition is being demonized by such canards as that the Teaneck eruv will disappear if they win and Orthodox Jews will lose their rights, whatever that is supposed to mean.
As for Weinberg, or so the rumors go, she is virulently anti-Orthodox, which is reason enough to vote for Team Teaneck.
Please! Not only is all of this preposterous, it is lashon hara (bad speech), motzi shem ra (character assassination), and a chilul HaShem (a desecration of God’s holy name), all wrapped up in a rather filthy package.
From the top down in ’08 (or is that from the gutter up?), the playing of the religion card is front and center in American politics — and it will serve us ill in the end.