In American democracy there is a rule: You shall not lord your piety over your opponent. To understand how this American taboo used to work, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
In 1990 Rudy Boschwitz lost his Senate seat in Minnesota when his supporters violated an American taboo. They stepped across a boundary when they sent out a letter to Minnesota’s Jewish community saying that Boschwitz was a better Jew than his opponent, Paul Wellstone. Boschwitz, they said, helped young Jewish singles in Washington meet and marry other Jewish singles. Wellstone, on the other hand, they said, was married to a non-Jew. Vote, they said, for Rudy, the better Jew.
Wellstone put the Boschwitz-letter on TV in his ads. He let the public decide who is a better politician — who would make the better public servant. The voters swept Boschwitz out of office. Why? The Boschwitz camp mixed into the personal religious life of his opponent. They implied that marrying a non-Jew was bad. They insinuated that Boschwitz was more pious than his opponent. A better person.
That violated a commandment of American politics. Thou shalt not judge thy opponent’s personal piety.
In America, the principle is that politicians may compare their policies to their opponent’s on matters important to religious groups. They may compete on political matters that cross over into religious realms.
Another historical example. In 1996 Dick Zimmer and Robert Torricelli, candidates for the Senate from New Jersey, duked it out in a Livingston synagogue. Who is a stronger supporter of Jewish interests? Who is a better friend of Israel? Did one of them speak years ago to an audience that harbored a terrorist? Politics and policies, yes. Personal piety, no.
In the South that same year, the father of Cynthia McKinney — who was running for the House in Georgia — said her opponent was a "racist Jew." John Mitnick, trying to unseat the black congresswoman, said she was a supporter of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. McKinney came close to the line. But the accusation of racism, as odious as it was, was essentially a political charge. As for the support or lack thereof of Farrakhan, that was a political activity.
If McKinney had said that Mitnick is a bad Jew because he is a racist, she would have crossed the line and violated the rules. If Mitnick had said that McKinney was a bad Protestant because she supported the Nation of Islam, that would have been a transgression of serious proportions.
This brings us to another historical recollection, to Bob Dole v. Bill Clinton, going at each other down the homestretch in ’96. Dole decided to straddle the fine line. He vehemently invoked the "character" issue. Now that was kosher in American politics as long as it targeted political wrongdoings, shenanigans, and schemes. But had Dole attacked Clinton’s personal piety, his family ethics, or even his sexual morality, that would have backfired. He’d have lost votes and alienated the public.
Those who violated the rules defied our cultural and political norms and showed their disdain for our values; they earned their losses the hard way.
But now we need to ask, have the rules of the game changed?
We will know the answer soon enough. Let’s go forward now to our coming season of presidential primaries.
If the rules hold, then Mike Huckabee, for instance, is a goner. His Christmas TV ad steps way over the boundary. It screams, "I am a better Christian than my opponents." The voters should solidly reject this rhetoric and these holier-than-thou claims as the primaries progress.
That will be one clear test. Stay tuned. Let’s see if the religious motives of the events of 9/11 and the continual and overt religious rhetoric of the Bush era have changed the rules of the game.
Teaneck resident Tzvee Zahavy received his doctorate in religious studies from Brown University. He has published seven books on the history of Judaism.