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FAITH-BASED MANIPULATION

Op-Ed for the Bennington Banner
 
Published April 30, 2008 
 
By Mark E. Rondeau 

In his April 26 column, "The audacity of bitterness," Berkshire County, Mass., Republican political activist Matt Kinnaman makes some legitimate points. Barack Obama's comment that many working class people cling to religion, among other things, out of bitterness over their economic troubles disappointed many of his supporters.

I don't believe, however, that Obama is at all hostile to religion. He attends church, is comfortable with the language of faith, and in fact his controversial former pastor is now traveling around the U.S. causing Obama's presidential campaign no end of grief.

What the senator was doing was tailoring his message to a group of wealthy Democratic activists in San Francisco, probably the most secular and liberal city in the U.S. There probably wasn't a practicing Christian in the room. Mr. Kinnaman has run for office more than once and is no doubt aware that politicians tailor their comments to different audiences.

He writes that Obama's comments sound "as foreign to the American spirit as anything uttered on the presidential campaign trail in recent memory, if not ever." Then Mr. Kinnaman exalts President Bush's boilerplate rhetoric on religion at his reception for Pope Benedict XVI to a status worthy of George Washington.

This is worse than nonsense, for Bush has denigrated religion far more in practice than any Democrat in our public life has with words. For if the besetting sin of Democrats is to be dismissive to religion, the besetting sin of Republicans is to manipulate religion to get votes and cover up immoral policies. And no president in history has ever manipulated religion in a way "so foreign to the American sprit" than Bush.

Take, for instance, a 1999 presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. The moderator asked candidate Bush which "political philosopher or thinker" he identified with most.

One would have thought that a presidential candidate with degrees from Yale and Harvard could have named one genuine political philosopher or thinker. Instead, Bush chose to essentially take the Lord's name in vain by choosing to pander to evangelicals. "Christ," he answered, "because he changed my heart."

Memo to President Bush: Christians believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, not a political philosopher. Can you imagine Dwight Eisenhower or Gerald Ford or Abraham Lincoln answering such a question this way?

Things got no better during the entire 2004 presidential election, when Bush manipulated a phrase from then-Pope John Paul II, "a culture of life." From Bush's mouth this was meant as a stealth code word to evangelicals and conservative Catholics: "I'm against abortion," without scaring other voters that he would actually take any action to outlaw the procedure, which of course he hasn't.

In fact, though opposition to abortion was primary in John Paul II's vision of a culture of life, it was only a part of it. Mr. Kinnaman no doubt knows that Catholic teaching is "integral" — in other words, one cannot pay lip service to the most important teaching and then think that gives you a pass to ignore the rest.

In fact, in addition to abortion, Catholic social teaching — all part of an ideal "culture of life" — also condemns unnecessary preemptive war, torture, unjust economic policies, arms proliferation, environmental degradation and constant lying, all staples of the Bush administration. Funny how we haven't heard anything about "a culture of life" from Bush since the 2004 election!

A third sad example of this hypocrisy was Bush's program to support so-called "faith-based initiatives" for social improvement. Though this sounded like a good concept to me in theory, in practice it was an underfunded, half-baked failure. Even worse, what money there was available ended up being deliberately funneled by political hacks to congregations and districts politically useful to the Republican Party, whether the programs deserved it or not. Political usefulness apparently was the sole criterion for funding.

Politically conservative Catholics in the U.S. like nothing better than to imply that the Republican party is the "Catholic Party." Pope Benedict's state visit to the White House and the president's empty rhetoric during it gave them another opportunity to pretend this is so. But exalted rhetoric about religion in the White House Rose Garden in the presence of the pope is not discipleship, or even wise leadership.

In the case of President Bush and his sorry legacy of lies, incompetence and war, it is yet one more opportunistic attempt to manipulate faith in the service of an administration that believes only in power.

Mark E. Rondeau is a copy editor and religion editor at the Banner and a practicing Catholic.