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Jewish World Review Aug. 18, 1999 /6 Elul, 5759

David Corn

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G-d and Mammon -- THE COMING ELECTION is setting records on at least two fronts: money raised and references to G-d. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who has used his money-snaring skills to move to the head of the Republican pack, has blasted past previous fundraising precedents with the $37-plus million he has collected so far.

Both parties are in a money frenzy, however. The collectors at the Democratic and Republican headquarters are each angling to bank several hundred million dollars in soft money (unrestricted donations that mostly come from millionaires, corporations and unions). Moreover, these funds will be used to skirt election laws by financing ads and activities slyly designed to benefit the party’s presidential nominee but not to count as part of the nominee’s campaign. Candidates from both parties in the House and Senate are under more pressure than usual to build huge warchests of their own. “We’re raising record numbers,” said Rep. Thomas Davis, who heads the House GOP campaign arm, “they’re raising record numbers. It’s Armageddon.”

A land rush is under way in the political system. A small number of people and corporations will be pumping billions of dollars, literally, into the campaigns of 2000. What are they buying?

The money chase is no surprise; it has been accelerating in recent years, and Congress has failed to do anything to counter the trend. Then there’s the G-d chase. Given what the body politic has gone through the past year and a half, it’s not completely surprising that piety is on the rise on the hustings. G-d has become the running mate of most presidential candidates. Dan Quayle reportedly told a Christian Coalition official that if G-d gives a damn, then Quayle will win the race. Conservative Christian Gary Bauer unsurprisingly bemoans the decrease of “fear of G-d” in this country. Liddy Dole has touted her personal relationship with the Supreme Being. Sen. Bob Smith, the ex-Republican presidential candidate, is now running under the banner of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, a small collection of cranky Christian fundamentalists and anti-abortion fanatics who want to “restore” the American legal system to what they call “its Biblical foundations.” Bush has repeatedly advertised the fact that he was born again at age 40—thus, the wild days of his youth are wiped off the slate—and he and Vice President Al Gore have advocated faith-based solutions to social programs.

Recently, when Gore visited Sag Harbor, trying to squeeze contributions out of well-heeled Hamptonites, he kept referring to the Big One during his sales pitch. “Freedom is the way that G-d wants us to live our lives,” he said; and the nation’s mission is to have people of different backgrounds and cultures “come make our nation what G-d intends it to be.”

So now Gore is telling us G-d’s wishes, declaring his familiarity with G-d’s intentions. What freedom, then, does G-d want for us? Does G-d want corporations to be free to trade with China where workers are ill-treated? Or businesses to be free to pay below minimum wage? Does G-d want women to be free to choose an abortion? Does G-d want HMOs to be free to screw patients any way they like? Or does G-d want patients to be free to choose the provider of their choice at guaranteed affordable prices? Saying G-d is for freedom doesn’t do much to enlighten the national political discourse.

Gore and his aides have told profile-writers that the Vice President has adopted the WWJD method of decision-making. That is, when confronted with a tough choice, he asks himself, What would Jesus do? Hold a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple? After all, wouldn’t Jesus go to a house of worship to raise money if he were running for vice president? But would Jesus increase the military budget instead of fully funding Head Start, as the Clinton-Gore administration has done? Would Jesus raise questions of international intellectual property law in response to South Africa’s attempt to obtain cheap anti-AIDS drugs for the millions of southern Africans infected with HIV? That’s what Gore did.

All this G-d-dropping is annoying. Since G-d can be enlisted easily by all sides, he’s really of no practical use in elections—especially since he has no official spokesperson to clarify the positions others attribute to him. (“When it comes to Medicare Part B, G-d would like to make clear that...”) By tying his policy prescriptions to Jehovah, Gore reinforces the notion—promoted by fundamentalists—that G-d has a place in politics. If G-d wanted to be involved in the presidential elections, no doubt G-d would find a way to let us know.

Religious Right Monkey Business

The I-know-what-G-d-wants crowd is on the march these days. Last week, creationists succeeded in convincing a majority of the Kansas Board of Education to approve statewide science standards that diminish the role of evolution in biology. Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, called the action “a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that didn’t exist.” The state legislatures in Ohio and Georgia have bills pending that would force educators who teach evolution to highlight evidence inconsistent with it, and biblical literalists in other states are trying to rid schools of evolution.

A more entertaining—and less frightening—move on the part of the religious right was its rush to defend Air Force First Lieut. Ryan Berry, who caused a silly dustup when he claimed that, due to his Roman Catholic faith, he couldn’t work with women in the close quarters of an underground nuclear missile bunker. Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Family Research Council then turned Berry into a poster boy for those claiming Christian persecution in America. (A persecuted majority?) Berry, who was stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, maintained that 24-hour shifts alone with a female officer in a missile silo violated his religious beliefs.

How so?

A good Catholic, Berry said, is supposed to avoid the occasion of sin. By being alone with a woman for so long, Berry, who is married, was in a situation that posed too much risk of sinful behavior.

Conservative Catholic outfits rallied behind Berry. John Cardinal O’Connor hailed Berry’s “moral integrity.” Seventy-seven members of the House of Representatives, led by Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett, signed a letter asking the Air Force to honor Berry’s request for a single-sex silo assignment. In a reply to the House members, Gen. Michael F. Ryan, chief of staff of the Air Force, asserted that Berry’s refusal to serve with women was a matter of “his personal convictions,” not the result of his religious beliefs. The Air Force transferred Berry to a procurement job in Massachusetts. His lawyer said that would not end the matter.

The military is supposed to accommodate religious beliefs to the maximum extent possible, but Berry and his advocates are AWOL in the logic department. Does Berry have the right to cite religious beliefs in determining with whom he will work? If so, a member of the white supremacist World Church of the Creator could claim that his religious beliefs prevent him from sharing a foxhole with blacks and Jews. Should he then be permitted to toil in white-only areas? Or what if a fundamentalist Muslim refused to work with female soldiers who were not covered in veils?

Berry does have a problem. He believes proximity to women is dangerous. He can dress up such thinking in religious garb, but the military was right to dismiss it. Berry voluntarily joined a coed institution. If he cannot work with women because the temptation is too much, he should not be able to deny a woman her place in a missile silo. Apparently, Falwell and Berry’s defenders feel there is nothing immoral about blowing up the world. But to deny Berry a female-free work environment, that’s an insult to G-d.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.

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