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Religious right fosters politics of sleaze

In that small space between the House vote on impeachment and the beginning of the trial of President Clinton in the Senate, the discussion was all about “scorched earth” politics and how unreasonable it is to expect our politicians to be saints.

Speaker-elect Robert Livingston’s surprise resignation -- he confessed to earlier extramarital affairs when he got wind that Larry Flynt intended to print details of his infidelity in an upcoming Hustler magazine -- apparently sent shock waves through the House. Everyone was atwitter. Where will this outing of adulterers stop?

At 20th century’s end, it certainly seems a curious preoccupation of the political arena. Will the résumés of the politically ambitious now include affidavits of marital fidelity? It is the kind of litmus test that is the logical conclusion of the politics of the extreme religious right.

The media, of course, is partly to blame. With rumor mongers on the Web and 24-hour talk and news stations saturating the airwaves, any chance of reflecting on news stories and making judgments about their significance has been driven from much of the newsgathering process.

But the politicians, particularly Republicans, have no one to blame but themselves for creating the atmosphere in Washington that fosters the kind of sexual McCarthyism that appears to have taken hold. Livingston, after all, was but the latest case in a string of forced confessions by other House members that included Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who admitted fathering a child out of wedlock; Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), who admitted to an earlier affair with a married man; and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who admitted to the “youthful indiscretion” of taking up with a married woman who was not his wife.

The political waters have been poisoned in no small measure by the bullies of the religious right, those who saw their political salvation in the national nastiness of Newt Gingrich and the grassroots maneuverings of Ralph Reed.

Through brilliant tactics, Reed made significant inroads into the Republican party from the ground up. Former President George Bush felt compelled to meet with influential evangelical ministers and publishers in his Georgetown residence before running for office the first time.

And Republicans, at their 1992 convention, gave legitimacy to the frightening social vision of Pat Buchanan and the pseudo-religious blather of TV preacher Pat Robertson by giving both men prime-time slots.

The movement even achieved some short-lived credibility among Catholics when Cardinal John O’Connor of New York inexplicably invited Robertson to an exclusive gathering to meet John Paul II during the pope’s 1995 visit to the United States.

At the time, the Christian Coalition, Robertson’s political organization, was trying desperately to make inroads among Catholics with a new organization called the Catholic Alliance. To their credit, many other bishops issued statements opposing the organization’s efforts, and it has kept a fairly low profile since. Reed has left the Robertson organization to become a private political consultant.

Right-wing Catholic thinkers like Michael Novak and Fr. John Richard Neuhaus have lent their weight to the antics of Robertson and others on the extreme right by showing up at the annual conventions of the Christian Coalition.

In the last few years, a considerable amount of cross-pollination has occurred among those who hold office and their religious managers who shadow them from the Washington sidelines.

The religious right has brought to the American landscape a theology extreme in its narrowness, in its penchant for condemning as unfaithful anyone who holds opposing views on public policy issues and in its equating of material success with God’s favor.

It is vengeful and exclusionary and not particularly concerned with the common good. Its absolute and unforgiving approach is an invitation to cynics to highlight its hypocrisy. Compromise and respect for different points of view are alien concepts to those who are certain of God’s purpose and will in every detail of life.

It is no small irony that some members of Congress who have cozied up to the religious right are now victims of its ugly legacy. Perhaps these recent episodes will be enough to convince members of Congress that alliances with this brand of religion turn out to be anything but holy.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999