Sunday, March 05, 2000

Thou shalt not mix religion and politics




BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Where you go to church this morning shouldn't be a factor in the Tuesday Republican presidential primary in Ohio, but it might be.

        If it is one of Cincinnati's many Catholic churches, you might, as you go to the polls Tuesday, be reminded that it was George W. Bush who went to South Carolina and stood on the stage of Bob Jones University — a place considered ultra-conservative even by Cincinnati standards and where the school's leader speaks of your religion as a satanic cult.

        On the other hand, if you find yourself at one of the city's fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant churches, you might well have had enough of John McCain calling two religious conservative leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, evil influences on the Republican Party.

        How did we turn down this road?

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        George W. Bush started it, making Bob Jones University his first stop in South Carolina a month ago after being whipped in the New Hampshire primary.

        The “moral majority” vote in South Carolina makes a big difference in elections there, particularly Republican primaries, and Mr. Bush was not the first politician of note to have showed up on the doorstep of Bob Jones III, hat in hand.

        Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole have been there too, but, in the case of those two, the voting public across the country already knew them very well and never for a second believed that they bought into the wackier aspects of the world according to Bob Jones.

        Mr. Bush, though, was a blank slate to most Americans; only Texans knew anything about him, and everybody knows how Texans exaggerate.

        So, while Mr. Bush was grubbing for right-wing votes in South Carolina, the rest of America — including Ohio's far more moderate Republican base — was getting a look at a politician who apparently believed it was OK for a school to ban interracial dating and espouse anti-Catholic blather.

        What seemed more odd was the sight of Mr. Bush on the stage with Mr. Jones, a man who once referred to the Texas governor's father as a “devil.”

        Would you be cozying up to somebody who had bad-mouthed your old man?

        Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, appearing on CNBC's Hardball program last week, put it best. If it had been him, Mr. Blackwell said, he wouldn't have been “standing with” Mr. Jones, he would have been “standing over him.”

        Then, the McCain campaign started making phone calls to Catholic voters in Michigan, the next primary state, pointing out Mr. Bush's association with Mr. Jones. They made a hash of it by denying they had anything to do with the calls and later 'fessing up.

        In South Carolina and Michigan, Mr. Robertson, a Bush supporter, had phone banks making trash-talk phone calls slamming Mr. McCain, infuriating the easily infuriated senator.

        So last week in Virginia — the base of the Robertson-Falwell organizations — he blasted them, saying they had taken a good cause and turned it into a business empire: that they are agents of intolerance.

        By that time, it was clear Mr. McCain wouldn't win Tuesday's Virginia primary, so the message was really aimed at moderate Republicans and independents in March 7 primary states like New York and Ohio, where the Robertson-Falwell crowd is not well thought of.

        It was a mistake, but one that is easy to understand in a campaign like Mr. McCain's, where the candidate sits on the bus and talks to reporters all day long, never saying no comment and saying about whatever pops into his head.

        It is much unlike most other presidential campaigns, including the Bush campaign, where the candidate is kept tightly under wraps and in controlled settings (like the Bush rally at Memorial Hall here last week) where he can read from the script and not blurt something stupid that will come back to haunt him.

        In some campaigns, the less the candidate says, the better.

        column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

       



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