Religion, the scourge of the chattering class and the baddest bogeyman of liberal nightmares, is so big here this week that even the Democrats want to sing in the choir — as long as they can mangle Scripture and pick the hymns.
The New York Times is packed with advocacy ads, some of them rife with hints of religiosity if not necessarily the true grit of true faith. The Sojourners, a collection of earnest do-gooders afflicted with sawdust envy, took out a full page to insist that God is not a Republican. No one ever said He was, but facts and figures are thrown about without discrimination here this week. Smack and smear is the name of the game. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are accused of (gasp) saying that God may be guilty of guiding the president’s hand.
Naturally Bill Clinton couldn’t stay away from a revival meeting this big and he blew into Manhattan from the ‘burbs to preach from the pulpit of Riverside Church, once the most famous redoubt of the social gospel, generously endowed many years ago by John D. Rockefeller to supply a proper pulpit for the learned eloquence of Harry Emerson Fosdick. (No kin to Fearless.)
The former president, who was neither a hero of the Vietnam War nor even an Air National Guard fighter pilot (even though the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 154th Fighter Squadron, which he might have joined, is one of the nation’s most decorated Guard units), opened a fusillade of mortar fire at the swift-boat veterans who have questioned John F. Kerry’s account of how he won his medals as a swift-boat skipper.
In deference to the occasion and the consecrated surroundings, Mr. Clinton couched his criticism in biblical terms. This was erudition from the wrong book. The New York Times garbled what the president surely said in its inside-the-paper account by quoting him as having said: “Sometimes I think our friends on the other side have become people of the Nine Commandments, it is wrong to bear false witness.” (Note to the Times copy desk: There are ten, not nine, commandments.)
A Baptist Sunday school boy from Hot Springs, Mr. Clinton surely knows that Moses got the full rack of 10 on Mount Sinai, and he knew he was quoting the Ninth Commandment (“thou shalt not bear false witness”). It was particularly brave of him to not only talk about heroism in Vietnam, which he dodged with artful maneuvering, but even to bring up the subject of false witness. He got no medals for impeachment for the crime if not for the sin, and was disbarred and lost his license to practice law in Arkansas.
But he took pains to pay tribute to George W. Bush’s faith, even challenging the social-gospel traditions of the Riverside pulpit by describing him as “a good Christian” whose “faith in Jesus Christ saved him.”
“But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see through a glass darkly,” he continued, garbling all by himself the context of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “It doesn’t mean that you can have a bunch of people acting on your behalf and pretending like you don’t know them, to say that the seven people who were on John Kerry’s swift boat don’t know what they’re talking about when they say he deserves the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.”
Hillary, who was once a Goldwater Girl but never gave a doughnut to a soldier, took up a defensive position on the president’s flanks, spraying the swiftees with automatic weapons fire. “The bottom line here is that John Kerry is an authentic war hero,” she told her old pal George Stephanopoulos on ABC-TV’s “This Week.”
You would never know, from their late appreciation of military valor in Vietnam, how contemptuous Bill and Hillary once were of the men who fought that war three decades ago. But by paying ham-handed tribute now to the man who famously described American soldiers as war criminals, the Clintons are discharging their debt to the party and to the man they’re counting on to lose gracefully, setting the stage for the Restoration that must wait ‘til aught-eight.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.