Friday, October 15, 2004

I can only imagine how much those who despise public displays of religion were groaning during the third and — thank goodness — final debate.

Both candidates talked at length several times about the role of religion in their lives. Unsurprisingly, George W. Bush seemed comfortable with the subject. “Prayer and religion sustain me,” he said without sounding an insincere note. “I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency.”

I think most people thought Bush was sincere. But it’s hard to see how anyone thought Kerry was.

“I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people,” Kerry explained repeatedly, usually prompted by the abortion issue. “I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith.”

Of course, this is the standard answer from liberal Democrats who profess to be good Catholics but who are also pro-choice. From what I understand, it’s a fairly weak argument, but that’s between Kerry and his church.

What I do object to is this: While Kerry says he’s opposed to “legislating” his faith on abortion, he insists that he’s in favor of legislating his faith elsewhere. He said more than once Wednesday night, and plenty of times on the stump, that faith must be backed up by deeds. His religious faith, he says, is “why I fight against poverty. That’s why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth. That’s why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith.”

So, let me get this straight. Fighting for the environment, equality and education — in the name of God — is righteously doing the Lord’s work, but abortion must be kept legal because otherwise we’d be legislating religion?

I suppose liberals would say, “Yes, because banning abortion would be coercive.”

Public schools get built by taking away money from the people who earned it. The environment gets cleaned up by imposing regulations, seizing land, and taxing people. Equality, in John Kerry’s formulation, means denying some whites, men, Asians, Jews and others opportunities they’re more qualified for in order to help some state-favored minorities. And “justice,” however defined, usually involves guys with guns, courts, judges, prosecutors and the like — all of whom are empowered by the state to use violence, even to kill you if necessary.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about the role of religion in politics. I think zealots who want to purge all religion from the public square are ignorant about, among other things, American history and culture. For example, without religion the anti-slavery and civil rights movements would have been impossible. To me, in politics morality is more important than theology, but it’s foolish to dispute that much of our best morality derives from theology.

But what does offend me is the selective invocation of God. George Bush is basically consistent. He says God guides him in everything he does. John Kerry says that, too, but it’s hard to see how he’s not lying. His faith is clear on abortion. It’s pretty darn murky on, say, affirmative action.

It seems to me that you shouldn’t pick and choose at all. You shouldn’t infringe on, say, the property rights of citizens out of religious convictions about a clean environment and then conveniently fall back on the argument that it would be outrageous to invoke religion when it comes to abortion. Either your faith informs your views or it doesn’t.

I say you shouldn’t pick and choose, but I understand that sometimes you have to — but in completely the opposite way John Kerry picks and chooses. Kerry invokes God’s guidance on the little stuff, the easy stuff, the boilerplate. He turns his back to God on the big issue, abortion (and, with a wink, gay marriage).

It seems to me this is exactly backwards. God doesn’t have a position on the minimum wage or Superfund, so politicians shouldn’t feel the need to consult Him about that stuff. It’s only on the grave fundamental questions in politics that God should speak to one’s conscience. Thomas More didn’t put his life on the line about how Henry VIII handled crop rotation.

And that’s what I find a little galling about all of Kerry’s God talk. Beyond the naked pandering of it, it’s morally and religiously empty. He may talk about deeds backing up faith, but where his faith is unambiguous he wants no part of it. When it comes to the tough issues, what he really seems to want is grace on the cheap. It’s as More said, “If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable.”

Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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