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When Fundamentalists Attack


Being someone who can claim Christian fundamentalists as familymembers, I was not surprised by the extremist rhetoric that circled the Houston Astrodome during the Republican National Convention.

I've been listening to similar rhetoric for more than 10 years and I haven't had to turn on the television to hear it. It was my wife's parents who gave me my first lesson on secular humanism, the devil's work in the breakdown of the family and how God accepts Jews so long as they convert.

I'm also not surprised that, after a week of smug self-righteousness, Republicans are thinking twice about their call for a values or cultural war. Some leading party members are warning President Bush that he risks turning off the American electorate if he doesn't stop the moral attacks.

Having been confronted by hard-edged, fundamentalist admonitions myself, I can understand the concern. Most people don't like having their morals called into question, particularly by politicians whose own morals are dubious at best.

But whether Republicans can corral such operatives as Patrick "Pit Bull" Buchanan, whose hateful convention speech first raised the idea of a holy war, is another question entirely. TV evangelist Pat Robertson, for example, shows no signs of holding his tongue as he marches full tilt into the crusade for the soul of Americans.

In a letter from Mr. Robertson being circulated in Iowa, where an equal rights provision is on the ballot, the evangelist showed just how mean spirited and ridiculous things can get.

He called ERA part of a "feminist agenda" that "is not about equal rights for women" but "a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

Honest, that's what he said. And before you try to laugh this one off, make no mistake that there are a lot of fundamentalists out there who believe every word Mr. Robertson wrote.

The fundamentalist ideology is full of plots and boogie men poised to take the country down the road to purgatory. A few years ago, it was the Trilateral Commission that was plotting to turn the world into one nation that the commission, presumably, would run.

Television has been a perennial evil among fundamentalists, even before Dan Quayle went ballistic over Murphy Brown.

But the biggest problem fundamentalists see in America is that everyone doesn't think the way they do. Hence, when Mr. Buchanan implored GOP conventioneers to "take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country," the message must have caused the religious right to swoon.

The problem is Mr. Buchanan made his remark on the heels of talking about the Los Angeles riots. While it may have been celestial music to the fundamentalists, it had some moderate Republicans cringing that their party might be viewed as supporting the armed takeover of the nation's cities.

Generally, fundamentalists aren't concerned with such subtleties in the message. People who believe in Armageddon, as Ronald Reagan once confessed he did, are not constrained by the same sense of responsibility that others are. The world is going to end soon anyway, the rationale goes, so why not make a few pre-emptive strikes of fire and brimstone, damn the consequences.

That kind of philosophy can only be found among people who have been down in the trenches a long time. For much of the last decade the religious right has been putting together a formidable political machine that has now hijacked the Republican party.

Now that they have George Bush boxed into an ideological corner -- no abortions regardless, no civil rights for gays, no working women with ideas -- it will be interesting to see how the religious right takes to their presidential creation.

From the beginning, Mr. Bush has shown signs of being an unwilling general in this new war, allowing others to take front-line positions while he remains aloof from the carnage. Now, Mr. Bush, apparently realizing he can't sidestep blame in all this, seems to be rethinking the idea of going to battle at all.

Unless I miss my guess, true believers among the religious right aren't buying this kind of waffling. Tolerance and an appreciation of ambiguity are not their strong suit. A good number, I'll wager, will sit out this election, looking to 1996 for a candidate more committed to the cause.

"The word is the word, there is no interpretation," my mother-in-law once said. She was talking about the Bible. But given the state of the GOP these days, she could easily have been talking about it.

Kevin Thomas writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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