Christian right is dead wrong


Washington -- IT SEEMS the self-proclaimed Christian right followers can dish it out, but they can't take it.

They have called President Clinton every name in the book.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is selling videotapes that -- without a shred of evidence -- accuse the president of murdering political opponents back in Arkansas.

The Christian Coalition has said Mr. Clinton's inauguration was "a repudiation of our forefathers' covenant with God."

They have strayed far from traditional religious issues to proclaim the "Christian" position on matters like health care reform.

Yet when Clinton supporters dare to hit back, these religious warriors retreat to their cloister and piteously accuse their critics "bigotry."

Rep. Vic Fazio, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called them "fire-breathing" and "radical." Gov. Ann Richards of Texas called them "hatemongers."

Mr. Clinton, while cautiously avoiding any general denunciation of the religious right, had some choice words about Jerry Falwell.

Religious people have every right to be involved in politics.

More than that: They have every right to argue that their political positions derive from their religious beliefs.

If the Christian Coalition feels that Christ would want us to avoid universal health care, it should feel free to make that case in those terms.

But they cannot have it both ways. Having entered the political arena determined to play hardball, they cannot complain if their opponents decide to play hardball back.

Mainstream Republicans preposterously insist that Democrats who dare to criticize the religious right are exploiting or pandering to such alleged prejudice.

The very fact that Bob Dole rushes to accuse the Democrats of "appealing to religious bigotry" suggests that there is more cheap political advantage to be gained from kissing Christians than dissing them.

Clearly there is a political strategy to the Democrats' recent attacks on the religious right.

The strategy might be called "marginalization" -- portraying the opposition as outside the mainstream of political discourse.

But it is a little late for Republicans to call this dirty pool.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett, writing in the Washington Post, says of the Democratic attacks, "This is not political discourse. It is argument by invective. People of good will should not allow the vital national debate to be side tracked by mudslingers."

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republicans portrayed not just an element of the Democratic Party but the party itself and its candidate, Michael Dukakis, of Brookline, Mass., as not merely mistaken on the issues but unpatriotic.

The Christian right participated heavily -- as it participates joyously in the attempted marginalization of Bill Clinton.

Bill Bennett was there, too. He said of "that Cambridge-Brookline crowd . . . These are people who don't like the Pledge of Allegiance and have disdain for the simple and basic patriotism of most Americans."

This was marginalization with a vengeance, and it worked.

So we need no etiquette lessons from Mr. Bennett.

But the challenge is flung.

Would any politician dare to attack "Jews" the way some are attacking "Christians"?

The answer is that there is no group calling itself the Jewish Coalition and accusing those who disagree with it on political issues of being godless.

If there were, there would be nothing anti-Semitic about attacking it by name.

To be sure, many politicians might understandably hesitate.

But politicians similarly hesitate to attack the "Christian" right by the label its members are happy to apply to themselves.

The Clinton party line, for example, is that one should say "extreme" or "radical" right, and leave Christianity out of it.

That may be prudent, but it is not required in order to avoid being a bigot.

As a non-Christian, I am not entitled to pass judgment on whether the political and social agenda of the religious right reflects the true spirit of Christianity.

But I do know that neither Christianity nor political decency requires Mr. Clinton, when under attack from political enemies claiming to represent the Christian point of view, to turn the other cheek.

Michael Kinsley is co-host of CNN's "Crossfire."

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