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Mr. Richard Greenberg


by Mr. Richard Greenberg*

It's no secret that religion and politics can be a toxic brew.

One sip, and the average politician is off pandering and posturing, waxing sanctimonious at the drop of a sound bite.

We've heard it since Columbine. We're hearing it in the presidential campaign. We'll hear it again elsewhere.

The scoffing class has been busy counter-punching -- as it should. But frankly, some of those blows have landed below the belt. The targets are not only hypocritical and demagogic pols -- the kind of folks who give religion a bad name -- but also, all too often, religion itself.

The last time I checked, non-belief was not a crime (although I can assure you we're working hard to rectify that). All the same, in the interests of fairness and balance it's worth examining some of the pronouncements made by those who would protect us from partisan zealotry. You'll doubtless be shocked to discover that some of them are every bit as glib, ludicrous or intolerant as anything dished out by the most craven politician.

For example, in her June 20 column, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times made her case for gun control (which I happen to support) and against legislation allowing the 10 Commandments in public school classrooms. And then this thunderbolt regarding said commandments: "But [ever] since Moses carried them down from Mount Sinai . . . they have never been known to prevent violence."

Glad that's been cleared up. Here we were laboring under the delusion that over the last few thousand years there might have been one or two brave souls who didn't commit murder because God said it's wrong.

Or this: "History teaches that when religion is injected into politics . . . [she cites the Crusades, Hitler, etc.] . . . disaster follows." Just as night follows day, right? This is a favorite mantra of secularists, and like all cliches, it has an element of truth. Carnage has indeed been known to result when religion and politics mix, but it is not inevitable. In all likelihood, religion has quietly and unobtrusively prevented as much death and suffering over the millennia as it is alleged to have caused.

Conversely, bellicose non-faith (not to mention territorial disputes and other entirely secular conflicts) has probably claimed at least as many lives as religious fervor. People have been killed in the name of all sorts of causes and ideologies. But that's rarely discussed. Instead, the secularist equation is recycled endlessly: Religion plus politics equals fanaticism equals death on a grand scale.

I would suggest a more open-minded approach, say, one that views religion as a tool -- a tool that is designed for good, but can also be mishandled. It can elevate man or it can be used to justify hatred and savagery, in which case, it just might deserve to lose its good name. Perhaps at that point it becomes a perversion of religion. Perhaps the problem is not with religion at all, but with people who twist it.

Religion in the public sphere has been a recurring topic in the columns of Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. (Before I go any further, I'd like to thank Cohen for the wealth of material his musings have provided me. I might have run dry long ago if not for him. Keep 'em coming, Richard).

I do not know what is in Richard Cohen's heart. Nor am I familiar with his personal baggage. But if his writing is any indication, it's no stretch to conclude that he's probably not prime *yeshiva* material. Cohen's take on religion, for those who haven't noticed, generally ranges from dismissive to hostile.

In fact, after having read his stuff religiously (sorry) for several years, I can't remember him saying anything positive at all about religion. In his July 6 column, for example, Cohen lamented that "our political leaders feel compelled to announce that they are, down deep, religious."

Actually, he's onto something. The specter of pols tripping over each other to make knee-jerk declarations of faith is indeed worth lamenting. But Cohen is making a larger, if fundamentally flawed, point -- that a politician's religious beliefs are not only "deeply personal," as he puts it, but wholly irrelevant when it comes to his or her qualifications for office. In fact, says Cohen, they "tell you little about the person one way or another."

Granted, an expression of beliefs is hollow if it is not matched by deeds. But it's preposterous to automatically assume that faith itself is ineffectual, an invisible and inert gas among the truly substantive components of a person's psyche. Morality and ethics have many wellsprings, and religious conviction, ideally, is one of them. Why, then, among all value-shaping systems, is faith alone deemed irrelevant? Or is it relevant only if believers don't wear it on their sleeves?

Cohen says he judges Al Gore to be a good man, based solely on the vice-president's "lifetime in the public eye. His personal religious beliefs add nothing to the picture."

Even if his public goodness is largely a product of those beliefs? Gore himself, in a subsequent Washington Post story, said that his religious faith is in fact "the bedrock of my approach to any important question," political or otherwise.

He said more (and I'm willing to believe it was all an expression of candor and not political opportunism). Atheism in Washington and other power centers, said Gore, has engendered a "condescension toward a belief in God and a kind of patronizing assumption that anyone who did believe in God was irrational, weak-minded and superstitious."

The sort of person, perhaps, who is possessed of the wacky notion that the human intellect, the self, may not be the font of all that is wise and proper in the universe. Or someone who believes in the concept of immutability and is not easily swayed by fashion or fads or the siren call of political correctness.

Just the sort of person, in other words, who might be a pariah at a Georgetown party. I know this not from personal experience, but from having just read the Post's thorough and even-handed treatment of the controversial role religious belief plays in social and political Washington.

The piece was written by Sally Quinn, who interviewed people on all sides of the issue. They ranged from the truly creepy House leader Tom DeLay (the "rejection of God must change") to Gore to Georgetown author and socialite Susan Mary Alsop, who made a rather matter-of-fact admission. She said religious chat would be taboo at parties she frequents.

"It's inappropriate socially, absolutely," said explained. "It's not like foreign policy, not like anything that would be discussed in my world, I'm afraid."

Well, there's goes my shot at an invitation.

Richard Greenberg is a columnist with Washington Jewish Week and is the author of the book Pathways: Jews Who Return, published by Jason Aronson Inc.

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