Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Race to the Bottom

Keith Pavlischek


March 13, 2000

As columnist David Broder observed, the presidential campaigns got off to a good start as far as the issue of religion and politics is concerned. "Bush and Gore won broad praise for speeches proposing more use of faith-based organizations, in cooperation with government, in solving the nation's toughest social problems—drugs, crime, homelessness and teenage pregnancy. Their addresses showed a clear understanding of, and respect for, the constitutional principles defining the relationship between church and state" (Washington Post, March 8).

But then things got sleazy and we were treated to classic examples of how easy it is for candidates to get off course in the heat of a campaign. The problem for George W. Bush started last month in South Carolina when he spoke at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist institution that even considers conservative evangelicals too liberal. For years, the leaders at Bob Jones advocated a bizarre interpretation of the Bible to bar interracial marriage and dating. The vehemence of their opposition to the pope (the anti-Christ) ranks right up there with the animus of the pro-abortion lobby and gay-rights activists. Bush should have avoided the school, even though presidential candidates had spoken there without incident for years. He should have been aware of the university's reputation.

Following the South Carolina primary, Bush's opponent, John McCain, tried to score guilt-by-association political points among Catholic voters in Michigan by making "Catholic Voter Alert" phone calls. The calls implied that Bush, just like BJU, was anti-Catholic. The ad didn't mention that McCain's most important political supporter in South Carolina, Rep. Lindsey Graham, holds an honorary degree from Bob Jones, or that Democratic politicians from South Carolina have made speeches there as well. Still, Bush got tarred with being anti-Catholic. Ironically enough, it is a charge that seems to stick more with Catholics who seldom attend mass than with active practicing Catholics. The press missed that point entirely.

Meanwhile, although it received far less media scrutiny, Al Gore and Bill Bradley were proving that Republicans hold no monopoly on pandering to racial bigots and kooky religious personalities. Their burden was dealing with the infamous Reverend Al Sharpton in Harlem, New York. And if Bob Jones III makes Jerry Falwell look moderate, Reverend Sharpton makes Jesse Jackson look like Jesse Helms.

Despite perpetrating the infamous Tawana Brawley rape hoax, inciting violence against Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, and a history of shameless race-baiting and anti-Semitism, Reverend Sharpton wields considerable power in New York. He gained 85 percent of the black vote in his races for Senate and Mayor and threatened to mobilize this support against Gore and Bradley if they didn't hold a presidential debate in Harlem. The nationally televised debate was held at Harlem's Apollo Theater where political pandering reached new depths. Sharpton even bullied Gore into a secret "summit meeting," while Gore aides, understandably embarrassed by the association, lied to reporters about the Vice-President's kowtowing.

Unlike Bush, however, Gore wasn't charged with cavorting with anti-Semitic and race-baiting religious extremists. This is partly because a large part of the media is inclined to think that while white fundamentalist bigotry is very bad, particularly in places like South Carolina, black race-baiting bigotry is just politics as usual in New York City. But it is also because, unlike John McCain, Bill Bradley was too busy pandering to Sharpton to accuse Gore of the same thing. And thus Bush got unfairly tarred with being anti-Catholic for consorting with anti-Catholics, while Gore dodged the charge of being a race-baiting anti-Semite while consorting with one.

This descent into crass partisanship at the expense of competing principles contributes to the growing cynicism among the electorate, which increasingly finds it hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. We can only hope that the more responsible speeches by the candidates at the start of the campaign were genuine wheat and not merely the politically expedient chaff.

—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”