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Richard Cohen

Faith-Based Pandering

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page A19

Totally by mistake, I was summoned to meet Sen. Bill Frist shortly after he first arrived in Washington. This happened because someone in Frist's office confused me with the congressional affairs correspondent of the National Journal, Richard E. Cohen, but I stayed to meet Frist anyway and found him impressive. Time and tide have changed my view. He is now the Senate majority leader and an undeclared but neon-lit presidential candidate who is getting into shape for the long run to the White House by shedding anything that weighs him down. In his case it's principles.

Frist initially led the Senate's effort to keep poor Terri Schiavo alive even though every court that had heard her case had concluded she was, technically and sadly, dead. Now Frist will be joining a telecast that will attack Democrats as being hostile to "people of faith." It will focus on the filibuster, which the Democrats have used to block 10 of George W. Bush's 229 judicial appointments. Some of the nominees are quaintly anachronistic in their views but to a person I assume they believe in God and therefore cannot be opposed no matter what else they think or do.

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"The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith," the telecast's sponsoring organization has declared. Among the participants are some, if not all, who believe that any abortion is wrong, that a stem cell is an inviolate human life, that homosexuality is a sin, that sex before marriage is both a mistake and a sin (don't even ask about homosexual sex before marriage), and that the rights of both Terri Schiavo and her husband should have been brushed aside -- along with a couple of hundred years of allowing state courts to settle such matters.

I am pausing now to wonder if the phrase "people of faith" is meant to include Muslims with several wives, Hindus with several deities or even the odd person here and there who believes, as I am sometimes tempted to, that God can be found in a pint of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. But I think somehow that "people of faith" is meant to embrace only conservative Christians and maybe Orthodox Jews, who are sometimes lumped together as Judeo-Christians. People of faith, you may rest assured, are people of their faith. All others need not apply.

I don't think a gay Presbyterian would be considered a person of faith, no matter how devout, nor, for that matter, a pro-choice Methodist -- say, someone such as Hillary Clinton. The category would certainly not include a Baptist such as Husband Bill or a Jew such as Chuck Schumer or, I venture to say, an Episcopalian such as John McCain, whose faith sustained him in a Vietnamese prison. As for a Roman Catholic such as Ted Kennedy, whose faith informs his liberalism, take it on faith that he would not be considered a person of faith. The phrase would also exclude anyone of any faith who believes in a limited role for religion in public life, especially the schools, if only on the pragmatic grounds that otherwise we will be at each other's throats. This is a lesson of history.

The invocation of the phrase "people of" is no different when preceding "faith" than it is when preceding "color." It's a bold signal of mushy thinking, a corralling of people who have nothing in common other than a perceived -- and often fictionalized -- enemy. "People of faith" mischaracterizes what the political debate is all about. What Senate Democrats lack is not faith but 50 votes. Frist knows this, of course, but his mad pursuit of the presidency requires him to prove to the Christian right, the core of the Republican Party, that its cause comes before his principles.

He did this with Terri Schiavo, going so far as to use his medical bona fides (he's a heart surgeon) to view a neurologist's videotape of the poor woman and pronounce her somewhat alert. Now he is lending his name and his fast-diminishing prestige to this reprehensible effort to enlist faith on the side of a single political issue. This sort of stuff will not, as he hopes, make him the next president of the United States. Instead, it shows what raw ambition has made him: a person of pander.

cohenr@washpost.com


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