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Put Them Out to Pastor

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The pilgrim is making little progress. In a futile effort to convince faith-voters that he is one of them, John McCain paid a visit to the Grahams of North Carolina -- father Billy and son Franklin. After the meeting, not a word was said about the Grahams' past indiscretions concerning Muslims or Jews, and neither, for that matter, was an endorsement proffered. The next guest was country singer Ricky Skaggs. He did better. He got lunch.

McCain plods a cruel treadmill. He has thus far sought the endorsement of the extremely purple Rev. John Hagee and the equally purple Rev. Rod Parsley. Both of them were later asked to unendorse on account of offensive things they've said. But to paraphrase Hyman Roth in "The Godfather," this is the business they're in.

Billy Graham's observations about Jews were made a long time ago and were imparted in confidence to Richard Nixon and his secret White House tape recorder. The two ruminated about the power and influence of Jews, with Graham adding a bit of original investigative reporting: "They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff." Had he peeked?

Graham apologized for such remarks and said he no longer held such views, and everyone, including me, takes him at his word. His lasting damage, I offer as an aside, was to persuade the young George W. Bush to abandon his wastrel ways, at which he excelled, and instead seek the path that has led him to where he is now, a calamity for the nation and the world. Graham's burden is heavy indeed.

But the transgressions of Franklin Graham are much more recent and more to the point. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin Graham called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion." As preachers are wont to do, he amplified his remarks to include "mainstream" Islam, alleging that the Koran preaches violence. He is known throughout the Muslim world for these remarks and therefore is hardly a figure a presidential candidate should visit.

Erich Segal's line from "Love Story" -- "love means never having to say you're sorry" -- really applies to faith. If you proclaim it, you are forgiven almost anything. In Franklin Graham's case, his piety excuses his ignorance and intolerance -- his slap at a worldwide religion of almost 2 billion because of the horrendous acts of a few. What could a Muslim say about the massacres of the Crusades? What could anyone say about the wars between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, when possibly 100,000 French Huguenots were slaughtered? France is Catholic today partly because of the sword.

It would have been very McCain of McCain to skip this meeting in the cause of religious tolerance. It would be very McCain of McCain to forcefully denounce the persistent rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim -- whenever it comes up. (It would also have been wonderful of Obama to have excluded Franklin Graham from a meeting of ministers he convened in Chicago last month.) Both presidential candidates are over-pastored.

For too long now, the term "faith-based" has been synonymous with dumb. It's dumb to speak of Islam as if the terrorists are its true representatives (F. Graham). It's dumb to think the Holocaust was God's way of getting the Jews to return to Israel (Hagee) or that Catholics are not true Christians (Hagee, again) or that "Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world" (Parsley).

It's dumb to reject evolution when all of science thinks the opposite, and it's dumb to oppose sex education, as if knowledge was by itself a sin. It was beyond dumb for the Rev. Pat Robertson to predict a natural calamity for Orlando because of Disney World's policy regarding gay men and lesbians. Yet, the endorsement of such clergymen has been sought by virtually every Republican presidential candidate of our times. To pass this kind of muster is very disquieting.

The liberal clergy in this country is a faded force. Gone are the days when ministers did such things as leading the civil rights movement and marching to end the Vietnam War. Now, the ones with political clout are too often small-minded men who swaddle their bigotry and ignorance in the soothing word "faith." And John McCain, like a spiritual beggar, goes from one right-wing minister to another, ignoring their previous statements of intolerance and hoping for an endorsement. The other day, he didn't even get lunch. He deserved humble pie.

cohenr@washpost.com


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