By Matthew Dallek
Sunday, February 18, 1996
THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION
In The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore make one thing clear: The religious right's version of history is more fantasy than fact. The authors, professors of government and history at Cornell University, have spent their careers studying religion in American life. Tired of hearing the religious right claim that America is a God-fearing nation grounded on Christian principles, they have written a persuasive critique of what they call the "party of religious correctness."
Tracing the history of religion in America since before the Civil War, the authors argue that, contrary to what Pat Robertson and company maintain, the founding fathers, though religious men, believed that only a clear separation between religious and civil authority could prevent tyranny. Hence the only time the Constitution mentions religion -- Article 6 -- is to prohibit religious tests as a qualification for public office. Why were the fathers so eager to separate church and state? Kramnick and Moore suggest that experience had taught these men that civil magistrates, when given religious authority, often used that power to advance their own, base interests. Focusing on three early supporters of secular government -- John Locke, Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson -- the authors show that America has a long, rich tradition of secular government.
The Godless Constitution is a good, readable primer on the role of religion in early American history. It exposes some of the more egregious falsehoods popular in religious right circles. But, in the end, one can't help but think that refuting the fantastic claims of right-wing evangelists is no great intellectual triumph and that the authors, despite claims to the contrary, are preaching to the converted.
THE REPUBLICAN WAR AGAINST WOMEN
An even more strident jeremiad against the religious right appears in Tanya Melich's The Republican War Against Women: An Insider's Report from Behind the Lines. Melich, a feminist who "cannot remember a time when the Republican party was not part of [her] life," has written a powerful, provocative account of how social conservatives and Republican politicians have used the GOP to roll back the gains of the women's movement.
For Melich and her small band of allies, the past three decades have been one long disappointment. Recounting her struggle to move the GOP in a more feminist direction, Melich argues that in 1964 the moderate, tolerant Republican Party of her youth began to give way to right-wing ideologues angry at the dramatic social changes sweeping America. Despite her attempts to steer the party towards more traditional Republican concerns -- balanced budgets, fiscal restraint and social tolerance -- by the early 1970s the New Right, led by ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly, had become a well-organized political movement ready to strong-arm GOP leaders into adopting its anti-abortion, anti-women agenda. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, social conservatives captured the Republican party and began, according to Melich, a "misogynist reign" that, with the help of craven moderates eager to win votes, continues today. Disillusioned, Melich ends by repudiating her party and pledging to work to defeat "candidates who have embraced the party's bigotry."
Melich makes it clear that the GOP is no place for Americans who support abortion rights, child care for working women, affirmative action and the ERA. Yet her oversimplified portrait of the religious right and other social conservatives (she suggests that the leaders of these movements are demagogues who simply exploit the fears of women to win votes) and her suggestion that anyone opposed to her feminist agenda is "anti-women" make this book read at times like one long campaign commercial for the Democratic National Committee. Which is too bad, for, despite the overheated rhetoric, Melich makes an important point that voters would do well to remember in November: Americans concerned about women's equality should think twice before casting their votes for today's Grand Old Party.
In 1973 Jerry Zeifman, chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, decided to keep a diary of the "extraordinary events" surrounding the impeachment of President Nixon. Now, Zeifman draws on that diary to give us Without Honor: Crimes of Camelot and the Impeachment of President Nixon, in which he accuses government officials of obstructing the impeachment inquiry. Their reason? Not any sympathy for the besieged Richard Nixon, but a desire to protect the reputation of John Kennedy. Zeifman's book will surely excite conspiracy buffs on the lookout for sinister coverups in high places. But those wary of such unsubstantiated theories (myself included) will find Zeifman's book an unconvincing, if imaginative, tale of intrigue.
Zeifman's theory goes something like this: John Doar, Hillary Rodham, Bernard Nussbaum and other Kennedy loyalists investigating Nixon obstruct his impeachment "to cover up malfeasance in high office throughout the Cold War." The scheming starlets are abetted by Peter Rodino, a weak, corrupt chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who is afraid that Nixon might expose his own Mafia ties. Rounding out the list of conspirators is Burke Marshall, Robert Kennedy's assistant attorney general, who orchestrates the bogus investigation in the hopes of keeping Nixon in office, which will, he believes, help Ted Kennedy win the White House. Using a variety of dubious legal strategies -- still with me? -- Doar and his co-conspirators do everything they can to avoid putting the president on trial, a strategy, they hope, that will prevent Nixon's lawyers from revealing the "crimes of Camelot."
The lack of evidence makes this theory hard to swallow. Zeifman's most reliable source -- his diary -- contains few revelations and seems little more than a chronicle of his suspicions and speculations. The book's jacket cover, which promises readers "truths even more startling than those brought out in Oliver Stone's movies 'Nixon' and 'JFK', " does not help matters. Perhaps the book's publicists forgot that "Nixon" and "JFK" were, after all, only Hollywood movies.
SHOWING MY COLOR
Clarence Page, a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, is tired of hearing Americans (mostly white) deny that race plays an important role in "determining life chances and opportunities." So tired, in fact, that he has written Showing My Color: Impolite Essays on Race and Identity, a penetrating, often moving collection of original essays on American race relations.
The idea that race exerts a strong influence on American society is not new, of course. Nor are the topics Page addresses -- the angst of the black middle-class, the failure of integration, race relations on campus and the "spiral of pathologies" plaguing America's ghettos. But Page, a skilled essayist, handles his subjects with a balance and complexity rarely found in contemporary discussions of race. Page finds the record since the 1960s mixed: Since that time, he explains, African Americans have enjoyed unprecedented opportunities, yet discrimination and bigotry still work to keep blacks separate and unequal. The problem, Page argues, is not simply white racism or militant multiculturalists but a society that, "instead of talking honestly, candidly, and nationally," denies "that a problem exists."
Page is eager to help the nation "get beyond race." This means recognizing that the competing pressures of integration and segregation need not always conflict: Middle-class blacks can maintain a sense of racial pride and still succeed in a white work environment; urban youths can find help in a message of black uplift; whites can recognize that they have a special duty to reach out to blacks wary of integration. Finding the balance between racial pride and "individual humanity," Page suggests, will free both blacks and whites from the most debilitating aspects of race and bring us just a little closer to that elusive American goal of equality.
SLOW DANCE TO PEARL HARBOR
Capt. William J. Ruhe's Slow Dance to Pearl Harbor: A Tin Can Ensign in Prewar America should be a welcome respite from the polemical tracts above. Ruhe, an ensign on a World War II naval destroyer (one of the ships nicknamed "tin cans"), recounts his 10 months at sea in late 1940 and 1941. The tale is good-natured enough -- Ruhe falls in love in every port, woos women from as far away as Nazi-occupied Holland, searches for the perfect "Navy wife," and bristles under the crude authoritarianism of his gung-ho captain. Ruhe's vessel, the Roe, braves treacherous waters in the icy Atlantic to help deliver U.S. destroyers to Great Britain, does neutrality patrol in the tropics, and plays war games in the Pacific. Well-written and light-hearted, Ruhe's memoirs provide a keen sense of what Navy life was like in the years just prior to World War II.
Ruhe's tale lacks the high drama of war stories and rarely offers the penetrating insights that first-rate memoirs contain. Instead, he describes learning how to surf in sunny San Diego, playing practical jokes on his shipmates ("Over the doorway to BD's stateroom I rigged a contraption that would dump water over him when he entered to go to bed. It worked fine") and coping with rejection from the opposite sex ("As the party wound down, I canvassed every eligible girl for a date but struck out on all of them. Despite that, I went to the Lord Nelson for some dancing and did the Cokey Okey and Bumps-a-Daisy with some wallflowers"). Still, the tale of this ensign, happy-go-lucky before the rude shock of war, may be a good tonic for those looking to escape the fiery political debates now dominating the news.
Matthew Dallek is a freelance journalist and a Richard Hofstadter Fellow in American history at Columbia University.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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