Sunday, April 17, 2005

Karma Has Its Limits

Frank Rich in the New York Times on Tom DeLay’s need to get religion.

In the DeLay story almost every player has ostentatious religious trappings, starting with the House majority leader himself. His efforts to play God with Terri Schiavo were preceded by crusades like blaming the teaching of evolution for school shootings and raising money for the Traditional Values Coalition’s campaign to save America from the “war on Christianity.” Mr. DeLay’s chief of staff was his pastor, and, according to Time magazine, organized daily prayer sessions in their office. Today this holy man, Ed Buckham, is a lobbyist implicated in another DeLay junket to South Korea.

But it’s not merely Christian denominations that figure in the religious plumage of this crowd. Mr. Abramoff, who is now being investigated by nearly as many federal agencies as there are nights of Passover, is an Orthodox Jew who in his salad days wore a yarmulke to press interviews. In Washington, he opened not one but two kosher restaurants (I hear the deli was passable by D.C. standards) and started a yeshiva. His uncompromising piety drove him to condemn the one Orthodox Jew in the Senate, Joe Lieberman, for securing “the tortuous death of millions” by supporting abortion rights. Mr. Abramoff’s own moral constellation can be found in e-mail messages in which he referred to his Indian clients as “idiots” and “monkeys” even as he squeezed them for every last million. A previous client was Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who, unlike Senator Lieberman, actually was a practitioner of torture and mass murder.

Another Abramoff crony is the political operative Ralph Reed, whom Mr. Abramoff hired for his College Republicans operation in the early 1980’s. Mr. Reed, who has called gambling “a cancer on the body politic” and is running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, is now busily explaining that he, like Mr. DeLay, had no idea that some of his consulting firm’s Abramoff-Scanlon paydays ($4.2 million worth) were indirect transfers of casino dough. Mr. Reed, of course, is best known for his stint as the public altar boy’s face of Pat Robertson’s political machine, the Christian Coalition.


The values alleged so far in this scandal – greed, hypocrisy, favor-selling, dissembling – belong to no creed except the ruthless pursuit of power. They are not exclusive to either political party. But the religious trappings add a note that distinguishes these Beltway creeps from those who have come before: a supreme righteousness that often spirals into anger and fire-and-brimstone zealotry that can do far more damage to America than ill-begotten golf junkets.

It’s not for nothing that Mr. DeLay’s nickname is the Hammer. Or that early in his Christian Coalition career, Ralph Reed famously told a Knight-Ridder reporter that he wanted to see his opponents in a “body bag.” The current manifestation of this brand of religious politics can be found in the far right’s anti-judiciary campaign, of which Mr. DeLay is the patron saint. As he flew off to the pope’s funeral in Rome, the congressman left behind a rabble-rousing video for a Washington conference on “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” staged by a new outfit called The Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration. Another speaker, a lawyer named Edwin Vieira, twice invoked a Stalin dictum whose unexpurgated version goes, “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” The reporter who covered the event for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank, suggested in print that one prime target of the vitriol, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, might want to get “a few more bodyguards.” It wasn’t necessarily a joke.

You can see why Dick Cheney and President Bush in rapid succession distanced themselves from Mr. DeLay’s threats of retribution against judges who presided in the Schiavo case. If an Eric Rudolph murders a judge in close chronological proximity to that kind of rhetoric, they’ve got a political Armageddon on their hands. Mr. DeLay got the message, sort of. At his Wednesday news conference, he tried to dial back some of his words, if only as a way of changing the subject from Indians and his own potential outings in a court of law. Unlike Bill Frist, he has yet to sign on to next Sunday’s national Christian right telecast bashing what its organizer, the Family Research Council, calls “out-of-control courts.”

The difference between the rise of Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America” in the 1990’s and the new band of Republican warriors is that Mr. Gingrich did not cloak his soldiers and his mission in the mantle of religion. There is nothing wrong with being a “person of faith” in politics — it’s no more a disqualifier than any other personal agenda you bring along with you — but when you arm yourself and your arguments with the Sword of the Lord, you attach a perverted holiness to it of the manner of a crusade. Religion and democracy are antithetical: there can be no loyal opposition, there are only heretics and blasphemers. And that makes the current crop of power-hungry politicians far more dangerous than all the threats that have arisen before to confront us. In Watergate where a president flaunted the Constitution and defied the Congress, there was not a presumption that is was being done in the name of some higher power and that mankind must inevitably submit to it. In the Clinton era it was purely the naked hatred and envy of those out of power. This time, though, it’s being drawn as the line in the sand — you are either with us and our God or you are to be cast out… or Left Behind.

This country has had its share of religious fanatics attempting to reach for the seat of real power. Fortunately karma or luck has intervened in the past to derail them. But even karmic intervention can be tricky, and sometimes it requires more than just the universal constants of checks and balances to keep us safe. In other words, let’s nip these bastards in the bud this time.