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ONE of the more obnoxious comments to come from the recent debate over the state car tax came by way of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, who, in a gratuitous smear of Republican legislators, managed to smear Christianity at the same time.

Complaining that Republicans couldn't be persuaded to vote for the tax increase, the San Francisco Democrat derisively remarked, ``If the Good Lord came down off the cross, that might work with the born-again Christian members of the Republican Party,'' but barring such divine intervention, ``they are impervious to pressure.''

To gain a sense of the offensiveness of Burton's comments, imagine if a high-ranking Republican were to say, ``Maybe if Moses would cut the chit-chat with the burning bush and start talking to the Democrats, he could convince some of the stubborn Jews in the party to vote with us.''

Or: ``Nothing short of Mohammed taking a break from his 11 wives and two concubines - and issuing a direct appeal himself - could get those obstinate Muslims to change their minds.''

Yet Burton's comments have gone largely without notice, let alone the condemnation that would accompany similar remarks about other religions. Fellow Democrats, who pride themselves on being the party of tolerance and inclusion, have made no effort to censure their Senate leader.

The point isn't just that the rules of political correctness don't extend the same protections to Christianity as to other faiths (no news there), or that Burton has a propensity for tactless, profane remarks (ditto). Instead, it's that Burton, like many of his fellow ideological soul mates, seems to disdain those who let their faith shape their political outlooks - at least if it's a conservative outlook.

The message of Burton's odious comment is: Pity those benighted born-agains, taking their marching orders from that man on the cross - fools that they are.

The episode calls to mind another Sacramento faith story, this one involving Gov. Gray Davis and William Weigand, the city's Catholic bishop.

In January, after Davis and a local priest clashed over the governor's support for legalized abortion, Weigand delivered Davis a stiff message:

``As your bishop, I have to say clearly that anyone - politician or otherwise - who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk, and is not in good standing with the Church. Such a person should have the integrity to acknowledge this and choose of his own volition to abstain from receiving Holy Communion until he has a change of heart.''

It wasn't excommunication, as Weigand merely suggested - and didn't order - that Davis stop receiving the sacrament, but it was the next closest thing.

The reaction from Davis was pure contempt. Gubernatorial spokesman Russ Lopez blasted the bishop for ``telling the faithful how to practice their faith.''

Imagine that - a bishop telling the faithful how to practice the faith! Why, next thing you know, dietitians will start telling their clients how to eat! Where will it all end?

Seemingly lost on Lopez is that practicing Christians, like believers of most faiths, generally strive to live according to God's will. For Catholics, who believe that the Church is an institution guided by God for the purpose of teaching faith and morality, bishops play a significant role in discerning what His will is.

That's the bishop's job: helping Catholics to live and practice their faith.

To be sure, there are many Christians who don't believe that's the purpose of the Catholic Church or its bishops - they're called Protestants, and they try to discern God's will without the Church's authority. Like them, Davis is also free to reject Catholic teaching and tradition, but if so, he ought to reject the Catholic label, too.

What the Burton and Davis episodes have in common is a sentiment widespread among the political left that, on some matters, faith and political consciousness (not just church and state) must be kept separate. Burton sneers at those ``born-again'' Republicans who try to form their views on the basis of what ``the Good Lord'' tells them, while Davis scoffs at the suggestion that his faith should be reflected in his political decisions.

Among these two top California Democrats, religiously inspired political decisions are apparently a no-no if those decisions deviate from liberal orthodoxy. As for the other factors that typically motivate politicians - ideology, polls, campaign contributions or old-fashioned political deal-making - well, that's all an accepted part of the game.

One wonders what the Good Lord has to say about that.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 9, 2003

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