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Public piety. (The Word from Washington).

Washington, always strange place, is under the Bush regime ever more alienating for people with even mildly progressive impulses. I was reminded of this the other day as I listened to an exasperated liberal policy wonk snapping at a reporter who had picked up on some of the Bush Administration's rhetoric. It's not good P.R. to browbeat reporters. But I understand why people with a deep knowledge of particular issues are losing their cool. It's a brave new world in D.C. these days, and the left, while used to being marginalized, now faces the additional problem of culture shock.

Most notable is the new religious fervor in Washington--from the prayer meetings at the White House and Justice Department to the evangelical overtones in the State of the Union address. The sudden ubiquity of religious references affects the daily lives of public servants and bureaucrats who are not used to having God injected into their work.

In the State of the Union address, Bush's reference to a "day of reckoning," his assertion that the liberty Americans cherish is "God's gift to humanity," and his intense self-assurance about America's role as guardian of morality and avenger of offended innocence were right off late-night Christian cable TV. The most laudable initiative he announced--new funding to fight AIDS in Africa--Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive. seemed like it came from nowhere, unless you're familiar with Christian fund drives to save pagan children around the globe. Then it fit right into the Bush gestalt.

If you want to get in tune with the Bush Administration, flip to the high end of the cable spectrum, and watch the Christian broadcasters do their thing. Take one recent late-night offering: an evangelical Christian show urging people to spend $50 to help "save the Jews." As in a fund drive for public television, the evangelists were giving out prizes to viewers who called up to pledge. In this case, the premium was a genuine sho-far. It was a very weird show. An enthusiastic evangelical Christian dressed as King David in a gold crown played a harp and sang Hebrew songs in front of the Western Wall. A Jews for Jesus couple in Florida sat in a living room crammed with Stars of David, loaves of challah, and various Jewish tchotchkes, reading Christian Bible verses. What the hell is this? I thought. Turns out the effort to save the Jews is already familiar to Washington insiders--and not just John Ashcroft. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), a Chicago-based nonprofit, sponsored the program, and its chief contact is one Joe Lieberman.

Sam Smith recently reported on Joe Lieberman's work in The Progressive Review, quoting a piece by Edward Ericson of the Hartford Advocate.

"The image is jarring: Senator Joseph Lieberman, Presidential candidate, appears on an infomercial asking Evangelical Christians to donate money to `rescue a Jew.'

"`On Wings of Eagles' is a modern-day fulfillment of Biblical prophesy," the voice-over in the infomercial says, while images appear of huddled Russian Jews at the airport, smiling as they presumably wait to leave Russia for Israel.

The half-hour appeal aired on the afternoon of January 2 on Paxson Broadcasting stations across the nation, according to the IFCJ, which paid for the spot. Alongside Lieberman, testimonials come from stars of the Christian Right, including convicted Watergate felon Charles Colson, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, and Moral Majority head Jerry Falwell.

"Critics of the Christian Right say the IFCJ's appeal to `prophesy' in their infomercial is a thinly veiled reference to Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, and the moment when nonbelievers--Jews included--will be cast into the lake of fire," the Advocate reported. "Jewish critics of the IFCJ say the group demeans the dignity of Jews. Yet from 1994 to 1999, Lieberman, who on Monday announced his bid for the Presidency, served as co-chair of one of IFCJ's projects, the Washington-based Center for Jewish and Christian Values."

It's no secret that Lieberman is a fan of public piety and the proliferation of faith-based, tax-supported programs favored by the Christian Right. As evangelical Christians rush in to take their place making policy in Washington, Lieberman is not exactly barring the door. Wishy-washy Democrats have long been afraid of looking unwholesome if they don't go along with the God Bless America crowd. Now they are reluctant to oppose a President who appears to be animated by a frightening religious hubris.

The Bush Administration's determination to do God's work is serious and specific. Bush issued an executive order making church groups eligible for public funding if they provide social services, even if they discriminate based on religious beliefs when they hire staff. Bush has also proposed making religious groups eligible for $7.7 billion in Department of Housing and Urban Development funding for the nonreligious areas of church and synagogue buildings, as well as proposing $200 million in government funding for drug treatment programs that proselytize. This despite the objections of a few progressives like Representatives Barney Frank and Jerry Nadler, who raise niggling little issues like the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. "Again and again, this President has demonstrated that he doesn't understand the Constitution, or just doesn't care about it," says Nadler. The HUD program, Frank points out, could create a morass of church/state legal problems: "Are we going to start sending in the inspector general to charge people with committing a bar mitzvah?" he quipped.

Nadler is worried that religious drug treatment and counseling programs that require no professional oversight or licensing will not only use public money to proselytize, but perhaps do more harm than good to vulnerable, poor clients. "We have been told by this Administration that we don't have enough money to spend on schools, health care, or the environment, yet the resources we do have will be diverted to these questionable programs, in violation of the Constitution," Nadler says.

Frank and Nadler are striking the right note--hitting hard against the Administration's excesses, and keeping their sense of humor.
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Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Previous Article:Chaos among people of goodwill. (Flip Side).
Next Article:Walkout for health care. (On the Line).

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