Throughout American political history presidential campaigns have been marked by malicious attacks and mud slinging. But the campaign of personal hate and destruction this year is over the top.
Let me make it clear at the outset: As I wrote in my book Kingdoms in Conflict in 1986, Christian leaders should never make political endorsements. I have not and will not. I also well recognize that both parties have engaged in dirty-trick campaigns and spread slander in the past. Many people went overboard with personal attacks on President Clinton and his wife.
But though I don?t endorse candidates, I can comment on the campaign. Living in a so-called battleground state, I can?t watch an hour of television without being assaulted by ads from so-called independent 527 organizations?some showing children in chains allegedly shackled by President Bush.
Columnist Susan Estrich has openly called for Bush?s opponents to ?fight fire with fire, mud with mud, dirt with dirt??in short, to do anything, fair or unfair, to win this election. Infamous gossipmonger Kitty Kelley is releasing a book on the Bush family?all of its lurid charges from unnamed sources. Nobody trusts Kelley?except maybe Susan Estrich?yet she has been invited on the Today show three times. And it is no coincidence, I think, that Michael Moore?s pseudo-documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is about to be released on DVD.
In one sense, the degrading of political discourse is part of a broader pattern in American life: the coarsening of culture. You see it in the clothing people wear (or don?t wear), the lack of manners, and the vulgar language that has become commonplace. Cultures coarsen when morality declines.
But this year there?s something more to it. The attacks on President Bush seem to be part of a concerted effort, much of it aimed at his faith. Former Vice President Al Gore, himself a Christian, compared Bush?s form of Christianity to the ?same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia . . . ? Columnists like Nick Kristof of the New York Times have compared Bush?s faith to Iran?s ayatollahs. This is dreadful prejudice, no different from the anti-Catholicism when Al Smith became the first Catholic candidate to run for president?or again when John Kennedy ran.
While I can?t endorse candidates, I can defend the faith and character of people I know well. I?ve worked with George Bush for ten years, beginning when he, as governor, invited us to bring the first faith-based prison in America to Texas. I?ve seen the president keep his word when it would have been easier to break it.