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Politics and Religion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Over in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama was saying of Hillary Clinton, "She seems to have a habit of saying whatever it is that folks want to hear." And Clinton was saying of Obama, "He has sent out mailers, he has run ads, misrepresenting what I have proposed."

Meanwhile, in New York City, at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI was saying things such as, "The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love."

In which attribute -- love, I mean -- the political profession can't exactly be said to abound. The nature of politics, after all, is the capture of power by one group of humans and the denial of that same power to other groups of humans. By force, by the ballot -- it all comes ultimately to the same thing, which is that the last thing politics is about is love.

The same goes for a large number of other things you've heard about, such as peace, contentment, joy and fulfillment. Politics isn't about these commodities either. Politics is a wrestling match, with ample components of eye-gouging and head-butting. Whoever ends up sitting on top, by talent or trickery, is the winner.

The timing of the papal visit, coincidental as that timing certainly was, makes a little clearer the debased state of democratic government in the 20th century. As if the almost unendurable length of the presidential campaign, and the squalor of the dialogue, such as it is, hadn't made that plain enough already.

Of Benedict XVI, the Washington Post quoted a Connecticut woman as saying, "Everyone who has seen him says they crumple, their knees buckle." The last time this season that a candidate for president, or possibly any other office in the gift of the people, had that effect was ... well, this question obviously requires some thought. I'll tell you when the answer comes to me. If ever it does.

A current American obsession, at least on the left, is the expulsion of religion from the public domain, lest the mythological "wall of separation" between church and state crumble to dust. The expulsion of religion from the public domain would, if anything, make the public domain meaner and more unclean than ever.

We like the slanging of political candidates better than we like appeals to "self-surrender," gentleness and generosity of spirit? Tell me another one. Alas, we allow and accept the slanging because it's how things get done in politics.

The political obsession with political remedies and political solutions is the disgrace of the age. "How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure," wrote Samuel Johnson, with deadlier accuracy than you'll find in political disquisitions published to assure us of "the other side's" malice and malignity.

Family, friendship, church, synagogue, volunteer association -- here you find, most of the time, the brighter life that politicians beg us to see as flowing directly from the right kind of vote: The "right" kind, meaning, of course, a vote for the maker of the pledge.

Better, on these terms, a vote for smaller government -- the kind that delivers more by promising less -- than for heavier, bulkier, more "promising" government of the sort most current politicians seem to prefer. The politicians, the spielers and speechmakers, get the bulk of the attention we generally bestow on those who put on the noisiest, splashiest show. Yet, as we've seen for the past few days, a pope can put on a pretty good show of his own -- all the more impressive for the tenor of the message, which doesn't revolve around "get," rather around "give." And only then, around "possess."

On with the campaign! Let's try at the same time to bear in mind how little it's likely to settle, how little real peace the outcome will bring at the last.

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