Imagine "The Dating Game," except that Bachelors No. 1 and No. 2 tell you, the voter, what's wrong with the other guy's wooing.
John McCain: I'm not saying George Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot with a dirty campaign. I'm just saying he made a speech at Bob Jones University, which thinks Catholics are going to hell and opposes interracial dating. Stick with me, baby, and we'll make it a point of honor to exclude all the intolerant, evil influences that have been poisoning our party's electoral chances.
George Bush: I'm not saying John McCain is a liberal, exactly, just that he agrees with Bill Clinton about a whole lot of things, except for breast cancer research in New York. How can you pick a guy who wants to exclude Pat Robertson and New York breast cancer researchers from the big tent of this grand old party?
It's certainly politics as usual, a messy, unpleasant business where people go out of their way to exaggerate differences on both sides of the aisle. (Who knew Bill Bradley was an anti-black extremist out to keep the elderly from getting health care? Just for example.)
Who's to blame for the current religion wars? Some people blame George Bush. By mentioning "Jesus" in a debate he was either (a) pandering to Christian fundamentalists, or (b) exposing a frightening desire to establish a mandatory religion.
People who think this way love John McCain, who campaigns against the role of the religious right in politics. Good people, he says, have been led "astray" by bad leaders. It's time to put religion in its proper place, by which he means it's time to try to fan old religious flames by setting Catholic against evangelical for the purpose of electing John McCain, who gets really ticked off when anybody but him uses questionable campaign tactics.
The New York Times, naturally, waded in with extended applause: "Mr. McCain is trying to deliver a message about the religious right that cannot be dismissed, as Mr. Bush is trying to do, as intolerance on Mr. McCain's part. The essence of the message is that the Christian right wing is as much a political force as a religious movement, and that its leaders have exercised a bullying influence within the Republican Party."
What exactly do leaders of the Christian right do that is so frightening and illegitimate? "They use bloc voting and substantial financial resources to single out politicians in both parties who do not share their religion-based views on abortion and school prayer." This, the Times opines, has "eroded the spirit of tolerance that Americans rightly celebrated after the 1960 election."
This is a form of religious bigotry that is truly frightening because it is so obviously invisible to the good people who wrote it. It's one thing to try to beat people with whom you disagree. It's another thing to announce that the people you disagree with are somehow hostile to democracy itself.
What do conservative Christians do that makes them "agents of intolerance"? Why, they band together with other like-minded people, voting for candidates who support their positions. Sometimes they donate money to campaigns.
Well, gee, time to haul out the Committee on Un-American Activities again, I'd say.
I don't think tactics like this will work because Americans really are more tolerant of religion, including religions they disagree with, than those who would like to ban religious expression from public life imagine. And because, frankly, recent history shows pretty clearly: When it comes to banding together to use government power to impose your vision of sexual morality on other people's children, it's not the Bob Jones graduates we have to fear.