Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Spirit of Joe McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy (1954) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (2008)

A lot of folks in the state of Minnesota may be looking for a way to mitigate the damage done to their state’s reputation by one of their representatives in Congress. On Chris Mathews Friday night edition of “Hardball,” Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, after saying that Obama and his wife held anti-American views and couldn’t be trusted in the White House,
went on to say:
"What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.”
Sam Stein accurately, I think, characterized her statement as “channeling” Joe McCarthy, a U.S. Senator from neighboring Wisconsin who in the 1950s—for those readers who may be too young to remember or, like me, so old that they may have forgotten—exploited anti-communist fears in this country by using his position in the Senate to trumpet unfounded charges that the government, the army, Hollywood, and other groups were infiltrated by communists. His practices resulted in the creation of a new word, “McCarthyism,” which according to The American Heritage Dictionary means "the practice of publicizing accusations of political disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence" and "the use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods in order to suppress opposition."
After his endorsement of Senator Obama this morning, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, chatted with reporters outside and repeated his concerns
about McCain’s judgment in selecting Sarah Palin and his personal attacks on Obama.
"Those kinds of images going out on al Jazeera are killing us around the world," he said. "And we have got to say to the world, it doesn't make any difference who you are or what you are, if you're an American you're an American. And this business of, for example a congresswoman from Minnesota going around saying let's examine all congressmen to see who is pro America or not pro America, we have got to stop this kind of non-sense and pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and diversity. That really was driving me."
Which brings us back to Congresswoman Bachmann and her charges. What she has forgotten, or has never known, is the truth of what Edward R. Murrow said in his historic report (March 9, 1954) on Joe McCarthy:
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.
Not only Congresswoman Bachmann but also John McCain and Sarah Palin have forgotten this fundamental American value. That it is also a widely held “religious” value for many in this country has been forgotten, if indeed it was ever known, by Palin.

In an
article titled, “The Wobbly Political Theology of Sarah Palin,” Scott Horton writes about the Republican strategy to mobilize the Religious Right, a voting block that played key roles in George Bush’s election in 2000 and again in 2004. Horton says that the strategy is failing to meet expectations of religious conservatives. He cites an article by Steve Waldman, editor of Beliefnet and a respected writer on religion and politics:
With all the attention showered on evangelical Christians and Catholics, we've neglected the religious group partly driving Barack Obama's recent surge in the polls: mainline Protestants.This bucket includes the historic American churches that once dominated the spiritual landscape but have been losing members in recent years: United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in the USA, American Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ. Their members represent 18% of the population.This used to be a solidly Republican group. In 2004, they went for President George W. Bush 54%-46%. This summer, John McCain was leading Sen. Obama among these voters 43% to 40%, according to a study by John Green of the University of Akron.But an ABCNews/Washington Post poll released Monday showed Sen. Obama now leading among Mainliners 53%-44%, indicating that the undecided voters are breaking heavily for the Democratic candidate.
Why? Is it that pocketbook issues trump theological issues? Or is it more than that? I think Horton is right that the theology exhibited in the campaign by Palin, and not resisted by McCain, is a significant factor. Horton quotes a prayer recently offered by a pastor at a McCain/Palin rally:
“I would also add, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and election day.”
As a regular part of her stump speeches, Palin questions Obama’s patriotism with a particular religious twist; he does not see America as a “shining city on a hill,” an image she attributes to President Regan.

What Palin doesn’t understand is that the image has a history behind Regan’s use of it. It begins with the New Testament (Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”). Horton remembers that the words were used as a warning to the Puritans before they disembarked in New England in 1630:
For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.

If we carefully parse Winthrop’s words, we see that they have very nearly the opposite of the meaning that Palin assumes. Winthrop believed that his community was making a compact with their God, a solemn undertaking to build a new society on the virgin soil of America true to the models provided in scripture. The “city upon a hill” was aspirational, and it was backed by a stern warning about the costs of failure in the undertaking. For Palin, any expression of criticism was a rejection of the essentially sacred nature of America. But for the Calvinist colonists like Winthrop, introspection and self-criticism were the essential tools for achieving a holy project. Moreover, the idea of calling any inherently flawed human project, any state, a sacred object would violate the basic injunction against idolatry.
Mainline Protestants, Horton argues, are recognizing and are uncomfortable with Palin’s “wobbly political theology,” a theology one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr, called “the idolatry of America.”
The perspective of Religious Right figures like Palin that elevates America—as their political blinders conceive her—to some sort of sacred object is therefore little short of an act of idolatry…

This helps to explain why the Palin approach, even putting aside its striking ignorance, is a tough sell for mainstream Protestants. Sarah Palin may appeal to religious fundamentalists, but her appeal is framed in a much more narrow way than that of prior Rovian candidates.
I don’t expect Palin’s political theology to prevail in Minnesota or anywhere else. What I do expect is that the attacks on Obama as “unpatriotic” or as “
socialist” to continue through and beyond the election. I hope he can take some comfort that FDR was called a socialist as he took the necessary measures to bring the nation back from the Great Depression. The truth is that FDR probably saved capitalism. Thirty-three years ago a graduate student in the Harvard Business School named George W. Bush also condemned FDR as socialist for establishing Social Security.

I think Colin Powell had it right this morning when he said he believed the American people are looking for more than personal attacks. What was it he said?
We have got to stop this kind of nonsense and pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and diversity.
I believe in the great strength of unity and diversity, a belief quite alien to Joe McCarthy. As the spirit of McCarthyism rears its ugly head now, what do you believe?
- Milo

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