Sunday, March 16, 2008

"Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" - Some historical perspective on pastors and Presidential candidates

The United States has always been both a very religious and a very pluralistic country, with a Constitutional separation between church and state but not always a very sharp practical separation between religion and politics (and there's no inherent contradiction there, since legality is not the same as politics). So it is not surprising that candidates for President occasionally get into trouble through their direct or indirect association with religious leaders who support them.

Of course, whether or not that happens is an inconsistent and sometimes unpredictable business. For example, I think John McCain deserves to be getting a lot more grief that he has so far for gratefully and uncritically accepting the endorsement of Texas mega-Pastor & televangelist John Hagee, who appears to be an outspoken anti-Catholic and homophobic bigot. Yes, I know that calling the Catholic Church "the Great Whore," "the apostate church," a "false cult system," and the like would have made a lot of sense to Martin Luther and to many Protestants since Luther, and Pastor Hagee has every right to freely hold and express these theological opinions. However, in the context of contemporary American politics, I don't think such positions should be accepted as politically respectable. So I find it quite disappointing that McCain has responded to criticisms by offering lukewarm and evasive statements indicating, more or less, that he doesn't necessarily agree with any statements by John Hagee that might hypothetically offend Catholics or anyone else--without really backing away from his embrace of Hagee's support. So far, however, McCain seems to be getting away with it.

Barack Obama, for his part, has had a string of pastor-related embarrassments. A few months ago there was a bit of a flap about the fact that his church, Chicago's Trinity United Church, had given the notorious racist anti-semite Louis Farrakhan a Lifetime Achievement Award, accompanied by a hagiographic write-up in the church's newsmagazine. Obama responded by calmly and straightforwardly indicating that he disagreed with this action and that he condemned Farrakhan's anti-semitic views, thus defusing the situation. Then, more recently, Obama had the misfortune of actually being endorsed by Farrakhan--an endorsement he publicly renounced and denounced. And this past week Obama has been trying to distance himself gracefully from what the Obama campaign has, in the past, referred to euphemistically as the "inflammatory" rhetoric of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's long-time pastor and acknowledged spiritual mentor. (Obama's written statement on Wright is HERE, and a video version is HERE.) Whether Obama's Jeremiah Wright problem proves to be a temporary storm or a more damaging long-term liability remains to be seen, though I suspect the former is more likely.

But be that as it may ...

=> This kind of stuff is not at all new to American politics. Consider, for example, the 1884 Presidential election.

By winning that election, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to be elected President since 1856, before the Civil War. (He lost in 1888, then won again in 1892, becoming the only US President to serve two non-consecutive terms. After that, there were no more Democratic Presidents until Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912. Yes, Cleveland was the only Democratic President between 1860 and 1912.)

The acrimony, mudslinging, and scandals in that election make the present contest look pretty tame (at least, so far). Cleveland's Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, was notorious for his shameless influence-peddling, involving very big payoffs from very big businesses, as well as other forms of corruption, dishonesty, and general sleaze. (Sound familiar?) These blemishes led a number of clean-government Republicans, derisively called "Mugwumps" by other Republicans, to break ranks and support Cleveland, who had a solid reputation for public integrity. One Democratic campaign chant went:
Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!
The continental liar from the state of Maine!
During the campaign Cleveland, for his part, was accused (possibly correctly) of having fathered an illegitimate child. This rather damaging scandal produced a famous anti-Cleveland political cartoon ...

... and this equally famous Republican campaign chant:
Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?
Gone to the White House! Ha, ha, ha!
Well, the joke was on them, since he did go to the White House after all.

It was probably a speech by one of Blaine's supporters, the Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Burchard, that sank Blaine's candidacy. About a week before the election, at a Republican meeting in New York attended by Blaine, Rev. Burchard attacked the Democratic Party as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." By invoking the specter of "rum" Rev. Burchard, a Temperance activist who supported prohibition of alcoholic beverages, was characterizing the Democrats as a party that favored drink & drunkenness & saloons (sustained, one might infer, by the votes of drunken immigrants, especially Irish). "Rebellion" linked the Democratic Party to southern secessionists and northern Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War (and, historically, this was not an entirely unfair charge). "Romanism," of course, meant Catholicism.

(I assume that Rev. Burchard would have expected his audience to make some obvious connections: Many of them, for example, would have viewed Irish immigrants, who voted heavily Democratic, as Catholics and drunkards. And, to complete the picture, during the Civil War Irish-Americans in New York City had exploded in massive riots protesting the draft and the war, assaulting and killing random black people, burning down Colored homes & schools & orphanages, and so on.)

These remarks seem to have gone largely unnoticed at the meeting itself--probably they struck the assembled Republicans as fairly obvious and uncontroversial--but they were spread around by the Democrats and produced considerable outrage among New York Catholics. Blaine hadn't made these remarks himself, and possibly hadn't even heard them. But he didn't criticize them or dissociate himself from them. And when he got around to commenting on them a few days later, his comments were bland and non-committal.

According to a nice formulation usually attributed to Michael Kinsley, the definition of a "gaffe" in US politics is an occasion when a political figure accidentally tells the truth in public--or, at least, accidentally says what he or she really thinks. The result of Rev. Burchard's gaffe was a massive anti-Republican backlash among New York Catholics (and possibly other Democrats as well) that wiped out whatever Catholic support Blaine had been attracting. In the election, Blaine wound up losing New York state by a very narrow margin--and, with it, the Presidency. A number of historians have attributed Blaine's defeat to the reaction against Rev. Burchard's "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" speech.

=> So how come John McCain can get away with embracing John Hagee's support now? Politics is mysterious, I guess.

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Incidentally, when the Cleveland sex scandal first broke, plunging many of Cleveland's Mugwump supporters into gloom, one of them offered a pithy analysis that demonstrated, I would submit, a rare degree of political wisdom:
We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity, but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.
When it comes to public office, if one has to choose, public virtue is more important than private virtue. That was good advice then, and it remains good advice now.