Is this country about to become a theocracy? Since when did televangelists and zealots like Pat Robertson make deals with major presidential candidates as a measure of their support? Well, actually for a while now, although perhaps rather more blatantly this political season. But religious leaders and their organizations that support a specific candidate or political agenda should not be allowed to retain their tax-exempt status.

It has been a feature of the Bush administration to tilt in the direction of religious groups no matter how narrow their vision or how unrelated to the majority of the American people. Faith-based initiatives and so-called “values” voters have influenced appointments to political office that should have remained non-sectarian in nature. Imagine filling important positions according to one’s religious proclivities. This does, however, help to explain the lack of professionalism that defines this White House.

What business is it of pro-life proponents, after all, to inject their particular views into other people’s lives and dictate what a woman’s choice should be? One female attendee, after listening to a Hillary Clinton stump speech, was heard to say she would never vote for a candidate who was pro-choice. Of all the important issues that must be addressed by the next president – – war, the economy, health care, foreign policy, energy, the nuclear threat – – abortion shouldn’t even make the list. In fact it shouldn’t be something federal or state governments mandate one way or the other. How terribly sad that some voters will go to the mat about what is and should remain a personal matter.

But there’s Rudy Giuliani standing beside Pat Robertson who endorses him, one assumes, because Giuliani, although considered a liberal on social issues, has assured Robertson and other right-wing religious figures that he will appoint “strict constructionist” judges to the courts – – wink, wink, nudge, nudge. That means of course that he would put more conservatives on the bench who favor charting the course of a woman’s life and who would cast a friendly eye in the direction of corporations. So much for the change the American public so desperately wants. The right believes religion will help them hold on to power, and Republican candidates must think so too judging from their feverish efforts to curry support in the most unlikely quarters.

It took Mike Huckabee, however, to put an extra-special spin on the issue, suggesting that abortion is a factor influencing illegal immigration – – the underlying logic being, as Bill Maher noted, that if abortion were outlawed we wouldn’t have to depend on foreign labor because we would have an abundance of domestic fruit pickers. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, Huckabee managed to hit on two hot-button issues at once, no matter how irrational the premise. But what can be expected from a man who doesn’t believe in evolution and couches much of his rhetoric in religious terms? Faith can be a wonderful strength among believers; the problems begin when that faith becomes a political tool and directs governmental agendas.

Candidates on the right are falling all over themselves trying to say they are the most conservative, most devout, toughest s.o.b’s on the planet. John McCain, who has also trumpeted his religious values and conservative congressional record of late, made a not-so-subtle reference to his imprisonment during the Viet Nam war when he criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting a Woodstock Museum, saying he was “tied up” at the time of Woodstock. No-one questions McCain’s ordeal or his heroism, and some may question why taxpayer money should fund a Woodstock Museum, but it diminishes McCain’s persona when he snidely inserts his war hero status into the debate or plays to the religious-right crowd.

The media has gone along with much of the conservative religious rhetoric and insists on using the term “values” voters despite the fact that the values embraced by these people fall far short of what most of us would consider virtues and are, rather, defined by narrow wedge issues and religious dogma. Perhaps the most annoying example of media complicity in the focus on faith was when Tim Russert asked Democratic candidates at a debate to quote their favorite Bible verse – – what a waste of meaningful debate time. Was this an attempt to prove that Democrats can quote scripture too but really to what purpose?

This administration must have God-blessed America more times than anyone can count, but that hasn’t kept us from becoming embroiled in a war of choice that has caused the death and displacement of millions of Iraqis, and taken a terrible toll on our military – – a conflict fashioned and engineered by ideologues ignorant about war itself and more importantly about its aftermath. So let’s not pretend we are on some glorious mission; and let’s not be fooled by the tough-talking, more-of-the-same crowd this time around. It would be a great relief if candidates stuck to matters of substance and quoting the Bible returned to houses of worship instead of the campaign trail.

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