John and Jerry
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
Well, I'll be damned. At least, that's what the Rev. Jerry Falwell says. Last month Mr. Falwell issued a statement explaining that, in his view, Jews can't go to heaven unless they convert to Christianity. And what Mr. Falwell says matters — maybe not in heaven, but here on earth. After all, he's a kingmaker in today's Republican Party.
Senator John McCain obviously believes that he can't get the Republican presidential nomination without Mr. Falwell's approval. During the 2000 campaign, Mr. McCain denounced Mr. Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance." But next month Mr. McCain will be a commencement speaker at Liberty University, which Mr. Falwell founded.
On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Mr. McCain was asked to explain his apparent flip-flop. "I believe," he replied, "that the Christian right has a major role to play in the Republican Party. One reason is because they're so active and their followers are. And I believe they have a right to be a part of our party."
So what has happened since the 2000 campaign to convince Mr. McCain that Mr. Falwell is not, in fact, an agent of intolerance?
Maybe it was Mr. Falwell's TV appearance with Mr. Robertson on Sept. 13, 2001, during which the two religious leaders agreed that the terrorist attack two days earlier was divine punishment for American immorality. "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," said Mr. Falwell, who also declared, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "
Or maybe it was Mr. Falwell's appearance on "60 Minutes" in October 2002, when he declared, "I think Muhammad was a terrorist." Muhammad, he said, was "a violent man" — unlike Mr. Falwell, I guess, who said of terrorists that we should "blow them all away in the name of the Lord."
After each of these incidents, by the way, Mr. Falwell issued what were described as "apologies." But they weren't apologies — they were statements along the lines of, "I'm sorry that some people were upset by what I said." It's clear that in each case Mr. Falwell's offensive remarks were not a slip of the tongue; they reflected his deeply held beliefs.
And that's why it's important to hold someone like Mr. McCain — who is still widely regarded as a moderate, in spite of his extremely conservative voting record — accountable when he cozies up to Mr. Falwell. Nobody thinks that Mr. McCain shares all of Mr. Falwell's views. But when Mr. McCain said that the Christian right has a right to be part of the Republican Party, he was in effect saying that Mr. Falwell's statements are within the realm of acceptable political discourse.
Just to be clear: this is a free country, and Mr. Falwell has a right to say what he thinks, even if his views include the belief that other people, by saying what they think, brought down God's wrath on America. By the same token, any political party has a right to include Mr. Falwell and his supporters, just as any politician has a right to make a political alliance with Mr. Falwell.
But if you choose to make common cause with religious extremists, you are accepting some responsibility for their extremism. By welcoming Mr. Falwell and people like him as members of their party, Republicans are saying that it's O.K. — not necessarily correct, but O.K. — to declare that 9/11 was America's punishment for its tolerance of abortion and homosexuality, that Islam is a terrorist religion, and that Jews can't go to heaven. And voters should judge the Republican Party accordingly.
As for Mr. McCain: his denunciation of Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson six years ago helped give him a reputation as a moderate on social issues. Now that he has made up with Mr. Falwell and endorsed South Dakota's ban on abortion even in the case of rape or incest, only two conclusions are possible: either he isn't a social moderate after all, or he's a cynical political opportunist.
Photo credit: Paul Krugman (The New York Times)