Steven C. Day's "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe"
April 29, 2005
|STEVEN C. DAY'S ARCHIVES|
The last few months have been fairly rough ones here at The Last Chance Democracy Café. We helped to bury Chester Lewis, a fine young man who died a wholly unnecessary death in Iraq, and we said goodbye to our dear friend, Maggie, who died a victim of neglect here at home. Meanwhile, weve watched as the political power of the combined forces of greed and hatred has grown and grown.
Tonight, Horace gives us reason to hope.
Last Chance Democracy Café
Although the night was, as they say, still young, the conversation at the large round table was already consumed with intense speculation over the new pope, Benedict XVI. Suffice it to say we weren’t pleased. Words like intolerant, autocratic and reactionary were flowing almost as freely as the scotch and beer -- though bringing us a good deal less pleasure. And I have to admit this made me a little uncomfortable. There we were, after all, four Protestants of varying degrees of devotion and one very secular Jew, offering up opinions on the wisdom of the selection of the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
I had to wonder: Who the hell were we to even have an opinion on the new pope?
"Well, who the hell was he to intervene in our presidential election?" was Winston’s response. Not a bad one, if you ask me.
You’ve probably heard the story: In June of 2004, in the heat of the presidential campaign, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a letter to U.S. bishops on the subject of the worthiness of church members to receive communion. This curiously timed missive specifically mentioned "the case of a Catholic politician consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws." The future pope unequivocally stated that any priest confronted with such a person seeking communion "must refuse to distribute it."
The American bishops, apparently divided on the issue, declined to adopt Ratzinger’s absolutist position, instead, leaving the issue to the conscience of each individual bishop.
Of course, Ratzinger is now pope.
Guess whose conscience will win out next time.
Ratzinger’s intervention almost certainly helped secure Bush’s reelection. If nothing else, it emboldened those American bishops already inclined to use the communion issue as a way to damage Kerry’s candidacy, and as anyone not vacationing on Alpha Centauri at the time knows, this became quite a row during the campaign. In the end, Bush’s percentage of the Catholic vote increased from 46 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2004 -- a particularly striking jump given John Kerry himself was Catholic.
As Sidney Blumenthal writes compellingly in Salon, "Three states -- Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico -- moved into Bush's column on the votes of the Catholic ‘faithful.’ Even with his atmospherics of terrorism and Sept. 11, Bush required the benediction of the Holy See as his saving grace. The key to his kingdom was turned by Cardinal Ratzinger."
No wonder Bush seems so pleased by Ratzinger’s accession to pope, describing him as "a man of great wisdom and knowledge." Who wouldn’t be happy to have a member of his campaign team take the helm of a religious organization representing over one billion people world wide.
Slice it, dice it or cut it up how ever you want: The bottom line here is the College of Cardinals couldn’t have made a much more extreme selection if they’d tried: Whether it’s campaigning against the rights of women and gays, justifying the Inquisition’s persecution of Galileo (yup, he called it "reasonable and just" ) or the aggressive use of his office to silence dissent within the Church, Ratzinger has been consistently and dogmatically ultraconservative.
And, yes, I have heard the argument that now that Ratzinger, unquestionably a brilliant man, is no longer leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the artist previously known as the Holy Inquisition), but has become Peter to the whole Church, everything will change.
Well, I hope they’re right, of course. But I have to say, this all sounds troublingly familiar. I can remember, for example, how when one John Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee seeking confirmation as Attorney General, he assured his former colleagues that his extreme Religious Right viewpoints wouldn’t affect him one iota in his new job. You see, his role had changed: Whereas before, as a legislator, he had been an advocate, now, in his new role, he would be an impartial enforcer of the law.
And that certainly worked out well.
And, yes, I know that since his selection, Pope Benedict has made considerable effort to "reach out" to others -- and good for him. In his very fist mass as pontiff, for example, he expressed the intention to follow John-Paul II in making it his primary commitment to work toward "the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers."
Assuming this means that Benedict plans to work to improve relations with other Christian denominations (as opposed to trying to "unite them" under his leadership), then I’m glad to hear it, really I am. But -- well, I’m sorry, but again, it all sounds kind of familiar. I can’t help but remember a beaming George W. Bush, having just been elected President of the United States by a five-to-four vote of the Supreme Court, appearing before the Texas legislature (known locally as The Ledge), talking about nonpartisanship. He was going to end the partisan warfare in Washington, he told the nation, by reaching out to the Democrats, just like he had in Texas. He would work with both parties to craft nonpartisan solutions for America.
And that certainly worked out well.
And, finally, yes, I’ve also heard the reports of how in person Benedict is a really nice guy with a swell sense of humor. The next thing you know, people will start telling us how he’s the type of guy it would be fun to have a beer with, just like they used to say about a certain Texas Governor who was running for . . .
And, again, that certainly worked out well.
So I’ll admit it. I’m not optimistic about the new pope. I figure, once an autocrat, always an autocrat.
And as I sat there in the café on this early spring evening, with pope talk swirling around me, I was feeling down. True, I’m not a Catholic, but I live in the same world they do -- a world I believe with all my heart needs to move forward, not backward; needs to boldly address the challenges of the new century, instead of waxing lyrically about the theocracy of centuries long gone.
And I couldn’t see any way of avoiding the conclusion that with Ratzinger now duly ensconced as the Vicar of Christ, the Age of Reason has dimmed, if ever so slightly, and the fog of the Dark Ages has become a little less remote.
Then, of course, there’s the politics. With the White House and much of Congress already taking dictation from the Religious Right, how can any progressively minded person be anything but dismayed by the sight of them giddily welcoming this powerful new ally? And, yes, I know that it will be far from a perfect alliance, what with the leadership of the Catholic Church, presumably including Benedict, opposing many facets of the right’s agenda, from capital punishment to the Iraq War.
But somehow when the time comes for the rubber to hit the road, as those now famous "NASCAR dads" might put it, none of that ever seems to matter. When it comes to who they tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) support in elections, the Vatican’s political bottom line seems always to come down to Republican friendly issues like abortion and gay marriage. Issues where Catholic doctrine differs from the Republican agenda, such as opposition to the War in Iraq and abolition of capital punishment, seem always to become, shall we say, lesser stitches in that Seamless Garment of Life.
Sitting there at the large round table, I had to wonder: How much worse will things get? How much more can democracy stand?
And then Horace said the damnedest thing.
* * *
"Now, on a cheerier note," he began, "the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that we’ve reached high noon for the Religious Right."
"Say what . . . ?" I responded incredulously.
"I said I think it’s high noon for the Religious Right."
"Meaning they’re about to gun the rest of us down?"
Horace smiled. "No. Meaning that they’ve reached the high water mark for their power and influence. From now on, it’s all down hill."
"Good God!" barked Winston, who’s been accused at times of putting form over substance. "High noon?! High water mark?! It’s all down hill?! What are you trying to do? Get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most mixed metaphors in a 10 second period?!
Horace laughed good naturedly. "I guess I did sort of mix my metaphor."
"More like a whole metaphor dictionary."
Winston was starting to annoy me, which is actually one of his more noteworthy talents -- annoying people in creative ways. I wanted to hear what Horace had to say. As I’ve said, I was feeling sort of down and I was now hoping that perhaps Horace, as he had on so many other occasions, would manage to pull some rabbit out of his hat to brighten my spirits a little.
"Winston . . . please!" I said crossly.
"I want to hear Horace."
"You like mixed metaphors?"
Horace pushed ahead, without further responding to Winston. "I know this may sound nuts . . . given how powerful the Christian Right has become in this country. But I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, and I really do believe we’ve reached the beginning of the end of social conservative dominance in American politics."
Horace was right. He did sound nuts.
"How can you possibly say that," I said in what I’m sure was a bewildered tone of voice. "Everything is going their way . . ."
"Not everything," said Horace. "The Schiavo case didn’t go their way."
He had me there. "I’ll give you that," I replied after a few moments. "The Religious Right did take a black eye on that one . . . a bad one. But . . ."
"Good," Horace cut me off. "Then let me ask you something in follow up: Have you seen any evidence . . . any evidence at all that these folks have learned from that mistake?"
I won’t call it an epiphany, since that would be seriously over the top; but his words did strike me with considerable force, probably more or less equal to the force of a pie flying into David Horowitz’s face -- to speak again of cheerier thoughts.
Horace was right. They hadn’t learned anything from the debacle. Not one damn thing. With each loss along the way, they just pushed back harder. With each new poll showing how far out of step they were with the public, they became even shriller. With each new proposal shot down as just too outlandish, they offered a new one that was far worse. And even now that it’s all over they can’t let go -- they’re still out there, hatching one ludicrous plot after another to try to get even.
"Point taken," I said finally.
Horace said, "I honestly believe that when the history of this era is written, 2004 will be remembered as the beginning of the end of the power of the Religious Right."
"The Schiavo affair happened this year . . . 2005, not in 2004." I was surprised Horace had made such an obvious mistake.
"I know," he replied, with a barely perceptible hint of annoyance. "I’m not talking about the Schiavo case . . . it’s a symptom, not the cause. What will ultimately cause the far right to crack up is the 2004 election."
I wasn’t buying it. "Sorry," I told him, "but I still don’t get it: They won that election. Bush was reelected and the Republicans increased their strength in Congress, especially the Senate."
"Well, if you know, then how can you say . . . ?"
"Actually, it’s the very fact that they did win the election that I believe marks the beginning of their doom."
"Huh?" said Zach, who always did have a Steinbeck like knack for succinct expression.
I decided to leave the conversation with Horace to him.
"Well, think about it, Zach," grinned Horace. "What’s happened to the leadership of the Religious Right as a result of their big victory in 2004?"
"They’ve become more powerful, I mean . . . right?"
"Sure, a little. But what I’m after is what’s happened to their attitude?"
"Well, they’ve become insufferable, I suppose."
"No, they were already insufferable. I’m looking for something else."
". . . Well, I guess, well . . . they got cocky?"
"Cocky?" huffed Winston. "Charles Barkley’s cocky. The leaders of the Religious Right think they can walk on water."
"Exactly," said Horace. "They did get cocky . . . and, yes, Winston, they probably do think they can walk on water. And you know what generally happens to someone who thinks that . . ."
"They get wet," suggested Zach.
"Soaked to the bone. And it’s because they’ve become so cocky that they’ve started making what I think may just prove to be a fatal mistake."
"They’ve started moving out of the shadows and into the light."
* * *
I knew where Horace was coming from, even before he explained it to Zach. It’s always been his theory -- one I generally agree with, by the way, that the Religious Right is most successful, at least in the majority of the country, when they work behind the scenes and out of the full glare of public scrutiny. "They grow like moss in the shadows, but flame like vampires in the full light of day," he always says.
He likes to use Kansas as an example. As longtime Café visitors know, Horace has a strong connection with Kansas through his daughter, who’s an attorney practicing in Wichita. Horace spends a lot of time there visiting the grandkids, and he makes it a point to follow Kansas politics. And in discussing the Religious Right, he likes to tell the story of Darwin and the Kansas State Board of Education.
A few years ago, a religiously conservative majority on the Board voted to drop Darwin’s theory of natural selection from the state’s education standards. The vote had little practical effect, since most local school districts continued to teach evolution. But it produced a national outcry. A duly humiliated Kansas electorate then booted two members of the board out of office at the next election and the policy was repealed.
With the controversy quieted, social conservatives retook control of the Board in the last election and appear poised to replay the same anti-Darwin theater in the coming year. Horace suspects they’ll get voted out again in the next election.
Here’s Horace’s point: The Religious Right is very strong in Kansas. They’re also much, much better organized than any of their opponents. But, even with all these advantages, they still don’t constitute anything close to a majority of the electorate in the state. This means that in an election, like one for the State Board of Education, where most people don’t pay much attention, and thus their organizational and motivational advantages weigh heavily, the Religious Right tends to be almost unbeatable.
But the problem with being part of a fringe group that wins political power, of course, is you have to use that power cautiously. You have to keep reminding yourself that you didn’t win because the public at large bought into your whole agenda; you won by working in the shadows. Because, if you allow your victory to go to your head, leading you to climb out of the shadows and show yourselves for who you really are, say by pursuing extreme elements of your agenda, you may be in for an unhappy surprise the next time you meet the voters.
* * *
Zach, who had just listened to Horace explain all this, asked the logical follow up question: "But what evidence is there that things work this same way in the country as a whole? I mean, members of the Religious Right win a lot of big elections, don’t they?"
"They sure do," agreed Horace. "They’re a powerful force to be reckoned with, no doubt about it. But let me ask you another question . . ."
"Why did I see that coming?"
"Are you back-talking me, boy?"
Horace was joking, of course.
Zach knew it, but played along.
"No, Sir, I’d never do that, Sir."
"Damn good thing." Then Horace smiled, before continuing, "Anyway, do you happen to remember any of the prime time speeches given by members of the Religious Right during the 2004 Republican Convention?"
Zach fidgeted with his beer bottle for a few seconds before sheepishly confessing, "To be honest, I didn’t watch much of the convention."
Winston jumped in. "Smart boy. There was much more intelligent programming available on other channels. For example, if I recall correctly, there was a Gilligan’s Island marathon playing on channel 64."
In my house, by the way, we mostly watched SpongeBob SquarePants during the Republican Convention -- that parenthood thing, you know. It was only later that I learned from James Dobson that doing so was a sinful act of subversion, in furtherance of the "homosexual agenda." I wish I’d known that at the time. I’d have liked it.
(Yeah, yeah, I know Dobson really didn’t attack poor old SpongeBob himself, only his involvement in a video that had the audacity to encourage tolerance among school children. And that’s supposed to be better?)
But Zach was having none of it. "No, Horace is right," he said. "I should have watched more of the convention than I . . ."
Horace cut him off. "Don’t apologize on my account. Actually, I didn’t have the stomach to watch the whole thing myself. But in any case, it was a trick question; because unless you count Bush and Cheney themselves, the Religious Right had almost no representation among the prime time speakers during the Republican convention. The dais belonged to the so-called moderates . . ."
"You know," interrupted Tom, "people who would have been called hard core conservatives 30 years ago, but who are now deemed to be moderates because they don’t believe the earth is flat."
". . . and it was pretty much the same story back at the 2000 convention," Horace pushed on, " with the Religious Right kept carefully out of the view of the cameras. So Zach, why do you think Karl Rove and the boys wanted to keep Falwell and company so tightly under wraps?"
"Were they embarrassed by them?"
"Maybe. But mostly I think they were just afraid . . . an entirely reasonable fear, I might add, that far right speakers would scare people into voting Democratic."
"God knows they scare the hell out of me," muttered Winston. "In fact, I’ve been having this recurring nightmare involving Tim LaHaye . . ."
"I’m sorry, I don’t know who he is," said Zach.
"An absolutely delightful fellow," replied Winston. "He’s not only a leader of the Religious Right, but also one of the authors of that Left Behind series . . . You remember, we talked about it a few weeks ago. It’s the series of books about how all the nonbelievers left behind on earth, you know, after all the believers fly away to heaven in the Rapture, will be slowly tortured and slaughtered during the Tribulation to follow."
Tom broke in, "So was your nightmare that you were one of those left behind?"
"Just the opposite . . . that I was taken along at the time of the Rapture and forced to spend the rest of eternity with assholes like LaHaye!"
Fighting to salvage the threads of the point he was trying to make, Horace said, "The important thing, Zach, is that here we have a prime example of how even the leadership of the national Republican Party recognizes the political importance of keeping the Religious Right on a short leash."
Zach nodded that he understood.
"But now they’ve got a problem on their hands. Because in the wake of the last election, the true believers have lost patience with this hide in the shadows strategy. They believe . . . and with considerable justification, that they were the ones who won the contest for Bush and the Republicans, and they feel entitled to have their agenda placed front and center."
"They’ve certainly started snarling in public a good deal more," agreed Winston.
"That’s what the Schiavo travesty was really about," continued Horace. "At first, the Republican politicos saw it as a great opportunity to score some points with their base. But they lost control of the situation. For one thing, they badly misjudged the politics: It turns out that people really do care about the Right to Privacy . . . and, God love them, they really do loathe politicians who try to use a family’s private suffering to score political points. But once the Republican congressional leadership had set things into motion, they had no way to back down. Their base wouldn’t let them.
"So they just kept upping the political ante, until finally they actually started threatening judges . . . Now there’s no doubt that judges sometimes make attractive political targets, but this time most people were on the judges’ side. And so Delay and Company just ended up looking like assholes."
"Again," added Winston.
"The dude is a charmer," agreed Horace.
"And now polls are out showing that Americans are opposed to the Republicans using the nuclear option to push through Bush’s most extreme judicial appointments by a margin of two-to-one," noted Tom. "And something tells me it isn’t because they love the filibuster. People are starting to get the message that some of these folks hold views that are truly scary."
Horace said, "Of course, the leaders of the far right have been making butts of themselves in a lot of other ways lately too. There’s stem cell research, attacks on teaching Darwin and even this madness about giving pharmacists the legal right to use their quote, consciences, close quote, in deciding whether to fill prescriptions."
"Yeah that’s the ticket," said Winston sarcastically. "Let’s not let a woman and her doctor decide whether she should be on birth control pills . . . and by the way, sometimes they’re prescribed for things other than contraception. No, instead, let’s have the corner druggist stick his fucking nose into the process."
"I agree," said Tom. "Come on, Republicans, please . . . try taking that one out for a test drive next election. I dare you."
Zach, who had been quietly taking it all in, spoke up again. "What I don’t understand is why you think the public is going to take notice of all this now. I mean, a lot of the stuff you’re talking about, like the Religious Right opposing stem cell research, has been going on for years."
Horace stroked his beer bottle with his forefinger, the way he sometimes does when he’s considering his words carefully, and then said, "It’s just that it’s all so much more in your face today than it used to be; so much more out in the open. God, how can I explain . . . I guess it’s what I was saying before: The Religious Right is out of the shadows now and their demands just keep escalating. And they’re in no mood to take no for an answer, or to compromise even a smidgen. They want it all. And most Republican office holders are so dependent on them that it’s hard for them even to consider saying no . . ."
Winston interrupted, "Here’s how Lyndon Johnson would have put it: The Religious Right has the Republican Party’s pecker in its pocket."
"That they do," chuckled Horace. "So day by day, the Republicans push an agenda that’s further and further to the right of the vast majority of the American people. And day by day, as the leaders of the Religious Right fail to get everything they want, they become more strident. And I honestly believe, day by day, more Americans, if not fully coming to the realization of just how bad things have become, are at least starting to get the sense that right wing zealots have far too much power in our government."
"And I don’t know if I’m as optimistic as Horace about all this," said Winston, "but there’s one thing I will tell you. The American electorate as a whole has very little use for zealots. They never have."
Horace patted Zach on the back. "I know it’s hard now to even image how things can ever change. It almost feels like democracy is dead in America. Bush lies and lies and lies, and it’s as though no one cares. Republican politicians push through one pay off to the wealthy after another, all the while screwing working Americans, and the public yawns. It’s an era where the idea of politics as an agent for the pursuit of the public good seems almost naïve, where money is the only siren song heard, and yet, the public seems to just look the other way.
"But you know what it makes me think of? It’s a line at the very end of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, where Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is credited with saying of the attack on Pearl Harbor, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.’
"Zach, again I’ll admit that I may just be nuts, but I honestly do believe that the American electorate is a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened. And I think the harder the Religious Right pushes, the more the giant begins to stir."
* * *
To be honest, I don’t know if I completely buy into Horace’s assumptions about the coming demise of the Religious Right’s power. But I’ll have to give him one thing: He did manage to improve my mood.
* * *
Read all the "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe" episodes in the archives.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001