Christine O'Donnell may have had to deny being a witch, but she wasn't the only election-year Halloween bogeyman for Democrats to trick voters with this year. Did you hear the one about how Republican candidate fill-in-the-blank, fill-in-the-district, wants to privatize Social Security? Even former president George W. Bush got thrown into that mix, for regretting his inability to get his Social Security plan passed -- which would not have privatized Social Security. But being serious is not what Halloween (or, sometimes, an election) tends to be about.
And then there is religion. The fear of God takes on a whole new meaning this time of year. Folks on the right of the political spectrum want to create a religious state, you know. We want to tear down the wall between church and state. Her blunder happened weeks before the election, but we'll be talking about Delaware senatorial candidate O'Donnell's supposed mistakes on the First Amendment for a while to come. I expect to see it in year-end wrap-ups. I expect Republican primary candidates will be asked about it in Iowa.
Of course, as many a grad student (hopefully) knows, that "wall of separation" we hear so much about was not in the U.S. Constitution -- and still isn't. It is, rather, a quote from Thomas Jefferson, in a letter. O'Donnell's comments "should not ... be the occasion for the kind of eye-rolling ridicule they have attracted," Gerard V. Bradley, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, tells me. Can we stop laughing at her?
Furthermore, can the party and allies of former Scranton altar boy Joe Biden stop pretending that the Constitution enshrines a hermetically sealed separation between religion and politics? A soundtrack of Nancy Pelosi "thank(ing) God for the nuns" in the wake of the health-care debate could have been playing on a recent conference call from a group called Catholics United. In defending Democratic Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania and Steve Driehaus of Ohio, a Sister Marlene Bertke of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie was brought on to denounce billboards from the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that supports pro-life politicians, and has recently begun attacking professed pro-life Democrats who voted for the health-care bill. The SBA List billboards accused Dahlkemper and Driehaus of endorsing taxpayer-funded abortion when they voted for the health-care legislation that passed Congress in the spring. Now, the fact is, members of Congress who voted for that bill were uncertain -- at best -- that it would protect unborn human life from taxpayer-funded abortion.
To provide political cover, and, serving to further confuse an already hyper-complicated, issue, liberal female members of religious orders are trotted out to support the congressmen who voted for Obamacare. This has now become a mainstay of the debate, meant to shut down all conversation. Sister has spoken!
On this particular pre-Election Day call, Sister Bertke was coming to Dahlkemper's defense. "The false advertising that is taking place is morally wrong," she declared. It's hard to take all the scare tactics about how the right wants to create a religious state seriously when such a massive expansion of the state was passed behind the polyester skirts of liberal nuns.
But even those who retain a residual fear of conservative religious values should be able to join in a moment of agreed bipartisan outrage over Minnesota Democrats' recent mailings in a state-senate race, showing a man wearing a priest's collar and an "Ignore the Poor" button. They are protesting a particular candidate's refusal to denounce some of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget cuts. Instead of having a debate over policy, they have chosen to jump out of the bushes and shout, "Boo!" They're hoping that terrifies voters enough to vote Democrat.
When the health-care legislation passed, there was also the voice of the body of Catholic bishops of the United States (not typically known as an arm of the Republican Party), and an outspoken group of traditional religious sisters that had something to say about the dangers of the legislation. Those voices were drowned out though by a Democratic majority in Washington, liberal special-interest groups, trade associations, (including the Catholic Health Association), and a willing media.
The upside to this all is what you saw during the (still ongoing) health-care debate: an acknowledgement that religion absolutely plays a role in the lives of Americans. As Carl Anderson points out in his important new book, "Beyond a House Divided," most of us share many of the same values, despite the divide politics and culture frequently suggest exists among us. Further, as Anderson writes, "The American consensus on religion's role in the public discourse is not just a national mood, it's a fact founded in American history." We cannot afford to expunge it. We should not co-opt it. We should embrace it in the most honest and transparent of ways. In God we trust. And for political prudence, we pray.