McCain, Falwell, and the Right

Early last year, much of the American right worked itself into an ecstasy of outrage after discovering a vile three-year-old essay by Ward Churchill, an obscure ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado. Titled, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," Churchill's diatribe referred to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks as "little Eichmanns," who were "too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight...into the starved and rotting flesh of infants."

Churchill, until then a virtual unknown, was featured more than two dozen times on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show. Conservatives pointed to him as the "authentic face of the Left," as popular right-wing author and blogger Glen Reynolds put it. Reynolds admitted that his also has its extremists, but wrote, "the right has done a better job of muzzling and marginalizing its idiots, while the Left has embraced them." As an example of one such muzzled and marginalized idiot, Reynolds offered the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

He had it precisely backwards. Churchill, a risible character, had absolutely nothing to do with either the Democratic Party, which he publicly despises, or with grassroots progressive organizations like MoveOn. Falwell, on the other hand, helped create the Christian right, a movement that now dominates the GOP.

Falwell and his allies want to remake America as an explicitly Christian nation where religious and political authority are entwined. Over the past decade, his values have become the values of the Republican Party, and would-be Republican presidential nominees must show him a measure of obeisance. Arizona Senator John McCain tried to defy the Christian right in 2000. His subsequent losses in the Virginia and South Carolina primaries clearly taught him a lesson, so next Saturday, he'll travel to Lynchburg, Virginia to give the commencement speech at Falwell's Liberty University. "He is in the process of healing the breach with evangelical groups," the reverend told a local newspaper.

McCain's flip-flop should tarnish his carefully constructed reputation as a straight-talking maverick. After all, it was only six years ago that he referred to Falwell as one of the country's "agents of intolerance." And that was before Falwell's Ward Churchill-style outburst after September 11, when, appearing on Pat Robertson's The 700 Club, the reverend argued that a sinful America had brought the calamity on itself. "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 ACLU, 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,'" he said.

Beyond its effect on McCain's reputation, the fact that the senator is reaching out to Falwell is enormously telling about the state of the GOP. In the party currently controlling our country, religious radicals and ideological extremists are embraced while moderates are merely tolerated. Senate leaders join religious crusaders like James Dobson at "Justice Sunday" rallies to excoriate the judiciary -- at one of them, Dobson called abortion "the biggest holocaust in world history." Ann Coulter, author of the new book Godless: The Church of Liberalism -- a woman famous, among other things, for advocating the execution of liberals and "joking" about murdering Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens -- is a regular speaker at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which draws a parade of Republican leaders including Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. At D.C. meetings hosted by preacher Rick Scarborough, who calls the separation of church and state "a lie introduced by Satan," Republican lawmakers share stages and banquet tables with those who denounce America for inviting God's wrath.

In late March, Scarborough presided over "The War on Christians and the Values Voter in 2006," a two-day gathering featuring speeches by Senator John Cornyn, Representative Tom DeLay, and other Republican congressmen. Over lunch, participants heard a fierce condemnation of their country by Lutheran Pastor Laurence White: "America is no longer good. Unrighteousness, evil, corruption, perversion and death are now standard operating procedure in the United States of America. If we do not put an end to it now, in this moment of divine destiny, then God will and God should judge America."

Republican apologists will say that this kind of thing is confined to an irrelevant fringe. John McCain clearly knows better. By going to Liberty University, he's simply acknowledging the reality of the party he hopes to helm.