ON THE FIRST NIGHT of the Democratic Convention, I tuned in to a broadcast that was a reminder of the glory of the Clinton '90s. There on ABC was everything I loved about that time, presented in sun-dappled, carefree slo-mo. I felt warm inside as the program reminded me of values that "put people first" and suggested there's more to life than living on welfare.
Then I switched from Baywatch Hawaii and returned to convention coverage.
In the real Surf City of Angels, it was a whole different story, one infused with what Salon calls "The New Sanctimony." There was Sabbath Joe Lieberman saying he was prayer pals with Al. There was Al invoking God's name and distancing himself from fallen Bill. There, nodding approvingly in the galleries, sat the Democrat's elder statesman of sanctimony, the holier-than-thou Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter, a president once ridiculed for admitting to Playboy he had "lusted in his heart."
Today's Democrats won't go near the Playboy mansion, let alone confess to acts of spiritual frottage. The main purpose of their LA convention seemed to be to prove that God is bipartisan and that the neo-prude decade Tom Wolfe predicted some years ago is flourishing—at least in rhetoric, sound-bites, and images, if not in our personal behavior.
MANY ARE UNCOMFORTABLE with the Democrats' rediscovery of the Judeo-Christian God as an everyday icon. The latest chapter certainly started before Gore, as when Baptist Clinton began ending every speech with "God bless America" and proved himself adept in speaking from the pulpit in African-American churches. But his religiosity was hardly of the Puritan kind: He and Rev. Jesse Jackson and others seem less righteous than enraptured, glorying in the possibilities of redeeming imperfection rather than stamping it out.
But my eyebrows are hardly raised at this phenomenon. America is a Judeo-Christian culture through and through, and you hardly notice it, unless their God is not your God. In that case, you belong to a small minority of Americans. Nearly 60 percent of Americans say they are Protestant; 27 percent Catholic; 2 percent Jewish, according to the last census in 1990. Only 7 percent say they have no religion at all, and 5 percent are classified as other—which presumably includes adherents of many of the other great world religions.
God is everywhere in America: on TV, in politics, on the money, in our legal oaths and pledges. Despite Supreme Court rulings against the mixing of church and state, a kind of universal cultural understanding exists: While people may follow different religions, we all have God in common. And many believe that God is even in free- market capitalism itself, that the Bible is the divine engine behind progress and prosperity. Even some people who are usually cautious about mixing the religious and secular see nothing wrong with posting the Ten Commandments in schools or courthouses, as if they are "religion-neutral" values. Maybe they haven't read them, for God is there, in the details.
Take the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
Why would anyone be offended? That there are millions of Americans, not to mention billions of people on the planet, who would be very offended— if not amused—by this God's cranky demands seems never to occur to those who accept these teachings, or who haven't examined them very closely.
THE REPUBLICANS ARE trying to tone down their God-talk appreciably. They've done so to the point where the Republicans and Democrats have attained a similar tone—just as they appear to have done on secular issues such as defense, welfare reform, and free trade. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are off center stage, and Boy George is asking for some kind of redemption for his "lost years." In his acceptance speech, Bush said he had required forgiveness, echoing Jesse Jackson's famous past convention apology for his sins when he called out: "God is not finished with me yet."
But the differences between the Democrats and Republicans are significant, if more subtle than in decades past. Gore and Lieberman may talk like God's Republicans, but those of us who listen carefully to such things because we live in a culture in which the dominant religious practices are not our own are used to listening to the subtext. When Gore says "God bless America," we know that he is asking his God to smile upon an America that tolerates difference, who will protect us even though our numbers are small. His choice of Lieberman alone is symbolic of that fact.
But when Boy George declares "Jesus Day" in Texas or claims that Jews, like Lieberman, can't get into heaven, we know his invocations are to a God who is intolerant and whose adherents are missionary. He invokes the jealous, wrathful deity of Robertson and Falwell, who will smite us to the third and fourth generations for our wickedness.
I don't like the mixing of politics and religion; I am for the separation of church and state. But religion is politics in this country, and whether or not you share or like a candidate's faith, you have to find your way around the rhetoric to find the consequence in it.
The God of Al Gore is not my god, but it's not too hard to see that those who share my lack of faith will be a lot safer under his administration.