God and Mammon


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Both parties


are in a money frenzy, however. The collectors at the Democratic and Republican headquarters are each angling to bank several hundred million dollars in soft money (unrestricted donations that mostly come from millionaires, corporations and unions). Moreover, these funds will be used to skirt election laws by financing ads and activities slyly designed to benefit the party's presidential nominee but not to count as part of the nominee's campaign. Candidates from both parties in the House and Senate are under more pressure than usual to build huge warchests of their own. "We're raising record numbers," said Rep. Thomas Davis, who heads the House GOP campaign arm, "they're raising record numbers. It's Armageddon."


A land rush is under way in the political system. A small number of people and corporations will be pumping billions of dollars, literally, into the campaigns of 2000. What are they buying?


The money chase is no surprise; it has been accelerating in recent years, and Congress has failed to do anything to counter the trend. Then there's the God chase. Given what the body politic has gone through the past year and a half, it's not completely surprising that piety is on the rise on the hustings. God has become the running mate of most presidential candidates. Dan Quayle reportedly told a Christian Coalition official that if God gives a damn, then Quayle will win the race. Conservative Christian Gary Bauer unsurprisingly bemoans the decrease of "fear of God" in this country. Liddy Dole has touted her personal relationship with the Supreme Being. Sen. Bob Smith, the ex-Republican presidential candidate, is now running under the banner of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, a small collection of cranky Christian fundamentalists and anti-abortion fanatics who want to "restore" the American legal system to what they call "its Biblical foundations." Bush has repeatedly advertised the fact that he was born again at age 40?thus, the wild days of his youth are wiped off the slate?and he and Vice President Al Gore have advocated faith-based solutions to social programs.


Recently, when Gore visited Sag Harbor, trying to squeeze contributions out of well-heeled Hamptonites, he kept referring to the Big One during his sales pitch. "Freedom is the way that God wants us to live our lives," he said; and the nation's mission is to have people of different backgrounds and cultures "come together...to make our nation what God intends it to be."


So now Gore is telling us God's wishes, declaring his familiarity with God's intentions. What freedom, then, does God want for us? Does God want corporations to be free to trade with China where workers are ill-treated? Or businesses to be free to pay below minimum wage? Does God want women to be free to choose an abortion? Does God want HMOs to be free to screw patients any way they like? Or does God want patients to be free to choose the provider of their choice at guaranteed affordable prices? Saying God is for freedom doesn't do much to enlighten the national political discourse.


Gore and his aides have told profile-writers that the Vice President has adopted the WWJD method of decision-making. That is, when confronted with a tough choice, he asks himself, What would Jesus do? Hold a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple? After all, wouldn't Jesus go to a house of worship to raise money if he were running for vice president? But would Jesus increase the military budget instead of fully funding Head Start, as the Clinton-Gore administration has done? Would Jesus raise questions of international intellectual property law in response to South Africa's attempt to obtain cheap anti-AIDS drugs for the millions of southern Africans infected with HIV? That's what Gore did.


All this God-dropping is annoying. Since God can be enlisted easily by all sides, he's really of no practical use in elections?especially since he has no official spokesperson to clarify the positions others attribute to him. ("When it comes to Medicare Part B, God would like to make clear that...") By tying his policy prescriptions to Jehovah, Gore reinforces the notion?promoted by fundamentalists?that God has a place in politics. If God wanted to be involved in the presidential elections, no doubt God would find a way to let us know.
Religious Right Monkey Business The I-know-what-God-wants crowd is on the march these days. Last week, creationists succeeded in convincing a majority of the Kansas Board of Education to approve statewide science standards that diminish the role of evolution in biology. Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican, called the action "a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that didn't exist." The state legislatures in Ohio and Georgia have bills pending that would force educators who teach evolution to highlight evidence inconsistent with it, and biblical literalists in other states are trying to rid schools of evolution.
A more entertaining?and less frightening?move on the part of the religious right was its rush to defend Air Force First Lieut. Ryan Berry, who caused a silly dustup when he claimed that, due to his Roman Catholic faith, he couldn't work with women in the close quarters of an underground nuclear missile bunker. Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Family Research Council then turned Berry into a poster boy for those claiming Christian persecution in America. (A persecuted majority?) Berry, who was stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, maintained that 24-hour shifts alone with a female officer in a missile silo violated his religious beliefs. How so? A good Catholic, Berry said, is supposed to avoid the occasion of sin. By being alone with a woman for so long, Berry, who is married, was in a situation that posed too much risk of sinful behavior.

Conservative Catholic outfits rallied behind Berry. John Cardinal O'Connor hailed Berry's "moral integrity." Seventy-seven members of the House of Representatives, led by Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett, signed a letter asking the Air Force to honor Berry's request for a single-sex silo assignment. In a reply to the House members, Gen. Michael F. Ryan, chief of staff of the Air Force, asserted that Berry's refusal to serve with women was a matter of "his personal convictions," not the result of his religious beliefs. The Air Force transferred Berry to a procurement job in Massachusetts. His lawyer said that would not end the matter.


The military is supposed to accommodate religious beliefs to the maximum extent possible, but Berry and his advocates are AWOL in the logic department. Does Berry have the right to cite religious beliefs in determining with whom he will work? If so, a member of the white supremacist World Church of the Creator could claim that his religious beliefs prevent him from sharing a foxhole with blacks and Jews. Should he then be permitted to toil in white-only areas? Or what if a fundamentalist Muslim refused to work with female soldiers who were not covered in veils?


Berry does have a problem. He believes proximity to women is dangerous. He can dress up such thinking in religious garb, but the military was right to dismiss it. Berry voluntarily joined a coed institution. If he cannot work with women because the temptation is too much, he should not be able to deny a woman her place in a missile silo. Apparently, Falwell and Berry's defenders feel there is nothing immoral about blowing up the world. But to deny Berry a female-free work environment, that's an insult to God.
The Ghosts of El Aguacate Last week, a short wire service report from Associated Press noted that clandestine grave sites had been discovered at a military base in Honduras. These few paragraphs provided proof that U.S. government officials had been complicit in torture and brutality in Central America. A reasonable person might think that would cause a stir. Talk in the media. Calls for an inquiry. Not these days.
The AP reported that human remains had been found at the El Aguacate Air Base, 80 miles east of capital Tegucigalpa, and that the Honduras Attorney General's office had declared there was evidence that "torture and human sacrifice" had been conducted there. What's the connection to Washington? The United States in 1983 built the base with taxpayer money, and the facility was used as a training center for the Contras fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. These rebels were a pet cause of President Reagan and his henchmen, who ignored or challenged reports of human rights atrocities committed by the Contras and who insisted on portraying the bunch as heroic freedom fighters.

In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration's support of El Aguacate provoked controversy in Washington. The base was constructed by the Pentagon for maneuvers the U.S. armed forces were conducting in Honduras in 1983 and 1984. (These exercises were meant to intimidate the Sandinistas.) It was supposed to be merely temporary, but some Democrats were suspicious of the amount of money the U.S. military was spending on El Aguacate. A General Accounting Office study, ordered up by Sen. James Sasser, concluded that the Pentagon had spent far more than would be needed for a temporary base. In fact, the Reaganites had used the maneuvers as an excuse to upgrade a facility that the CIA could then turn over to the Contras. In doing so, the Reagan administration was able to evade congressional limits on how much money the CIA could spend to assist the Contras.


Now, it turns out, this CIA gift to the Contras was a place of murder, more proof the Contras and their comrades in Honduras were brutes. But it's doubtful that Reagan and his lieutenants will ever have to pay for their alliance with these thugs. The Honduras government has begun an investigation of the site, but there won't be any probe here that discomfits those who arranged the under-the-table?and arguably unconstitutional?funding for the base.


These people usually get off. In 1993, the Honduras Human Rights Commissioner, Leo Valladares, reported that U.S. military personnel had helped train a death squad that killed nearly 200 people. The revelation caused no public repercussions in Washington. In fact, an archive of documents released last month by the U.S. government showed that during the Cold War, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies repeatedly cooperated with the intelligence services of brutal Latin American dictatorships. Much of this sort of collaborating occurred during the Reagan years, when his foreign policy crew argued there was a difference between authoritarian governments (non-communist dictatorships) and totalitarian governments (communist states) and that the United States could work with the former to fight the latter. It was a premise that made for provocative reading in Commentary, but this sort of hairsplitting was of little solace to the families of El Salvadoran peasants massacred by the Reagan-backed military forces there.


More than a decade later, every GOP presidential candidate is praising Reagan as a global savior, and conservative activists are mounting a campaign to name roads, mountains and federal facilities after him. There is no payback for being the geostrategic accomplice?and enabler?of torturers and murderous rogues. The national security gang almost always escapes retribution. The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed, lives were lost due to CIA screwups, and who lost his or her job? No one. The innocent killed in the name of national security go unavenged.


While we're on the subject, let's, as a public service, remind Democratic voters that Bill Bradley, who is campaigning for the presidency on the basis of his strong values system, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted to support the Contras. In 1986, when $100 million in funding for the Contras was on the line, Bradley, who previously had opposed Contra aid, switched sides and joined the Reaganites. He argued at the time that sending this money to the Contras was necessary in order to put pressure on the Sandinistas. Easy for him to say. He wasn't on the other end of the torture at El Aguacate. (For the record, Gore, then a senator, voted against this $100 million.) On the campaign trail, one of the values Bradley hawks is responsibility. Tell us, Senator, who in the United States dares assume responsibility for what was done in the recesses of the El Aguacate base, a site of horror funded with our money and built in the supposed pursuit of our national security interests?


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