"Jim, you think he's with Jesus now? We only have 30 seconds."

...Remembering Bush's Exploitation of Anti-Catholic Bigotry

by David Corn

"Jim, you think he's with Jesus now? We only have 30 seconds."

That was CNN's Larry King "grilling" Jim Caviezel, who played Christ in The Passion of the Christ, on Sunday night. (Thanks to The Hotline for featuring this wonderful media moment.)

During cable news' around-the-clock Pope-apalooza, the anchors have had to fill airtime with something. I know, I know-- Pope John Paul II was adored by millions, he was a historic figure who helped nudge the Soviet Union toward collapse, and a papal death hasn't happened in decades. But I do find it odd that much of the media discussion has not covered a fundamental point: what was the Pope really all about? To be precise, he headed an institution that promotes the view that only a certain sort of Christian who faithfully heeds a certain set of (conservative) rules will be granted access to the eternal Kingdom of God. And for the rest of us--other followers of Christ, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, druids, wiccaners, animists, and atheists--it's damnation of some sort.

Well--to cut to the chase--is he right? Now, I don't expect Tim Russert to moderate a segment on Meet the Press called, "Catholicism: The Only Way, or the Most Successful Con in History?" Yet it is interesting that the media dance around--or away from--this issue. There's been talk about the Pope's theological conservatism. Author/priest Andrew Greeley, for example, bemoaned John Paul's missed opportunity to modernize the Church's teachings. (By the way, Greeley once referred to George W. Bush's WMD-related justification for the Iraq war as a "big lie" of the Joseph Goebbels variety). And there's been gum-flapping over the Pope's politics. Conservatives celebrate his advocacy of a "culture of life" that has no room for stem cell research, contraception and abortion, and they hail his anti-communism and his world-changing support of Solidarity, the anti-Soviet trade union in Poland, widely credited with triggering the beginning of the end for Moscow's commies. Liberals point to--and conservatives downplay--John Paul's opposition to the Iraq war, his stance against capital punishment, and his passionate criticism of the excesses of capitalism and consumerism.

But what about the Big Idea? Larry King, that pisk from Brooklyn (pisk? look it up, it means "big mouth") got as close as it gets when he asked an actor ("I'm not Christ, I just play him on television") if the Pope had bet on the right horse. I mean, suppose John Paul II died, rose to heavenly heights and found himself confronted by one giant golden Buddha. ("Oy vey!") If the Pope was right, many of us are in deep trouble. (Oh hell!) If he was wrong, then millions are in for a big disappointment--though, fortunately for them, they may not get the chance to realize that. I don't mean to be sacrilegious here. But is it out of politeness that we tend not to discuss religion in these terms? We can dissect the Terri Schiavo case, obsess over the Michael Jackson trial, argue over who has the best chance in the NCAA championship basketball game. Yet in the national media we don't tend to apply our argumentative imaginations to all-important spiritual matters. Of course, there is--as far as we know--no way for us mortals to know whether John Paul II preached the true Gospel or not. But for my money, the most significant question is indeed, is John Paul now with Jesus and comparing notes with God? ("You mean that guy wasn't really a saint. Sorry about that.") Or is he just doing the dust-to-dust bit in a crypt with other dead Popes. Inquiring minds want to know. Or should want to.


Even though George W. Bush, in the Pope's book, is not destined for the grand reward, he's still heading to Rome for the final farewell. It's no secret that Karl Rove has a Catholic strategy, trying to lure Catholic voters to GOP pews. Bush, an Episcopalian-turned-Methodist, has courted Catholics by talking of his own personal faith, Jesus (his favorite philosopher), and that "culture of life." But it's hard to accept Bush as a sincere supplicant, for in 2000 he was damn fast to enlist an anti-Catholic institution in his effort to rescue his troubled presidential campaign.

After Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to upstart John McCain, the South Carolina primary became the next major battle. The Bushies were determined to do anything--that is, anything--to defeat McCain in the Palmetto State and smother this insurgency. That meant spreading malicious rumors about the former war hero and his family, mounting dirty tricks, and falsely attacking McCain for not supporting veterans' issues in the Senate. A key part of the Bush strategy was to swing the social conservatives of South Carolina--of which there are many--behind the candidate who proclaimed himself a uniter-not-a-divider. Seeking to kowtow to the religious-right Republicans of South Carolina, Bush scheduled a visit to Bob Jones University, a hotbed of racist and anti-Catholic fundamentalism.

BJU was widely known for banning interracial dating. In 1981, the school asked the Reagan administration to award it tax-exempt status even though it practiced racial discrimination. The Reaganites said yes, but subsequent protests queered the deal. And Bob Jones University's bigotry extended beyond race to religion, particularly Catholicism. In the 1980s, the former head of the school, Bob Jones Jr, claimed that "all the popes are demon-possessed." He called John Paul II "the greatest danger we face today." He maintained that "the papacy is the religion of Antichrist and is a satanic system." And like father, like son, Bob Jones III, the school's president since 1971, called John Paul the Antichrist. In 1987, when John Paul II visited Columbia, South Carolina, Jones III said he would rather "speak to the devil himself" than with the Pontiff. In 2000--shortly after Bush spoke at BJU--New York Times columnist Bob Herbert asked the school if it had ever repudiated the Jones' anti-Catholic statements. The answer: no.

When Bush was challenged about his visit to BJU, he said, "When I go to speak to voters, I don't necessarily have to embrace the polices of the university." That's true--to an extent. But if the official policy of a school is that blacks are inferior or that Jews are evil, an elected official and responsible politician ought not to legitimize the institution by asking to borrow its soapbox. After his appearance at Bob Jones University, Bush caught much criticism. Looking ahead to important primary elections in New York and Michigan--Catholic-rich states--Bush wrote Cardinal John O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York, and said he regretted not having spoken out against BJU while on its campus. Yeah, right. He beat McCain handily in South Carolina, and that victory placed Bush on the path to ultimate triumph.

When it was politically convenient and necessary, Bush made common cause with the Catholic-haters of Bob Jones University. Afterward, he looked to make nice with Catholics. ("George W. Bush," The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood noted the other day, "has tried to cultivate the Pope. ... And he succeeded, He won the Catholic vote [in 2004] against a Catholic nominee in the Democratic Party. George W. Bush got 52 percent of the Catholic vote in the last election.")

What sort of man hobnobs with anti-Catholic bigots and then hails the Pope and curries favor with Catholic voters? A hypocrite.

When Bush expires, will there be a pundit who asks, "You think he's with Jesus now?"

( '? (we shall all sing in unison, do you think he will ever see Jesus now?) ( '?

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