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Commentary: Republican religion has raised some concerns

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The pilgrim is making little progress. In a futile effort to convince faith-voters that he is one of them, John McCain paid a visit to the Grahams of North Carolina -- father Billy and son Franklin. After the meeting, not a word was said about the Grahams' past indiscretions concerning Muslims or Jews and neither, for that matter, was an endorsement proffered.

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McCain plods a cruel treadmill. He has thus far sought the endorsement of the extremely purple Rev. John Hagee and the equally purple Rev. Rod Parsley. Both of them were later asked to unendorse on account of the offensive things they've said.

Billy Graham's observations about Jews were made a long time ago and were imparted in confidence to Richard Nixon and his secret White House tape recorder. The two ruminated about the power and influence of Jews.

Graham apologized for such remarks and said he no longer held such views and everyone, including me, takes him at his word. His lasting damage, I offer as an aside, was to convince the young George W. Bush to abandon his wastrel ways, where he excelled, and instead seek the path that has led him to where he is now, a calamity for the nation and the world.

But the transgressions of Franklin Graham are much more recent and more to the point. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin Graham called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion." He is now renowned throughout the Muslim world for these remarks.

Erich Segal's line from "Love Story" -- "love means not ever having to say you're sorry" -- really applies to faith. If you proclaim it, you are forgiven almost anything. In Franklin Graham's case, his piety excuses his ignorance and intolerance -- his slap at a worldwide religion of almost 2 billion because of the horrendous acts of a few. What could a Muslim say about the massacres of the Crusades? What could anyone say about the wars between Catholics and Protestants, culminating in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 when possibly 100,000 French Huguenots were slaughtered? France is Catholic today partly because of the sword.

It would have been very McCain of McCain to have skipped this meeting in the cause of religious tolerance. It would be very McCain of McCain to forcefully denounce the persistent rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim -- whenever it comes up. (It would also have been wonderful of Obama to have excluded Franklin Graham from a minister's meeting he convened in Chicago last month.) Both presidential candidates are over-pastored.

For too long now, the term "faith-based" has been synonymous with dumb. It's dumb to talk of Islam as if the terrorists are its true representatives (F. Graham). It's dumb to think the Holocaust was God's way of getting the Jews to return to Israel (Hagee) or that Catholics are not true Christians (Hagee, again) or that "Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world" (Parsley).

Yet, the endorsement of such men has been sought by virtually every Republican presidential candidate of our times. To pass this kind of muster is very disquieting.

The liberal clergy in this country is a faded force. Gone are the days when ministers led the civil rights movement and marched to end the Vietnam War. Now, the ones with political clout are too often small-minded men who swaddle their bigotry and ignorance in the soothing word "faith." And John McCain, like a spiritual beggar, goes from one right-wing minister to another, ignoring their previous statements of intolerance and hoping for an endorsement. The other day, he didn't even get lunch. He deserved humble pie.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is cohen@wctrib.com.

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