IT IS NOT widely noticed that the weaknesses and insufficiencies of bumper-sticker political exegesis seem often to influence just the people we'd think absolutely immune from that kind of reductionism. But not only is it happening, in the case of one highbrow pundit it is actually being encouraged.
So George W. Bush headed for South Carolina after his defeat in New Hampshire and delivered a speech at Bob Jones University. Now there is only one legitimate question to raise here. It is: Does George W. Bush himself incline to those idiosyncratic views of life that distinguish Bob Jones U. from other fundamentalist Christian colleges?
Well, perhaps Bob Jones U. is not absolutely unique, but it is certainly odd. (1) It interprets the Bible as frowning on miscegenation and therefore forbids interracial dating. (2) It considers the Catholic religion as deeply flawed.
Now the business of intermarriage is delicate. But to suppose that the prejudices of Bob Jones are unique is to disclose a great ignorance of American social mores. There is intermarriage all the time, between races and between religions. What is wrong is to suppose that there is no opposition to such intermarriage. Prominent Jews speak routinely about the danger to their faith in intermarriage.
To suppose that white parents are indifferent to the marriage of their children to blacks, among other things, trivializes black complaints about the burden of being black in America. If there is such a burden (and there is), then why should it be sought out by the young man or woman setting out to create a family? The special offense of Bob Jones, then, is to have proffered biblical sanction for prejudices that are universal.
And on the matter of anti-Catholicism: It is implicit in a profound attachment to Protestantism that Catholicism is at the very least a mistaken theological road. Four hundred years ago, great wars were fought between advocates of the different religions. If Bob Jones' faculty or curriculum preach the denial to Catholics of their civil rights, that is one thing. But Bob Jones has not been revealed as a terrorist campus preaching the need to obviate others' rights. So then what is one left with?
The entirely political question which, if faced by adults passing sober judgments, would be something on the order of: Because there are ignorant people in America who will try to construe an appearance at Bob Jones by a presidential candidate as indifference to the right of anybody to marry anyone else, and the right of Catholics to practice their religion -- therefore Mr. Bush should have stayed away.
But the proper call would have been to instruct, belittle, counsel, and if necessary attack those who are willing to translate Mr. Bush's appearance at Bob Jones into a mark of indifference to civil rights.
It is one thing for James Carville to interpret the visit as deep with meaning about the true inside thoughts of George W. Bush. But it is the responsibility of those who know better (which includes James Carville -- it isn't that Mr. Carville doesn't know better; it is that he elects not to act better) to cry out, Bah Humbug!
Yet the New York Times' William Safire, a learned moralist, advised Sen. John McCain to "make Bob Jones U. the scene of `the Bush surrender.' " Merely by appearing at Bob Jones, was the reasoning here, Mr. Bush made concessions to the Christian right that he must now be made to pay for.
The word gets around that Mr. Bush will have to pay for his victories to the extent they are attributable to the Christian right. Pay in what way? Pay, the syllogism would suggest, in forfeited votes among the non-Christian right. But there is something missing here, an undistributed middle. If it were so that a victory by Mr. Bush would mean an end to a woman's right to have an abortion, then the threat would be real. If endorsement by the Christian right meant an end to religious liberty for non-Christians, then indeed the moment would have arrived to hail Mr. Bush at Bob Jones as a revelation of his dark designs.
What the other candidates proceed to do with the Bob Jones incident will tell us something about them as men of honor. The pity of it is that there are honorable men engaged in urging dishonorable behavior by candidates running for president of the United States.
William F. Buckley Jr. is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/24/00