Keyes' campaign twists founding fathers' words

August 15, 2004|By Alan M. Dershowitz

THERE IS A candidate running for the Senate who believes that a victory for him is a "victory ... for God." That candidate is Alan L. Keyes, who was recently selected by the Illinois Republican Central Committee to run against the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.

Mr. Keyes began his acceptance speech with the following words, "Praise God," and he ended it by assuring his listeners that he had confidence in winning "because the victory is for God."

Why God would take sides in a Senate race is unclear. Moreover, it is almost certain that Mr. Keyes will be trounced by Mr. Obama and thus God will suffer a terrible defeat at the polls. Not to worry. Mr. Keyes, a Maryland resident, will probably find another state in which to "defend the great principles of God's authority" on which he campaigns.

Where does this politician and former talk show host come off claiming to run on God's coattails? Who appointed him to speak for God? Does he really believe that his victory would be God's victory and his defeat God's defeat? If he is God's chosen candidate, who selected Mr. Obama, the Devil?

This is just the kind of election we don't need in this country, especially as we wage war against Islamic extremists who also claim that a victory for terrorism is a victory for God. Mr. Keyes rests his claim that America is based on God's authority on the Declaration of Independence, as if its primary author, Thomas Jefferson, would agree.

Jefferson despised politicians who invoked God or discussed their own religious beliefs in public. As he wrote to the son of a close friend: "Religion [is] a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his maker in which no other, and far less the public has a right to intermeddle."

Just weeks before he died, Jefferson characterized the Declaration of Independence as "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves." This was an unambiguous reference to the clerical domination of European politics against which America had rebelled. Jefferson believed in a high wall of separation between church and state and his nonintervening deistic God of nature did not seek partisan victories in elections.

Nor did John Adams -- a Unitarian who was highly critical of Catholics -- believe that a victory for him would be a victory for God. Benjamin Franklin, a skeptic about almost everything, also eschewed God talk.

These three authors of the declaration would be appalled to know that it was being cited by Mr. Keyes in support of a theocracy in which "God's authority" trumped the power of the people to decide controversial issues such as abortion, gay rights or gun control.

Mr. Keyes has urged his supporters to "go forward" to "your churches" (not your synagogues, mosques or secular humanist gathering places) and to "stand together in defense of our creed." I don't know what his creed is, but I do know that the American creed regards all citizens as equal regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Mr. Keyes has argued that an atheist or agnostic cannot be a good citizen because such a godless heathen must necessarily reject the Declaration of Independence, which says that we are endowed by our "creator with certain unalienable rights." But he neglects to remind his listeners that the author of those words also wrote the first law that recognized freedom of disbelief in God. He wrote to his 17-year-old nephew that if his reason and exploration led him to disbelieve in God, that would be a virtuous endeavor.

No, Alan Keyes is not God's candidate and a victory by the Republican will not be a victory for God. It will be a victory for narrow-minded religious bigotry and a defeat for the pluralism and open-mindedness that America has aspired to since Jefferson wrote the stirring words of our Declaration more than 200 years ago.

Alan M. Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard University and the author of America on Trial (Warner Books).

Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. is on vacation.

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