Saturday, March 22, 2008


In an "On Language" column published in The New York Times on February 18, 2007, William Safire referred to Tom Oliphant quoting Kirk O'Donnell, former counsel to Tip O'Neill, as saying of Social Security “after the Greenspan Commission fix, I asked Kirk how come nobody got electrocuted. Always sharp, he replied that the third rail is not like the one in the subway: if a Republican foot and a Democratic foot touch it simultaneously, nothing happens.”

Linking to this column, a weblog I never had heard of, at, cited fifteen occassions in which a different issue was referred to as the "third rail of American politics." Social Security, health care, immigration reform, abortion, Arab-Israeli peace process, same-sex marriage, new taxes, welfare state, economic disparity, the draft, eminent domain, gun control, medicare, domestic surveillance powers, gas prices all have been cited as the elusive "third rail," suggesting that most experts have no clue what a third rail is.

And neither do I. Still, it came to mind when I was reading of the flare-up over Jeremiah Wright, race, and white grandmothers fearing black people. As this article in the July 16, 2007 issue of the Christian Science Monitor noted

More than the other Democratic candidates for president, Obama has made faith a centerpiece of his campaign.

He has warned the left against ceding the mantle of religion to the evangelical right. He speaks of the church as an abiding force in American public life, from the Boston Tea Party through the abolitionist and civil rights movements. He suffuses his speeches with biblical allusions – "I am my brother's keeper" is a favorite phrase. And he has cast his generation of black leaders as modern-day Joshuas, after Moses' successor, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Obama now has been singed by the issue of faith. Meanwhile, liberal pundits/politicans/activists have pointed out the support John McCain has received from a couple of characters. Consider Reverend John Hagee, who has attacked the Roman Catholic Church, the people of New Orleans, and made light of a "slave auction" at his church, and who contends "It's true that [John] McCain's campaign sought my endorsement." And McCain boasts of the support of Reverend Rod Parsley, the Senator whom he has called his "spritual guide." His organization advocates prosecuting adulterers and compared Planned Parenthood to the Nazis, and he has vociferously attacked Islam, arguing there is no distinction between its moderate and extremist adherents.

But these endorsements got little media attention, a tiny fraction of the criticism Barack Obama has received from his relationship with Reverend Wright. Apparently, faith is not a "third rail" in the same manner as Social Security: a Republican and a Democratic foot have touched it simultaneously- and a furor has ensued, all directed against the Democrat, none against the Republican.

This also should serve as a cautionary tale to Democratic politicians, who have bought the line from the mainstream media that they must pledge allegiance to "faith" (the word "religion" appears to be illegal) or be annihilated by Republicans. Barack Obama has been the most outspoken about "faith" of all the Democratic candidates who have run for president during this cycle- and now his connection with his pastor not only has led to a swoon in his ratings but has caused unease among voters, who now look more carefully at racially-tinged remarks the Senator has made or might still make. Consider Obama's comment 3/20/08 on Philadelphia's WIP, a Philadelphia sports station: "But she is a typical white person who, you know, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, there is a reaction that has been bred into our experiences that don't go away and sometimes come out in the wrong way..."

The point is not that politicans must avoid religious behavior or activities when they are running for, or are in, office. Nor must they necessarily avoid any expression of their religious beliefs. But we should not assume that addressing openly and honestly (or dishonestly) one's Christian beliefs is a risk-free political tactic for a Democrat who aspires to the presidency.

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