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FRIST'S HOLY WAR
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER SHAMEFULLY USES RELIGION TO TRY TO WIN A POLITICAL BATTLE

This is what the national Republican Party has come to: The leader of the U.S. Senate plans to join a coterie of Christian conservatives this week at a telecast aimed at depicting Democrats as "against people of faith."

The Democrats' sin, according to this pack of hypocrites, is to block approval of some of the president's judicial nominees -- a practice that many Republicans found entirely to their liking when Bill Clinton was president. Oh, well. That was then.

The problem with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's decision to sign on with this scheme is not mere hypocrisy, though it is undeniably that. More ominously, it moves the Republican Party and the government it controls closer to the kind of theocracy the religious right covets.

Indeed, the effort to paint opponents as anti-religion presumes that only Christian conservatives who pull the strings of the modern Republican Party are "people of faith." Liberal and moderate Catholics, Jews and Protestants are but pretenders. Infidels, you might say.

This is a deeply cynical maneuver. To win a political argument on how the Senate goes about meeting its constitutional obligation to review judicial nominees, Frist would risk dividing the nation's religious community into those who are true believers (generally conservative Republicans) from those who aren't (just about everyone else). It may be news to you, but if you are a Democratic Presbyterian from New York who holds reservations about President Bush's judicial nominees, you are not a person of faith.

This argument is about the fleeting nature of power. Republicans can read the election calendar as well as anyone else, and they know they could already be at their zenith. If they can win on judicial nominations now, their influence may be felt for generations in the courts.

But they will become less bold as next year's midterm elections approach and after that, Bush will be in the last two years of his presidency, when executive authority tends to wane. Frist and his allies are applying the strategy Bush used during his first term: Push hard now, because you might not have the chance later.

But Republicans are playing a dicey game. Frist's bid to divide the nation's religious communities will do nothing to change the mind of the party's foes, but it could drive away the centrists in the Republican camp who are alarmed at the politicization of religion.

Political majorities frequently sow the seeds of their own demise as arrogance overcomes performance. It will be interesting in years to come to look back on the crops the Republican Party planted in early 2005 as it tried to win a political fight by pitting the nation's churchgoers against one another.