Gimme that old time politics

IMG 8261If you’re like me, you have probably been feeling a bit down in recent weeks as the White House race has, at times, veered off into a muddy ditch or two. It’s easy to argue about who has been throwing what, but there’s no doubt that both sides are getting hit. It’s especially depressing, but not surprising, to see all of the religion hooks in this muddy drama.

This brings us to one of best political features that I have seen in the Washington Post Style section in quite some time. This piece by Libby Copeland jumped outside of the modern political box by soaring back into the past. Here’s the top of “Stuck in the Muck,” and notice that — alas — the faith element is nothing new. This is America, which means that religion is always going to be in the mix.

You want to talk dirty politics? Oh, we’ll talk dirty. We’ll talk about … 1800!

Thomas Jefferson was attacked by ministers who accused him of being an “infidel” and an “unbeliever.” A Federalist cartoon depicted him as a drunken anarchist, and the president of Yale warned that if Jefferson came to power, “we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” A Connecticut newspaper warned that his election would mean “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced” — though the paper, which is now the Hartford Courant, did apologize some years later.

In 1993. “You turned out to be a good influence on America,” the editors wrote. Whoops! Never mind.

Holy wedge issues.

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that religion is all over the place in this lengthy, fascinating feature. No, it’s just right in the mix — with sex, race, corruption, more sex and what not.

Truth is, according to historian Gil Troy: “Almost from the start, American politics had its two sides — it had its Sunday morning high church sermon side, and it had its Saturday night rough-and-tumble ugly side.”

But there’s the rub. Sunday morning has been messy, too. And that is, of course, the point of this here weblog. For better and for worse, one has to understand the fine details of religion in order to make sense out of ordinary events in American political life.

All together now: Same as it ever was. This is true, even we’re when dealing with politicians who are now listed among the saints of American civil religion.

The years “1800 and 1828 and the one against Lincoln, I think — those were worse than anything we’ve had,” says historian Paul F. Boller, who has written about the history of dirty politics and who, at 91, takes the long view of things.

Back in the day, political rhetoric was, as David Mark puts it in “Dirty Politics,” “shriller, hyperbolic, and downright mean.” It was racist — more than one candidate was rumored as being half-this or part-that — as well as hostile to certain religions and deeply personal. It was also occasionally bizarre. Historians differ on whether Jefferson was ridiculed for being raised on a diet of “hoe-cake” and “fricasseed bullfrog.” During Martin Van Buren’s presidency, a Pennsylvania congressman accused him of being so decadent that he landscaped the White House grounds into hills resembling “an Amazon’s bosom.”

Check it out. The story is good for a long, yet sobering, laugh.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Thanks for the timely perspective on mud-slinging down through the ages. It boggles my mind to see how far we’ve come from those hog-wallow beginnings. Now instead of manure spreading being limited to the speed of a horse, we can spread it around the world in less than a second. Isn’t progress wonderful? Pretty soon we’ll go far beyond today’s limitations with a neural interface. We’ll be living in Mr. Spock’s world: “my mind to your mind”.


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