Like First J.F.K., John Kerry Doesn’t Make Hay on Divine

Thank God, John Kerry doesn’t talk to Him.

God, that is.

Catholics-an estimated 62 million in the U.S., among them Mr. Kerry and your correspondent-have never really been into direct communication with the Almighty, let alone the Almighty phoning back person-to-person.

True, Peter, the first C.O.O. of our organization, talked to Jesus all the time before and after the events of Mel Gibson’s movie, and Saul of Tarsus-later to win renown under the pen name “Paul”-had a message from God while on a business trip to Damascus. And what a stunner that was: It knocked him off his horse.

But they and a handful of others are the exceptions. The rare times the last couple of millennia Word is passed from on high, it usually comes via the B.V.M., and then nearly always to persons of peasant origin residing in Latin countries (e.g., the three shepherd children at Fatima, Portugal; the Indian walking barefoot to Mass in Guadeloupe, Mexico), or nations of similar temperament (cf. the citizenship of Bernadette Soubirous).

As for Catholic politicians being divinely commanded-in the long, up-and-down history of the church, that’s happened exactly once: in 312, at the Milvian Bridge in present-day Italy. The recipient was Flavius Valerius Constantinus, who was then readying his legions against the forces of a fellow pagan Caesar named Maxentius. Things didn’t look promising for F.V., who was outnumbered 4 to 1. But then he saw a cross in the clouds, and a very early precursor of those planes that spell out ads in smoke puffs over Jones Beach on July days. This one said: In Hoc Signo Vinces . Taking the Lord’s instruction as gospel, so to speak, he had his guys dab crosses on their shields and cleaned Maxentius’ clock. Constantine, as we know him today, expressed his appreciation by putting Christianity on the road to becoming Rome’s official religion-bad news for Coliseum lions in the short term, and for uncounted non-Christians ever after.

(A footnote: The bone being picked that day at the Milvian Bridge? Taxes. Maxentius wanted them cut, Constantine increased. Plus ça chance , you might say.)

This brief theology lesson comes to you courtesy of the law of unexpected consequences kicking in several weeks ago, when Rush Limbaugh recited long stretches of a Kerry Watch, cackling at each paragraph. Ever since, pressure’s built to come up with something good to say about Mr. Kerry, apart from his not being George W. Bush, serving in Vietnam and having a great wife (which tells you a lot, when you stop to think about it).

Mr. Kerry’s behavior has made the search more prolonged than originally imagined, and more than a few times a remark by Dwight Eisenhower invaded thoughts. Asked to cite the accomplishments of his Vice President, Richard Nixon, Ike replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”

Well, about John Kerry, I at last have: He is not Saved.

What this will mean for Mr. Kerry in the hereafter, there’s no sure way of knowing. But in running for President, does it ever provide an edge.

For, as everybody knows, George Bush is Born Again. He checks with Jesus on all policy decisions; and-by his own, repeated account-does exactly what the Lord tells him, including get rid of a certain oil-rich Mideast regime that hadn’t been bothering anyone lately except its own people. Mr. Bush gave the go-ahead to invade after an Oval Office kneel-down with a rabid anti-abortionist reverend chum.

Having followed God’s orders to the letter, Dubya finds himself in a epistemological pickle. Iraq’s turned out to be a mess, but he can’t very well go on TV and say, “You know, I was talking with my Higher Father again this morning, and He said the darnedest thing: ‘Whoops, I blew it.'”

Ralph Reed would have a stroke.

The evangelical vote-40-plus percent of the total, by some tallies-would vanish overnight.

And Dubya, who’s been so devout since Billy Graham “planted the mustard seed” during their memorable stroll on a Kennebunkport beach some years back, would be facing an Eternity even hotter than the bath in which Constantine-momentarily backsliding-slowly boiled his cheating wife.

Mr. Kerry, on the other hand, can change course on positions-Israel, appointing pro-life judges, whether he tossed his medals on the Capitol steps, you name it-all the time. God’s never said bo-peep to him. Only Bill Clinton has been whispering in his ear, and especially in regard to observing one Commandment, holy he ain’t.

So damnation’s off the table. The worst Mr. Kerry has to worry about is what the press will write, and liberals will think. And he doesn’t seem concerned about either.

Why should he be? Dubya appears determined to give his job to him, however much he dithers about whether to accept the Democratic convention’s nomination because of mammon. (As of today, he is.) Given Whom Mr. Bush takes his cues from, it’s enough to make you suspect that God’s a Democrat. Need more evidence? Read the Sermon on the Mount. Sound like a Karl Rove speech to you?

Before we get too caught up in this metaphor and conclude that Tom DeLay is Beelzebub, despite his splendid impersonation of the cloven-hoofed one, let’s get back to here-and-now Presidential politics.

Rush didn’t think so, but Senator Kerry had a very good week-the first time those words appear in these space.

A new CBS News poll was out, showing him beating Mr. Bush by eight points (the largest margin to date); leading lefties Barney Frank and Joe Trippi were telling The Times they can live with him, despite apostasies; Ralph Nader said he wasn’t as bad as he, Ralph, has been saying; crowds were large and enthusiastic along the campaign trail; and the next best thing to a negative biopsy came in.

That was the New York Post ‘s report that Bill Clinton was able to find only one taker for the $500,000 floor on first-serial rights for the 957-page exercise in self-justification due out June 22. The bidder was fitting for the first Rock ‘n’ Roll President ( Rolling Stone ), but Time and Newsweek , the usual repositories for such opuses, passed. This is bad news for Sonny Mehta, who has to move a minimum of 1.8 million of these doorstops for Knopf to break even, but terrific for the Kerry campaign. Its guy may find space to breathe.

Meanwhile, Richard Perle-who really is the devil-was in Condi Rice’s office raising Cain about the busting into the Baghdad mansion of soulmate Ahmad Chalabi, who was just about to disappear from the headlines when Mr. Perle raised his stink, reminding everyone all over again of the Saville Row–suited suckering.

That’s how it is with True Believers: They never know when to cut their losses.

Mr. Kerry, per usual, stayed above the fray, but did get in a nice zinger on learning of his opponent’s bicycle mishap: “Did the training wheels fall off?”

As if invigorated by the shock of blood returning to his veins, Mr. Kerry smacked Mr. Bush around the rest of the week. His performance wasn’t Gore-at-N.Y.U. caliber, but there were some good licks. He accused Mr. Bush of having “rushed” the country into war. Denounced him for being “high on rhetoric and … ideology and low on actual strategic thinking and truth.” Charged he’d “made America less safe, not more safe.”

And that was for openers. Because Mr. Bush lacked the “common sense” to get more allied bodies on the firing line, or at least close to it, Mr. Kerry went on, “Our troops are in greater danger …. Exposed to more gun fire and more mortar attacks and more ambushes.”

The ex–Middlesex County prosecutor all but indicted Dubya for criminally negligent homicide-boy, how Dominick Dunne would love to cover that trial.

Mr. Bush is not quite ready for the dock yet, however.

Any day, he may pull Osama bin Laden out of the secure, undisclosed location where Dick Cheney’s been keeping an eye on him; a Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows Mr. Bush beats Mr. Kerry hands-down in the category of whom Americans would prefer to barbecue with; and he still enjoys the unwavering support of the one constituent who’s omnipotent.

I speak, of course, of God.

U.S. Presidents have always refrained from inflicting their religious views on the populace. National prayer breakfasts were O.K., as was requesting that God bless America-so long as there wasn’t any expectation of a personal response that He had, to the exclusion of all other countries.

George W. Bush is different.

God told him he should be President (he reported their conversation to a trio of ministers before announcing his candidacy), and the Father, Son and presumably the Holy Ghost, too, are front and center in his West Wing, formulating policy through their anointed proxy.

In smiting terrorists hip and thigh in the former Babylon, Mr. Bush describes what he’s up to in apocalyptic, it’s-my-mission terms, with heavy emphasis on battling “evil.” How heavy? In The President of Good and Evil , philosopher Peter Singer gathers up Dubya’s speeches from his first two and a half years in office and counts. Total “evil” mentions: 1,096.

Praise be, Jeremiah can’t vote.

Old Testament diarists would be tickled, though, that the lessons Mr. Bush learned at the weekly Bible exegesis sessions in Midland have been transferred wholesale to about every cranny of the federal government. That goes from the obvious stuff (opposing gay marriage, outlawing partial-birth abortion and prohibiting similar personal choices) to matters you may have missed in Sunday school (rolling back environmental regulation, cutting federal income tax, making the rich richer), which-the Christian right claims, citing Book, Chapter and Verse-have heavenly sanction as well.

As in his policies, there’s no waffling in Mr. Bush’s Christianity. His beliefs were set in stone on Mount Sinai, and the intervening 5,000 years haven’t weathered them a speck. The simplicity is a part of its appeal for Dubya, who’s never had use for the highfalutin’ nuance so adored by John Kerry, whose hedges and qualifiers on everything from Iraq to the number of S.U.V.’s in his garage could fill an entire course catalog for the Learning Annex.

You might surmise that Mr. Bush’s religion is for those who didn’t do so hot on standardized tests. You might further surmise that since there are way more of them who vote than there are good school graduates who take Prozac because of life’s complexities, Mr. Kerry’s cooked.

Not necessarily. There are Republicans who are as appalled as the ACLU by Mr. Bush’s yanking religion into everything. Their frustration with the consequences-particularly Iraq, but also abortion and treatment of gays-is reflected in Mr. Bush’s plummeting approval ratings the last month: Itchy Republicans accounted for nearly the entire drop. It is Mr. Kerry’s evident hope that by campaigning like someone they wouldn’t mind playing golf with, he can enlarge the defecting numbers.

He could be right, especially if he astounds by doing something bold for a change, and selects as running mate Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam vet and Bush critic. Unlike every fantasist’s first choice, John McCain, Mr. Hagel hasn’t flatly ruled out saddling up with Mr. Kerry. His war record is the equal of the candidate who’d top the ticket (undeterred by the flames consuming his flak jacket, Mr. Hagel extracted his critically wounded brother from a burning tank), and politically he’s displayed similar guts taking on the leader of his party over Iraq.

Mr. Bush “may be more isolated than any President in recent memory,” Mr. Hagel told U.S. News & World Report last week, still smoldering after Dubya’s no-questions-allowed drop-in with Congressional Republicans. “You’ve got a President who is not schooled, educated, experienced in foreign policy in any way, versus his father. I think he was philosophically, intellectually more in tune with the neoconservatives’ approach to ‘Let’s go get them, and we’ll worry about it later.'”

Asked whether Mr. Bush deserved to be re-elected, Mr. Hagel gave a heretical answer: “That’s up to the American voters.”

He’s not, in sum, easily cowed. If he doesn’t mind odious comparisons, Mr. Kerry could do worse. Indeed, almost certainly will.

Now the not-so-glad tidings. Remember the old ad for Levy’s rye bread-“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”? Same goes for presentable I.Q. and fundamentalism. The Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons have congregants who aced their SAT’s, too, but apparently resent the fun the rest of us had in the 60’s. Luckily, most reside beneath the Mason-Dixon Line, and since Mr. Kerry’s written off every scrap of real estate south of it save Florida and Louisiana (and perhaps Virginia, where he’s begun advertising, though the state hasn’t been blue since trilobites crawled the Tidewater), we don’t have to pay them no nevermind.

Mr. Bush still needs getting at, though. Since Mr. Kerry’s been queried about his religion upside and down, seems only fair he should be, too. So imagine a Presidential campaign debate (moderated by someone with a pulse, which gives Jim Lehrer the night off) where he’s posed a theological toughie or two. Like, “Mr. President, in the event of Rapture, have you left a goodbye note for Dick Cheney?” Or, “When you come into His kingdom, will you miss friends like Paul Wolfowitz?” Then the capper: “Sir, once Iraq regains full sovereignty, do you expect it to follow the example of King Nebuchadnezzar vis-à-vis Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in its relations with Israel?” Dubya’s pronunciation alone might tip the election.

Nights sleeping to such dreams, I sometimes awaken to find that I’ve rolled over on the TiVo clacker, and The 700 Club ‘s on. Pat’s smile is beatific; the hairdos of the female guests who relate stories of beating cancer and paying off credit-card debts by giving to the Lord suggest visits to a salon operated by Morris Lapidus; and the mystery of whatever became of polyester suits is finally solved: Right-wing preachers bought ’em all. I watch the appeals to get the former Presidential candidate’s The Secrets of Financial Prosperity by signing up to become a $20-a-month or better “Prayer Partner,” then switch to the Catholic channel Telecare to see how Mr. Kerry’s and my side is doing.

It’s like watching alma mater Notre Dame play Miami.

The clergy look like Francis of Assisi (except for the old kinescopes of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who has a fabulous red silk cape that would be the envy of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ); nobody threatens anything, much less what accompanies brimstone; and there are no promises of being able to buy a condo in return for sending in for DVD’s of the End Times. Quite the contrary. Save for Ray Kroc’s widow and Tom Monaghan, the Domino’s Pizza king, the camel-passing-through-the-eye-of-a-needle prescription applies: The poorer you are, the better your Pearly Gates chances.

Fortunately for Mr. Kerry, the apparently immortal pontiff hasn’t gotten around to making an ex cathedra pronouncement on marrying money, which Kerry’s done twice, with increasing receipts. The worst he has to contend with is a few cranky bishops-cheered on by the Chuck Colson wing of the Christian Right-denying him communion for supporting a woman’s right to choose. But, as is known to every Catholic who remembers when eating meat on Friday was mortal sin: Wait a couple of centuries, the laws will change.

In the meantime, allow me to close this sermon with a word to Mr. Kerry (who personally opposes abortion, by the way):

Mr. President-to-be-perhaps, as far as Democrats of all creeds are concerned, Tu es Petrus .

So act like it, dammit. Like First J.F.K., John Kerry Doesn’t Make Hay on Divine