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The New West: So help us God: when faith is used as a blunt weapon

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.” —New Testament, John 5:41-42

So help me God, I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, as a journalist, or how often I’ve read, that the Founding Fathers said you should refrain from mixing religion with politics, church with state.

It is possible, however, to exert civility whether one is sitting at a pulpit or serving the people as an elected representative.

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who makes her seasonal home in Wilson—a community in Jackson Hole—knows a piece of partisan red meat when she sees it, and Democrats certainly seemed to serve one up ready for their own grilling last week on Capitol Hill.

I was back in Washington D.C. doing interviews for a series of upcoming stories and happened to catch glimpses of the above. In fact, I showed up at the Morris K. Udall House Resources Hearing Room expecting to witness a soliloquy from Wyoming’s lone member of Congress but it didn’t happen.

Ms. Cheney sits on the House Resources Committee which was, until recently and for the last eight years, controlled by the GOP.  In November, as a result of national election results, all of that changed.

Democrats, led by new Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva from Arizona, are now in charge and they plan to dramatically shift how and which environmental issues get addressed. Right out of the gate, rumors surfaced that Democrats were conspiring to pull a fast one.

In late January, as staffers for lawmakers in the majority party were going over proposed bylaws, people on the Republican side of the aisle got hold of a draft containing possible language changes. The proposed visions weren’t subtle but highlighted in red ink.

The words “so help you God” were being considered for striking from the end of a standard truth-telling oath that witnesses testifying before the committee are asked to acknowledge.

The phrase goes like this: “Do you solemnly swear or affirm, under penalty of law, that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Often, though not always, it is capped off with “so help you God?”

Upon learning that the phrase had been flagged and potentially targeted with removal, Ms. Cheney, sensing an opportunity to accuse the opposing party of showing no reverence for the Almighty, immediately alerted Fox News who asked her to appear on camera.

“It is incredible, but not surprising,” said Cheney, “that the Democrats would try to remove God from committee proceedings in one of their first acts in the majority. They really have become the party of Karl Marx.”

So let’s unpack this for a moment. In an era when one might think the partisan fog now engulfing the swamp couldn’t get any more toxic, an entire political party is accused of being essentially godless by a member of Congress who allegedly subscribes to the teachings of Jesus.  

For a refresher, consider Matthew 22:37-40 (King James version of the New Testament): “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Or, if you prefer, let us remember former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, who, while delivering a moving eulogy for his friend, the late President George H.W. Bush, emphasized the need for comity, a spirit of bipartisanship, and goodwill being restored to American politics. Simpson said, in what is now a classic aphorism for the ages, “hatred corrodes the container it is carried in.”

As the first committee hearing of 2019 began, the very first order of business that Chairman Grijalva noted was that the edit had been a mistake, nothing sinister. In fact, that’s why it appeared in a circulated draft. Did the mistake look good? No, it did not.

Nonetheless, discussion, which is to say mostly grandstanding, ensued, with differing interpretations of what Thomas Jefferson and other authors of landmark documents intended in making reference to God.

Lawmakers from both parties, people who profess to hold deep religious faith, let it be known that, if anything, what government desperately needs is more reverence for a supreme unifying being, not less.

Cheney sat poised but she remained silent. When she realized the opportunity to ridicule Democrats wasn’t going to materialize, she left the room, missing votes in which Democrats, for the first time since 2011, mustered enough votes to deny passage of rule-changing motions put up by Republicans—a symbolic demonstration of what may lie ahead.

Since we’re on the general theme of swearing allegiance to the truth, and the Eighth of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, after all, is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” certainly the Congresswoman from Wyoming would know she’s committing a big fib in claiming that Democrats are the party of Marx.

It may not advance comity—courtesy and considerate behavior toward others—but it sure makes for a great sound bite on Fox.

Speaking of veracity, it was U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, who noted this irony: in spite of the fact that a number of President Trump’s associates swore under oath to tell the truth and likely summoned help from God in their meetings with special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigative team, several have now been charged or pled guilty to committing perjury.

This week, the House Resources Committee is holding the first of several hearings on climate change. We will see if the expectation for truth telling also applies to members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Ms. Cheney made this claim about the Obama Administration, “I think that [the federal government’s] assertions about climate change are based on junk science.”

With scientific experts now being called to testify, we’ll see who is speaking junk and who isn’t. But, back to the antics of last week:

Cheney’s inference about Marx, too, was actually a distortion. Demonize Marx for writing The Communist Manifesto, but it is inaccurate, historians say, to claim he condemned those who subscribe to having spirituality in their lives, even people who embraced Jesus Christ as Savior.

The Founding Fathers also hailed those who believe in God; they just didn’t want God—or whatever version of God or religious denomination one embraces—to be imposed on the freedom and liberty of others in school, government and our daily lives.

What Marx warned about was the state, as well as corrupt individuals and power hungry members of the clergy, invoking religion in order to subjugate the masses and manipulate them into unthinking submission.

Cheney said that during the Obama Administration politics in Washington were broken, but is her own rhetoric the kind that will lead to more civility and decency? If you visit her website and read her newsletters—and I encourage you to—there’s no hint of a desire for thoughtful collaboration, discourse and reconciliation for the good of country.

Notably, Cheney has also evaded whatever media outlets she knows will subject her to tough questions. I’ve sent her office numerous requests for an interview to discuss environmental issues. The last request said this: “let this serve as an ongoing request to interview Ms. Cheney at her home in Wilson, the other home in Virginia, or at her office in Washington D.C.”

The first question I would ask her today is if she believes in bringing Americans and the country together?

Based upon what she told Fox News, she would have us believe that Democrats (elected by about half of the American people) are Marxists endeavoring to destroy America when she knows it isn’t true.

No, let us state this for the record: many Democrats do not behave much better. They, too, could stand to re-read Sen. Simpson’s eulogy. Truth is truth. The needless throwing of stones and insults, as Jesus implies, serves no purpose. Niceness is a conscious choice. Of course, it doesn’t matter what comes off our lips. Any omnipotent God knows if goodwill resides in our hearts.

What a weird time we live in, when one political party claims to hold a monopoly in having a connection to divinity, which implies that the teachings of their creator would be promoting hatred and mean-spiritedness all in the name of scoring cheap political points.

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