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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Mark Shields: Bush campaign's contempt for 'people of faith'

(Creators Syndicate) -- In early 1993, Washington Post reporter Michael Weisskopf wrote a front-page story that characterized the followers of conservative church leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as being " largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." Both Weisskopf and the Post were rightly criticized for publishing that unfair, offensive smear, especially by conservatives who introduced the Post quote as Exhibit A to prove that the liberal, secular press was full of elitists who mocked church-goers.

Now in the campaign of 2004 we have an even more dramatic example revealing the utter contempt and disdain in which powerful Washington leaders privately hold those voters these same leaders publicly praise as "people of faith." But this time, the offending individuals and institution are the not liberal press or the elite media. No they are President George W. Bush, his closest political advisor Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee, which the Bush White House totally controls.

Bush's own RNC did a mass-mailing to churchgoing voters in Arkansas and West Virginia warning that if churchgoers did not vote Republican in November, the godless "liberals" (read: Democrats) would ban the Bible from American life.

Forget that this smear is as vicious as it is dishonest, and that no U.S. politician has even mentioned the idea of banning the Bible. What ought to anger fair-minded Americans everywhere is that the Bush-Rove team must be convinced that the churchgoing folks of West Virginia and Arkansas are so gullible and so ill-informed that this baseless charge could scare them into voting Republican for Bush-Cheney in order to keep their Bibles.

Tell me, please, just how bigoted and ignorant do George Bush and Karl Rove think that churchgoing voters of Arkansas and West Virginia really are?

West Virginia's senior Democratic senator, Robert Byrd, has it mostly right: "The Republican National Committee is spreading this tripe to smear Democrats, and the president ought to demand that the Republican National Committee apologize to the people of West Virginia."

More accurately, it is President Bush and Karl Rove who owe apologies to West Virginians and Arkansans, because the Republican National Committee is not by any definition an independent entity. The RNC is under the absolute control of this White House's political office and Karl Rove. That's the way things work in Washington. The only time that either political party's national committee enjoys any independence of action is when that party does not hold the White House.

Arkansas Democrats condemned the phony Bible-banning scare tactics mailed to that the faithful of that state. With more optimism than may be warranted, Sen. Blanche Lincoln said: "I hope that there will be an apology for their claims that Democrats want to ban the Bible and the inference that Democrats for some reason cannot have a faith as close or as deeply held as the other party." On the Senate floor, Lincoln added, "I find (these tactics) to be the pits, the absolute bottom of what is wrong in the political process."

Yes, the direct-mail smear is both dirty politics and the ruthlessly deceitful manipulation of religion for selfish and base reasons. But what remains long after the outrage is the sickening realization of the pervasive cynicism that moved the Bush political operation to write, produce and distribute this letter that so totally disrespects the intelligence and judgment of the Christian, churchgoing voters to whom it was sent. Let us hope that this is not an extension of President Bush's "faith-based" campaign.

It does make you wonder exactly how bigoted and how ignorant Republican political leaders personally judge the Christians of West Virginia and Arkansas to be. Maybe Bush will tell us in the next debate.

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