The contest between the candidate formerly known as Hillary Rodham Clinton--now just "Hillary!"--and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York is only a few days old, but religion has already become an issue. And no matter who wins Senator Moynihan's seat, religious conservatives are already looking like losers.

The flap has its origins in a fund-raising letter that Giuliani sent to cultural and religious conservatives back in October. In the letter, Giuliani puts potential donors on the rhetorical equivalent of the Atkins diet: red meat and very little else. The letter castigates liberal judges who "have banned even the posting of the Ten Commandments in our schools"--something guaranteed to get their blood boiling and their checkbooks open. To close the deal, Giuliani invokes the magic word: Clinton. He cites Mrs. Clinton as an example of those of are hostile "towards America's religious traditions."

In a delayed reaction, the Clinton campaign fought back. Last Wednesday, the first lady told The New York Times that she was "outraged" that hizzoner "would inject religion into this campaign in any form whatsoever." The press tried to turn the flap into the Empire State's version of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, with the Times reminding readers that Clinton is a Methodist while Giuliani is a Roman Catholic. It also quoted a reporter who asked Giuliani how often he went to church. The mayor declined to answer the question, saying that his religion was "personal to me."

In reality, as the Times points out, the Clinton campaign wasn't all that upset with Giuliani's letter. As they see it, the letter will allow Clinton to portray the mayor as a tool of the radical, religious, extreme--take your pick--right.

The real question isn't who will prevail this November. It's why Giuliani thought that religious conservatives would want to give him money. When it comes to the kind of issues that animate religious conservatives, there's very little difference between the candidates.

Take abortion. On last Sunday's edition of "This Week," George Will asked Giuliani whether he thought that Roe v. Wade was good law. Not good policy, good law. He didn't take Will up on his offer. His answer was that he thought that the ultimate decision to have an abortion should rest with the woman--the same answer that Hillary Clinton, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, would give.

Or consider gay rights. When Will asked Giuliani to square his support of civil rights protection for gays and lesbians with his opposition to same-sex marriage, he couldn't. Once again, he gave the same answer Clinton would.

This is not to say that the mayor isn't more conservative than his opponent. He is. But there isn't anything particularly religious about this conservatism, with the possible exception of his condemnation of the controversy over the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" show, which he attacked as anti-Catholic because of its depiction of the Virgin Mary. And it's possible to read too much into that incident. If given the choice between opposing "Sensation" and doing something about abortion, every religious conservative I know would rather that the mayor had done something to reduce the number of abortions in New York.

After all, the Virgin Mary doesn't need hizzoner's protection; the unborn do. What's more, it isn't as if the mayor was taking a huge political risk in threatening the Brooklyn Museum. His actions would cost him votes only in Soho and the Upper West Side--votes he wasn't going to get anyway.

Which brings me back to the letter. What makes Giuliani think that religious conservatives are eager to support him financially when he knows that's he isn't one of them? The answer lies in that word again: Clinton. Giuliani knows that many religious conservatives hate President Clinton and everything associated with him.

It's the kind of reflexive antipathy that led some otherwise thoughtful people to lend credence to a particularly absurd Y2K conspiracy theory. According to this theory, the president was going to take advantage of the millennium bug and suspend the constitution and this fall's elections, thus keeping himself in power.

You don't have to be a Clinton supporter to wonder where people ever got the idea that president would ever do such a thing. That otherwise thoughtful people actually gave this theory credence illustrates the depth of their contempt for the president.

And contempt is the best way to characterize it. This is a case where some Christians have forgotten that it's the sin, and not the sinner, that should be the object of our ire.

The sad fact is that, in our--I consider myself a religious conservative--desire to effect change through politics, many of us have allowed politics to change us. Instead of creating a new kind of politics, one that incorporated Christian perspectives on how politics should be conducted, we've simply adapted the old politics to our needs. Instead of placing a premium on reflection and analysis, which is what you expect from people who are commanded to worship God with their minds, we've become adept at manipulating people's emotions. It's as if we concluded that appealing to the better angels of our nature would get us nowhere.

Maybe that's true. I don't know. What I do know is that candidates have concluded that religious conservatives are like everybody else: get us mad enough at your opponent and we'll forget about your record. And if religious conservatives are just like everybody else, we've already lost the most important battle: being the peculiar people God calls on us to be.

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