As scurrilous attacks on a political candidate’s religious beliefs go, this one’s hard to beat.
Last week, Democrat Ben Chin won a plurality of the vote for mayor of gritty Lewiston, Maine, beating out incumbent Mayor Robert MacDonald 44 percent to 37 percent and sending the officially non-partisan race into a runoff. Two days after the election, State Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst), who represents a district two hours’ drive up I-95 from Lewiston, updated the status on his legislative Facebook page with: “On December 8th, voters in Lewiston should just say NO to this anti-Christian bigot.”
It seems that Lockman, a close ally of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, based his characterization on the following paragraph from “The Real Ben Chin,” an online attack ad put out by the Maine Republican Party.
On his views of what the Christian Church in America believes:
“Why, after all, should such a beleaguered institution with atrocious crimes in our history ever be considered an institution worthy of this task…? It’s a fair question, and one I am not totally convinced of the answer to. I would not say that the Christian church is any more up to the task of defending these sacred values that make us human any more that Jewish, Muslim, or any other religious institutions… We must honestly acknowledge that we live in an age where the greatest causes for which most Christian churches ask their members to sacrifice are these kinds of campaigns: campaigns that further dehumanize our neighbors, campaigns in the name of policies that deny women their rights, squeeze the life out of the poor…” – – Ben Chin, November 9, 2009
Now on November 9, 2009, Ben Chin was giving the homily at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lewiston, something he does from time to time as a lay preacher licensed by the state’s Episcopal diocese. After discussing Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Chin asked, “[W]hat is the great cause of the institutional church today? For what are we willing to ask people to give up their lives?” He confessed he didn’t know, then pointed to the Christian activists who had helped defeat a state same-sex marriage referendum the previous week:
And here we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge today the great injustice many groups of organized Christians inflicted on same sex couples this past Tuesday. People sacrificed a lot in the name of that injustice. Volunteer phone banks, donations, organized rides to the polls: churches got their people to sacrifice tremendous time and money to deny our gay brothers and sisters the four hundred some legal protections reserved by law only for married couples.
These are the sentences the attack ad omits with an ellipsis before “We must honestly acknowledge…” In a word, the preacher was lamenting the inability of progressive causes to animate the institutional church today.
The grandson of Chinese immigrants, Chin went to Bates College on a scholarship intending to go on to seminary and become a pastor. Instead, after graduating in 2004, he stayed in Lewiston and became a community organizer, eventually serving as political director of the Maine People’s Alliance. In that capacity, he has worked for same-day voter registration, property-tax assistance for low- and moderate-income Mainers, Medicaid expansion, and drugs for the elderly.
“It is only when we let the love-claims of others push our souls into true community that we will have an answer to the kings that murder, to the cruelties that all of us choose to inflict on each other in a a democracy because those cruelties can always be rationalized as necessary,” Chin said in a homily at Trinity Episcopal July 15. “The body of Christ, the experience of communion, truly is the salvation we give to each other.” In other words, Ben Chin is an anti-Christian bigot in the same sense that Pope Francis is an anti-Christian bigot.
After word of the Facebook post got around, the Democratic speaker of the State House of Representatives, Mark Eves, called on Lockwood to resign. “This has no place in our public discourse,” Eves said. “It’s become commonplace in the Republican party. It’s hate speech; it needs to be called out and the Republican leaders need to do something about it.”
Jason Savage, executive director of the state Republican Party, said that Chin “can go ahead and explain the context if he wants. We are not disputing where he made [the remarks], but we want him to explain himself.” Lewiston mayor Macdonald, a Republican who in September made national news when he urged his state to publish the names of welfare recipients, said, “I don’t know what the GOP is doing and I don’t even care to see that website. I’m doing my own thing and I don’t want to be taken off the path by this foolishness.”
Yesterday, Lance Dutson, former communications director for the state’s senior U.S. Senator, Republican Susan Collins, called Lockwood’s post “one of the lowest and stupidest things ever done in Maine politics.” Sounds about right to me.