Does last night’s Republican debate, distinguished by ongoing sniping between Messrs. Rubio and Trump on the size of their respective manhoods, represent a new low in American presidential politics? It’s a nice question.
In 1802, after a scurrilous journalist named James Callender reported that President Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings, the young John Quincy Adams took to the pages of a Federalist magazine to write these sarcastic, racist lines: “Dear Thomas, deem it no disgrace / With slaves to mend thy breed, / Nor let the wench’s smutty face / Deter thee from the deed.”
In 1884, after the Buffalo Evening Telegraph revealed the Grover Cleveland had a child out of wedlock, Republicans marched through the streets chanting, “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa!” And of course, who can forget the impeachment spectacle brought on by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s disclosure of Bill Clinton’s cigar and Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress?
Hitherto, however, most of the dirty work has been done by surrogates. Now, in the age of Twitter, the principals feel obliged to join the fray — although, to be fair, it’s only the Republican principals. The Democrats have been positively decorous this election season.
In 1877, Rev. Washington Gladden, America’s foremost proponent of the Social Gospel, wrote a book titled The Christian Way in which he called for “the Christian Man” to get involved in politics. Not that Gladden was under any illusions about presidential campaign cycles. To the contrary: “I cannot but feel that these quadrennial contests are a fruitful source of demoralization, rather than of profit. Not only because of the bribery that is so freely resorted to, not only because of the corrupt bargains that are so often made to secure nominations, but also and chiefly because of the poisoning of the mind of the people at large with false accusations and false theories and the embittering of their hearts with hateful passions.”
Gladden’s point was that national politics required an infusion of religion:
Into this fierce and brutal strife the Christian ought to carry his Christianity; standing always for honor and fair play; for chivalry in the treatment of opponents; for truth and the whole truth against the perversions and concealments of partisans; for all things honest and of good report no matter with what party they may be identified; against all things base and vicious in his own party quite as stoutly as in the other. For such a mixing of religion with politics there is surely an urgent call.
Were he around to witness the antics of the party that in recent decades has labored long and hard to engage Christians in electoral politics, the good reverend might be inclined to rethink his position.