THE WHITE HOUSE is gingerly backing away from Falwell, and this week denied Falwell’s claim that President Bush had endorsed his fund-raising appeal. But the larger conservative movement has done little or nothing to repudiate the founder of the Moral Majority, and he’s still in business. Talk about double standards. In case you missed it, here’s part of Falwell’s “blame America” message on Sept. 13:

“When we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists, and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternate lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Robertson, who has since announced he is leaving political work to concentrate on his ministry, replied: “Well, I totally concur.” Here were two major leaders of the religious right essentially taking the same position as a tiny handful of lamebrains on the extreme left — namely that the United States deserved what happened on Sept. 11, we had it coming.

CONSERVATIVES SAY LITTLE Now imagine if the shoe were on the other ideological foot. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had said on a liberal TV program that conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, and the Heritage Foundation had “helped this happen” and that the host, Bill Moyers, said: “I totally concur.” Advertisement Rush Limbaugh and others would, quite rightly, demand that liberals denounce Jackson and Moyers, and liberals would have done so. In Falwell’s case, there was some press coverage and liberal criticism, and some chagrin in conservative ranks — Bush called Falwell’s comments “inappropriate” — but there has been little effort to write him out of conservative politics. Some on the right have protected Falwell. For example, the Media Research Center, run by longtime conservative activist L. Brent Bozell, published a newsletter chronicling what it called “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in media commentary about Sept. 11. Washington Post columnist David Broder was in the “bad” category for criticizing missile defense in the wake of Sept. 11, as was I for saying on MSNBC that we should retaliate but not “go on too much of a war footing.” Susan Sontag and Bill Maher were in the “ugly” category for their now-famous comments that the hijackers were not “cowardly.” And Falwell and Robertson? Well, somehow their comments were considered neither bad nor ugly. They simply weren’t included in this conservative “media criticism” at all. PATRIOTISM DOESN’T TRUMP POLITICS Falwell eventually apologized, but Robertson did not. Within weeks, in fact, Robertson was hosting House Whip Tom DeLay on “The 700 Club.” You may not have heard about that appearance. But imagine if Moyers, concurring in a despicable “blame America” analysis, had hosted, say, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on TV. Isn’t there just a slight chance that Limbaugh and others would make sure we heard that Daschle had lent his tacit approval to a man who said we had it coming? As Andrew Sullivan pointed out recently in The New Republic, the events of Sept. 11 have dealt a blow to “theoconservatives.” This notion that God has fixed ideas on political issues is what Islamic fundamentalists believe, not us. But Falwell’s re-entry into the fray, which is passing with little notice, shows that even patriotism doesn’t trump politics. As long as you’re a validated conservative, you can say just about anything and get away with it. Even now.

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