Democrat accusations of religion-bating have persisted through the campaign.  It’s a well-established among progressives that Republicans exploit racial or religious bigotry by spreading false rumors about liberal candidates’ affiliation with various disfavored groups – Muslims, blacks, jews, homosexuals, etc.

Obama himself is so worried that he set up a “Fight the Smears” section on his website.  Recently, he complained about Republican intransigence in a television interview:

Mr. Obama, who is a Christian and often proudly speaks about how his faith has influenced his public service, said he finds it “deeply offensive” that there are efforts “coming out of the Republican camp to suggest that perhaps I’m not who I say I am when it comes to my faith.”

The exchange came after Mr. Obama said that Republicans are attempting to scare voters by suggesting he is not Christian, which McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said was “cynical.”

Asked about it on ABC, Mr. Obama said, “These guys love to throw a rock and hide their hand.”

What has always bothered me about the race/religion/etc-baiting complaint, is that I have never actually met anyone who was race-baited.  Perhaps that’s only testament to the enlightened company I keep…

What I do see is the constant traffic in liberal horror-stories on leftist blogs, email lists, and among my Democratic friends.  They agree that identity baiting is a constant, organized tactic, a substantial portion of Republicans either are racist or employ racism, and that, specifically, Barack Obama’s candidacy has been hurt by widespread bigotry.

Since high school, and throughout college, most of my friends have identified casually as liberal, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, or libertarian.  When I pressed them to identify the root of their political affiliation, they usually pointed to revulsion at conservative homophobia, religious zealotry, nativist paranoia, and ethnic bigotry.  Only a few embraced redistributive principles; most defined themselves by what they opposed.

To them, conservatism was the evil in society.  Conservatives had been the racist bigots of To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved, the theocrats of Inherit the Wind and The Crucible, and the fascists of Number the Stars.  In history they had been the Inquisition in Spain, the Catholic Church that persecuted Galileo, the plantation owners in early Latin Americas, the British in the revolutionary war, and, again, the fascists.  It didn’t matter if the pigs of Animal Farm and the Roosevelt who had ordered the Japanese Internment were technically leftists.  Even if left governments could be bad, the badness in society was always conservative.

So if reports of isolated conservative intransigence do not bother me much, it is not because I believe the reports are false, nor because I think that conservative slanders are acceptable.  I do not.  They do not push me to the left because they seem to me to fuel a much more powerful slander: the leftist rhetoric that conservatives are by default bigots and fanatics, that an identification with the right is a mark of stubborn ignorance and an endorsement of arbitrary hatred.

As idiotic as rumors about Obama’s Muslim heritage may be, his counter-accusation that McCain would deliberately and explicitly appeal to racism was just as unfounded and immeasurably more potent.  Where Republicans turn against fellow partisans who hint at racist sentiments, Democrats can comfortably attribute the unholiest of taboos – racism – to their opponents without evidence or fear of consequences.

Ultimately, it’s all a distraction.  Rumors about Barack’s religion and Republican bigotry are irrelevant to the real policy questions.  They have no bearing on the merits of the welfare state, the importance of universal healthcare, or the proper vigor of our foreign policy stance.  If it all comes down in the left’s favor anyway, if half of the progressive ranks define themselves against an ugliness that is nine-tenths fantasy, then I’ll count the score as settled.  I’ll go ahead and vote for the policies I favor, rather than the bogeyman of the culture I oppose.