Are you worried about the increasing presence of religion in our nation?s political discourse? Do you fret about the influence of the "Religious Right"? If so, what did you make of the scene in the United States Senate last week, when a leading politician took to the floor to announce: "I speak as a born-again Christian. HEAR ME, ALL YOU EVANGELICALS OUT THERE! HEAR ME!"
Your first reaction might be that the Family Research Council has finally taken over. Somebody protect the Constitution.
But don't worry. The speaker of those lines was not James Dobson, or Pat Robertson, or Jerry Falwell. It was, instead, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the dean of the Senate and hero of Democrats everywhere.
In an extraordinary performance, Byrd lectured Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) about the Bible's teaching on the question of filibusters.
Well, not exactly. Byrd's biblical text did not specifically discuss filibusters. But Byrd did deliver an extended Bible lesson as a way of telling Frist that if Republicans attempt to break Democratic filibusters of President Bush?s judicial nominees, they will be hanged from gallows for their misdeeds.
Well, not exactly. Byrd probably didn't mean real gallows. But political gallows. In any event, the story was pretty ominous for the GOP.
It started with the Book of Esther.
"I think it would be especially good for the distinguished majority leader to be reminded of the Book of Esther in the Bible," Byrd began.
"I won't go into it all here, but Esther was a Jew. She had a cousin who sat at the king's gate every day. He was a Jew. His name was Mordechai. The word went out that a man who had been favored by the king, a man named Haman ? H-A-M-A-N, I believe it is. Here is my Bible. This is the King James version of the Bible. I don?' read any other version of the Bible except the King James Version. I speak as a born-again Christian. We hear that thrown around a lot around here. I am a born-again Christian and have been since 1946."
You have to be patient listening to Byrd; it takes him a while to get to his point. Making liberal use of the tradition of unlimited debate in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, he continued:
"My wife and I will soon be married, the Lord willing, in about 16 or 17 more days, 68 years. We were both put under the water in that old churchyard pool under the apple orchard in West Virginia, the old Missionary Baptist Church there. Both Erma and I went under the water. So I speak as a born-again Christian.
"You hear that term thrown around. I have never made a big whoop-de-do about being a born-again Christian, but I speak as a born-again Christian. HEAR ME, ALL YOU EVANGELICALS OUT THERE! HEAR ME!"
As the nation's evangelicals listened intently, Byrd recounted the story of Haman, "the chief leader there of King Ahasuerus."
"Well, time went on and old Haman was advised by his people to build a gallows and hang on those gallows Mordechai, and on that same day to kill all the Jews throughout the 127 provinces of Persia," Byrd said.
"I will go to the point of the story quickly," Byrd continued, slowly. "It ended with Haman, the man who built the gallows on which to hang Mordechai, himself being hanged on those gallows. It did not stop there. The 10 sons of Haman were executed on those gallows, also."
Got that, Sen. Frist? Your sons, too.
"Remember Haman," Byrd told the majority leader. "The leader and his party may someday be on the same gallows that we in the minority find ourselves on today, Hamanized. Do not travel that path because the leader and his party may someday be executed on the same gallows. Think about it. Do not 'Hamanize' the Senate of the United States."
Despite Byrd's rambling performance, it was, for those who are not offended by religious references and evangelical fervor in politics, a good and interesting lesson. But isn't it a little late to warn about "Hamanizing" the Senate?
Back in 1987, when Byrd's party -- he was the majority leader at the time -- savaged Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, did the old country preacher warn his colleagues about "Hamanizing"? No.
Here is what Byrd said back then, victorious after his party's relentless attacks on Bork: "It is time to start the healing."
So perhaps Frist will take Byrd's lesson to heart -- not the lesson of his words but of his deeds.
And if Republicans run roughshod over Byrd and his colleagues, and put an end to their filibusters of an entire slate of judicial nominees, Frist might look at Byrd and say, with all the sincerity he can muster: "It is time to start the healing."