In recent months, leaders including Trent Lott, Rick Santorum and State Senator David Fowler of Tennessee have drawn criticism for off-the-cuff remarks relative to race, poverty and homosexuality. Some remarks were defended, some denied, some apologized for, some regretted.

But the pattern has been to rationalize that such remarks were at the worst “insensitive” (rather than bigoted) or simply “misunderstood” by the media and public.

Fowler, for example, made a statement that some considered racist during debate on whether an additional $1,000 from a state lottery should go into scholarships for poor students. “Just a question, where does the $1,000 go?” he said. “Do we write a check for $1,000 just so they can snort it up their noses and buy kegs for fraternities?”

Fowler, a lottery opponent, later said his reference was not to African-Americans, but to the fact that some college students are irresponsible, regardless of their background.

While some words are misunderstood, more often than not what occurs in these cases is too much understanding. We gain a glimpse into the private thoughts of our leaders, and no amount of apologizing can un-speak them. “Out of the overflow of the heart,” Jesus said, “the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)

Part of us squirms when such ranting and raving gets reported out. It crosses a line, akin to the sick feeling we’re left with after we rant and rave our own deepest, most depraved feelings at others. Even worse is when such lapses of judgment aren’t a “slip,” but intentional language to exploit fears and tension on a number of issues.

What are we to make of such statements?

First, such statements shouldn’t be dismissed as “slips”–they suggest broader realities that deserve scrutiny.

“Rick (Santorum) is a consistent voice for inclusion and compassion in the Republican Party and in the Senate, and to suggest otherwise is just politics,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Do Santorum’s comments give us insight into what “inclusion” and “compassion” really mean among top Republicans?

Second, mainstream America passionately resists the categorization and demonization that characterizes talk on the edges of both parties. Most Americans intuitively know that an “us and them” approach is insufficient for current political decision-making. What’s needed is consensus and common ground, neither of which is served by demonizing the other.

Third, there is much disagreement, and therefore very little substance, to the words “compassionate conservative.” What appeals to the “compassionate” part of “conservatism” is the same moral element that makes Americans react to statements like Santorum’s. White House silence on the comments, as well as a refusal to call for Lott’s resignation, signals a tension among Republicans about the meanings of “compassion” and “inclusion.”

During the 2004 election, Christians should press leaders on what these words mean in conservative rhetoric. With the Iraqi war, we have allowed some latitude for sound bites and platitudes. Christians must demand more definition and debate in the future.

When politicians use their office and leadership to lash out at others, America’s soul and the souls of its citizens get tarnished. America’s leaders, particularly those who read morning devotions, should be held accountable for such “misunderstood” and “insensitive” remarks.

Brent McDougal is pastor of CorinthHeightsBaptistChurch in Haleyville, Ala., and author of River of the Soul: A Spirituality Guide for Christian Youth.
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