South Carolina politicians have a long history of embarrassing their state. If it's not Joe "You Lie!" Wilson interrupting a joint session of Congress and insulting the president, it's Mark Sanford and his Argentine mistress or Strom Thurmond standing on his head for a Life magazine photographer or brawling with a Senate colleague in the halls of Congress.
Now we have the Praying Freshmen.
Five of the state's U.S. House delegation are Republicans, and four of them — including Charleston County's Tim Scott — are freshmen. They are all allied with the Tea Party. And they like to pray.
As the Associated Press reported during the recent debt ceiling debate, "Walking to the members' chapel alone, (2nd District Rep. Jeff Duncan) glanced at his phone and saw a text from fellow freshman (5th District) Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who told him to hang on — he would like to come too. Along the way Mulvaney found Rep. Tim Scott and brought him along."
With the Lord as their shepherd, they were able to find the strength to join their fellow South Carolina GOPers, 1st District Rep. Joe Wilson and 4th District Rep. Trey Gowdy, in voting to lop huge chunks out of the federal budget in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
Of course, there are cynics who suspect that the congressmen's prayers were less than sincere. One was Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, outspoken conservative, and South Carolinian, who was snarky enough to suggest that the freshmen GOPers were at least as much afraid of Sen. Jim DeMint as they were of the Almighty. She pointed out that the Tea Party senator had threatened to "primary" any congressman who did not toe the line and hold out for maximum budget cuts. These freshmen did not believe that God wanted them to be one-term representatives, so they did what God and DeMint commanded — not necessarily in that order.
I am also reminded of something Herb Silverman wrote recently. Silverman is South Carolina's leading atheist, founder of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry and the Secular Coalition of America. In a recent online column for the Washington Post, he noted that the Almighty seems to come to the aid of troubled politicians in this state. When former Gov. Mark Sanford was caught after his Appalachian Trail misadventure, many called for his resignation, but Sanford had a better idea. He prayed, and God told him to hang in there. In 2009, when Sen. DeMint was worried about running for re-election while his wife battled cancer, he too took it to the Lord in prayer, and — wouldn't you know it? — God told him to run. Looks like these congressional freshmen are taking a cue from the veteran prayer bosses in the state GOP.
What worries me is not that these freshmen seem to be cribbing out of Sanford's and DeMint's prayer book — maybe even stealing their password to the Almighty. No, what I find most troubling is how difficult it would be to carry out a rational and useful policy debate with these God GOPers. They could trump any fact, any argument, any line of reasoning by running off to the chapel, coming back a few minutes later and saying, "Just talked it over with God and the Big Guy says I'm right and you're wrong." End of argument.
For New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, it is a bigger question than whose side God is on. As he sees it, the Tea Party is against America.
"These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people," he wrote. "Their intransigent demands for deep spending cuts, coupled with their almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America's most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit, were incredibly irresponsible. But they didn't care. Their goal, they believed, was worth blowing up the country for, if that's what it took."
The tea baggers must have been taking their orders from God. They certainly were not taking them from the American people. Polls showed a wide majority of Americans were ready to raise taxes on the rich and opposed cuts to social programs.
Before they blow themselves up in public places, jihadists do what our congressmen do — they pray. Of course, the South Carolina jihadists and their tea-bag buddies did not blow themselves up. They blew up the United States economy — or threatened to.
The take-home message, as Nocera wrote, is clear enough: "Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them."
We negotiated, and we got burned. Do not doubt that the Tea Party terrorists will be back with all their God talk, rage, threats, and self-righteousness. Will we be ready next time?