Take on the Born-Again White House
One of the great ironies of this political moment is that just
as Americans woke up to the threat of Muslim fundamentalism abroad,
our president threw open the doors of the White House to Christian fundamentalists
here at home.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Clearly, reality and reason don't count for much in the Bush Administration.
That's why BuzzFlash has turned to Esther Kaplan, author of With
God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy,
and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House, for some perspective.
If reason is on a permanent vacation from the reactionary Bush White House
of faith, and it seems to be, those of us who value rational action had
better pay close attention to the insidious inroads of faith -- specifically,
a fundamentalist Christian faith -- into government. In this BuzzFlash
interview, journalist and community activist Esther Kaplan dissects our
emerging American theocracy, traces the billions of dollars that have
promoted it, and documents the weakening influence of science on U.S.
* * *
BuzzFlash: How close are we to a theocracy
when a president says that he takes orders from God?
Esther Kaplan: Well, a blatant example
of Bush saying something like this was former Palestinian prime minister
Mahmoud Abbas' remark in June 2003 that Bush had told him privately, "God
told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed
me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve
the problem in the Middle East." That comment was dismissed by Bush's
spokesman at the time, Ari Fleischer, as "an invention." In
the final presidential debate, Bush likewise downplayed his earlier comment
to journalist Bob Woodward that he had consulted a "higher father"
in deciding whether to invade Iraq; now Bush claims he merely meant that
he prays a lot.
But we don't have to depend on Bush's oddball remarks for evidence that
we have tip-toed in the direction of theocracy under his tenure. For example,
Bush has appointed judges to the federal bench who don't embrace some
of our basic constitutional protections against state-imposed religion.
Take William Pryor: he not only spoke out in support of Judge Roy Moore's
controversial decision to display a five-ton Ten Commandments monument
in the Alabama Supreme Court, but he defended Moore's practice of having
Christian clergy recite prayers as jurors assembled in the courtroom before
trial. At one rally to save “Roy's Rock,” Pryor claimed that the US Constitution
was rooted in Christianity. When Democratic senators filibustered Pryor,
Bush slipped him a federal judgeship through a recess appointment.
Bush's faith-based initiative also privileges Christianity above all other
religions. After sifting through every grant announcement I could get
my hands on from Bush's faith-based offices, I couldn't find a single
grant issued to a religious charity that wasn't Christian -- no Jewish
charities, no Muslim charities, nothing. And when I spoke with Jim Towey,
director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,
he confirmed that no direct federal grants from his program had gone to
a non-Christian religious group. This kind of religious favoritism is
exactly what the Constitution's establishment clause was put in place
BuzzFlash: How did the religious right gain such influence
in the Bush administration, and how unified are they?
Esther Kaplan: The movement's been slowly
growing for 25 years, ever since Jerry Falwell first founded his Moral
Majority in 1979. Now the movement has a massive infrastructure made up
of hundreds of national and local membership organizations, many with
$100 million budgets, as well several hundred radio and television outlets
reaching tens of millions of listeners, well-funded think tanks and political
action committees, professional associations and journals, deep-pocketed
funders dedicated to long-term institution building, and, most importantly,
a huge network of tens of thousands of churches and ministries. At a recent
Christian Coalition Conference I attended in Washington (held, incidentally,
inside the Senate office building), Roberta Combs, president of the Christian
Coalition, announced that her organization would be distributing 90 million
voter guides to these congregations in the month leading up to the election.
So you can see how important this constituency might be to the right politician.
And more than any president before him, Bush is that politician. Bush
built his political career on his ability to woo this constituency. Within
months of his "born again" experience in 1985, Bush was hired
to serve as the evangelical wrangler for his father's first presidential
bid. When Bush decided to run for president, the first thing he did was
dial up James Robison, one of the country's most popular televangelists,
to discuss the idea. Robison returned the favor by setting up gatherings
with other major leaders on the evangelical right, who, at meeting after
meeting, laid hands on Bush (literally) to bless his candidacy. In the
2000 election, this groundwork paid off: 40% of Bush's votes came from
the Christian right. If you add on Catholic conservatives, who Bush's
political team also hotly pursued, it adds up to 52% of all Bush voters.
In short, Bush's political career wouldn't exist without the Christian
right, and he has rewarded them handsomely throughout his presidency,
both with policies and with funds.
As Falwell told the crowd at that same Christian Coalition event in late
September, "The Republican Party does not have the head count to elect
a president without the support of religious conservatives….I tell my
Republican friends who are always talking about the 'big tent,' I say
make it as big as you want to, but if the candidate running for president
is not pro-life, pro-family...you're not going to win."
BuzzFlash: How does the Bush administration's efforts
to please the religious right influence federal judicial appointments?
Esther Kaplan: Let me count the ways. Honestly,
for every burning issue on the Christian right agenda, Bush has nominated
ferocious advocates to the federal bench. On the campaign against sex
education, the evangelical right got appeals court nominee Claude Allen,
who, as our current deputy secretary for health (Tommy Thompson's number
two), has become the nation's most powerful advocate for replacing comprehensive
sex education with abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. On their campaign
against gay rights, they got Michael McConnell, a hero to the Christian
right for successfully defending the Boy Scouts before the Supreme Court,
when the organization sought to exclude gay kids. Or William Pryor, mentioned
above, who wrote a brief in the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case comparing
gay sex to bestiality, pedophilia, incest, prostitution, and necrophilia.
On the question of Roe v. Wade, Bush's nominees have closed
ranks. While there is not a single Bush nominee who is outspoken in favor
of abortion rights -- the best we got was former nominee Miguel Estrada's
begrudging statement that it's "settled law" -- Bush has nominated
countless vociferous opponents. John Roberts and Caroline Kuhl have argued
in court that Roe should be overturned. Charles Pickering (another who
only squeaked through on a recess appointment) helped to draft a Mississippi
GOP platform plank calling for abortion to be outlawed entirely. Pryor
has called Roe "the worst abomination in the history of constitutional
law." And the list goes on.
Leaders of the Christian right have devoted enormous organizational resources
to supporting these judicial appointments, which Focus on the Family's
Don Hodel calls approvingly "pro-life, conservative, pro-family people."
And they have created a forest of organizations -- such as the Coalition
for a Fair Judiciary and the Committee for Justice — to mobilize support
But the joke may actually be on the Christian right. Many of these socially
conservative judges are also economic right-wingers, and according to
an analysis by People for the American Way, most of the significant decisions
made by Bush-appointed federal judges so far have actually benefited corporations
-- by undermining civil rights, workers' rights, and environmental regulations
-- not conservative Christian dogma.
BuzzFlash: Has Bush replaced science with faith? After
all, we now have the National Parks distributing "creationism" explanations
for the formation of America's natural wonders.
Esther Kaplan: You're referring to the
fact that Grand Canyon National Park, over the opposition of the federal
government's top geologists, is now selling a book that claims the canyon
was created in the same biblical flood that launched Noah's ark. Keep
in mind that National Park bookstores are mandated by law to promote sound
science. But that's only the most famous example of faith eclipsing science
in the Bush administration.
Bush has stacked several scientific advisory committees with religious
fundamentalists who simply do not accept scientific consensus. The advisors
to the National Center for Environmental Health now include Harold Koenig,
who has written about the power of prayer in healing, and Sharon Falkenheimer,
a member of the Christian Medical Association -- whose members must believe
in "the divine inspiration, integrity, and final authority of the
Bible as the Word of God." The Advisory Committee on Human Research
Protections, which covers safety in human research trials, features another
Christian Medical Association member, Nancy Jones, who has called scientific
data "subjective" and comparable to "other dogmatic methods"
such as theology. The Advisory Committee on Reproductive Health Drugs,
which decides what reproductive medicines are safe for public use, includes
David Hager, a Kentucky ob-gyn and Christian book author, who refuses
to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women and has written that Christian
prayers can be used to treat PMS, headaches, and cancer.
Bush officials have also "disappeared" information from government
science web sites when it might offend Christian right sensibilities --
such as a fact sheet on how to use condoms, a web page that debunked the
bogus link between abortions and breast cancer (pro life organizations
like to use this urban myth to scare young women away from abortions),
and a directory of model sex education programs, all of which included
teaching about birth control.
And the influence of corporate interests on Bush administration science
has been just as pervasive, from downplaying the threat of global warming
to doctoring reports an whether oil drilling in Alaska would harm the
caribou. This politicization of science, whether to please Bush's corporate
or religious backers, has gotten so extreme that more than 5,000 scientists
(including 48 Nobel Laureates) signed a letter to Bush calling for an
end to such practices.
BuzzFlash: Why did Bush support an amendment to the Constitution
forbidding gay marriage? Why does the religious right go into apoplexy
at the very thought of gays?
Esther Kaplan: Well, my theory is Bush
didn't do this out of personal conviction, but because he simply had to
-- the pressure from his Christian right base was just too intense to
This is actually one of the few cases where you easily can separate out
Bush's personal faith from his need to kowtow to his political base. During
the 2000 campaign, Bush met with gay Republican activists -- a first for
a Republican presidential candidate. When he got into the White House,
he appointed several openly gay men to prominent positions, most notably
Scott Evertz, a leader of the Wisconsin Log Cabin Republicans, as his
AIDS czar. But the reaction from the Christian right was intense. Concerned
Women for America, one of the most influential of the Christian right's
beltway lobby groups, even issued a report after Bush's first year called
"The Bush Administration's Homosexual Agenda," listing all the
ways he'd been soft on gays.
But it was only after the Lawrence v. Texas decision, when the Supreme
Court legalized sodomy, followed by the flurry of legal activity surrounding
same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and San Francisco, that the entire
Christian right movement joined forces to demand action from the president.
They came up with a joint demand -- a federal constitutional amendment
banning same sex marriage-- and then they riled up their base through
rallies, radio broadcasts, and emergency mailings. They also met with
Bush's top political advisor, Karl Rove. Even then, Bush, perhaps afraid
of alienating moderates, tried to avoid taking a stance on a constitutional
amendment by announcing a $1.5 billion five-year initiative to promote
"healthy marriage" among welfare recipients, but that didn't
appease anyone. Finally, last February, Bush pulled the trigger, throwing
his weight behind a constitutional amendment as his base demanded. But
you can see how uncomfortable it made him, judging by the ways he and
Dick Cheney have both tried to moderate this stance in the final weeks
of the campaign.
BuzzFlash: Back to the issue of Bush's theocratic rule.
BuzzFlash would argue that Bush pays lip service to democracy. After all,
democracy is pluralistic, inclusive of the right to worship as one wishes.
The fundamentalists, however, believe that this is a Christian nation
-- and that persons who are not "saved" in the Christian sense are fallen
and have corrupted America. That is why Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell
blamed 9/11 on God taking out his wrath on a nation that had fallen into
depravity (according to them). So, the theology and world view of Bush
and his followers is exclusionary to non-Christian faiths, apart from
the weird alliance with Israel based on a fundamentalist belief in "End
Times." Any thoughts on this?
Esther Kaplan: The irony is that this movement
is so self-consciously patriotic. They sing "The Star Spangled Banner"
and recite the Pledge of Allegiance at their events, they claim to be
representing true American values. And yet, as you say, they simply don't
see the value of separating church and state and they demonstrate a deep
discomfort with the pluralism inherent to our democracy. I came across
one survey, from 1994, which polled the members of two prominent Christian
right groups on the statement, "a diversity of moral views is healthy."
This seems like a basic democratic value, right? Well, only 6 percent
of Focus on the Family members and only 2 percent of Concerned Women for
America members agreed with this statement. When Catholics like Ted Kennedy
disagree with the American Life League about outlawing abortion, the group
doesn't just lobby against him, it takes out newspaper ads claiming that
he'll go to hell.
When Bush first announced his Faith-Based Initiative, Falwell
and Robertson were adamantly opposed to it, precisely because they worried
that, in a democracy, those funds would have to go equally to all religious
faiths. Robertson worried aloud that "aberrant" religions such
as Hare Krishnas, Scientologists, and followers of the Reverend Sun Myung
Moon might get federal funds, while Falwell singled out Muslims, saying
"Islam should be out the door before they knock" -- disqualified
from even applying for grants. Of course, as I noted above, all the grants
have gone to Christian groups -- including $1.5 million to Robertson's
Operation Blessing -- so now Robertson and Falwell back the program wholeheartedly.
So it's not just that the Christian right is exclusionary to non-Christians
personally. They actually believe that the United States was founded as
a Christian nation and needs to be restored to its Christian roots. David
Barton, one of the leading promoters of this idea within the movement
(he leads "Christian heritage" tours of the Capitol) is now
vice-chair of the Texas GOP. This idea has made its way deep inside the
BuzzFlash: As a follow-up, aren't fundamentalism and a pluralistic
democracy incompatible? You either have faith in an embracing, inclusive
democracy, or you believe in a nation where the government imposes a "faith"
and a perceived set of religious values on Americans. This is not a democracy,
but a theocracy built upon the illusion of a democracy. Any thoughts?
Esther Kaplan: Exactly. One of the great
ironies of this political moment is that just as Americans woke up to
the threat of Muslim fundamentalism abroad, our president threw open the
doors of the White House to Christian fundamentalists here at home.
A second major irony is that the separation of church and
state has been extremely healthy for religion in this country -- the United
States is one of the most religious countries on earth, unlike many European
countries with official state religions, where religious practice has
begun to fade away. So people who put religious faith at the center of
their lives should be the first ones to stand up for church/state separation.
Instead the Christian right is trying to claim that was never the intent
of the founders. They disparagingly describe church/state separation as
a marginal idea found only in an obscure letter written by Thomas Jefferson,
rather than as the beating heart of the Constitution's establishment clause.
Look, if Christian fundamentalists want to use their faith as a guide
for their own lives, and want to personally shun homosexuality, abortion,
sex education, and even evolutionary science, their freedom to do so is
fiercely protected by the Constitution. But when they try to impose those
views on the rest of the country, whether they admit it or not, they are
pushing us toward theocracy.
BuzzFlash: Mark Crispin Miller has argued that the goal
of the Bush Administration and the religious right is to move us back
to a period that preceded the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. This was
a time when reason and science were seen to be incompatible with faith.
Do you agree with this?
Esther Kaplan: I think Mark is onto something.
The Christian right movement is deeply reactionary, in the truest sense
of the word. In opposing gay marriage, leaders of the movement frequently
talk about the need to preserve the family as it has been for "thousands
of years" or for "a millennium" or for the entire history
of Western civilization. They seem to share a strong view of a "before"
that was godly, and an "after" (now), in which we are fallen,
a world that is, in the words of Paul Weyrich, the founder of the Christian
right, "an ever-wider sewer." A world that will be fixed if
they can only restore their version of Christian values.
But on the other hand, activists in this movement have now learned to
tap science to serve theological ends. As Karen Armstrong writes in The
Battle for God, "...because by the end of the nineteenth century
science and rationalism were the watchwords of the day, religion had to
be rational too if it was to be taken seriously." So this is how
we get the Christian Medical Association, or a group like the Medical
Institute for Sexual Health, which uses illegitimate data to "prove"
that condoms can't stop sexually transmitted diseases (an argument for
abstinence until marriage), or the Discovery Institute, which exploits
scientific disagreements about various evolutionary mechanisms to argue
that science has disproven evolutionary theory in its entirety (an argument
for creationism). So instead of religious views being advanced on religious
grounds, we now also have religious views being advanced using pseudo-science.
And many of these peddlers of pseudo-science are now Bush science advisors.
BuzzFlash: What is the phrase "family values" a code
phrase for? I mean, don't we all have "family values," but just different
ones, as befits a democracy?
Esther Kaplan: This was one of the most
significant ideological accomplishments of the Christian right. How did
opposition to abortion, sex education, gay rights, and contraception become
the definition of "family values" -- and even of religious morality
itself? What about health care, so you can take care of your family? What
about decent jobs with decent pay so you don't have to work two jobs and
never see your kids? The Christian right doesn't care about these issues,
and neither does George W. Bush.
I heard so much rhetoric from the Christian right about how gay marriage
would destroy the family that I finally called up an expert marriage counselor,
William Doherty, who's a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and
the author of several books on family issues, such as Take Back Your
Marriage and Putting Family First. And when I asked him
to list the top strains on marriage, the possibility of same-sex marriage
didn't rank. He put stressful life events such as illness, job loss, or
falling into poverty at the top of the list. And second he put overwork,
which forces people to neglect their kids and their spouse. He reeled
off a list of public policies that contribute to marriages breaking up:
lack of access to affordable health care, which can chain a spouse to
an unhappy job; stingy vacation policies that leave no time for getting
a relationship back on track; mandatory overtime; etc. None of these issues
appears on the Christian right's "family values" agenda, and
on many of these fronts, Bush has made matters worse.
BuzzFlash: Okay, prediction time. If Bush gets a second
term, how much more control will fundamentalist Christian doctrines have
over our lives? Will the transformation from a democracy to a theocracy
be nearly completed with four more years of Bush, given that he appoints
so many fundamentalists to the federal courts?
Esther Kaplan: I hope we have enough checks
and balances in place that a full-throated theocracy is not on the near
horizon. But I have no doubt that we'll slide further in that direction.
If you look at the federal judgeships, for example, they're around 57%
Republican appointees right now -- and the only Democratic appointees
are Clinton-appointed moderates. With four more years of Bush appointments,
we'll start to see more and more federal court decisions, on such issues
as school vouchers, school prayer, and Christian iconography in public
buildings, swing toward theocracy.
With a few Bush appointees to the Supreme Court in the mold
of Antonin Scalia, who Bush has held up as a model, we could see the door
opened for taxpayer dollars going on a massive scale to support religious
schools and religious drug treatment programs whose basic aim is to get
their charges to embrace Jesus. Taxpayers like myself, who are religious
minorities, will see our money go to organizations that are out to convert
us. And, of course, it's quite likely that we'd see enormous movement
on the pro life agenda, starting with the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
BuzzFlash: One final question. Explain the implications
of the fundamentalist belief in Armageddon, or the "rapture," in
terms of Bush foreign policy.
Esther Kaplan: Honestly, it would be unfair
to claim that Bush's foreign policy is driven by "End Times"
belief -- the belief that a particular sequence of events will surround
Christ's return to Earth, based on a literal reading of the Book of Revelation.
But his policies have certainly dovetailed with this belief quite nicely.
Christian right figures like Tim LaHaye, author of the blockbuster
"Left Behind" series of novels, which have sold some 55 million
copies, see signs of the "End Times" in everything from Bush's
invasion of Iraq to his hard-line stance toward the Palestinians. On his
web site, LaHaye listed his top two "signs of the End Times"
in 2003 as "Israel claims her land," which he calls "the
'super-sign' of prophecy," and "“Saddam's removal clears the
way for rebuilding Babylon." According to these believers, another
predictor of the "End Times" is the rise of the Antichrist,
who will attempt to establish a world government; in LaHaye's books, the
Antichrist becomes secretary general of the United Nations, an institution
that has long been suspected of satanic influence by Christian fundamentalists.
So Bush's tough unilateralism -- going to war with Iraq without UN sanction,
withdrawing from such international treaties as the Kyoto accords on global
warming -- has a strong resonance for "End Times" believers.
At least in public, President Bush has done little to encourage such interpretations
of his foreign policy. But in a private meeting with so-called Christian
Zionists -- people who believe that all Jews must "return" to
biblical Israel to usher in the second coming of Christ -- Bush's top
Middle East advisor, Elliott Abrams, carefully explained Bush's support
for Ariel Sharon's proposed pull-out from Gaza as being theologically
acceptable because "the Gaza strip had no Biblical influence…and
therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed." This according
to notes of the meeting obtained by The Village Voice. So it's
at least fair to say that members of the Bush team are aware of "End
Times" thinking, and some of them are ready to make use of it to
explain their policies to the Christian right.
BuzzFlash: Spinning American foreign policy
in theological terms. Pretty amazing. Thank you, Esther Kaplan, for your
Esther Kaplan: Happy to have this dialogue.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Get your copy of With
God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy,
and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House from BuzzFlash.com