How Bush and the Christian Right are taking over the USA
Volume 53, Number 18 · November 16, 2006
The New York Review of Books - Feature
A Country Ruled by Faith
By Garry Wills
The right wing in America likes to think that the United States government was, at its inception, highly religious, specifically highly Christian, and even more specifically highly biblical. That was not true of that government or any later government—until 2000, when the fiction of the past became the reality of the present. George W. Bush was not only born-again, like Jimmy Carter. His religious conversion came late, and took place in the political setting of Billy Graham's ministry to the powerful. He was converted during a stroll with Graham on his father's Kennebunkport compound. It is true that Dwight Eisenhower was guided to baptism by Graham. But Eisenhower was a famous and formed man, the principal military figure of World War II, the leader of NATO, the president of Columbia University—his change in religious orientation was just an addition to many prior achievements. Bush's conversion at a comparatively young stage in his life was a wrenching away from mainly wasted years. He joined a Bible study culture in Texas that was unlike anything Eisenhower bought into.
Bush was a saved alcoholic—and here, too, he had no predecessor in the White House. Ulysses Grant conquered the bottle, but not with the help of Jesus. Other presidents were evangelicals. Three of them belonged to the Disciples of Christ—James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. But none of the three— nor any of the other forty-two presidents preceding Bush (including his father)—would have answered a campaign debate question as he did. Asked who was his favorite philosopher, he said "Jesus Christ." And why? "Because he changed my heart."
Over and over, when he said anything good about someone else—including Vladimir Putin—he said it was because "he has a good heart," which is evangelical-speak (as in "condoms cannot change your heart"). Bush talks evangelical talk as no other president has, including Jimmy Carter, who also talked the language of the secular Enlightenment culture that evangelists despise. Bush told various evangelical groups that he felt God had called him to run for President in 2000: "I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it."
Bush promised his evangelical followers faith-based social services, which he called "compassionate conservatism." He went beyond that to give them a faith-based war, faith-based law enforcement, faith-based education, faith-based medicine, and faith-based science. He could deliver on his promises because he stocked the agencies handling all these problems, in large degree, with born-again Christians of his own variety. The evangelicals had complained for years that they were not able to affect policy because liberals left over from previous administrations were in all the health and education and social service bureaus, at the operational level. They had specific people they objected to, and they had specific people with whom to replace them, and Karl Rove helped them do just that.
It is common knowledge that the Republican White House and Congress let "K Street" lobbyists have a say in the drafting of economic legislation, and on the personnel assigned to carry it out, in matters like oil production, pharmaceutical regulation, medical insurance, and corporate taxes. It is less known that for social services, evangelical organizations were given the same right to draft bills and install the officials who implement them. Karl Rove had cultivated the extensive network of religious right organizations, and they were consulted at every step of the way as the administration set up its policies on gays, AIDS, condoms, abstinence programs, creationism, and other matters that concerned the evangelicals. All the evangelicals' resentments under previous presidents, including Republicans like Reagan and the first Bush, were now being addressed.
The head of the White House Office of Personnel was Kay Coles James, a former dean of Pat Robertson's Regent University and a former vice-president of Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, the conservative Christian lobbying group that had been set up as the Washington branch of James Dobson's Focus on the Family. She knew whom to put where, or knew the religious right people who knew. An evangelical was in charge of placing evangelicals throughout the bureaucracy. The head lobbyist for the Family Research Council boasted that "a lot of FRC people are in place" in the administration. The evangelicals knew which positions could affect their agenda, whom to replace, and whom they wanted appointed. This was true for the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and Health and Human Services—agencies that would rule on or administer matters dear to the evangelical causes.
The White House was alive with piety. Evangelical leaders were in and out on a regular basis. There were Bible study groups in the White House, as in John Ashcroft's Justice Department. Over half of the White House staff attended the meetings. One of the first things David Frum heard when he went to work there as a speech writer was: "Missed you at the Bible study."
According to Esther Kaplan:
Aside from Rove and Cheney, Bush's inner circle are all deeply religious. [Condoleezza] Rice is a minister's daughter, chief of staff Andrew Card is a minister's husband, Karen Hughes is a church elder, and head speechwriter Michael Gerson is a born-again evangelical, a movement insider.
Other parts of the administration were also pious, with religious services during the lunch hour at the General Services Administration.
The labyrinthine infiltration of the agencies was invisible to Americans outside the culture of the religious right. But even the high-profile appointments made it clear where Bush was taking the country. One of his first appointments, for the office of attorney general, was of the Pentecostal Christian John Ashcroft, a hero to the evangelicals, many of whom had earlier wanted him to run for president— Pat Robertson had put up money for his campaign. As a senator, Ashcroft had sponsored a bill to protect unborn life "from [the moment of] fertilization." As soon as he was nominated to be attorney general, the Family Research Council mobilized women to lobby at Senate offices for his confirmation. The evangelicals had long been familiar with Ashcroft's piety. He told an audience at Bob Jones University that "we have no king but Jesus," and called the wall of separation between church and state a "wall of religious oppression."
After his nomination but before his confirmation, Ashcroft promised to put an end to the task force set up by Attorney General Janet Reno to deal with violence against abortion clinics —evangelicals oppose the very idea of hate crimes. The outcry of liberals against Ashcroft's promise made him back off from it during his confirmation hearings. In 2001, there was a spike in violence against the clinics —790 incidents, as opposed to 209 the year before. That was because the anthrax alarms that year gave abortion opponents the idea of sending threatening powders to the clinics—554 packets were sent. Nonetheless, Ashcroft refused for a long time to send marshals to quell the epidemic.
That was one of many signs that this administration thought of abortion as a sin, not as a right to be protected. The President himself called for an amendment to the Constitution outlawing abortion. He called evangelical leaders around him to celebrate the signing of the bill banning "partial birth abortions." The signing was not held, as usual, at the White House but in the Ronald Reagan Building, as a salute to the hero of younger evangelicals. Ashcroft moved enforcement of the ban to the Civil Rights Division, a signal that evangelicals appreciated, implying that the fetus is a person with civil rights to be protected. Then, in what was called a step toward enforcement, Ashcroft subpoenaed hospitals for their files on hundreds of women who had undergone abortions —Democrats in Congress called this a major invasion of privacy.
Ashcroft's use of the Civil Rights Division for religious purposes was broader than his putting partial-birth abortion under its jurisdiction. Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, two critics of Republican policies, write in One Party Country:
In 2002, the department established within its Civil Rights Division a separate "religious rights" unit that added a significant new constituency to a division that had long focused on racial injustice. When the Salvation Army— which had been receiving millions of dollars in federal funds—was accused in a private lawsuit of violating federal antidiscrimination laws by requiring employees to embrace Jesus Christ to keep their jobs, the Civil Rights Division for the first time took the side of the alleged discriminators.
In a further step toward faith-based justice, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He had resisted this earlier, and his vice-president, Dick Cheney (whose daughter is a lesbian), had said that the matter should be left to the states; but in 2003 the Supreme Court knocked down the anti-sodomy law in Texas (Lawrence v. Texas), and the evangelicals responded to Antonin Scalia's ferocious dissent in ways typified by James Dobson, who said that this was "our D-Day, or Gettysburg, or Stalingrad." The pressure from the religious right was now too great for Bush to resist, and he began to speak out in support of banning gay marriage by constitutional amendment.
Faith-Based Social Services
In his campaign for the presidency, Bush offered as a proof of his "compassionate conservatism" the plan to give federal aid to church groups that perform social services—the so-called "faith-based initiatives." In feigned compliance with the First Amendment, the program claimed to have safeguards against using the money to proselytize. But since large grants went to people who do not believe there is any separation of church and state—Chuck Colson got $2 million and Pat Robertson $1.5 million— there was little will to follow the pro forma separation of preaching and aiding. Large grants went to abstinence-only forms of sex education, on the grounds that this was a secular cause, though only religious people were backing it.
The wisdom of the First Amendment was demonstrated by the political uses the faith-based program was put to. The program was largely targeted to benefit African-American ministers. As Matthew Dowd, an adviser to Bush, put it: "The minister is the number one influence in the African American community."
The aim was not to win the entire black community away from Democrats, but to shave a few points off the boost they normally gave to Democrats. With that in mind, the administration scheduled conferences to show blacks how to get grants in battleground states just before elections. Local Republican candidates attended, suggesting that religious grants would depend on their election. These events were organized by James Towey, the second man to direct the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. As Hambuger and Wallsten put it:
Towey, his director of outreach at the time Jeremy White, and other White House staffers also appeared at Republican-sponsored events with candidates in half a dozen states. During the summer of 2002, for instance, the Washington Post reported that Towey appeared with numerous other Republicans in close races, including Representatives John Shimkus of Illinois, Tim Hutchison of Arkansas, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. After a South Carolina event for black ministers, participants received a follow-up memo on Republican Party letterhead explaining to ministers how they could apply for grant money. Of twenty publicly financed trips taken by Towey between the 2002 and 2004 elections, and publicized through press accounts or releases, sixteen were to battleground states.... [In 2002] more than fifteen thousand religious and social service leaders attended free White House conferences in battleground states.
Towey also brought black ministers to the White House to meet the first black woman to become secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. The fruits of this campaign for black votes could be seen in 2004, when black voters in Milwaukee received fliers from the influential black preacher Bishop Sedgwick Daniels urging them to vote for George Bush because "he shares our values." He also shared with Bishop Daniels $1.5 million of taxpayers' funds for faith-based initiatives. Bishop Daniels had always supported Democratic candidates before 2004.
The first leader of the faith-based initiative program, a man who had experience in community programs, the Catholic political scientist John DiIulio, resigned after complaining of the political uses the program was being put to. As he explained to a reporter friend:
In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions.... On social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking—discussion by fairly senior people who mean Medicaid but were talking Medicare.... On the so-called faith bill, they basically rejected any idea that the president's best political interests —not to mention the best policy of the country—could be served by letting centrist Senate Democrats in on the issue, starting with a bipartisan effort to review the implementation of the kindred law (called "charitable choice") signed in 1996 by Clinton.
For a fact, had they done that, six months later they would have had a strongly bipartisan copycat bill to extend that law. But, over-generalizing the lesson from the politics of the tax cut bill, they winked at the most far-right Republicans [Rick Santorum and J.C. Watts] who, in turn, drafted a so-called faith bill (HR 7, the Community Solutions Act) that (or so they thought) satisfied certain fundamentalist leaders.... As one senior staff member chided me at a meeting at which many junior staff were present and all ears, "John, get a faith bill, any faith bill."
When the President was unable to get his faith-based bill through Congress, he just put it into effect anyway by means of two executive orders, going to Philadelphia to sign the second one. One of Karl Rove's celebratory signs was unfurled over the stage: COMPASSION IN ACTION. It should have read RELIGION IN POLITICS.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush said that "the jury is still out" on the merits of Darwinism.That is true only if the jury is not made up of reputable scientists. Bush meant to place religious figures on the jury, to decide a scientific question. As president, he urged that schools teach "intelligent design" along with Darwinism—that is, teach religion alongside science in science classes. Gary Bauer, like other evangelicals, was delighted when the President said that. Bush's endorsement proves, Bauer observed, that intelligent design "is not some backwater view." An executive at the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design, chimed in: "President Bush is to be commended for defending free speech on evolution." By that logic, teaching flat-earthism, or the Ptolemaic system alongside the Copernican system, is a defense of "free speech."
The Discovery Institute claims that it is a scientific, not a religious, enterprise, but that claim was belied when one of its internal documents was discovered. It promised that the institute would "function as a wedge...[to] split the trunk [of materialism] at its weakest points" and "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God." The institute is mainly funded with evangelical money, and its spokespersons are evangelicals—one, Philip Johnson, says he was inspired by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon to "devote my life to destroying Darwinism." Another, Stephen C. Meyer, is a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, whose faculty "must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments."
Since President Bush advocates the teaching of intelligent design, it is not surprising that in his administration, the National Park Service would authorize the sale of a book at the Grand Canyon claiming that the canyon was formed by Noah's Flood. A group of scientists protested this endorsement by the government of bogus science. In response to that, the Alliance Defense Fund, set up by James Dobson and other fundamentalists, threatened a lawsuit if the book was withdrawn from sale at the federal site. As other religious right figures chimed in, it was discovered that a draft guide for park employees stated that the canyon was not formed in the time period of the Flood; the guide was not released. A survey of Park Service employees in 2003 found that almost nine out of ten felt the scientific message of the Service was being skewed for political reasons. That is the very definition of faith-based science.
So is the Bush administration's denial of global warming. The religious right would seem to have no stake in this position, but for whatever reason —the premillennial lack of concern for the earth's fate as Jesus' coming nears, the "dominion" over the earth given Adam—evangelicals have been urgent in denying what most objective scientists have been observing. The White House intervened to have cautions against global warming removed from a 2003 draft report on the environment. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma has called reports of global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." His hostility to any environmental concerns is such that he has called the Environmental Protection Agency a "Gestapo," and likened its female director to "Tokyo Rose." Inhofe is an evangelical who says that Israel was given the West Bank by God—he claimed that the attack on the World Trade Center was caused by America's weak support of Israel:
One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States was that the policy of our government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them.
One of George W. Bush's first acts as president—in fact, on his first day in office, signaling its importance to his evangelical supporters—was to restore a gag rule on aid to international organizations that counsel women on the subject of abortion.Though abortion is legal in the US, the President was able by executive decree to proscribe its mere discussion in other countries if they are to receive money for their population problems. This was just the beginning of the imposition of moral limits on health measures abroad. Though the President was praised for devoting millions of dollars to preventing and treating AIDS in Africa, 30 percent of that money was earmarked for promoting sexual abstinence, and none of it was for condoms. Religion trumped medical findings on what is effective.
Domestically, too, $170 million were lavished on promoting a policy of "abstinence-only" in the schools during the year 2005 alone. The Centers for Disease Control removed from its Web site the findings of a panel that abstinence-only programs do not work. A study of the abstinence programs being financed by the federal government showed how little medical knowledge mattered, as opposed to moral dictation. As Chris Mooney writes in The Republican War on Science:
In evaluating the curricula of these programs, the report found that the vast majority exaggerated the failure rates of condoms, spread false claims about abortion's health risks (including mental health problems) and perpetuated sexual stereotypes.... Perhaps most outrageously, one curriculum even claimed that sweat and tears could transfer the HIV virus. You might think that this would be a fringe claim even on the Right, but Senate majority leader Bill Frist, himself a physician, repeatedly refused to repudiate the notion of such transmission in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
The religious right had for years been spreading the unfounded claim that abortion causes breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute had correctly reported that no study has proved such a thing, but twenty-seven pro-life members of Congress pressured the NCI to remove that from its on-line fact sheet.
Another concern of the religious right was the morning-after abortion pill. Bush put one of the pill's known opponents, David Hager, on the board of the Food and Drug Administration that was to decide whether that pill could be sold without a prescription. Though Hager voted with the minority of three on the board against over-the-counter sales of the pill, as opposed to a majority of twenty-four, he raised such a clamor about the danger of teenaged girls using it, increasing the pressure from the religious right, that the FDA refused to implement the board's decision. Hager gave himself and God the credit for this, telling an audience at an evangelical college in Kentucky:
I argued it from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and he used it through this minority report [sic] to influence the decision. You don't have to wave your Bible to have an effect as a Christian in the public arena. We serve the greatest Scientist. We serve the Creator of all life.
For years the Bush administration could not get a director of the FDA confirmed because the acting director kept up the ban on over-the-counter sale of the morning-after pill and the nominee would not promise to lift the ban. At last, to break the impasse, the nominee said that he would lift the ban, but only for girls over eighteen, leaving unsolved all the many unwanted pregnancies of younger girls.
The religious position on health was foremost in the first major domestic issue George W. Bush faced as president. The great promise of using embryonic stem cell research had to be beaten back by the evangelicals, who think that embryos are human persons. Bush spent much of his time working out a way to cut off research without seeming to. The religious right was consulted throughout the decision process, with Jay Lefkowitz as the White House liaison to the evangelicals. The President decreed that only stem cell lines already being used could be federally funded—those, he said, "where the life and death decision has already been made." He claimed there were over sixty of these, but there turned out to be more like sixteen, most of those unusable by American scientists. In July, Bush used his first veto since taking office to block a stem cell research bill that has passed both Republican-controlled houses of Congress. Once again, religion trumped medicine where health issues were concerned.
The deputy undersecretary for defense intelligence, General William (Jerry) Boykin—a man leading the search for bin Laden—made headlines during the Iraq war with a slide- show lecture he gave in churches. He appeared there not in his dress uniform but in combat gear. He asked audiences (this was after the 2000 election and before the 2004 one):
Ask yourself this: why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there?... I tell you this morning he's in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this. God put him there to lead not only this nation but to lead the world, in such a time as this.
Then he asked the congregation who the enemy is. He showed slides of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Taliban leaders, asking of each, "Is this man the enemy?" He gave a resounding no to each question, and then revealed the foe's true identity:
The battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it's a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan.... Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.
This was not a momentary lapse on Boykin's part. He has been an active translator of war into religion for many years. After he led the failed "Blackhawk Down" raid on Mogadishu in 1993, he flew over the city taking photographs. When developed, the pictures showed black smears on the landscape. He showed them to his Sunday-school-teaching mother, and she asked, "Don't you know specifically what you were up against?" Only then did he get the full supernatural meaning of the pictures. "It was a demonic presence in that city, and God revealed it to me as the enemy that I was up against in Mogadishu." He remembered, in this light, the first feeling he had experienced in that non-Christian country: "I could feel the presence of evil.... The demonic presence is real in a place that has rejected God." His task was not simply to defeat an enemy force, but to carry Jesus to the benighted. "It is the principalities of darkness. It is a spiritual enemy that will only be defeated if we come against him in the name of Jesus." The evangelical groups he addressed responded eagerly when he attacked the "godless" courts of his own country. "Don't you worry about what these courts say, our God reigns supreme."
When General Edwin Walker began to promote the John Birch Society to his NATO troops, President Kennedy removed him. What happened to General Boykin after he went around calling Muslims Satanic? He was not silenced, demoted, removed, or even criticized. He has continued to work on the Pentagon's special intelligence group. His boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said, "This is a free country," and that Boykin had "an outstanding record" in his active career as a Delta Force commander. What caused the difference in response between President Kennedy's time and President Bush's? Could it be the power of the evangelicals? As soon as Boykin became an object of public criticism, the evangelicals rallied around him.
When President Bush, asked about the content of Boykin's remarks, said, "He doesn't reflect my point of view," Gary Bauer was quick to attack his own leader for this mild expression of difference. He sent a memo to his organization's members:
I must be missing something. The general has said that America is under attack because we are built on a Judeo-Christian values system; that ultimately the enemy is not flesh and blood, but rather the enemy is Satan, and that God's hand of protection prevented September 11 from being worse than it was.... Precisely which of those statements does the president take issue with?
The Christian Coalition directed petitions to Secretary Rumsfeld urging him not to knuckle under to the "intolerant liberal mob [that] has castigated General Boykin, a true American hero." James Dobson, on his radio show, called Boykin a "martyr," and told his listeners to send in their protests to the White House.
There was nothing surprising in all this. Boykin was just repeating what other evangelicals had been saying about the war in Iraq. Charles Stanley, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote: "We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible.... God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers." Jerry Falwell put it succinctly in 2004: "God is pro-war." For some evangelicals, this was a war against the enemies of Israel, who are by definition anti-God. The evangelical writer Tim LaHaye called it, therefore, "a focal point of end-time events." For others, it was a chance to spread Christianity to the infidels. An article syndicated on the Southern Baptist Convention's wire service said that "American foreign policy and military might have opened an opportunity for the Gospel in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, and Marvin Olasky, the inventor of Bush's "compassionate conservatism," agreed. Boykin's was not a lone voice, then, but that of a member in good standing of the community that supported Bush on religious grounds, even in his warfare. Boykin was safe under the sheltering wings of a religious right that the White House did not dare to cross.
God's war needs God's warriors, and the White House was ready to supply them. Kay Coles James had been the White House personnel scout for domestic offices. The equivalent director of personnel for the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority (headed by Catholic convert Paul Bremer) was the White House liaison to the Pentagon, James O'Beirne, a conservative Catholic married to National Revieweditor Kate O'Beirne. Those recruited to serve in the CPA were asked if they had voted for Bush, and what their views were on Roe v. Wade and capital punishment. O'Beirne trolled the conservative foundations, Republican congressional staffs, and evangelical schools for his loyalist appointees. Relatives of prominent Republicans were appointed, and staffers from offices like that of Senator Rick Santorum. Right moral attitude was more important than competence.
That was proved when the first director of Iraqi health services, Dr. Frederick Burkle, was dismissed. Burkle, a distinguished physician, was a specialist in disaster relief, with experience in Kosovo, Somalia, and Kurdish Iraq. His replacement, James Haverman, had run a Christian adoption agency meant to discourage women from having abortions. Haverman placed an early emphasis on preventing Iraqis from smoking, while ruined hospitals went untended. This may suggest the policy on appointments that put Michael Brown in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the parallel is insufficiently harsh. Chris Matthews brought it up on his television show while interviewing the Washington Post reporter who had covered the CPA in Iraq, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who said, "There were a hundred Browns in Iraq." But there were Bible study groups in the Green Zone.
There is a particular danger with a war that God commands. What if God should lose? That is unthinkable to the evangelicals. They cannot accept the idea of second-guessing God, and he was the one who led them into war. Thus, in 2006, when two thirds of the American people told pollsters that the war in Iraq was a mistake, the third of those still standing behind it were mainly evangelicals (who make up about one third of the population). It was a faith-based certitude.