Clever and amusing phraseology:
God was his 12-step program.
the red-state version of psychotherapy.
faith without a legislative agenda.
May 17, 2003
God and George W. Bush
By BILL KELLER
Is President Bush a religious zealot, or does he just pander to that crowd? That, crudely put, is probably the most persistent question I hear about Mr. Bush when I travel outside the country, and it comes up all the time in the less godly American precincts (universities, Bush-hater Web sites, Hollywood, the island of Manhattan). On issues from Saddam to sodomy, the assumption is that Mr. Bush is an evangelist for a moralistic agenda that grows from his born-again Christianity. Or else (the more cynical variation), regardless of what he believes in, he has handed over the presidential portfolio to the preacher pols of the religious right in exchange for their influence as campaign ward heelers.
I understand the critics' discomfort with Mr. Bush's public piety. It contributes to an image of crusading arrogance abroad, and to a fear of invasive moralism at home. Most recently, the president's reluctance to offend Senator Rick Santorum — a Catholic theocrat who believes that states should have the power to arrest gay lovers in their bedrooms, or even to criminalize couples who use contraceptives — was an occasion to wonder what, exactly, Mr. Bush was born-again into.
But I've been talking to people who think seriously about religion, including some who know Mr. Bush, and I'm convinced that the notion of a White House powered by fundamentalist Christianity badly misses the point. The critics are right that Mr. Bush's religion is both the animating force of his presidency and one of his greatest political assets, but not in the ways they assume.
I've long suspected the essential fact about Mr. Bush is that God was his 12-step program. At the age of 40, Mr. Bush beat a drinking problem by surrendering to a powerful religious experience, reinforced by Bible study with friends. This kind of born-again epiphany is common in much of America — the red-state version of psychotherapy — and it creates the kind of faith that is not beset by doubt because the believer knows his life got better in the bargain.
There are lots of ways to describe Mr. Bush's religion. By church affiliation, he is a Methodist. In theological terms he would be called a pietist, referring to a tradition in which religion is more a matter of the heart than the intellect. One of his fellow believers describes Mr. Bush's Bible study milieu as "small-group evangelicalism." However labeled, Mr. Bush's faith entails a direct relationship between the believer and God. It does not provide a pope, or any other intermediate authority figure.
Nor does Mr. Bush's religion provide a very specific playbook, except the Bible, and among born-again Christians that book can be regarded as anything from a collection of inspirational poetry to a literal recipe for life. (Mr. Bush gives no sign of being among the literalists.) According to people who have worked closely with him or who travel in evangelical circles, Mr. Bush's faith is therefore highly subjective. It enjoins him to try to do the right thing, but it doesn't tell him what the right thing might be. It is faith without a legislative agenda.
So how does religion influence this presidency? Gregg Easterbrook, a liberal Christian who has written extensively about the modern search for meaning, suspects that for starters Mr. Bush is simply more comfortable with religious people than with nonbelievers. That may explain the atmosphere in the White House, where, as Mr. Bush's former speechwriter David Frum put it, "attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory."
But it is a nonsectarian comfort. Mr. Bush has talked of bonding with Vladimir Putin over the story of a crucifix Mr. Putin's mother gave him. According to Deborah Sontag's reporting in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday, Mr. Bush startled Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the devout Muslim who now leads Turkey, by declaring: "You believe in the Almighty, and I believe in the Almighty. That's why we'll be great partners."
It is probably not entirely irrelevant to our international relations that Tony Blair is, as one British columnist put it, "the most overtly pious leader since Gladstone," while Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schröder of Germany are adamantly secular. Mr. Schröder was the first German chancellor to refuse to end his oath of office with the customary "so help me God."
"I suspect Bush takes the view (which may prove right) that the ultimate argument will be between people who believe in something larger than themselves, and people who believe that it's all an accident of chemistry," Mr. Easterbrook said.
So God is a kind of fraternity handshake. He is also a reliable source of rhetorical flourishes. Mr. Bush's frequent invocation of the Almighty in his speeches grates on the ears of worldly Europeans, who, when the president says, "God bless America," imagine they hear, "And to hell with everybody else." But it is a tradition of long standing in America, where our dissident origins, First Amendment protections and entrepreneurial spirit have created the most diversely religious population in the world. Mr. Bush comes nowhere near the profuse sectarian language of, say, Lincoln or the Roosevelts. He is also the first president to expand the routine homage to "churches and synagogues" to include "mosques." That amendment came long before 9/11, and was welcome, even if it was motivated by the awareness that American Muslim voters constitute a growing, unexploited voter pool.
How his faith influences policy is harder to tell. People who know Mr. Bush say his religion tells you more about the way he makes certain decisions than about the outcome. One adviser, who does not share the president's religious views, said: "Once you see something as belonging in the moral realm, you have a strong desire to act in such a way that you can live with your conscience." Even people who know Mr. Bush are not always sure how much issues are shaped by his conscience and how much by the political calculation that this White House has refined to high science.
His advocacy of faith-based social programs, for example, clearly grows from his conviction, based on personal experience, that religion can bring an extra charisma to problems like drug abuse. If that also happens to win him religious votes and to coincide with the Republican aversion to government social programs, so much the better for Mr. Bush.
On many of the most morally charged issues, Mr. Bush has so far avoided quixotic battles. He endorsed a law against certain late-term abortions, but shows no inclination to go after Roe v. Wade, a move that would be enormously unpopular. He has not declared — because no situation has forced him to — whether he thinks private sexual behavior falls under a constitutional right to privacy.
Perhaps the most important effect of Mr. Bush's religion is that, for better or for worse, it imparts a profound self-confidence once he has decided on a course of action. This has been most conspicuous since Sept. 11 in the way he has talked about his mission to make the world safe for democracy. Some listeners take it as presumptuous, messianic, even blasphemous. John Green of the University of Akron, a scholar of religion in politics, sees it as a perfectly ordinary way for a religious man to understand a task history has presented him.
"For Bush to conclude that this was God's plan," he said, "is not a whole lot different from a plumber in Akron deciding that God wants him to serve lunch to homeless people."
As for the enduring notion that Mr. Bush takes his instructions from the organized Christian right, it misses a much more interesting story: as an independent political structure, the Christian right is dying.
For one thing, the organizations that hit their stride in the 1980's have waned. The Moral Majority is long gone. The Christian Coalition is withering. Bombastic evangelical power brokers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have aged into irrelevance, and now exist mainly as ludicrous foils. Their attempt to turn the war on terror into a religious war — Mr. Robertson called the prophet Muhammad "a wild-eyed fanatic," and Franklin Graham, the preacher son of Billy Graham and a friend of Mr. Bush's, described Islam as "evil" — afforded Mr. Bush a chance to play ecumenical healer by rebuking them.
At the same time, noted Mr. Green, who has studied the Christian right, many local activists have gravitated into the Republican Party as county chairmen and campaign consultants. Once an independent force hammering at the president and Congress, they are now an institutional part of the party base. They must be kept mollified — but in balance with other parts of the coalition, like business, and within the bounds of what a majority of voters will accept. Karl Rove, the White House political genius, has a master plan for enlarging that ecumenical array of believers — churchgoing Catholics, Mormons and Jews as well as the evangelicals — and welding them permanently into the Republican mainstream.
The interesting story, then, is not that Mr. Bush is a captive of the religious right, but that his people are striving to make the religious right a captive of the Republican Party. *
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Clever and amusing phraseology:
God was his 12-step program.
the red-state version of psychotherapy.
faith without a legislative agenda.
April 29, 2004
TV REVIEW | 'THE JESUS FACTOR'
Understanding the President and His God
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
An image from "The Jesus Factor," about President Bush's religious beliefs.
The question is not, When did George W. Bush accept Jesus as his personal savior? The "Frontline" documentary "The Jesus Factor," on PBS tonight, raises a different issue: Do most Americans realize just how fervent the president's evangelical faith really is?
"The Jesus Factor" is a little like those illustrated anatomy books where transparent plastic pages can be flipped to reveal the muscle, bone and organs beneath the skin. Stripping off the layers of patrician pedigree, Yale and his Texas business pursuits, the documentary lays bare Mr. Bush's spiritual conversion and its consequences.
It is not a disrespectful look. Yet by pulling together well-known and long forgotten incidents and remarks, the program reminds viewers that this "faith-based" president has blurred the line between religion and state more than any of his recent predecessors: a vision that affects the Iraq conflict as well as domestic policy.
In the wake of Sept. 11 of course the religious influence seems obvious, since Mr. Bush has invoked a higher authority who has led him to battle "the evildoers."
And at a time when Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" is one of the top-earning movies, and the "Left Behind" series of books, apocalyptic Christian thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (the Antichrist heads the United Nations), has outsold John Grisham, the evangelical Christian movement is highly visible even in places like New York and Los Angeles.
But like the evangelical movement, the president's born-again faith was not as striking to outsiders in 1987, when he moved to Washington to work on his father's presidential campaign. At the time reporters mostly saw him as the Bush family bouncer, someone who kept an eye on disloyal staff members.
Nor were his born-again evangelical beliefs much more than a biographical footnote in Mr. Bush's gubernatorial campaigns. Even in his 2000 presidential race most journalists placed Mr. Bush's religious beliefs behind his family lineage, career and political ideology. His faith was mostly examined in the context of a midlife crisis: a black sheep's self-styled 12-step program that helped him stop drinking and focus on a political career in Texas.
"The Jesus Factor" examines Mr. Bush's faith by mingling his public pronouncements with interviews with friends; fellow members of the Community Bible Study group in Midland, Tex.; evangelical leaders; and Texas journalists who covered him.
Doug Wead, who was George H. W. Bush's liaison to the religious right during the 1988 presidential campaign, says that the younger Mr. Bush was his ally, serving as a behind-the-scenes link between his father, an Episcopalian moderate, and the evangelical movement, which is a critical base for the Republican Party. Mr. Wead says his memorandums to the vice president came back to him annotated by someone who seemed very knowledgeable about evangelical Christians; Mr. Wead says he thought the candidate was handing them over to the Rev. Billy Graham, a Bush family friend. "But it turned out he was vetting them with his son," Mr. Wead says.
Once the younger Mr. Bush's faith took hold, it spread to his political ambitions. "I believe that God wants me to be president," is what Richard Land, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls hearing Mr. Bush say in a meeting with close associates on the day of his second inaugural as governor of Texas. Once elected president, Mr. Bush went to work. "We need common-sense judges who understand our rights were derived from God," he says in a 2002 clip. "And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench."
The documentary revisits a 1993 interview Mr. Bush had with a reporter for The Houston Post, Ken Herman, on the day he announced his intention to run for governor. Mr. Herman recalls that Mr. Bush said he believed that a person had to accept Christ to go to heaven, a view that Mr. Herman published.
"The political ramifications of that were huge," Mr. Wead explains. "And so he doesn't talk about that anymore." (During the 2000 campaign Mr. Bush said he thought schools should teach both creationism and evolution, but he has not been as forthcoming about which theory he personally prefers.)
The imprint of Mr. Bush's faith can be seen on his appointments to the bench and on his decisions on embryonic stem-cell research and so-called partial-birth abortion. And religion also veins Mr. Bush's discussion of war. Mr. Land describes him as a believer in "American exceptionalism." Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners magazine, a liberal evangelical publication, refers to his talk of a divine mission as the "language of righteous empire."
"The Jesus Factor" is an enlightening look at the president and the electoral clout of evangelical Christians. But one drawback of focusing so intently on Mr. Bush's faith is that it screens out other perhaps equally important factors, like political expediencies, personality quirks and clashing interests, that inevitably influence decision making in the Oval Office.
And even some of the president's closest allies say they are not sure when he is speaking from the pulpit and when from the Beltway. "There is no question that the president's faith is calculated, and there is no question that the president's faith is real," Mr. Wead says. "I would say that I don't know and George Bush doesn't know when he's operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith or when it's calculated."
The Jesus Factor
On most PBS stations tonight
(check local listings)
Raney Aronson, producer, writer and director; David Fanning, executive producer for "Frontline." Produced by WGBH, Boston, and a Little Rain Productions.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
I don't see how you can sell your soul to the devil and still believe in Jesus. But then again, I'm not too familiar with church dogma. Maybe all these rich white men have found a loophole.
Do you doubt that Satan himself believes in God—that is, believes that God exists? Believing in God is not truly the same as revering or loving Him.Originally Posted by MidnightRambler
Either way, there's your loophole.
by Hendrik Hertzberg
Issue of 2004-06-07
It isn’t every day that the Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party is a junior senator from Massachusetts who was educated at an élite boarding school and an Ivy League college and whose political career was founded on his war heroism as a young Naval officer in command of a small boat and who has family money and a thick shock of hair and a slightly stiff manner and beautifully tailored suits and an aristocratic mien and whose initials are J.F.K. So rare is this phenomenon that the last time it happened was fortyfour years ago, way back in 1960. That was also the last time that the nominee of the Democratic Party—or of either major party, for that matter—was a Roman Catholic.
There are plenty of other similarities between now and then, each of which comes equipped with its own corresponding difference. Here’s one: in 2004 as in 1960, a large number of evangelical Protestant ministers have been alerting their followers to the danger posed by the man from Massachusetts. The difference is that last time they were against him because they were afraid he might be subservient to the Vatican. This time they’re against him because they’re pretty sure he won’t be.
Here’s another: in 2004 as in 1960, there are prominent Catholics who find it worrying or alarming or otherwise upsetting that their co-religionist is on the ballot for the office of President of the United States. In 1960, though, these prominent Catholics were mostly politicians, some of them the hard-bitten but cautious bosses of big-city Democratic machines. They loved John F. Kennedy, but they loved winning even more, and they feared that the time was not yet ripe to defy the bigotry that had traumatized them thirty-two years earlier. The crushing 1928 defeat of Al Smith, the only other Catholic who had ever run at the top of a major-party ticket, was exactly as distant in time, and as fresh in memory, as the crushing 1972 defeat of George McGovern is today (and the pols who saw McGovern when they looked at Howard Dean are the direct descendants of the ones who saw Smith when they looked at Kennedy). In 2004, the most prominent Catholic worrywarts are conservative prelates. Their fear is not that the candidate who happens to be Catholic will be defeated but that he will be elected.
Theodore Sorensen, the Unitarian who was President Kennedy’s closest aide, wrote that while his boss faithfully attended Mass on Sundays, “not once in eleven years—despite all our discussions of church-state affairs—did he ever disclose his personal views on man’s relation to God.” John Forbes Kerry, who also attends Sunday Mass, has been similarly reticent about the intimate details of his spiritual beliefs. Nevertheless, Kerry’s biography contains hints that his Catholicism is somewhat more devout than was that of his political hero and role model. Kerry was an altar boy, and as a youth he considered the seminary and a career in the priesthood. There is no evidence that any such thoughts ever crossed the mind of the first J.F.K. Yet, because Kerry opposes the recriminalization of abortion and supports stem-cell research to find treatments for such diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, a bevy of bishops have all but called for his defeat. The archbishop of St. Louis has said he would refuse to let Kerry take Communion, the central sacrament of Catholic inclusion, and lesser bishops in Boston, New Orleans, and Portland, Oregon, have chimed in with similar sentiments. The bishop of Colorado Springs has gone further, declaring that anyone who votes for a candidate who favors abortion rights or stem-cell research (or gay marriage or assisted suicide) will be denied Communion in his diocese. Of course, there are still lots of bishops, probably a majority, who think that using the Eucharist as a political bludgeon is a bad idea. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, of Los Angeles, to name one, has said that Kerry is welcome to take Communion in his diocese. There is plenty of disagreement within the Catholic Church and plenty of debate in the Catholic press.
The salient division in American political life where religion is concerned is no longer between Catholics and Protestants, if it ever was, or even between believers and nonbelievers. It is between traditional supporters of a secular state (many of whom are themselves religiously observant), on the one hand, and, on the other hand—well, theocrats might be too strong a term. Suffice it to say that there are those who believe in a sturdy wall between church and state and those who believe that the wall should be remodelled into a white picket fence dotted with open gates, some of them wide enough to drive a tractor-trailer full of federal cash through.
President Bush is the leader of the latter persuasion, and his remodelling project has been under way for more than three years. This project goes beyond the frequent use of evangelical code words in the President’s speeches; beyond the shocking and impious suggestion, more than once voiced in the President’s approving presence, that he was chosen for his position by God Himself; beyond the insistence on appointing judges of extreme Christian-right views to the federal bench; beyond the religiously motivated push to chip away wherever possible at the reproductive freedom of women. It also includes money, in the millions and billions. The money is both withheld and disbursed: withheld from international family-planning efforts, from domestic contraceptive education, and from scientific research deemed inconsistent with religious fundamentalism; disbursed to “abstinence-based” sex-education programs, to church-run “marriage initiatives,” and, via vouchers, to drug-treatment and other social-service programs based on religion. Though Congress has declined to enact the bulk of the President’s “faith-based initiatives,” the Administration has found a way, via executive orders and through bureaucratic novelties like the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Compassion Capital Fund. “The federal government now allows faith-based groups to compete for billions of dollars in social-service funding, without being forced to change their identity and their mission,” the President boasted a couple of weeks ago, in a commencement address at a Lutheran college in Mequon, Wisconsin. He did not mention that “their identity and their mission”—their principal purpose, their raison d’être—is often religious proselytization.
On September 12, 1960, Senator Kennedy, under pressure to confront what was quaintly known as the “religious issue,” appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “It is apparently necessary for me to state once again—not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in,” he said that day.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. . . .
I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end—where all men and all churches are treated as equal—where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice—where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind—and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
With a bit of spiffing up for gender-pronoun correctness, it is just barely possible to imagine such a speech being delivered today by Senator Kerry. Could the same be said of President Bush?
June 3, 2004
Bush Campaign Seeks Help From Thousands of Congregations
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
The Bush campaign is seeking to enlist thousands of religious congregations around the country in distributing campaign information and registering voters, according to an e-mail message sent to many members of the clergy and others in Pennsylvania.
Liberal groups charged that the effort invited violations of the separation of church and state and jeopardized the tax-exempt status of churches that cooperated. Some socially conservative church leaders also said they would advise pastors against participating in such a partisan effort.
But Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush administration, said "people of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as any other community" and that the e-mail message was about "building the most sophisticated grass-roots presidential campaign in the country's history."
In the message, dated early Tuesday afternoon, Luke Bernstein, coalitions coordinator for the Bush campaign in Pennsylvania, wrote: "The Bush-Cheney '04 national headquarters in Virginia has asked us to identify 1,600 `Friendly Congregations' in Pennsylvania where voters friendly to President Bush might gather on a regular basis."
In each targeted "place of worship," Mr. Bernstein continued, without mentioning a specific religion or denomination, "we'd like to identify a volunteer who can help distribute general information to other supporters." He explained: "We plan to undertake activities such as distributing general information/updates or voter registration materials in a place accessible to the congregation."
The e-mail message was provided to The New York Times by a group critical of President Bush.
The campaign's effort is the latest indication of its heavy bet on churchgoers in its bid for re-election. Mr. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and officials of Mr. Bush's campaign have often said that people who attended church regularly voted for him disproportionately in the last election, and the campaign has made turning out that group a top priority this year. But advisers to Mr. Bush also acknowledge privately that appearing to court socially conservative Christian voters too aggressively risks turning off more moderate voters.
What was striking about the Pennsylvania e-mail message was its directness. Both political parties rely on church leaders — African-American pastors for the Democrats, for example, and white evangelical Protestants for the Republicans — to urge congregants to go the polls. And in the 1990's, the Christian Coalition developed a reputation as a political powerhouse by distributing voters guides in churches that alerted conservative believers to candidates' position on social issues like abortion and school prayer. But the Christian Coalition was organized as a nonpartisan, issue-oriented lobbying and voter-education organization, and in 1999 it ran afoul of federal tax laws for too much Republican partisanship.
The Bush campaign, in contrast, appeared to be reaching out directly to churches and church members, seeking to distribute campaign information as well as ostensibly nonpartisan material, like issue guides and registration forms.
Trevor Potter, a Washington lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said the campaign's solicitation raised delicate legal issues for congregations.
"If the church is doing it, it is a legal problem the church," Mr. Potter said. "In the past, the I.R.S. has sought to revoke and has succeeded in revoking the tax-exempt status of churches for political activity."
If a member of the congregation is disseminating the information, however, the issue is more complicated. If the congregation had a table where anyone could make available any information whatsoever without any institutional responsibility or oversight, then a member might be able to distribute campaign literature without violating tax laws. But very few churches have such open forums, Mr. Potter said. "The I.R.S. would ask, did the church encourage this? Did the church permit this but not other literature? Did the church in any way support this?"
Mr. Bernstein, the e-mail message's author, declined to comment. Mr. Schmidt, the campaign spokesman, said the e-mail message only sought individual volunteers from among the "friendly congregations," not the endorsements of the any religious organizations or groups.
"The e-mail is targeted to individuals, asking individuals to become involved in the campaign and to share information about the campaign with other people in their faith community," Mr. Schmidt said. "Yesterday, a liberal judge from San Francisco overturned a partial-birth abortion ban which banned that abhorrent procedure. That is an example of an issue that people of faith from across the United States care about."
He said that the Pennsylvania e-mail message was part of a larger national effort. The number of congregations mentioned - 1,600 in just one state - suggests an operation on a vast scale.
But even some officials of some conservative religious groups said they were troubled by the notion that a parishioner might distribute campaign information within a church or at a church service.
"If I were a pastor, I would not be comfortable doing that," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "I would say to my church members, we are going to talk about the issues and we are going to take information from the platforms of the two parties about where they stand on the issues. I would tell them to vote and to vote their conscience, and the Lord alone is the Lord of the conscience."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that any form of distributing campaign literature through a church would compromise its tax-exempt status. He called the effort "an absolutely breathtakingly large undertaking," saying, "I never thought anyone could so attempt to meld a political party with a network of religious organizations."
In a statement, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal group, called the effort "an astonishing abuse of religion" and "the rawest form of manipulation of religion for partisan gain." He urged the president to repudiate the effort.
In a statement, Mara Vanderslice, director of religious outreach for the Kerry campaign, said the effort "shows nothing but disrespect for the religious community." Ms. Vanderslice continued: "Although the Kerry campaign actively welcomes the participation of religious voices in our campaign, we will never court religious voters in a way that would jeopardize the sanctity of their very houses of worship."
How many congregations or worshippers will choose to cooperate remains to be seen. In an interview yesterday, the Rev. Ronald Fowlkes, pastor of the Victoria Baptist Church in Springfield, Pa., said he had not seen the e-mail message but did not think much of the idea.
"We encourage people to get out and vote," Mr. Fowlkes said, but as far as distributing information through church, "If it were focused on one party or person, that would be too much."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Aren't we trying to reverse this in Iraq?
For the Faithful, a Trying Time
By Howard Fineman
Oct. 16, 2006 issue - In Florida, you drive North to reach the South. The "I-4 Corridor" is a Mason-Dixon Line in reverse. I crossed it the other day headed north out of bland, Disney-fied Orlando on a state road with four numerals—past the BBQ shack with palm trees in the dusty parking lot and the Brazilian "ground fighting" school, past orange groves and cow pastures, to the turnoff for the dog track. Across the street stood the Northland Church Distributed; "distributed" because it conducts services at myriad sites simultaneously via the Internet. It is the kind of fast-growing, interdenominational megachurch that is a key to Republican hopes of avoiding electoral disaster next month.
There may not be much Good News in the pews for the GOP. The tawdry parable of Mark Foley is only one reason. Maturing from rebels to political insiders, evangelicals are divided on tactics and agendas, and beginning to doubt whether it is possible to ennoble society, let alone save souls, through Christian political activism.
Foley put new cracks in the notion of the GOP as a vessel of family virtue. "It doesn't make you mad so much as it sickens you," said Northland's pastor, Joel C. Hunter. Among evangelicals, moral revulsion will yield electoral consequences: fewer and less eager volunteers, a lower turnout, especially if the hunkered-down House leadership is found to be covering up. "The ones who are kind of close to the margins anyhow are more likely just to say, 'I don't even want to go there'," he said. "And of course they're the ones who could make the difference."
So the polls show. A Pew Foundation survey found an 8-percentage-point drop in Republican preference among "frequent churchgoers."
Long before the Foley e-mails surfaced, the gears were grinding in the faith-based machine that Ronald Reagan inspired and Karl Rove perfected. It has been 30 years since evangelical, "Bible-believing" Christians flocked into politics. Figures such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Charles Colson of the Prison Fellowship have enormous clout within the GOP; Rove is a phone pal of both. But a younger crop of grass-roots activists views the elders of the cultural right as accommodationists who have failed to press a social agenda aggressively, and who now balk at calling for the ouster of Speaker Denny Hastert. "They need to wake up!" said Jamie Johnson, a religious broadcaster in Iowa. "Heads have to roll! The older generation is satisfied with a seat at the table. We want to build a whole new table."
Some evangelicals want to broaden the movement's agenda—in ways that don't necessarily help the GOP cause. They still care about abortion and traditional marriage, of course, but are equally concerned about immigration (they want strict limits), federal spending (they view it as wildly out of control) and the war in Iraq (about which they are increasingly ambivalent). "We don't want to deal with 'hot button' issues only," said Hunter, who recently took command of the Christian Coalition, which, though enfeebled, still claims a mailing list of 2.5 million.
A certain weariness has set in as evangelicals realize that politics is, by nature, beyond redemption. I met one such skeptic at the First Baptist Church of Orlando—a colossal Wal-Mart of spiritual endeavor near an exit ramp of I-4. "I'm not sure that you can send anyone to Washington who won't be corrupted there," said Gregg Chapman, a 38-year-old husband, father and manager at Disney. "You can't cure what's wrong with the world until you cure what is wrong in here," he said, pointing to his chest. That was his Good News, but not the Word the Republicans wanted to hear.
God and the GOP
The theological reason evangelicals may not turn out to vote.
By Jon Meacham
October 9, 2006
In the debut of his new reported column for us at NEWSWEEK this week, my colleague and friend Howard Fineman writes perceptively about the growing unease with the Republican Party among politically conservative evangelicals. I commend Howard’s piece to you; it is a fresh and engaging story about the way we live now.
Howard’s piece reminded me that we can never say enough about the theological complexities that confront the serious religious believer in the political realm. The New York Times explored this story on Monday morning, finding, anecdotally, that fallout from the Mark Foley predator fallout was not yet affecting evangelical plans to vote.
I am not so sure. With just 30 days before the midterm election, two years after the media and political worlds were surprised to find that a plurality of voters cited “moral values” as key to their presidential decision, and amid a moderate-to-liberal counterattack against what is called the religious right, the long-running debate over religion and politics and church and state is newly urgent.
The secular can tend to caricature religious activists in politics as determined theocrats—and Lord knows some Christian leaders (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson come to mind) say and do things that make the secular case almost too easy to advance. But there is another important milieu within the American religious community which holds that politics is intrinsically sinful—that, in theological terms, one must, as the Psalmist said, “put not thy trust in princes.” Cal Thomas and Chuck Colson—the former worked for Falwell; the latter for Nixon—are exemplars of this view, as is the distinguished historian of religion and evangelical Christian Mark A. Noll. (Noll wrote the seminal text on this subject, “The Search For Christian America,” with Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden; I cannot recommend the book highly enough for anyone who wants to understand religion and politics in our nation and in our time.) Thomas’ book on this subject, written with Ed Dobson, is also essential: “Blinded By Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America,” as is Colson’s “Kingdoms in Conflict.”
Broadly put, the theological case for the religious to steer clear of politics, or at least to avoid believing that the accumulation and exercise of earthly power should be one’s focus, lies in words Jesus spoke to Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world …” he said to the proconsul, a point echoed by St. Paul, who said that, for Christians, “all are one” in Jesus, and that God favors no nation or class or race or sex. “We have no lasting city,” writes the author of Hebrews, “but seek the city which is to come.” Politicians can be false gods; for believers, the argument goes, there can be no other god before God.
Which brings us from the realm of theology to that of precinct politics. Most Christians in America vote, and do so regularly, but there is a significant number—and if we have learned anything since 2000, it is that every vote is significant, depending on the state in which it is cast—of very conservative believers who are more likely than not to stay home if they think that the kingdom of this world has grown too corrupt. In an image used by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, “the garden of the church” must be protected from “the wildnerness of the world.”
And in a season in which Foley—unknown to America until his salacious messages emerged on ABC News—appears to have been at least somewhat protected by the Republican Party, the very conservative believers who are most likely to fail to turn out for theological reasons are the most likely to be horrified by Foley, and by the GOP establishment’s tepid reaction to the scandal. We saw something similar in 2000, when the news of George W. Bush’s youthful DUI arrest broke in the last week of the campaign against Al Gore. Senior Republican strategists have long believed that that report cost Bush the popular vote, for the deeply religious voters most likely to turn out for Bush were disappointed by the news, began to worry that perhaps Bush was untrustworthy, and stayed home.
If the Republicans lose the House or the Senate next month, though, it may seem rather too much to blame on a once-obscure congressman from Florida. Something deeper is going on. For all the vaunted talk of the religious right’s power in American politics, in fact the central claims of the movement—constitutional amendments restoring prayer in school, banning abortion and forbidding same-sex marriage—have not been realized, and are unlikely to be any time soon.
The great Madisonian construct of our republic, a vision laid out in Federalist 10, has worked: different interests in the country have long contended with one another over the proper shape and course of society, and we are where we are because, by and large, most Americans want to be here. One can argue that we are too conservative or too liberal, but there can be no argument, in my view, that the Founders’ vision has seen us through storm and strife with wisdom and even a measure of grace.
It is entirely possible that most conservative God-fearing voters will sit this one out, believing that the princes in whom they have trusted are no longer worthy of that faith. When Christians ask, in the Lord’s Prayer, that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” they are asking for all that we see and know—all—to be swept away. It is not apathy; far from it. It is the foundation of a faith that one day, somehow, God will, as St. John the Divine put it, “make all things new.” When one is thinking on such a scale about such matters—thinking ultimately rather than immediately—then no one should be particularly surprised that theology trumps turnout.