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Fringe Government

The quieting of old fears could be seen in the fervent outpouring of evangelical support for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was based on a book that would once have been condemned by evangelicals as “Mariolatrous.” Gibson’s “sedevacantist” view of the modern papacy—i.e., the belief of those Catholics who do not recognize the popes from John XXIII on—would have precluded Vatican support for his movie before the apocalyptic coalition created a pas d’ennemi à droite mentality among “co-belligerents.” Extreme branches of both the evangelical and the Catholic communities united to promote the movie, which was a commercial “miracle.” The fact that some Protestant churches required attendance at the movie looked like a strange inversion of Catholic support for the movie The Song of Bernadette in the 1940s.

Colson and Neuhaus came along at just the right time to solidify the evangelical–Catholic coalition. By 2004, a survey of evangelicals found that Pope John Paul II had a higher favorable rating (59 percent) than either Jerry Falwell (44 percent) or Pat Robertson (54 percent). There was even agreement between evangelicals and Catholics about excommunicating members of their congregations for supporting abortion. While Archbishop Burke was advocating that in St. Louis, a Baptist minister, the Rev. Chan Chandler, drove nine Democrats out of his church in Waynesville, North Carolina.3


A Quiet Extremism

No one is better at fostering the sense of shared anxiety than “Father Richard.” He does so with a quiet air of reasonableness which just makes his extremism more effective. In his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, he argued that the removal of religion from public life had undermined the historical identity of America. He praised evangelicals for the anger with which they recognized this fact. Liberals, he said, are theoretically impersonal and cold as they go about what he describes as “sterilizing” or “sanitizing” or “neutralizing” public discussion. The hot gospelers, by contrast, speak as people who have “experienced assault” on their values and identity. While posing as a moderator of their excesses, he feeds the fires of their outrage. By “invoking the nightmares we fear,” according to Neuhaus, the religious right is returning to the theological origins of democracy (which he derives from Oliver Cromwell, of all people).

Neuhaus’s tactical uses of extremism were on display in a symposium he created for First Things in 1996, a set of five commissioned articles under the overall heading “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” Neuhaus admitted in his introduction that the symposium might be called “irresponsibly provocative and even alarmist”—and in fact it caused two members of the First Things editorial board, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Walter Berns, to withdraw their names from the masthead, in protest at what Berns described as a message “close to advocating not only civil disobedience but armed revolution.”

One of the contributors to the symposium, Robert Bork, did not retract anything he said in it himself, but he criticized Neuhaus’s introductory claim that Americans “have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.” But it is hard to see much difference between Neuhaus’s words and inflammatory statements in Bork’s own article—such as:

It seems safe to say that, as our institutional arrangements now stand, the Court can never be made a legitimate element of a basically democratic polity…. Perhaps an elected official will one day simply refuse to comply with a Supreme Court decision. That suggestion will be regarded as shocking, but it should not be.

The other articles were just as extremist. Colson called the Roe v. Wade decision a “horrendous offense against God.” He said that we had probably not reached, yet, the point where “government becomes sufficiently corrupt that a believer must resist it,” but “we are fast approaching this point.” Robert P. George asked, “Has the regime of American democracy forfeited its legitimacy?” The answer, again, was not quite, but “the hour is late.” This essay is called “The Tyrant State.” Hadley Arkes concluded that “the courts are making the political regime unlivable for serious Christians and Jews.” Russell Hittinger argued:

It is late in the day, and our options have dwindled. Either right-minded citizens will have to disobey orders or perhaps relinquish offices of public authority, or the new constitutional rulers will have to be challenged and reformed.

He said the latter course must first be tried, since “prompting the constitutional crisis is the responsible thing to do.” It is significant that two of the symposium authors arguing that Roe v. Wade made the Court illegitimate, Robert George and Hadley Akens, were recruited by White House supporters to assure the religious right that Court nominee John Roberts is on their side.4

The illegitimacy Neuhaus and others attack is not just an aberration of the courts, or of the federal government more generally. The problem is a Godless culture, one that accepts wholesale murder in the form of abortion. The new religious right does not claim to be speaking for a moral majority. It knows it is a minority—in fact, it asks for protection of believers as a matter of minority rights.5 Is the whole American nation illegitimate? (One of the First Things articles was called “A Culture Corrupted.”) The First Things symposiasts said that the American regime is illegitimate because the Court upheld Roe v. Wade. But in June of this year a Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today showed that 65 percent of the American people oppose repeal of Roe v. Wade, with less than half that number (29 percent) favoring its overthrow. Earlier polls had shown a similar split.6

The division in the nation becomes more pronounced when the question moves from abortion to mandatory maintenance of life support, an issue the religious right has lumped together with protection of the fetus. According to the March CBS poll, 82 percent of the American people were opposed to the intervention of Congress and the President in the Terri Schiavo case—only 13 percent of those polled thought the concern voiced for Schiavo was a sincere concern about her own good, while 74 percent said that the concern was politically motivated. On a related issue, embryonic stem cell research is supported by approximately two to one in the nation (58 percent to 31 percent). It is understandable that the evangelical–Catholic coalition would call this a “culture of death,” subject to God’s wrath and calling for extreme measures.


Governing from the Fringes

This presents a difficult problem. How do you govern an apostate nation? When the entire culture is corrupted, the country can only be morally governed in spite of itself. A collection of aggrieved minorities must seize the levers of power in every way possible. One must govern not from a broad consensual center but from activist fringes of morality. That has, in fact, been Karl Rove’s strategy. He cultivates the extreme groups that are out of step with the broad consensus of the nation, since they supply the hard workers in primaries and general elections. Acting in accord with Rove’s priorities, the President instantly flew back to Washington and got up in the middle of the night to sign the bill calling for further intervention in the Schiavo case. The fringe was calling the tune.

On stem cells, the fringe is so extreme that Chuck Colson has informed evangelicals they should not support for president Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, who is a Mormon, since Romney thinks that the inseminated ovum is not a human person (as opposed to the ovum that is “nidated,” i.e., planted in the uterus). Colson believes that whenever any human semen enters any ovum God pops a soul in along with it—though almost 50 percent of the resulting “people” perish instantly by failing to achieve nidation.7

Bush’s team has been as solicitous of the extremists here as on the Schiavo case—it commissioned the White House liaison to evangelicals, Jay Lefkowitz, to coordinate the formation of policy on stem cells.8 President Bush had a ceremony in the White House for those who “adopt” embryos and bring them to birth (though encouraging such marginal adoption guarantees that most available embryos will be overproduced and destroyed).9

Senator Bill Frist invoked his medical expertise to look at some tapes of Terri Schiavo and declare her not brain-dead. Only Tom DeLay outdid him in the faith-over-science department when he said, “Terri Schiavo is not dead. She talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support.”10

Most American administrations at least try (or pretend) to govern by compromise, to speak for “all the people.” The Bush presidency has not even put on a show of doing this. It secretly meets with its business and religious supporters; it favors lobbyists who hold extreme views on education, the environment, the family, gun control, regulation of any kind. Its officials make appearances on extremist talk shows and in far-right-wing publications. On issue after issue, this administration is out of touch with the majority of the American people.

Most people favor sensible controls on guns, but the administration goes with the NRA extremists who think that any regulation of even the most exotic weapons would spell the elimination of all guns from American life. Most people are opposed to private accounts instead of Social Security, but the administration follows its free-market purists. A majority would vote to support the Geneva Conventions, but the administration secretly overrides them and then tries to cover up its actions. If the administration depended on only one set of extremists, it could not prevail over the general consensus; but it weaves together a chain of extremisms encircling the polity, each upholding the others, forming a necklace to choke the large body of citizens. Grover Norquist explained the strategy of governing by extremist groups to John Cassidy of The New Yorker (August 1):

If you want the votes of people who are [simultaneously] good on guns, good on taxes, and good on faith issues, that is a very small intersection of voters. But if you say, Give me the votes of anybody who agrees with you on any of these issues, that is a much bigger section of the population…. And if you add more things, like property rights and home-schooling, you can do even better.

If religious extremism is only one large set of bodies in this fringe constellation, it is a powerful one. That is why federal agencies reject scientific reports on ecological, stem cell, contraceptive, and abortion issues. They sponsor not only faith-based social relief, but faith-based war, faith-based science, faith-based education, and faith-based medicine. Other administrations would be embarrassed by a high defense official who could say what General William (“Jerry”) Boykin did of the 2000 election. Standing before a church audience in full military uniform, he said:

  1. 3

    Church Split in Dispute Over Bush,” Associated Press, May 10, 2005.

  2. 4

    David D. Kirkpatrick, “A Year of Work to Sell Roberts to Conservatives,” The New York Times, July 22, 2005.

  3. 5

    Noah Feldman points out the shift of strategy by which the religious right now makes it court claims as an endangered minority—see Divided by God:

  4. 6

    Abortion and Birth Control,” PollingReport.com.

  5. 7

    While We’re at It,” First Things, May 2005. Neuhaus agrees with Colson on the status of the embryo, but he said that Romney could perhaps be supported if he stayed true on other issues—though Neuhaus answered with a no the question “Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints a Christian communion?”

  6. 8

    Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George Bush’s White House (New Press, 2004), p. 126.

  7. 9

    Liza Mundy, “Out of the Freezer, Into the Family: The Booming, and Bizarre, Business of Embryo Adoption,” Slate, May 31, 2005.

  8. 10

    DeLay quoted by Bob Herbert, The New York Times, June 23, 2005.

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