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A Country Ruled by Faith

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.”1

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,2 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.3 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.4

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.”5 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.6

Other parts of the administration were also pious, with religious services during the lunch hour at the General Services Administration.7

1.

Faith-Based Justice

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.8 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.”9

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.10 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.11

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.12 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.13

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.14

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.”15 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.

2.

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.”16 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.17

  1. 1

    Bush to televangelist James Robison in 1999, cited in Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush (Tarcher, 2004), pp. 110–111.

  2. 2

    Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush, p. 84.

  3. 3

    Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush, p. 83.

  4. 4

    Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side (New Press, 2004), pp. 84–85, 110–112, 120–121, 137–340.

  5. 5

    David Frum, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush (Random House, 2003), pp. 3–4.

  6. 6

    Frum, The Right Man, p. TK.

  7. 7

    Hamil R. Harris, “Putting Worship into Their Workday: More Federal Employees Participating in Prayer Services at the Office,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2001.

  8. 8

    David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis, “Religious Right Made Big Push to Put Ashcroft in Justice Department,” The New York Times, January 7, 2001.

  9. 9

    Kaplan, With God on Their Side, p. 34.

  10. 10

    Violence and Harassment at US Abortion Clinics,” Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, November 9, 2004.

  11. 11

    Kaplan, With God on Their Side, pp. 135–136.

  12. 12

    Evangelicals have made a concerted effort to assert that the fetus is a person. When Bush set up a new part of Health and Human Services, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections, and its charter spoke of embryos and human fetuses as “human subjects,” the National Right to Life Committee praised it for including “all living members of the species Homo sapiens at every stage of their development.” See Kaplan, With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right, p. 110.

  13. 13

    Eric Lichtblau, “Ashcroft Defends Subpoenas,” The New York Times, February 13, 2004.

  14. 14

    Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century (Wiley, 2006), p. 129. Karl Rove also negotiated with the Salvation Army to exempt them from antidiscrimination laws where gays were concerned: see Dana Milbank, “Rove Heard Charity Plea on Gay Bias,” The Washington Post, July 12, 2001.

  15. 15

    Kaplan, With God on Their Side, p. 156.

  16. 16

    Hamburger and Wallsten, One Party Country, p. 115.

  17. 17

    Hamburger and Wallsten, One Party Country, p. 122.

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