The words “compassionate conservatism” sound like and have often been dismissed as political rhetoric, a construction without intrinsic meaning, the Bush campaign’s adroit way of pitching the center, allowing middle-class voters to feel good about themselves while voting their interests. Former Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called them “weasel words.” Joe Andrews, the national chairman of the DNC, called them “a contrived copout.” “You can’t have these massive tax cuts and at the same time…be a compassionate conservative,” Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota told The New York Times. To the extent that the words were construed to mean anything at all, then, they were misunderstood to suggest a warmer, more generous, more ameliorative kind of conservative. “I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but I’m a compassionate conservative,” Senator Orrin Hatch told Judith Miller of The New York Times in March of 1981. “I’m not some kind of ultra-right-wing maniac, despite some portrayals in the press.” Former Governor Pete Wilson of California offered a still more centrist reading: compassionate conservatism, he was quoted as saying by The Washington Post, is “old-fashioned budget-balancing with spending for preventive health measures and protection of the environment, and a strong pro-choice position on abortion.”
This suggests a pragmatic but still-traditional economic conservatism into which many Americans could comfortably buy. Yet the phrase “compassionate conservatism” describes a specific and deeply radical experiment in social rearrangement, the aim of which was defined by Governor Bush, in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, with sufficient vagueness to signal the troops without alerting the less committed: what he meant by compassionate conservatism, he said, was “to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.” Marvin Olasky, the journalism professor at the University of Texas who has been a Bush adviser since 1993 and is the author of the seminal work on the subject, The Tragedy of American Compassion1 (this was the 1992 book that Newt Gingrich received as a Christmas present from William J. Bennett in 1994 and promptly recommended to all Republican members of Congress), and of this year’s Compassionate Conservatism,2 has been more forthright. “Compassionate conservatism is neither an easy slogan nor one immune from vehement attack,” he advises readers on page one of Compassionate Conservatism:
It is a full-fledged program with a carefully considered philosophy. It will face in the twenty-first century not easy acceptance but dug-in opposition. It will have to cross a river of suspicion concerning the role of religion in American society. It will have to get past numerous ideological machine-gun nests. Only political courage will enable compassionate conservatism to carry the day and transform America.
The source of this “river of suspicion” and these “ideological machine-gun nests” becomes clear on reading the text, which is largely devoted to detailing a 1999 road trip during which Olasky, who before “God found me and changed me when I was twenty-six” had wrestled first with atheism (“I was bar mitzvahed at thirteen and an atheist by fourteen”) and then with the Communist Party USA (“What if Lenin is wrong? What if there is a God?”), introduces his fourteen-year-old son, Daniel, to anti-poverty programs in Texas, the Midwest, and the Northeast. The drift soon emerges. “God’s in charge,” a retired couple who run a community center in South Dallas tell Olasky and Daniel. “I had to learn that God’s in charge,” they are told by a former user of heroin and cocaine who now runs the day-to-day operation of a recovery center in Minneapolis. A teacher at an evangelical summer school in Dallas explains how “curriculum is cleverly tied” to a pending mountain field trip, for example by assigning “Bible passages concerning mountains, eagles, and hawks.”
Outside Houston, they visit “Youth-Reach Houston” and its founder, “Curt Williams, forty, who wears his long black hair pulled back in a pony tail” and who in 1984 “followed a pretty girl into a church and found welcome there…. Having hit bottom, he went to church and felt spiritually compelled to throw away his drugs and pornography.” In Indianapolis, they meet with Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, chief domestic policy adviser to the Bush campaign and a civic leader who had studied “the negatives (high taxes, red tape, bad schools) that drive middle-class people away from the city” and found the answer in “using his bully pulpit to promote Catholic schools,” since, as he tells Olasky and Daniel, “only hardened skeptics have trouble accepting that widespread belief in a Supreme Being improves the strength and health of our communities.”
Again and again, Olasky and Daniel learn of successful recoveries effected in one or another “have-not” program, which is to say a program prevented from receiving the funding it deserves for the sole reason, Olasky suggests, that it is “faith-based.” Again and again, they hear the same language (“hitting bottom,” “putting God in charge,” “changing one life at a time”), which is, not coincidentally, that of the faith-based Twelve-Step movement, from which a good deal of the “new thinking” on welfare derives. (Alcoholics Anonymous, according to James Q. Wilson, is “the single most important organized example of personal transformation we have.”)
Visiting a faith-based prison program outside Houston, the Olaskys meet Donnie Gilmore, who was “pushing thirty with a résumé of breaking into houses and stealing cars” when “his four-year-old daughter asked him about Jesus, and he realized he had never opened a Bible.” Gilmore then joined the “InnerChange” program (“Texas Governor George W. Bush gave the program a try, and state officials kept the American Civil Liberties Union at bay…”) developed by Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is the organization founded by Charles (“Chuck”) Colson after his release from the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Alabama and in which “the keys to success” are “God’s grace and man’s mentoring.” “I have a couple of editions of the Bible with me,” Colson reportedly said on the day he left for Maxwell to serve seven months of a one-to-three-year sentence for obstruction of justice in the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg. “That’s all.”
“Repeatedly,” Olasky notes with approval, “Daniel and I had found that the impetus for a compassionate conservative program came out of a Bible study or some other church or synagogue function.” Both father and son are made “uneasy” by more secular programs, for example KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academy, a charter school in Houston, where, despite the fact that it seemed “excellent,” its public nature meant that “students miss out on that added dimension,” i.e., prayer and Bible study. Similarly, in Minneapolis, they visit a Goodwill program that seems to be successfully introducing women to the basic workplace manners (be on time, answer the phone politely) needed to make the transition from welfare to work. “All of this was impressive,” Olasky allows, and yet, “as Daniel noted in comparing this helpful program to the faith-based equivalents we were seeing elsewhere, ‘The absence of interest in God is glaring.”‘
This use of “faith-based” is artful, and worth study. Goodwill was founded by a Methodist minister and run during its early years out of the Morgan Memorial Chapel in Boston, which would seem to qualify it as based in faith, although not, in the sense that Olasky apparently construes the phrase, as “faith-based.” “Faith-based,” then, is, as Olasky uses it, a phrase with a special meaning, a code phrase, employed to suggest that certain worthy organizations have been prevented from receiving government funding solely by virtue of their religious affiliation. This is misleading, since “religiously affiliated” organizations (for example Catholic Charities) can and do receive such funding. The organizations that have not are those deemed “pervasively sectarian,” a judgment based on the extent to which they proselytize, or make religious worship or instruction a condition of receiving aid. This, the Supreme Court has to date maintained, would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the original intent of which Olasky believes to have been warped. “Daniel and I spent some time talking about what happened 210 years ago,” he writes. “There’s nothing about ‘separation of church and state.’ That was Thomas Jefferson’s personal expression in a letter written over a decade after the amendment was adopted…. The founding fathers would be aghast at court rulings that make our part of the world safe for moral anarchy.”
Olasky is insistent that the faith propagated by these “faith-based” organizations need by no means be exclusively Christian, and here we enter another area of artful presentation. “My tendency is to be inclusive,” he told the Los Angeles Times in July. “That can include Wiccans and Scientologists. If people are going to get mad at me, then so be it.” The goal of compassionate conservatism, he has written repeatedly, is “faith-based diversity,” a system in which the government would offer those in need of aid a choice of programs: “Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, atheist.” Perhaps because the theological imperative to convert nonbelievers runs with considerably more force among evangelical Christians than among Buddhists or atheists, most of the programs described in Compassionate Conservatism are nonetheless Christian, and, to one degree or another, evangelical. “All organizations, religious or atheistic, [had] the opportunity to propose values-based pre-release programs,” Olasky notes by way of explaining how Texas state officials “kept the American Civil Liberties Union at bay” on behalf of Prison Fellowship, “but only Prison Fellowship went all the way.”
In Philadelphia, Olasky and Daniel visit Deliverance Evangelistic, where John J. DiIulio Jr. “took his first steps toward faith in Christ” and where the pastor speaks of how “the ACLU is using and abusing” the First Amendment. They also visit the Bethel Community Bible Church, where they meet a paraplegic weight lifter who “sold drugs and saw no meaning to life until God grabbed him twelve years ago.” Now he runs the Bethel weight room, which is “used by forty men each week, with no payment or conditions for use except one: the men need to attend church, Bible study, or church counseling at least once per week.”
Some of the programs Olasky describes refuse to compromise their evangelical mission by accepting government funding (“the reason we’re here is that kids need to come to Christ”); others take the money, and devise ways of nominally separating it from the teaching mission. Olasky and Daniel for example visit “the praying tailback,” Herb Lusk, “the first National Football League player to use the end zone as the pulpit by crouching prayerfully following a touchdown.” As pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Lusk does accept government funding for the church’s welfare-to-work training program, but works around it: “‘No, we don’t talk about Christ during the training, but we promote our offer of a free lunch for participants, with Bible teaching during it.”‘
“Evangelism is central to everything we do,” Olasky is told by a Dallas woman, Kathy Dudley, who left her suburban home for the inner city, where she defines her mission as “discipleship.” “Early in the 1990s,” he reports, “one official offered her a $170,000 grant, but she asked, ‘If I take this money and hire a housing director, I will hire a Christian and expect a certain standard of behavior. If the director has sex outside of marriage, I will fire him immediately. Do you have a problem with this?’ Yes, the official told her. She spurned the grant.”
In addition to teaching at Austin, Marvin Olasky has written a number of books, none of which tapped into the national moment with the exact force that The Tragedy of American Compassion did but the range of which suggests the dexterity with which the excitable mind can divine the sermon in every stone. There was Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media. There was Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism. There was Corporate Public Relations: A New Historical Perspective, drawn from five years Olasky spent writing speeches in the public affairs office at DuPont, an experience that led him to the Manichaean conclusion that corporations were engaged in a liberal conspiracy to eliminate competition by supporting government regulation. (“I wanted to work at DuPont because I was on the side of free enterprise,” he told Michael King of The Texas Observer. “But I found out…you were largely lobbying government officials and others so that when they do the next set of regs—say environmental regs—that they write the regs in such a way that benefits you and hurts your smaller competitor.”)
There was Fighting for Liberty and Virtue: Political and Cultural Wars in Eighteenth-Century America. There was The American Leadership Tradition: Moral Vision from Washington to Clinton, which locates the “moral vision” of American presidents in their “religious beliefs and sexual morality” and offers a foreword by former Nixon aide Charles Colson, he of the career-making seven-month retreat to Maxwell, who speaks of “dedicated Olaskites” and suggests that “a generation or two hence, historians will look back at this era and put Marvin Olasky among the pantheon of seminal thinkers who have changed the way people and societies think.”
From Austin, communicating largely by e-mail, Olasky also manages to both edit and write a column for every issue of a weekly magazine, World, which is published out of Asheville, North Carolina, and has as its national editor Bob Jones IV, the great-grandson of the founder and son of the current president of Bob Jones University. The “mission statement” of World, until it was edited into a slightly more elliptical version in February 1999, read this way:
To help Christians apply the Bible to their understanding of and response to everyday current events. To achieve this by reporting the news on a weekly basis in an interesting, accurate, and arresting fashion. To accompany reporting with practical commentary on current events and issues from a perspective committed to the final authority of the Bible as the inerrant written Word of God. To assist in developing a Christian understanding of the world, rather than accepting existing secular ideologies.
Ninety-five percent of World’s 103,000 subscribers, according to its own 1999 survey, identify themselves as Caucasian. Ninety-eight percent attend church “usually every week.” Twenty-two percent are Baptist, 17 percent are Presbyterian or Reformed, 12 percent members of the Presbyterian Church in America (a fundamentalist breakaway from the mainline Presbyterian Church USA and the denomination to which Olasky himself belongs), and 11 percent pentecostal or charismatic. Forty-five percent of those with children “homeschool,” or teach at least one child at home. Asked to rate twenty-six persons and movements named by World, these readers think most highly of James Dobson (who as head of Focus on the Family threatened to leave the Republican Party if Bush chose a pro-choice running mate), of “crisis pregnancy centers,” and of Charles Colson. They think least highly of President Clinton, of the National Organization for Women, and of “the religious left.”
Since World largely reflects or encourages these predispositions, its coverage tends to the predictable. “Homosexuals take the offensive,” a 1999 cover line read. Onward World went, marching as to war through 1999 and into 2000: “A teenage martyr: The funeral of Cassie Bernall.” “Battling the cultural menace.” “Abortion Speech Police.” “An inside look at the scary summer gathering of a fading feminist organization,” i.e., NOW. “Armey: End Christian bashing.” “Texas students fight for pre-game prayer.” “Darwinists circle wagons against science teacher.” Some stories are, for the occasional reader, more arresting, involving as they do people or issues or points of view somewhat outside the general discourse. This is a community of readers to whom a call to counter a “gay activist campaign” against “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger, the Orthodox Jewish talk show host who referred to homosexuality as a “biological error,” can serve as a summons to the barricades, in this case the main gate of Paramount Pictures. This is a community in which a “Pandora’s box of controversies” can be opened by the question of whether Christians should continue to buy CDs featuring divorced Christian singers, or “fallen stars.” “How credible can evangelicals be in condemning such sins as homosexuality and extramarital sex,” World asked, “when many seem so tolerant of the sin of divorce?”
Olasky himself is divorced from his first wife. “I’ve been married since 1976, and in the early 1970s had a brief marriage followed by divorce,” is the way he put it in a letter to The New York Times Magazine objecting to a piece that suggested he had “hidden his divorce from the press.” He met his second wife, Susan, at the University of Michigan, where she was an undergraduate and he a graduate student in the throes of abandoning communism. “When I met him, he was definitely an anti-Communist, but I wouldn’t say he was a Christian, at that point,” Susan Olasky later told The Texas Observer. She said that Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, which he had recommended that she read, “described where he was then.”
After their arrival in Austin, Susan Olasky founded the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center, the purpose for which Olasky believes “God brought about” the move. Charles Colson is also divorced from his first wife, which would not be worth remark had he not this summer called upon Charles Stanley, a fellow Christian broadcaster whose wife had recently divorced him, to resign as pastor of the thirteen-thousand-member First Baptist Church of Atlanta. “Given the already high divorce rate among Baptists,” Colson declared (the highest 1998 divorce rates in the United States, according to the US Census Bureau, were, outside Nevada, in the heavily Baptist states of Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma), “the last thing we need to do is to give one of our own leaders a pass, no matter how much we may respect him.” What Charles Stanley needed, Colson said, was “a time for personal repentance and healing.”
Olasky, having had this time, now seems sufficiently cleansed of the sin of which too many evangelicals are tolerant to write frequently and enthusiastically about marriage, both his own and in general, as well as about the correct relative roles of men and women. “God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, generally speaking,” he explained in a 1998 issue of the evangelical Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, “but when that occurs it’s usually because of the abdication of men…. There’s a certain shame attached. Why don’t you have a man who’s able to step forward?”
An entire May issue of World was devoted to marriage and the family, with special emphasis on what remains a lively issue among evangelicals, the “headship and submission” question, which has to do with whether the language in Ephesians 5:22 and 5:23 commanding wives to “be subject” to their husbands “for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” should be understood strictly or placed in the context of other biblical teachings. In the course of arguing for the latter position and against the extremity of the first (“The Bible advocates neither feminism nor sexual segregation”), Olasky inadvertently opened a window on a view of women not far from that of the Taliban:
…The Bible clearly shows the error both of feminists who claim no differences between men and women, and of sexual segregationists who argue that women are to be concerned “only” with marriage and motherhood…. Men go wrong, biblically, by either abdicating or waxing arrogant, either by running from God-given functions or refusing to hear what women have to say. In 1 Samuel 25, Abigail knows that her husband, Nabal, is a fool; when she acts to save her whole household, David tells her, “May you be blessed for your good judgment.” I know that my wife often has better judgment than I, and that if I am not to be Nabal Olasky I should listen. And so should we all. Today, some Christian men believe women should be co-leaders in everything. That leaves many men feeling emasculated and many women wishing that guys would step up and make a decision, already. Other Christian men go to the opposite extreme and assert that married women should not even be studying the Bible by themselves or in groups with other women; they should be taught only by their husbands.
The intention that led Olasky to write The Tragedy of American Compassion (“I hoped to see welfare transformed, as much as possible, from government monopoly to faith-based diversity”) might have well been dismissed as the evangelical impulse of someone operating at a considerable remove from the centrist American political tradition. Yet the book had a certain think-tank imprimatur that caused it to begin percolating through neoconservative circles. The Tragedy of American Compassion had been largely written during a year, 1990, that Olasky spent in Washington as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The book’s central notions bore a reassuring resemblance to arguments already so much a part of the ether that they had two years before inspired Peggy Noonan to incorporate the “thousand points of light” into the acceptance speech delivered by Governor Bush’s father at the 1988 Republican convention. Alfred Regnery, who ultimately published the book, appeared in the acknowledgments, as did Patricia Bozell. Charles Murray, who was at the time writing The Bell Curve with Richard J. Herrnstein as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote the preface.
The Tragedy of American Compassion was published in 1992, a year when certain key rhetorical assumptions, those having to do with the “moral depredations” of the 1960s and the “moral squalor” of American life since, were already in place. Robert Bork, having been sanctified as one of the two living martyrs of the judicial confirmation process, was already handing down the dicta that would shape his 1996 Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. William J. Bennett was about to publish his first book of moral teachings, The Book of Virtues, with The Moral Compass and The Death of Outrage still in the pipeline. This was a febrile moment, and the characteristically schematic ideas that emerged from it often seemed specifically crafted to support the mood of moral rearmament that was coming to dominate the dialogue. In January of 1995, on C-SPAN, Marvin Olasky gave Brian Lamb an instructive précis of the process by which his moment had come to pass:
John Fund of The Wall Street Journal read it [The Tragedy of American Compassion] and wrote about it and liked it and talked about it with others. Bill Bennett read it and was talking about it. Some other people were, and then it got to the Speaker and he got excited about it and has been talking about it.
“Our models are Alexis de Tocqueville and Marvin Olasky,” Newt Gingrich had just told the nation in his first 1995 address as Speaker of the House, apparently having already incorporated into his program the book William J. Bennett had given him for Christmas a few weeks before. The “most important book on welfare and social policy in a decade,” Bennett himself said about The Tragedy of American Compassion. Three years after the largely unnoticed initial publication of The Tragedy of American Compassion, then, its reductive and rather spookily utilitarian thesis, that the government should fund the faithful because faith “works,” had become the idea whose time had come, the ultimate weapon in the “values” wars, a super stealth missile with first-strike capability, precisely aimed to simultaneously get welfare out of the system and get religion into it.
By his own account, Olasky wrote the book after comparing the evangelism of nineteenth-century philanthropy to secular welfare efforts, which he believed to be rendered useless by their lack of emphasis on personal responsibility. This belief was confirmed, he wrote, by taking “a first-hand look at contemporary compassion toward the poor” during two days he spent disguised as a beggar in order to visit Washington soup kitchens: “I put on three used T-shirts and two dirty sweaters, equipped myself with a stocking cap and a plastic bag, removed my wedding ring, got lots of dirt on my hands, and walked with the slow shuffle that characterizes the forty-year-old white homeless male of the streets.” During his two days (no nights) as a street person, he was offered, he reported (and here we reach the germ of the experiment), “lots of food, lots of pills of various kinds, and lots of offers of clothing and shelter,” but never a Bible.
There could never have been much doubt that the parable of the white homeless male in search of a Bible would resonate with George W. Bush. This was a man who not only grew up in Texas and did business in Texas but managed a Texas sports franchise, pretty much rendering him a market-maker in the secular God business. This was a man who, in the course of a primary-season debate, would famously name Jesus Christ as the “political philosopher” he most admires. This was a man who, when the Texas economy went belly-up in the mid-1980s, joined a group of Midland businessmen who met once a week under the guidance of a national group called Community Bible Study, the class format of which includes the Twelve-Step technique of personal testimony, in this case “seeing the truths of the Bible lived out in the lives of leaders and class members.” The participants in Bush’s class were “baby boomers, men with young families,” a former member told Hanna Rosin of The Washington Post. “And we suddenly found ourselves in free fall. So we began to search for an explanation. Maybe we had been too involved with money. Maybe we needed to look inwardly and find new meaning in life.”
It was 1993 when Olasky was first called to meet with Bush, who was at the time shopping for issues to defeat the incumbent governor of Texas, Ann Richards. Olasky and Bush, along with Bush adviser Karl Rove, talked for an hour, during which, according to Olasky, Bush “asked questions that went to the heart of issues involving children born out of wedlock and men dying slowly from drug abuse on the streets.” Bush did not have occasion to again call on Olasky until 1995, when, as governor, he saw the political potential in taking up the side of a Christian drug program called Teen Challenge, which state regulators had tried to shut down because it re-fused to comply with certain state regulations, including one that required drug counselors to be trained in conventional anti-addiction techniques. (Conventional anti-addiction techniques in this country are largely based on the Twelve-Step regime, which carefully refers to an unspecified “Higher Power,” or “God as we understand Him.” The anti-addiction technique of choice at Teen Challenge was, in the words of its executive director, “Jesus Christ.”) Over his next few years as governor, Bush not only made Texas the first state to sanction the redirection of state funds into faith-based programs but virtually dismantled state regulation of such programs, accruing, in the course of this pioneering endeavor, considerable political capital from the religious right. “An opportunity arose for a farsighted governor to take the lead” is how Olasky describes this. “George W. Bush was a natural, both because of his father’s earlier interest in the ‘thousand points of light’ and his own personal, faith-based change in 1986 from heavy drinking at times to abstinence from alcohol.”
Olasky has never been a full-time Bush adviser, yet his involvement would seem to have been something more than “maybe they met once or twice,” the version preferred by those Bush aides made nervous by the enthusiasm with which Olasky airs his less marketable positions, on the role of women, say, or on the necessity of conversion. T. Christian Miller of The New York Times, reporting in July on the campaign’s “pattern of distancing Bush from the controversies that have dogged Olasky,” quoted a Bush spokesman saying that the two had met only twice, once in 1996 and once in 1999, although the 1993 and 1995 meetings have been extensively documented. “Marvin is an evangelical Christian, and Bush is an evangelical Christian,” John J. DiIulio Jr., a Bush adviser, told David Grann by way of suggesting the philosophical distance. “But Bush does not believe that every faith-based program is about religious conversion.”
Olasky does believe this, and, on the basis of what Governor Bush himself has said, it would be hard to argue that he did not at some level, however unexamined, agree. “When asked why some faith-based groups succeed where secular organizations fail,” Olasky wrote of Bush, “he praised programs that help to ‘change the person’s heart.”‘ “A person with a changed heart,” Olasky quotes Bush as having told him, “is less likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol…. I’ve had some personal experience with this. As has been reported, I quit drinking. The main reason I quit was because I accepted Jesus Christ into my life in 1986.” To accept Jesus Christ as personal savior is pretty much the heart and soul of evangelical conversion (or of being “born again,” which both Governor Bush and Vice President Gore claim to be), and incurs the obligation, for evangelical Christians who want to save themselves, of converting others, which is to say, in Bush’s words, changing the person’s heart. This evangelical obligation to convert, the biblical basis for which is Matthew 28:19 (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”), rests on the belief that Bush notoriously expressed to a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman in 1993, that those who do not believe in Christ will go to hell. “Bush was giving the orthodox biblical answer,” Marvin Olasky later explained to Salon on this point. “On the face of it, you have to believe in Christ to go to heaven; Jews don’t believe in Christ; therefore, Jews don’t go to heaven. So of course there was an uproar.”
Olasky was made the head of Bush’s policy subcommittee on religion in February 1999, after the two met for a four-hour session during which they and Bush aides hammered out policy with John J. DiIulio Jr., James Q. Wilson, and Robert L. Woodson Sr., the founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and one of the people Olasky cites as a formative influence. In an October 1999 World column urging conservative Christians not to abandon the political process, Olasky himself described his role as “trying to walk the above talk by giving informal advice to one of the contenders for the GOP nomination,” a circumstance that had led him, he explained, to recuse himself from editing World’s campaign coverage. By the end of March, however, in the wake of a small media storm over a column he had written for the Austin American-Statesman accusing three political commentators who happened to be Jews (David Brooks, William Kristol, and Frank Rich) of favoring John McCain because he lacked Bush’s “Christian albatross” and so afforded them “a post-Clinton glow without pushing them to confront their own lives,” Olasky downgraded his involvement to “my very minor Bush advising role last year” and declared that, since this involvement was no longer an issue and since Christian conservatives would “clearly favor the Bush position,” he was now free to comment on the campaign.
However casually or occasionally delivered, Olasky’s message demonstrably locked into certain of the candidate’s established preferences, notably those for spinning off the government to the private sector and for taking a firm line with its less productive citizens. “Marvin offers not just a blueprint for government,” Bush declared in the foreword he wrote for Compassionate Conservatism, “but also an inspiring picture of the great resources of decency, caring, and commitment to one another that Americans share.” Just how closely Olasky’s “blueprint for government” would be followed was made clear on July 22, 1999, when Bush delivered, in Indianapolis, the speech that Olasky describes as the culmination of a process that began with the four-hour February meeting. “First, the ivy cabinet of policy conceptualizers came up with ideas and proposals. Second, Bush’s kitchen cabinet of Austin advisers reviewed the proposals and tried to meld them. Third, Governor Bush decided which ones to run with and which to table.”
“In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people,” Bush promised that day in Indianapolis, “we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives…. We will change the laws and regulations that hamper the cooperation of government and private institutions.” The stories told that day as illustrations of this “ability to save and change lives” now seem familiar, not only because they have been so often repeated during the campaign but because they are identical in tone and venue to those told by Marvin Olasky.
Bush for example cited the case in Texas of “a young man named James Peterson, who’d embezzled his way into a prison term” and who, as the time approached for his parole hearing, joined InnerChange, the faith-based program through which Olasky and Daniel met the similarly converted “Donnie Gilmore.” Offered parole, “James” turned it down, electing to stay in prison “to finish the InnerChange course,” a version of whatever actually happened that Bush seemed both to believe and to construe as a happy ending. “As James put it, ‘There is nothing I want more than to be back in the outside world with my daughter Lucy, [but] I realized that this was an opportunity to become a living [witness] for my brothers [in prison] and to the world. I want to stay in prison to complete the transformation [God] has begun in me.”‘
Among those present that day in Indianapolis were political reporters from America’s three major newspapers, Adam Clymer for The New York Times, Terry M. Neal for The Washington Post, and Ronald Brownstein for the Los Angeles Times. “First major policy speech,” their stories would read the next morning. “Most elaborate definition to date of his ‘compassionate conservatism’ credo.” They would have heard the candidate say that federal money should be “devolved,” not just to states but to “charities and neighborhood healers.” They would have heard the candidate promise that his administration would expand the “role and reach” of such organizations “without changing them or corrupting them”: a significant victory for Olasky, since the phrase would open the door to what he calls “theological conservatives,” i.e., those whose aim is conversion. They would have heard the candidate, by way of forestalling any possible concern that an “unchanged” (or “uncorrupted”) “neighborhood healer” might render “faith” the ultimate means test, offer the by now familiar but empirically ambiguous utilitarian argument. “It works,” the candidate had said, and then: “Sometimes our greatest hope is not found in reform. It is found in redemption.” That a mainstream American presidential candidate should make these remarkable statements might have seemed worth reporting, but did not: talk of “redemption” as a political program had by July 1999 become sufficiently commonplace that neither the word “redemption” nor the words “without changing them or corrupting them” appeared the next day in any of the three major papers.
JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, we’ve got our ear to the ground here in Wisconsin, this is Port Washington, north of Milwaukee, as you point out. We are inside the Allen-Edmonds shoe manufacturing plant…trying to get a sense [from] undecided voters if they made up their mind based on what they saw yesterday…. First of all is…the COO of Allen-Edmonds. I have got to ask you, you’re on the fence. Have you made up your mind as a result of what you saw last night?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I’m still undecided….
FLOCK: Now you tend to the Republican and vote Republican, but at this point, you are still undecided. Al Gore could get your vote.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Possibly, yes…. Certainly I’m going to listen to the next two debates, and I think not only are the issues important, but also the sincerity of the candidates…. Just a lot of honesty needs to be brought back into the candidacy.
—CNNEarly Edition, 8:08 AM, the morning after the October 3
presidential debate in Boston
This question of the “undecided,” or “swing,” voter, about whom we have heard so much this fall, is interesting. “Scientific” political forecasting, that done not by professional pollsters but by a handful of political scientists around the country, has for some time shown Vice President Gore the win-ner in a November election. In May, when Robert G. Kaiser of The Washington Post reported on this academic forecasting, the only disagreement among the political scientists to whom he spoke had to do with the point spread by which Gore would win. Thomas M. Holbrook of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee gave Gore 59.6 percent, Christopher Wlezien of the University of Houston 56.1 percent, Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University 53 or 54 percent, and Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa 56.2 percent. By the end of August, when seven of these academic forecasters (including Robert S. Erikson of Columbia University, James E. Campbell of the University of Buffalo, and Helmut Norpoth of the State University of New York at Stony Brook) presented their forecasts at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, six of the seven had somewhat narrowed but not significantly changed the Gore lead, their August forecasts ranging from a 52.3 to a 55.4 percent victory. The seventh, Holbrook, citing the record number of Americans who report themselves satisfied with their personal financial situation, had slightly increased the Gore lead, to 60.3 percent.
This kind of forecasting, which is based on analyzing mathematical models of the thirteen presidential elections since 1948 and of the state of the economy (both actual and perceived) during each of these elections, has in fact proved remarkably accurate. Wlezien’s early forecasts were accurate within six tenths of one percent in 1988 and one tenth of one percent in 1996. Lewis-Beck’s early call on the 1996 election (in collaboration with Charles Tien of Hunter College) was, according to The Washington Post, not only closer to the ultimate result than polls conducted immediately before the election (Lewis-Beck and Tien gave Clinton 54.8 percent, the eventual recorded result was 54.7) but also closer, by almost three percentage points, than exit polls conducted while the election was actually in progress. “The outcome of a presidential election can be accurately predicted based on factors that are known well before the official campaign gets underway,” Abramowitz told the Post. “Despite the time, effort and money devoted to campaigning, there is very little that the candidates can do during September and October to alter the eventual outcome of a presidential election.”
Political reporters and operatives are nonetheless dismissive of this academic forecasting, since the models on which it is based, focusing as they do on economic indicators, relentlessly exclude the questions of personality or “positioning” that are seen as the key to the “undecided” vote and so dominate discussion of presidential elections. The models largely discount the number of “undecided” answers that are elicited by polling, since, as James E. Campbell noted in Before the Vote: Forecasting American National Elections,3 “the ‘socially desirable’ answer…may be a late decision, both out of a sense of openmindedness and because one may appear more deliberative in obtaining all possible information about the candidates prior to deciding how to vote.” “Character,” on which many polls seem to turn, plays no role in these projections. “Values,” although much discussed in focus groups, go unmentioned.
Adam Clymer, covering the Washington meeting of the American Political Science Association for The New York Times, characterized the forecasters as “seven visitors [i.e., not Washington insiders] seeking to impose a precision and predictability on political life that even those working in its midst [i.e., the insiders the visitors will never be] cannot discern.” At a time when conventional polling showed Bush running ahead of Gore by double digits, the Bush pollster Fred Steeper told The Washington Post that the academic models would necessarily prove wrong, since none factored in the opinion of voters on the question to which the professionals were at that time giving full focus, that of the country’s presumed “decline in moral values.”
Steeper said this in May. The kind of polling or focus research that elicits opinions about “moral values” (where the “socially desirable answer” is even more clear than in preference polls) would have been, in May, not much more effective at projecting a November outcome than asking a ouija board. Until the final weeks of a presidential campaign, conventional opinion research has been notoriously unreliable. In May 1988, a not atypical New York Times/CBS News poll showed Dukakis leading Bush by ten points. In June 1992, the Field Institute showed Perot and Bush dividing the bulk of the electoral vote, with Clinton “getting so few that he is currently not a factor.” To the professionals of the political process, this indicates not a possible ambiguity in the research but an exciting volatility, the “horse race” construct, in which the election is seen to turn on the skill or lack of skill with which the candidates and their handlers “send signals,” or deploy counters derived from the research.
Governor George W. Bush’s acceptance address at the Republican convention in Philadelphia was a string of such notational counters, each on the face of it deeply meaningless (“When I act, you will know my reasons…. When I speak, you will know my heart”) but among which could be embedded such signals as “valuing the life of the unborn,” or “We must renew our values to restore our country.” Bush, it was immediately agreed, had sent the right signals, had at once positioned himself to seem, as they were saying on NBC while the confetti was still falling, “a very simple guy—loves his ranch, loves his family” and “also presidential.” This instant positive judgment was entirely predictable, a phenomenon that occurs on the final night of every convention, but it was nonetheless seen, by those who made it and by those whose business it was to calibrate it, to significantly change the dynamic of the election. “My view of this process has totally changed,” Robert Teeter, the longtime Republican pollster, told The Washington Post after the similarly predictable instant positive judgment on the naming of Dick Cheney (Cheney, it was said on CNN, was “one of the governing class”) as Governor Bush’s running mate. “You used to look for twenty-eight electoral votes or some demographic bloc. Now, the crucial question is how the press and public react in the first forty-eight hours.”
That the press and the public might ultimately react in sharply divergent ways seemed not to enter Teeter’s analysis, yet we had just lived through a period, that of the events leading up to and following impeachment, during which no political commentator in America failed to express bafflement at the mystery of what was called “the disconnect,” which is to say the divergence between what the press thought and what the public thought about President Clinton. “It is impossible to overstate the extent to which the political community felt betrayed by the president and convinced that he would be forced from office,” Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution wrote in Newsday immediately after the November 1998 congressional elections, the occasion on which the prevailing view of the political community got put to a vote and lost.
The public, on the other hand, while morally offended by the president’s misbehavior and skeptical of the content of his character, has been steadfast in its belief that Clinton’s personal failings did not compromise his ability to function successfully as chief executive. Each new public revelation of titillating details served mainly to reinforce their view that the effort to force the president from office was both unwise and, at least in part, politically motivated. This gap between Washington and public opinion had to close before the president’s future could be resolved. Now that the election returns are in, we know how that gap will close. The message from the election is crystal-clear: The Washington community will have to accommodate itself to the views of the country.
In April of 1999, two months after the Senate tried and acquitted President Clinton on the articles of impeachment brought by the House and three months before Governor George W. Bush launched his redemption platform in Indianapolis, I happened to hear several prominent Democratic and Republican pollsters and campaign strategists agree that the 2000 election would necessarily turn, in the absence of hard times, on “values.” That these specialists in opinion research were hearing a certain number of Americans express concern about their own future and about the future of America seemed clear.
What seemed less clear was the source of this concern, or what inchoate insecurity or nostalgia is actually being voiced when respondents address such questions as whether they fear that “this society will become too accepting of behaviors that are bad for people,” say, or believe that “a president should set a moral tone for the country.” On the latter point, a 1998 poll conducted by The Washington Post in conjunction with Harvard University and the Kaiser Foundation found that 50 percent of those queried did believe the president should set a moral tone and 48 percent did not, a statistically insignificant difference but one cited in a later Post story bearing the headline “Polls Suggest Public Seeks Moral Leadership in Wake of White House Scandal.”
When Americans told researchers that they worried about the future of their family and the country, say, or that they did not believe their fellow citizens to be “as honest or moral as they used to be,” what they were actually expressing, according to the Post, was their “yearning for a moral compass and virtuous leadership,” a notion that tallied with what the nation’s opinion leaders had been wishing they yearned for all year. Almost a year before the New Hampshire primary, the shape the campaign would take had already been settled upon, and it was not a shape that would require the Washington community to accommodate itself to the views of the country: what was concerning Americans, it had been decided, was the shame they had to date refused to recognize.
More than two thirds of Americans polled by the Los Angeles Times in February 1999, immediately after President Clinton was tried and acquitted by the Senate, said that his misconduct had not caused them to lose respect for the office of the presidency. Sixty-eight percent said that they did not want the issue raised in the 2000 presidential campaign. More than three in five said that Republicans pursued impeachment “primarily because they wanted to hurt President Clinton politically.” Only one third, or a number approximately the size of the Republican base, said that Republicans were motivated by concern about the effect of “Clinton’s actions on the legal and moral fabric of the country.”
The notional conviction that most Americans felt “revulsion” toward the Clinton administration, and the collateral conviction that this was damaging the Gore candidacy, nonetheless remained general, and, as became clear with the addition of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman to the Democratic ticket, would come to warp Gore’s own conduct of his campaign. “The fundamentals are in Gore’s favor,” the political analyst Allan J. Lichtman acknowledged to The New York Times in September. “Peace, prosperity, tranquillity at home and a united incumbent party. Why has the race even been close? The Clinton scandals.” A Republican pollster, Ed Goeas, suggested that Gore was suffering “the aftereffect of impeachment. Voters didn’t want Republicans to impeach Clinton because they thought it would rock the boat. Now that that is no longer an issue, they are indulging in a second emotion—they didn’t want Clinton impeached, but they think what he did was wrong.”
The choice of Senator Lieberman was widely construed as Gore’s way of transcending this presumed public sentiment, of “sending a message” to the electorate. The actual message that got sent, however, was not to the electorate but to its political class—to that narrow group of those who wrote and spoke and remained fixed in the belief that “the Clinton scandals” constituted a weight that must be shed. Senator Lieberman, who had previously come to the nation’s attention only as the hedge player who had briefly seized center stage by managing both to denounce the president for “disgraceful” and “immoral” behavior and to vote against his conviction (similarly, he had in 1991 both voiced support for and voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas), was not, except to the press, an immediately engaging personality. There were, in those first wobbly steps as a vice-presidential candidate, the frequent references to “private moments of prayer” and to the “miracle” of his nomination. There were the insistent reminders of his own filial devotion, as displayed to the nation during his “only in America moment” at the Democratic convention: “Mom, thank you, I love you and you and I know how proud Pop would be tonight. Yes we do love you, Mom.” There was the unsettling way in which he seemed to patronize his running mate, as if insensitive to the possibility that his unsolicited testimonials to Gore’s character (“This is a man of courage! He showed it by picking me to be with him!”) could suggest that it would otherwise be seen as doubtful.
His speech patterns, grounded as they were in the burden he bore for the rest of us and the personal rewards he has received from God for bearing it, tended to self-congratulation. In his recently published In Praise of Public Life,4 a modest work in which he peculiarly defends his career as a professional politician, he notes that he must “endure the disdain” of those who distrust politicians, that he risks being “sullied by the fight for election,” that winning the fight means only stepping “into yet another arena that has turned uglier than ever before.” After his 1988 election to the Senate, he girded himself for the arena that had turned uglier than ever before by making “private visits to three religious leaders who meant a lot to me, to ask them for their prayers as I began this new chapter of my life.” The religious leaders on whom he chose to call, already exhibiting his preference for hedge betting, were the Catholic archbishop of Hartford, an evangelical Protestant minister in Milford, and the Lubavitch rabbi Menachem Schneerson in Brooklyn.
There was, the reader of In Praise of Public Life learns, “no single reason” for the failure after sixteen years of his first marriage, and yet he does give reasons, each of which redounds to his credit. The president may have committed “disgraceful” and “immoral” acts, but Senator Lieberman had not, and the suggestion on a call-in radio show that he might have so upset his ex-wife that she had immediately called the show to say that “she knew I had never committed adultery.” There had been instead “the fact that I had become much more religiously observant than I was when we met and married.” There had been “the demands my political career put on our private life. That is surely one of the great costs and risks of public life.”
There were, in the aftermath of Gore’s decision to name Lieberman, many dispiriting reiterations of the benefit that would accrue. “Integrity on the Ticket” was the headline on The Washington Post’s lead editorial on the morning after the announcement. “A Gore-Lieberman ticket is not going to be associated with bad behavior,” Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council told The New York Times, which obtained a similar encomium (to the “credibility” that “Mr. Lieberman brings to everything he touches”) from the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Senator Lieberman, it was repeatedly said, gave the ticket “moral authority,” the most frequently cited source for which was his having “fearlessly spoken out” or “fearlessly acted on his beliefs” to denounce both Clinton and popular culture. Hollywood, he asserted, “doesn’t understand piety.” Although Hollywood, like Clinton at the time of his impeachment, might be considered something less than a moving target, there had been a further “fearless” aspect to Lieberman’s crusade: just as he had teamed with Lynne Cheney to denounce “political correctness” (another fairly lethargic target), he had teamed with William J. Bennett to decry “the rising tide of sex and violence in our popular culture.” This showed, it was said, Lieberman’s “independence,” his ability to “follow his conscience,” which as presented came to seem a kind of golden retriever bounding ever to the right, determined to outrun its master and his 95 percent ADA rating. “On issues that cut very close to the bone,” Bennett recently explained to E.J. Dionne, “he’s there.”
The rather histrionic humility with which Senator Lieberman accepted this nonpartisan admiration served only to further encourage those who wrote and talked and offered opinions. “In the choice of a single man,” Richard Cohen wrote on The Washington Post’s Op-Ed page, “…Gore shows he is comfortable with a running mate who was uncomfortable with Clinton’s behavior.” David Broder mentioned “the moral character he adds…. Lieberman embodies and defines the standards by which politicians should be judged.” George Will spoke of the “unfeigned revulsion” with which Lieberman had denounced Clinton, and of the way in which that unfeigned revulsion could address “the national longing” to be rid of this president.
To the same point, the editorial page of The New York Times saw the choice of Lieberman as “a signal that this ticket was moving beyond Mr. Clinton’s behavioral—as opposed to his policy—legacy. Mr. Lieberman’s authority in this regard derives from his moral bearing, embodied in his criticism of Mr. Clinton’s conduct two years ago.” Nor was this enthusiasm confined to the editorial and Op-Ed pages: on page one of a single issue, the Times, in its own reportorial voice, certified Senator Lieberman’s “moral rectitude,” his “seriousness of purpose,” his “integrity.” He was “untainted.” He was “regarded as one of the most upstanding elected officials in the nation.” He was a “moral compass in the wastelands of politics.”
That the ticket would otherwise woefully lack this moral compass, and unless shriven by Senator Lieberman would reap the whirlwind of the assumed national yearning to punish Clinton, was accepted as given, since, for those who wrote and talked and offered opinions, the furies and yearnings of the nation were necessarily indivisible from the furies and yearnings of its political class. The possibility that the yearnings of the nation might be expressed instead by the occasional actual citizen who managed to penetrate the cloud cover of the coverage seemed not to occur. On the morning of September 4, in a news-analysis piece headlined “Still Riding Wave, a Confident Gore Heads to Florida for Fall Push,” Katharine G. Seelye of the Times, flying safely within the cloud cover, reminded readers of what was according to the story line the Gore campaign’s “central concern”: that “while voters appreciate the good times, there is lingering resentment toward Mr. Clinton over his personal behavior, creating a complex web of emotions that still seems to ensnare Mr. Gore.” This story appeared on page A14. Also on page A14, the same morning, in a report on a Gore-Lieberman event at a construction site in downtown Philadelphia, Richard Pérez-Peña of the Times quoted a twenty-one-year-old electrician whom he had interviewed on the site. “Clinton did a real good job with the economy, and Gore was his V.P.,” this actual citizen was reported to have said, “so he’s the next best thing to Clinton if we can’t have Clinton.”
Well, there’s nothing wrong with candidates indicating what their faith [or] belief is. It’s something else when they begin to put it into the public arena in terms of politics. And then what it starts becoming, as we’ve heard, Governor Bush this week talked about America being God’s country. God created it…. Vice-presidential candidate Cheney talked about [how] tolerance in this country should be the way Jesus Christ taught it. Now, that sounds like preaching from a pulpit. What’s starting to happen is campaigning and candidates are beginning to outdo each other as [to] how godly they are and how much God has a part in their life…. All of a sudden, this new emphasis on faith and religion in—in—in a campaign that should deal with issues may move us off that experience of two hundred years.
—Abraham H. Foxman onThis Week, Sunday, September 3, 2000
Bill Clinton lowballed it to the White House with his yeomen telling themselves that “It’s the economy, stupid,” but the winning party has generally been the one that could claim the high moral ground. That’s why Joe Lieberman’s talk of God, which helps voters forget Bill Clinton’s ungodly activity, has been so fruitful for Al Gore.
—Marvin Olasky in World, September 23, 2000
This was an election in which there were running for president and vice-president on the Democratic ticket two professional politicians, one of whom was born to the game and the other of whom says that he was inspired to play it by the “figures of respect” already on the field, beginning with “the succession of dignified, personable mayors who ran Stamford.” There was running for president on the Republican ticket someone whose most successful previous venture was based on his questionable readiness to accept, in the first year of his own father’s presidency, a sweetheart 10 percent “general partner interest” (aka “promote fee”) in the 1989 purchase of the Texas Rangers by a consortium of investors, an $86 million deal in which the candidate’s personal investment was only $606,000. There was running for vice-president on the Republican ticket someone who had parlayed his Gulf War credits in the Middle East into a $45.5 million stake in Halliburton, and who thought the thing to say when asked why he did not vote in this year’s presidential primary in Texas (or for that matter in fourteen of the sixteen elections held while he was a resident of Dallas County) was that he had been focused on “global concerns,” just as he had been focused on “other priorities” during the Vietnam years he spent failing to get a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin instead of getting drafted.
The grounds on which any one of the four could be construed as a candidate for the “high moral ground” remain obscure, yet their respective claims to this phantom venue, with Governor Bush and Senator Lieberman on point but Vice President Gore and Dick Cheney not far behind, had come to dominate the campaign. Each had testified to the centrality of “faith” in his life and in that of the nation. Each had declared his intention to install “faith-based organizations” (by this point so obligatory a part of policy discussions that they were referred to by acronym, “FBOs”) in the front lines of what had previously been the nation’s social support system. “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” one or another of them could rather too frequently be heard saying, appropriating as new a line already familiar during the 1950s debate over adding the clause “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. (“It’s not constitutional, so don’t say it,” I recall my grandfather instructing me to that point.) “I believe that faith in itself is sometimes essential to spark a personal transformation,” Vice President Gore was already saying in May 1999 in Atlanta. By August 2000, Senator Lieberman was saying in Detroit that America was “moving to a new spiritual awakening,” requiring only that we its people “reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”
There is a level at which many Americans simply discount what is said during a political campaign, dismiss it as loose talk. When Senator Lieberman tells us “never to indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” or when Governor Bush says “our nation is chosen by God,” or when Vice President Gore talks about What Would Jesus Do or Dick Cheney appears on a platform in Kansas City with a succession of athletes attesting to the personal role played in their lives by Jesus Christ and the Gospels, what gets said is on that level often understood as no more than a tactical signal, a “message” sent to a certain constituency, a single fleeting moment in a moving campaign; a marker in a game with no causal connection to policy or legislation as it will actually evolve. Evangelical Christians, a spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals told The New York Times in a discussion of Senator Lieberman’s religiosity, “are very comfortable with everything the senator’s been saying.” They may well be, and are meant to be, yet the senator has supported neither of two causes, authorization of student-led prayer or the mandatory posting of the Ten Commandments, recently of prime interest to the evangelical community. Nor, despite what he has called in reference to abortion his “growing personal anxiety that something very wrong is happening in our country,” have his votes on abortion legislation, a crucial evangelical concern, been other than generally pro-choice.
The expressed “personal anxiety that something very wrong is happening in our country,” then, is exclusively rhetorical, or loose talk. As such, it can be set aside, understood as a nod to those “pro-family” or “values” voters who, although a minority, have been increasingly encouraged, by the way in which both parties have deliberately narrowed campaign dialogue to issues that concern those voters, to decide our elections. There is considerable evidence that this narrowing, which tends to alienate younger voters, has already had a deleterious effect on the electoral process. In the 1996 presidential election, the president of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, the number of voters aged eighteen to twenty-one dropped from 38 to 31 percent and the number of those aged twenty-one to twenty-four from 45 to 33 percent. In the 1998 congressional elections, the turnout in these age groups was less than 17 percent, roughly half that of older voters. The competitive pieties of the campaign now in progress are not calibrated to reverse this estrangement of the young: members of the generation approaching voting age, Richard N. Ostling noted in What’s God Got to Do With the American Experiment?,5 a collection of studies and essays compiled under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, are to a greater extent than members of any previous generation “thoroughly detached from traditional Christian concepts…, do not believe Jesus is the unique savior of mankind, do not read the Bible as God’s word, and do not accept the idea of moral absolutes.”
The September Sunday morning on which Abraham H. Foxman suggested to Cokie Roberts and the Reverend Pat Robertson that an excessive campaign emphasis on faith could “move us off that experience of two hundred years” (“So there’s a tiny, tiny minority who consider themselves atheist,” Pat Robertson said, “and you can’t surrender the deeply-held religious beliefs of the entire majority to please some tiny minority”) followed several days of Op-Ed and talk-show debate prompted by the letter, making the same point, that Mr. Foxman had sent to Senator Lieberman after the latter’s “new spiritual awakening” event in Detroit. In the course of this debate, the appropriate role of religion in American political life had been discussed at some length. It had been widely agreed that the establishment clause of the First Amendment had been, to the extent that it had ensured the disestablishment of the Anglican or Episcopal Church, a good idea. It had also been widely agreed that the aim of the founders had been not “atheism” (the straw man from the Scopes trial curiously back among us) but “diversity of faith.” There had been areas of disagreement, hotly argued but narrow. Some argued that one’s faith was best practiced in private, others that faith practiced in private was no faith at all; a difference, as differences go, not entirely unlike the 1844 Philadelphia riot in which six people were killed over the issue of which version of the Ten Commandments should be posted in public schools.
Yet virtually all of the many positions and postures taken in this debate rested on a single and largely unchallenged assumption: that religion, whether public or private, was at the heart of the American experience, and that the “experience of two hundred years” to which Mr. Foxman referred had been in fact a record of serial awakenings, the eventual rightful end of which, once the obstructive element increasingly referred to in shorthand as “the ACLU” had been shown the light, would be what both presidential candidates were now calling the “personal transformation” of the nation’s citizens. “I need my civil liberties friends to tell me again the mortal danger of prayer—of religion generally—in public places,” William Raspberry wrote in The Washington Post. “I keep forgetting it.” “Separation between church and state never meant that religion had no place in American life,” E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in the Post. “Remember, this is a nation that still stamps ‘In God We Trust’ on its currency.” The fact that the words “In God We Trust” were added to American currency during the same recent period and for the same political reason that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, home-front ammunition in the Eisenhower administration’s cold war arsenal, had vanished (like the fact that the number of Americans who belonged to churches during the American Revolution constituted only 17 percent of the population) from the collective memory stream. “I confess: I love what Joe Lieberman is doing to our national debate about religion and public life,” Dionne wrote a year later:
Lieberman is not the first politician to say how important faith is to our democracy. President Dwight Eisenhower offered the nation this notable sentiment: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief—and I don’t care what it is.” Today’s discussion about religion and politics is much more serious than it was in the “I don’t care what it is” past memorialized by Eisenhower. That’s what makes so many people uncomfortable.
This was a meaningful shift in the national political dialogue. Politics, it had been until recently understood, is push and pull, give and take, the art of the possible, an essentially pragmatic process by which the differing needs and rights of the country’s citizens get balanced and to some degree met. The insertion into this process of a claim to faith, or to religion, or to “the high moral ground,” it also had been until recently understood, is perilous, permissible if at all only at moments of such urgent gravity as to warrant its inherent danger, which is that the needs and rights of some citizens might be overridden to accommodate the needs and rights of those holding the high ground. This was not such a moment in American life. The nation was not at war. A majority of its citizens seemed to understand that the demonstration of “full remorse” recently demanded of its president would prove less personally meaningful to their families than the skill or lack of skill with which he guided them through the rapids of the global economy.
The possible “legacy” of the president was popularly discussed in negative terms, as the redeeming grail he had hoped for and lost, but on any reasonable scale his legacy was already sizable: the country he would hand over to either Governor Bush or Vice President Gore was one in which median household income had reached an all-time high, the unemployment rate was at its lowest point in three decades, the rate of violent crime was down, and the digital national debt clock in Manhattan was running, until its creator allowed that the device had outlived its effectiveness and stopped it, backward. It had been Clinton’s “legacy,” in short, to create the very conditions that had early on led academic forecasters to characterize a presidential victory by the incumbent party as the most probable outcome of the November 2000 election.
Yet so thin was the air on the high moral ground that none of this was seen as relevant, not even by the candidate who might have seemed poised to benefit from it. What had been for the past several decades the origin myth of the neoconservative right had become, in part because it so uniquely filled the need of the political class to explain its own estrangement from the elec-torate, the official story, shared by all participants in the process: America, in this apocalyptic telling, had been from its inception until the 1960s a deeply religious nation. During the 1960s, through the efforts of what Robert H. Bork called “the ‘intellectual’ class and that class’s enforcement arm, the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court of the United States,” the nation and its citizens had been inexplicably and destructively “secularized,” and were accordingly in need of “transformation,” of “moral and intellectual rearmament,” of “renewed respect for moral authority.” In a country already so increasingly steeped in evangelical teaching that a significant number of its citizens had come to believe that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last ten thousand years” (47 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in 1991 said they believed in such a fell swoop, or “recent special creation”), those who wrote and talked were arguing how the nation’s political system could best revive those religious values allegedly destroyed (in an interestingly similar fell swoop) during the 1960s.
The delusionary notion that such a revival was now in progress, and would soon prove the correctness of the political class on the Clinton issue, is what has lent this election year its peculiar, and for the Democratic candidate, its dangerous, distance from the electorate. President Clinton may have “escaped conviction,” Marvin Olasky wrote in the preface to the most recent edition of The American Leadership Tradition, but was nonetheless “convicted in the court of public opinion.” The electorate, he wrote, would no longer accept “an anything-goes moral vision.” Accordingly, the 2000 election was one in which “the populace seemed to want the next president to be someone who would not disgrace the Oval Office, and that desire gave hope to those who want to revive a tradition of moral leadership.”
The logic here, and it was the same logic that surfaced in the response to the Lieberman nomination, was that of the origin myth, in which “the populace,” once warned, can yet cast out its wicked allegiance to its disgraced leader and be saved before the final Rapture. This fable has been adjusted and trimmed with each retelling, yet one element, the disgraced leader, has remained fixed, the rock on which the Bush campaign might have foundered early had the Gore campaign itself, in search of the chimerical “undecided” voter, not rushed to enter the fable’s fatal eddy. The distinct possibility that an entire generation of younger voters might see no point in choosing between two candidates retelling the same remote story could benefit only one campaign, the Republican, and the failure of the Democratic campaign to recognize this could yet neutralize the advantage of the legacy it has worked so assiduously to disavow.
—October 5, 2000
November 2, 2000