Monday, October 16, 2006

Well, that clears that up a bit

It's a minor blip compared to Woodward's new book, but David Kuo's Tempting Faith has made a few waves for its insider's look into the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The interesting thing is that Kuo isn't writing from the perspective of a jaded defector but as an unreconstructed evangelical Christian. His problem is that the Bush Administration didn't help Christians enough. He says that White House officials smiled and welcomed Christian leaders but then called them "goofy," "ridiculous," and "out of control," and that Karl Rove referred to them as "the nuts."

Kuo's claims are, of course, in the process of being refuted by the White House, but if what he says is true, it confirms something I've thought for a long time about the administration. They are not, as some liberals would claim, motivated by some sort of crazy evangelical spirit. How many times have you heard it said that both Bush and bin Laden are "religious fanatics"? Or that the country's problems, domestic and international, have their bases in some sort of Christian revivalist upsurge? The first problem with this analysis is that it gives Bush far too much credit. It's easy to hoist signs like this and this, but do you really think that the man possesses any real power? That he does anything more than scratch his ass at meetings and attempt to parse the multi-syllable words? His stupidity and pettiness have been on even greater display than usual recently. (There's also the interesting "unacceptable" article in the Washington Post that's been making the blog rounds; I don't know if those are scripted instances or ex tempore, though.)

Second, and more importantly, all the evidence points to the conclusion that Rove and the other elite Republican political spinners simply use religious rhetoric as a way to attract voters. As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out--rightly, I think--many inside-the-Beltway GOP movers and shakers have gay friends and probably have learned to live quite comfortably with gay neighbors, associates, and relatives (let's not forget Mary Cheney). It wouldn't surprise me at all if they distrust or even loathe truly creepy religious freaks like Tony Perkins.

The bigger picture is that there is no tail that wags the dog in these scenarios. The religious right does not dictate to the White House. One can draw a similar conclusion from the US's relationship with Israel. It is often said, in both respectable and often downright nasty company, that Israel exerts too much power over the US or even "controls" it, whatever that means. In this and the religious right case, nothing could be further from the truth. The United States, and especially this particular Presidency, uses these entities as its apparatuses to the extent that it can, and no more. Sound overly bleak? Can anyone present a more likely explanation? This is how it seems to me.

Of course, then there's the question of whether the government is controlled by big business. But that's assuming that you're dealing with two separate entities to begin with...


Blogger The Sheriff said...

Regarding the unacceptable article- may I say that I find it to be just as unacceptable (ha ha) as the "Israel/Religiousright controls the US" blather that you're criticizing in the main of your post. The psycologization of bush's inclement rhetoric is another example of the same phenomenon- the creation of explanations that allow you to disapprove without really criticizing anything substantial. Were I to go on about how our gov't is in the pocket of the religous right, etc., my conpiratorial panegyrics never reach the point of a)actually criticizing whatever policy is being taken up as such (they only criticize "religous nuts" or whatever) and b)does not even have the capability to suggest any reasonable response.

CiP:"Renshon, who wrote a mostly-favorable book in 2004 about Bush's psychology, said the president's declarations are in keeping with his apparent self-image as a Jeremiah, "railing against the tides" and saying what "people ought to be doing something about.""

If I were to pick this kind of thing up and make a big deal about it, I'm just saying that bush is a bad president because he's dumb/delusional? This may have some truth to it, but it's an awful awful way to try to think about criticism, much less how to base an opposition to Bush.

Does this make sense, or am I just some wild-haired Jeremiah myself?

7:10 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I'm a bit confused by your post, Scantron. As the New York Times has recently documented in a four-part series(I will leave the link at the end), so-called faith-based exemptions from everything from taxes, to property, to workers' rights, have increased under Bush rather significantly. Now, I think little of these increases can be attributed to Bush directly -- congress and the courts seem most responsible -- but Bush has done nothing to stop it, and it all seems to fit rather well into his package of religious conservatism anyway. If you're going to argue that Bush et al haven't helped Christianity enough, then the only way you can do it is by going the Gary Wills route: that Jesus was a radical socialist/pacifist, etc....

But what makes you think that Bush doesn't mean what he says? The "Axis of Evil" was not just rhetoric, in its own sick way this administration DOES treat N.K. and Iran like eternally damned/evil entities, unable to be brought over through negotiation or carrots and sticks. Stem cell veto, Alito confirmation, "crusade" rhetoric, blind support of Israel, etc. ... seems like the Evangelical agenda to me.

If there is a backlash from these Evangelical voters in November, it's only because they realize the ridiculousness of their previous support for such a religious but altogether incompetent administration.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

That link, if you're interested:

11:21 AM  
Blogger curry king said...

I, too, am also confused by your posting, Scantron. The faith based initiatives expose in the Times should give credence to the fact that religion profoundly influences Bush's policies, from the top down. There was an article stating that Bush hired several of his former campaign workers to work as contractors in Iraq. In addition to the absurdity of hiring campaign workers to contract in Iraq, the other problem is that the campaign workers were asked to fill out a questionairre beforehand asking what their views on abortion were, and when they believe life begins. Appalling if you ask me. Bob Woodward's previous book "Plan of Attack" explained that Bush described himself as a "messenger of God" who was doing "the Lord's will." If the administration is asking employees about these personal views and Bush believes he was ordained by God, then I think there is no doubt that American policy, in this case in Iraq, in both private and public sectors, is being shaped by in part by the President's personal religious beliefs.

Additionally, Bush is able to deflect opposition to his policies by using religious rhetoric. Something about religion in politics facilitates reducing complex policy to "good vs. evil" or "us or them," etc. And if someone voices opposition, the messenger of God, AKA the President, simply has to retort with "well Saddam was an evil person with evil intentions" to legitimize his failing policies.

If the religious right does not dictate White House policy, why is that the ever-powerful religious right was able to ruin John McCain's candidacy in 2004 on the basis that he was weak on his stance to abortion? McCain's commencement speech at the ultra-conservative Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell) in 2006 is testament to the Christian right's influence in elections. So, another conclusion would be that the religious right may not often influence policy directly, but they sure can cherry pick which candidate they want in an election and do it that way. If this is the case, then I think they have been quite successful with their pick of Mr. Bush so far.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Hmm. I see from your comments where I should have been clearer in my original post. I hope I didn't give the impression that a religious message means *nothing* to the White House. Perhaps my statement "The United States, and especially this particular Presidency, uses these entities as its apparatuses to the extent that it can, and no more" was excessive.

Regarding the creeping religious favoritism, in the form of tax breaks, questionaires, et al--I don't balk when this stuff happens. It comes as no surprise to me. These people are conservatives--they're Republicans. They're the party of more religion. This is what they do. Ever since the realignments in the 50s and 60s--Southern conservatives to the GOP--this trend has continued, and I think it will continue to do so as long as the demographics remain the same. Although we good first amendment agnostics are shocked at religious tests, support for school prayer, religious symbols in public places, etc, this is standard operating procedure for conservatives. They're just more commited to tradition (most Americans are religious) than to strict principle. Conservatives liberals love, like Andrew Sullivan, might speak out against "Christianism," but he's gotta be one of about four prominent conservatives who feel so strongly about it. Now what I would be surprised at would be for the next Republican president to encourage religion any less than Bush does. Time will tell.

As for the "Axil of Evil" rhetoric, I'm not concerned about what *Bush* really thinks, I'm sure he's quite capable of believing any number of the things he spouts, but the greater cadre of "American unilateralism, don't negotiate with enemies" hawks *are* indeed serious about this rhetoric, but it's not religiously based. For them, America since the Cold War is a rusty cannon, a huge, potentially hegemonic machine that needs to get kickstarted. Since there's no serious contender right now (say what you will about China in a decade, in fact *because* China poses such a future threat), we can afford to basically do what we want. Clinton, although no slouch in the global economic expansion department, wasted the chance to really establish our dominance. That's what these people believe they can do. Assert ourselves, take out our enemies, shape the world as we see fit, allies and former hostile negotiating partners be damned. The embodiment of this view is Bill Kristol. The White House sometimes disappoints him (and thank God it does), but there are plenty of people like him who have staffed the government or currently do--Khalilzad, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney, Abrams, Armitage, Bolton, and so on. These same people say that we shouldn't talk to "evil" enemies, use carrot diplomacy, avoid military action, etc--is it because they're evangelical Christians?

As for Robot's other points, I will grant that another Republican president might have allowed it, but as Aristotle says, "one swallow does not make a summer." If you're going to say Alito is a sign of rising evangelism, you have to explain how Scalia's appointment was somehow a less evangelical one. The crusade bit is a gaffe that hasn't been repeated since. As for our blind support of depends on how "seeing" you think our relationship with Israel was in the past. Also, doesn't our increased support of Israel in the present cases confirm my thesis about power and global vision? We were supposedly encouraging Israel to provoke or attack Syria and Iran as well, and we explicitly say that Israel's bombardment of Lebanon represents a "new Middle East," "birthpangs," what have you. It's not because they're the righteous hand of God.

As for Curry King's comments, it's true that Bush has said some questionable things about his divine inspiration. But do you think God told Bush to attack Iraq, and he drew up the plans? Weren't the plans already lying around the Pentagon in all probability? Hadn't it been planned as a potential strategy by some of the people I listed above for years? It's like supposing that all those stories in Herodotus about some ghost or god inspiring Darius to invade Greece were his real modus operandi, and not his imperial ambitions, which subsequently were cloaked in mystical storytelling. It's a chicken and egg thing.

Also, I don't see how Bush's simplified, good vs. bad, us vs. them rhetoric is specifically "religious." Dumbing down the argument and simplistic sloganeering are as old as politics itself. Religion isn't behind the "cut and run" tactic--it just sticks. So do the other dodo mantras.

As for the 2000 election (I think you mean this rather than 2004; McCain didn't make an attempt to run then did he?), it's possible the religious right played a role, but didn't *Karl Rove* also have a lot to do with particularly nasty campaign strategies, such as insinuating that McCain had a foreign child out of wedlock? (I have always wondered how much this tactic alone turned the tide; honestly, it does sound overblown.)

My ultimate point was that the case for a wave of evangelism being behind this government's major policy decisions is seriously flawed. Too much attention is paid to factors like religion and personal idiosyncrasies. I don't deny that many members of our government are in fact religious. I don't question Bush's Christianity; neither do I think he's some sort of snakehandling nut. He's like a large number of Americans in his religious views. (I'm pretty sure Cheney's god is printed at 14th and C street, DC, but I could be wrong.) I don't mean to say that Bush & co. are total hypocrites in that they say they're Christians, pretend to be helping Christians, but aren't. What I say is that they call the shots at the end of the day, not Falwell, Dobson, Perkins, whoever.

What I think I've discovered after watching politics for the short while that I have is that no matter how zany regimes may seem, they rarely make decisions based on irrational (sc. "religious") grounds. Thus predictions like Bernard Lewis' recent one that Iran would nuke itself out of existence (on a specific date even!) because it believed the 12th imam was returning will always be daft.

Here's another mental scenario: suppose the United States was a smaller, poorer country. If the government was similarly religious as it is now, do you think that we'd still refuse to talk to enemies, view the world in black and white, threaten people based on religious convictions, etc?

Always look for the money and the power.

2:29 AM  
Blogger curry king said...

some excellent points. on a lighter note, here is proof of my point:

11:33 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Oh, whoops--when I said "another Republican president might have allowed it", the "it" in question was stem cell research.

12:53 PM  

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