Jan 25, 2004
Bush kicked off his campaign with his State of the Union Address, trying to use it to make the reality of the war in Iraq go away; and pretending, for the umpteenth time, that his tax cuts were about to lead to the creation of new jobs. And, of course, of course, of course, to talk about terrorism, posing as a defender of an America under siege.
The real force of his campaign – although Bush didn't talk about it – will come from the enormous campaign chest that he is accumulating; already it stands at 100 million dollars, which is more than any candidate ever collected in total before. It's clear he has the support of the biggest corporations in the country, and not just the oil and energy industries, but, what is more important, high finance.
But whatever else Bush will do in this campaign, his main concern will be to mobilize the voting block that put him in the White House in 2000, the so-called Christian Right. It was to that Christian Right that Bush was directly speaking at the conclusion of his State of the Union Address, when he hinted he might agree to their demands for a constitutional amendment preventing homosexuals from marrying, or when he proposed to campaign for teen-age "abstinence," or when he promised to open more federal money to religious based charities.
Bush's re-election rests essentially on his ability to mobilize that section of the population which was the single most solid voting bloc in the last election, the so-called "Christian Right," the home-grown version of the religious fundamentalism that has overtaken large parts of the world during these last few decades.
Vague though the term may be, Christian Right nonetheless carried enough meaning that almost 20% of the electorate in the last election identified themselves as such in exit polls. And 84% voted for Bush in 2000.
The difficulty in saying what the Christian Right is and what it stands for comes from its diversity. It is made up of literally thousands of little Protestant sects, each in its own particular corner, as well as a few bigger ones, like the Assemblies of God, the fundamentalist faction of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is particularly strong in the Mountain West. Then there are all the radio and TV ministries – the modern day equivalent of the old tent revival meetings with their huckster preachers touring the country, promising to heal the afflicted with a laying on of hands – while the hands were in fact reaching into the pockets of the afflicted. The big difference today is the scale on which the huckstering is carried out, witness the wealth once collected by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (before their fall from grace when it was discovered that Jim – of all people! – had had a tryst with his secretary, then used ministry funds to pay her off). Or witness the appeals for money by Pat Robertson on his TV show, the "700 Club," which were often helped along by his regular ventures into long distance faith-healing via TV signal, praying for an unnamed listener out there who had a back problem or hemorrhoids, for example, claiming his prayer had healed the affliction.
There are also all those organizations which have mobilized around particular political and social issues, but who use a religious rhetoric to justify their demands. The most active – although not the only ones – are the ones that have carried out a fight against abortion rights practically since the 1974 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Close behind in their activity were all those "defend the family" organizations that pushed to block passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing that equal rights for women would destroy God's design for the family.
Finally, there are political action groups like the Christian Coalition, headed in its heyday by Pat Robertson. The Christian Coalition, like Falwell's Moral Majority before it, in reality is a kind of electoral machine, using religious language and references to mobilize voters, whether for Robertson and other activists from the Christian Right or for Republican candidates.
There is no single person or group of persons who speak for this whole. And there are important differences between the fundamentalists, the evangelicals (or "born-agains") and the pentecostals – the three big categories, into which most of the churches fall. Nonetheless, there are certain ideological common denominators that tie this loose grouping together. The vast majority of its ministers claim to follow the Bible literally – in many cases even in so far as explaining the universe, the solar system and where this planet fits into the scheme of things; as well as how all of this, plus the animals, plants and especially human beings, came into existence, six thousand or so years ago, depending on the sect. This view, known as "creationism," has often expressed itself in activity to change the curriculum in the schools, opposing creationism to well-accepted scientific theories about evolution or plate tectonics or the formation of the universe, for example, while pushing the educational book publishers to include the Biblical creationist explanations in science texts. And many of the Christian Right leaders advocate that their followers leave the public schools. In 1979, Jerry Falwell declared, "I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, there won't be any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them." It's still a goal of most of the Christian Right organizations, which today push for public moneys to go to religious schools. As for the early days Falwell talks about, when there were no public schools, only religious schools, those were the days when the children of working people did not go to any school at all.
Not only do the leaders of the Christian Right espouse the most non-scientific ideas, they are also the fount of some of the most socially backward views of society and the relations between human beings. Witness a statement Jerry Falwell sent out in 1999 in a fund-raising letter: "these perverted homosexuals ... absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, god-fearing citizens stand for.... Make no mistake. These deviants seek no less than total control and influence in society, politics, our schools and in our exercise of free speech and religious freedom.... If we do not act now, homosexuals will own America!"
Literal though their Biblical references may be, the activists and ministers are also highly selective, digging out precisely those Biblical quotations that justify the most reactionary prejudices found in current day society, including racism, the relegation of women to an inferior role, the despising of homosexuals, the exacting of revenge by the death penalty, etc.
A belief that has been widely spread and carefully maintained throughout this disparate Christian Right is the assertion that religion generally and Christianity specifically is under attack. The growth of a secular society is said to be paving the way for a new Armageddon, that is, the colossal final battle between the godly and the ungodly. When Armageddon came along – or at least September 11 – one of the leaders of the Christian Right, Jerry Falwell, couldn't resist the temptation to develop this idea more specifically: "The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this.... throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million innocent little babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face, and say, `you helped this happen."' To which, Pat Robertson, on whose "700 Club" show Falwell was appearing, replied, "I totally concur."
George W. Bush may have won the vast majority of the Christian Right in his last election, but he won with only 48% of the total vote, and his camp knows that there is a part of the Christian Right that has become disappointed with the Republican party. Karl Rove, Bush's political handler, in discussing the 2000 election pointed out that four million fewer voters owing allegiance to the Christian Right went to the polls in 2000 than voted in 1994. A big part of Bush's activity over the last three years has been aimed at bringing these lost sheep back into the fold. On the one hand, he has worked to integrate the activists of the Christian Right much more thoroughly into the Republican Party apparatus; on the other hand, to convey, in the words of Tom DeLay, the second ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, that he has been "put in the White House by God to promote a Biblical world view."
Among Bush's first appointees was an obstetrician/gynecologist who opposes prescribing contraceptives to single women. He made his name writing a book, Stress and the Woman's Body, which recommended the reading of specific scriptural passages as well as prayers for headache and premenstrual syndrome. This charlatan was appointed to chair the FDA's panel on women's health policy, which was scheduled to take up such issues as hormone replacement therapy and distribution of RU-486, a pill that can induce abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy. Two more of Bush's appointees to agencies dealing with abortion, family planning and reproductive rights of women were conservatives who opposed any federal funding for any kind of contraception, not to mention abortion.
A woman nominated to the National Advisory Committee on Violence against Women was the head of Independent Women's Forum, an organization that had opposed any investigation of violence against women. A nominee for the President's Advisory Committee on HIV and AIDS was a conservative evangelical who called AIDS, the "gay plague."
A nominee for the NLRB was a board member for American Vision, which favored, among other things, putting the United States under biblical law, that is, turning it into a theocracy. It goes without saying that this organization opposed any rights for women.
Bush appointed a panel to write new guidelines to allow prayer in the public schools – with a view toward sneaking in the backdoor, what the courts had already kicked out the front door.
And who could forget Bush's "born again" attorney general, John Ashcroft, who anointed himself with cooking oil before taking his oath of office, just as the Saul and David (of Old Testament fame) did when "they assumed their administrative duties," – as Ashcroft took great pains to explain.
Of course, Bush was doing what all winning politicians do: handing out posts to supporters. But, he was also using his appointments to legitimize the reactionary social attitudes of the Christian Right.
Whatever has been on Bush's real political agenda in support of the wealthy, he has made it a policy to appeal to and reinforce some of the most socially backward and vicious views, even if he often does so in a kind of coded language. It's enough for him to declare in the State of the Union Address, for example, that he pledges to "defend the sanctity of marriage," for all those people who agree with Falwell's description of homosexuals to hear Bush talking to them, reinforcing their prejudices.
One of Bush's very first actions on taking office in 2001 was to cut off funding for international family planning organizations that even mention abortion. Among other things, he has since imposed severe restrictions on stem cell research – stem cells come from aborted foetuses – impeding research into Alzheimer's and other such degenerative diseases. He pushed to eliminate funding for sex education if it doesn't push "abstinence," in place of birth control methods – turning back the clock on the reduction of early teen-age pregnancy, accomplished over the last decades precisely because there was more ready information about, and access to, condoms and other birth control methods. His administration pushed through a bill recognizing an unborn foetus as a crime victim, if a pregnant woman is attacked. There are already laws that recognize such actions as crimes – but this one was written so as to give implicit legal standing to the idea that a foetus is a person, opening the door to charge a doctor who performs an abortion with murder. The administration also introduced and pushed through bills making a late-term abortion procedure illegal – without any exception for situations when a woman's life, health or well-being are endangered by continuation of the pregnancy. In fact, this is the only time that such late-term abortions are ordinarily legally available now. By closing down the exception, Bush was giving support to the most backward ideas about the role of women in society, that is, chattel, whose own life and health count for little.
Another of Bush's initiatives has been to call for the extension of vouchers – the programs that force the public schools to give students money to attend private schools, almost 90% of which are religious-based schools. The federal government, however, is not in the position to impose this directly on school systems, which are locally controlled. Nonetheless Bush in 2002 proposed, but failed to get through a national system of vouchers. In 2003 he used his budget to do essentially the same thing: proposing a $2500 tax credit to parents of students in "failing schools," which parents could collect on if they transferred their children to other schools, including private schools – that is, religious schools – or if the parents would "home school" their children.
Apart from the obvious support for religious schooling, this tax credit was a way to play to one of the pet projects of the Christian Right, which sees home schooling as a way to remove young children from the nefarious influences that they perceive percolating to their children via the public schools – including no doubt, a scientific view of the world, not to mention the sex education that lurks in the background of health classes. To protect children from these influences, the Christian Right is ready to sacrifice their education, their socialization with other children, leaving them in the hands only of their own parents, who are not qualified to give them even the most basic grounding in mathematics, composition and the ability to communicate their ideas, as well as a scientific approach to studying the world, not to mention teaching them about the great literature of the world, history, advanced scientific studies, languages, art, music – most of which the parents have never mastered themselves. It's a way to condemn children to backwardness.
At the same time, Bush has made a series of attempts to reduce the Head Start program, one of the most successful federal social programs, which provided support for early pre-school training for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If this program has been so successful in improving the school performance of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it's precisely because the children are brought together with their peers at an earlier age than ususal and are given training and education their parents aren't able to give them.
And although Bush has not gone so far – yet – as to propose that creationism be taught in the public schools, several of his appointees have required the National Park Service to sell a book in NPS stores that explains the creation of the Grand Canyon by linking it with the Old Testament flood of the Noah story. The author's introduction to the book includes the following sad passage: "For years as a Colorado River guide I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of years. Then I met the Lord. Now I have a different view of the Canyon, which according to a biblical time scale can't possibly be more than a few thousand years old."
One of the most disgusting of Bush's campaigns has been carried out by cooking-oil-self-anointing Attorney General John Ashcroft: to reimpose the death penalty in all those states that have done away with it. George W. Bush in Texas had already made a name for himself by refusing to intervene when he was governor in any death penalty case, no matter how egregious the circumstances surrounding the case. This is particularly significant, given that Texas alone has accounted for 38% of all executions carried out in this country since the death penalty was reinstated. If there are a handful of other states that have also put quite a few people to death, including Florida where Brother Jeb Bush holds sway, most of the country is very hesitant about capital punishment. Ashcroft set out to change this by finding pretexts to file capital murder charges in cases that by rights should have been handled by the states. Significantly, every single one of the capital murder charges that Ashcroft has filed since taking office were in states (or Puerto Rico) that either practically or legally have foresworn capital punishment. Ashcroft's campaign hasn't been notably successful so far, with juries refusing in all but one of Ashcroft's 20 trials to return the death penalty. But this hasn't stopped Ashcroft, who currently has filed 25 new federal capital charges in cases that should fall under state jurisdictions, plus intervening in 12 cases where the Justice Department's own prosecutors had not asked for the death penalty.
It's nothing but a blood-soaked pandering to the oft-repeated call of the Christian Right for the Old Testament's vengeful demand: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
Finally, there was Bush's so-called "faith-based initiative," which he referred to in his State of the Union address. Using various pretexts, Bush has ordered federal funds for social programs to be dispersed through religious-based charities and churches. Of course, the problem with social program funds today is not a lack of places to disperse them, it's a lack of funds to be dispersed, thanks to the continuing attacks on social programs, an attack that Bush has carried out in particularly vicious fashion.
This is not a social program – it is nothing but a barely veiled proposal to direct some money in the direction of all these little churches whose ministers supported Bush – and at a significantly higher rate than even their parishioners did in the last election.
While visiting a church in Louisiana in January to push for his "faith-based" social programs, Bush declared: "This country must not fear the influence of faith in the future of the country. We must welcome faith in order to make America a better place."
The future Bush is preparing for this country comes straight out of the 19th century, when there were no social programs – other than the charities run by churches or "benevolent" associations – only the poor house, which was nothing but a jail to which impoverished people were sent when their jobs disappeared. Bush's future is 19th century capitalism, its horrendous exploitation reinforced by cultivating backward ideas, prejudices and religious superstition from the Middle Ages.
In December 2001, Pat Robertson resigned as president of the Christian Coalition. Gary Bauer, a leader of the Christian Right who ran against Bush in the 2000 Republican primary, explained it this way to the Washington Post: "I think Robertson stepped down because the position has already been filled. [The president] is that leader now. There was already a great deal of identification with the president before 9-11 in the world of the Christian Right, and the nature of this war is such that it has heightened the sense that a man of God is in the White House."
But George W. Bush had not always been such a "man of God," and the milieu of evangelicals, Baptists, fundamentalists, etc., had not always voted Republican.
The milieu which produced the Christian Right had long been concentrated among poorer whites in the South and border states, especially in rural areas, and in those industrial states like Michigan and Illinois that had attracted migration from the South. If in a more distant past, this evangelical milieu had been part of the base of Southern populist movements, since the 1930s, it was a traditional support for the Democratic Party. At the same time, the Christian fundamentalists provided a milieu in which the Ku Klux Klan had to some degree sunk roots. For decades, the Democratic Party, while using a populist language to address the poor whites of the South, was the chief enforcer – and politically the beneficiary – of Southern segregation. But with the development of the Civil Rights Movement, the break-down of Jim Crow in the South, and the apparent support for civil rights by the Democrats in the North (more apparent than real), the Republicans began to play the race card to attract this milieu and resurrect the Republican party in the South. In fact, the resurrection of the Republican party depended in good measure on the defection of part of the Southern Democratic Party apparatus, which went over to the Republican Party as a way to maintain their positions in the face of a growing black mobilization. The Democrats-turned Republicans pulled after them much of the Democratic Party's voting base. It is probably that by 1960, the majority of Christian fundamentalists – upset by changes in Northern segregation and appalled at the idea of a Catholic president – had shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans. By 1972, with the newly constituted Republican Party making the coded racist appeals in which Southern Democrats had long excelled, Nixon got 80% of the Christian fundamentalist vote, even though he personally did almost nothing to reach out to them.
Racist appeal has been a stock in trade of the Republicans ever since then. We could recall Senior Bush's use of the black criminal's picture in his 1988 campaign or Trent Lott's statement last year in a private Republican affair ("When Strom Thurmond ran for president [on a segregationist platform], we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all the years.") But racist appeal alone was not enough for the Republicans to maintain this Southern electorate.
This electorate, which the Republicans pulled from the Democrats in the 1950s and '60s, had a mixed social composition. If there has always been an important part of the evangelicals, etc., made up of small shopkeepers and farmers, there was a significant part who were laboring people, rural or small town, for the most part quite poor. The Democrats since the time of Roosevelt had used a language that appealed to the social interests of the poorer layers of the population (which didn't prevent the Democrats from serving the class interests of the bourgeoisie). The Republicans by contrast had never done so. If the racial issue was enough to pull poor Southern whites over to Nixon, it wasn't enough to keep them solidly in the Republican camp.
Jimmy Carter, a Southern governor and himself a Baptist, retook a sizeable chunk, even if not the majority of the fundamentalist/evangelical vote in 1976 for the Democrats. To get it back, the Republicans began to play the anti-abortion card. That certainly didn't explain everything about the 1980 election – joblessness was high, and the economic situation seemed to be getting worse. But the abortion issue, along with the possibility that the Equal Rights Amendment would be passed, also played an important part in these elections. To be more exact, the Republicans played on these issues to the hilt, by pushing laws restricting abortion rights and helping to block the Equal Rights Amendment in states. Reagan drew 75% of the fundamentalist/evangelical vote in 1984, Bush Senior, 70% in 1988 and Robert Dole, 65% in 1996.
But as the figures themselves show, the Republican share after the 1983 spurt was declining. Moreover, when Ross Perot ran an independent candidacy in 1992, attacking Bush senior for raising taxes and exporting jobs with free trade agreements, he took 19% of the total vote, including a significant amount from the Christian Right, making it impossible for Bush Senior to be re-elected. The Republicans' stand on abortion and related issues wasn't enough to overcome the population's unease facing increasing joblessness. Even if Bush senior tried to stress his own religious credentials – inviting both Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, as well as Billy Graham out to the ranch, he was hard-pressed to appeal directly to the Christian Right. Bush Senior, bred to a life of privilege, was part of that Eastern upper class elite whose very way of life, including its "high-church" religion, was a bone of contention to the Christian Right.
It was George W. Bush who found the way to line up the Christian Right behind the Republican Party again.
Shucking the image of privilege along with his Yale and Harvard blazers, which he replaced with jeans and cowboy boots; dumping his eastern-born and educated accent for a cow country twang; leaving behind the Episcopalianism of his Yankee forebears; presenting himself like a "born-again," his religious conversion worn on his forehead like a tattoo, he stepped forward to enter politics. One of the first actions he took was to commission the ghostwriting of a small autobiography to demonstrate his upstanding morality, a book in which he explained that he had been saved by the personal ministrations of none other than Billy Graham. Graham, according to Bush, had convinced him in 1985 and 1986 to give up his previous attachment to alcohol, and perhaps some other sins. Graham had "planted a mustard seed" of salvation in his soul – which "mustard seed" let him sweep under the rug a series of criminal "misadventures" with drugs and alcohol, not to mention the fraudulent way he got into the National Guard to avoid service in Viet Nam – actions that otherwise would have been an embarrassment for a politician pretending to stand for morality and "family values." Bush has never since missed a chance to "testify" about his salvation. In a debate before the 2000 Republican primaries, when the candidates were each asked to name their favorite political philosopher, Bush quickly answered,"Christ because he changed my heart." In a recent visit to a black church in Louisiana, Bush told of his decision to stop drinking, adding "I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't ask for Christ's help in my heart."
To be more exact, he wouldn't be sitting in the White House if he had not managed to make such a play of religiosity.
It's exactly that religiosity which has helped Bush cobble together a kind of merger between the Republican party and the organizations of the Christian Right. And he did it long before the 2000 election. By all accounts, it was George W. Bush who delivered a big chunk of the Christian Right for his father's 1988 election – gladhanding activists and ministers from this milieu day after day during the primaries, pulling them away from Pat Robertson who ran as a Republican, continuing on all the way up to November.
Long before the 2000 election, George W. Bush had convinced the Christian Right that he was a "man of God" and would use the White House in their interests. They gave him their vote, and, as we already said, at a higher rate than to any previous candidate. At the same time, many of the activists were being brought into the Republican Party apparatus. A study done in 2002, printed in the magazine Campaigns and Elections, found that Christian Right activists held a "strong" position in 18 state Republican parties, and a "weak" position in only 7 states, with the rest in the middle. This was a significant increase since 1994, when there were 20 states in which the Christian Right influence was weak. It's obvious by the terms used, that the study is not talking about control of the Republican party – no more than the unions ever controlled the Democratic party in those states where they were perceived to be in a "strong position." But the Christian Right was giving the Republican party large number of activists that to some extent could counter the role that the unions have long played in getting out the vote for the Democratic party.
The Republican Party generally, and George W. Bush specifically, has pandered to the reactionary social attitudes and prejudices that circulate in the population and worked to reinforce them, contributing in recent years to the perception that religion is increasingly dominant.
In fact, the country has been moving for decades in a secular direction. The number of people who are actively religious – as measured by weekly attendance at religious services – continues to decline. In 1972, for example, 38% of the population said they went to religious services every week, whereas only 11% said they never went. By 2000, the relative positions were reversed. The non-church-goers had tripled, hitting 33%, while the faithful had decreased to 25%. This is still an enormous weight of backwardness on the population. But it seems much greater only because the politicians continue to push religion to the fore, trying to reinforce the hold it has on the population.
And not only the politicians. The reactionary prejudices that exist in the Christian Right milieu are consciously fanned not only by the whole Christian broadcasting network, but equally by parts of the mainstream media. Fox News Channel, for example, pushed itself to the top of TV news shows in a few short years through an enormous expenditure of money. The transformation of Fox into a vehicle for radical right wing ideas was the creation of Rupert Murdoch, well known for a vast empire of exceedingly right wing and scandal mongering newspapers around the world. Using part of his many billions to buy up Fox, Murdoch dumped most of the news staff in 1996, then hired Roger Ailes, who had long been in charge of media relations for Republican presidential candidates, to direct Fox News.
It should come as no surprise that part of Fox's agenda has been to back the Republicans. It has done a masterful job as the mouthpiece for every lie that the "virtuous" George W. Bush ever told, whether about the "weapons of mass destruction" or his "middle-class" tax cut.
A recent study that set out to examine how people get false ideas about news events asked people to evaluate a series of statements: for example, the assertion that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had found weapons of mass destruction or the assertion that most people in other countries supported the U.S. war to remove Saddam Hussein. Their answers were correlated with the news source they watched. The more that people watched Fox, the more they believed such obviously false assertions.
But pushing George's lies is not the only game in town for Fox. Another integral part of its agenda has been to reinforce many of the ideas and claims that circulate in the milieu of the Christian Right. Taking advantage of the "holiday spirit," for example, Fox devoted a whole week at the end of December that carried the rubric, "Christianity Under Attack," asserting among other things that there is a "secular conspiracy to prevent children from praying," or "to destroy the family."
Pushing people toward religion is an old trick, and one used all the more frequently as the situation of working people becomes more desperate.
Bush's main job in this society is to defend the functioning of an economic system which puts profit before everything else, human life included. Bush flaunts his faith in order to hide this reality, using religion as a drug to anesthesize the population to the dreadful consequences of his own policies.
This is an old and vicious trap, one that bourgeois politicians have long used to keep working people from fighting for their own interests.
Maybe Bush can go on telling lies about weapons of mass destruction; maybe he can go on drugging people with reactionary attitudes and superstitions.
But maybe not. An important part of the Christian Right, even as deformed as it is by its immersion in reactionary ideas, is made up of people whose main social characteristic is the exploitation they suffer at the hands of the capitalist class that controls both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Most of the activists of the Christian Right, along with a part of its electorate may well be managers, small entrepreneurs, disappointed professionals, ministers, etc. – as some studies have shown. But a significant part of the voting base is still situated among laboring people, whether in the working class or in farming situations. And no more than the Democratic Party has ever been able to answer the most basic fundamental needs of the laboring people who looked toward it, neither can the Republican Party answer the demands of these voters.
The working class can mobilize for its own needs. In so doing, it can at the same time start freeing itself from the prejudices, superstitions and reactionary ideas that people like George W. Bush and his ilk have pushed.