The lowest ignorance takes charge
Having helped Bush to office, the religious right is exerting its powerSidney Blumenthal
Thursday November 11, 2004
The 2004 election marks the rise of a quasi-clerical party for the first time in the United States. Ecclesiastical organisation has become the sinew and muscle of the Republican party, essential in George Bush's re-election. His narrow margins in the key states of Florida, Iowa and Ohio, and elsewhere, were dependent on the direct imposition of the churches. None of this occurred suddenly or by happenstance. For years, Bush has schooled himself in the machinations of the religious right.
Bush's clerisy is an unprecedented alliance of historically anti-Catholic nativist evangelical Protestants with the most reactionary elements of the Catholic hierarchy. Preacher, priest and politician have combined on the grounds that John Kennedy disputed in his famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. Kennedy's every principle is flouted and contradicted by Bush: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. ... where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials..."
From the White House, Karl Rove held a weekly conference call with religious leaders. Evangelical churches handed over membership directories to the Bush campaign for voter registration drives. A group associated with the Rev Pat Robertson advised 45,000 churches how to work for Bush. One popular preacher alone sent letters to 136,000 pastors advising them on "non-negotiable" issues - gay marriage, stem cell research, abortion - to mobilise the faithful. Perhaps the most influential figure of all was the Rev James Dobson, whose programmes broadcast daily on more than 3,000 radio stations and 80 TV stations, and whose organisation has affiliates in 36 states.
On June 4, Bush travelled to see the Pope. In another meeting that day, with Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, according to a Vatican official, Bush "complained that the US bishops were not being vocal enough in supporting [Bush] on social issues like gay marriage, and abortion," and remonstrated with Sodano that the Vatican "push the bishops". The Vatican was astonished at the brazen pressure and did not accede. None the less, more than 40 conservative bishops worked with the Bush campaign against John Kerry - part of a crusade against their own declining moral authority.
The American church is in crisis, as Catholic opinion on abortion and stem cell research is no different than that of the general public. And the exposure of rampant paedophilia among priests has undermined traditional belief in the church's sanctity. Electing a liberal Catholic as president would have been a severe blow. So conservative bishops denounced Kerry, spoke of denying him communion, and even talked of ex-communication.
The Catholic Kerry received 5% less of the Catholic vote than the Southern Baptist Gore four years earlier. In the crucial state of Ohio, where an anti-gay marriage initiative was on the ballot, Bush won two-thirds of the "faithful" Catholic vote and 55% of the Catholic total. Combined with 79% of white evangelicals, this gave him his critical margin nationally and in the swing states.
The religious right is not a majority, but it was indispensable to Bush's victory. Across the country, it has become the most energetic, reliable and productive part of the Republican organisation. The worth of its values-based politics is power, just as it was worldly power that sustained the medieval church, and the assertion of that power began within days after the election.
When moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the judiciary committee, said he would oppose any nominee to the supreme court who would seek to outlaw abortion - and one might come soon, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist is dying - the Rev Dobson said of Specter: "He is a problem and he must be derailed." Almost instantly, Specter clarified his position, announcing that he meant no such thing and that he had approved many judges who were against abortion.
"History," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." But we're not all Jeffersonians now.
· Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is Washington bureau chief of salon.com