With God on their side
[ bookreviews ]
This well-researched and alarming book by journalist and community activist Esther Kaplan details the extent to which the government of the United States - a government historically committed to the separation of church and state - has, under George W Bush, begun instead to remake itself as nothing short of a right-wing Christian fundamentalist theocracy; intolerant, irrational, devoted to holy wars, the literal truth of the Bible, the banning of abortions, the repeal of gay rights, the promotion of total sexual abstinence for young people, and, through its Puritanical suspicion of intrusive government and its "equation of wealth with God's blessings", the freedom of corporations to make money as they see fit, unfettered by the inconveniencies of regulation and taxation.
The background to this dangerous revolution is traced to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, when the Christian right first began to mobilize in large numbers against the perceived sins of liberalism, but its wishes have only started to come true in the five years since Bush’s first victory in 2000, when, for the first time, the numbers of evangelical Christians - who total only 20% of the entire population of the US - made up over 50% of the victor’s electoral base. Kaplan confirms that the President himself is fully committed to his role as the leader of a chosen people, citing, as perhaps the most striking of numerous references he has made to the divine mission of both himself and the American people, a comment he made during a private meeting with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in June 2003. According to Abbas, the President said, "God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East". Another messianic gem was reported by veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward. In Plan of Attack, Woodward noted that Bush didn’t seek advice from his father before going to war in Iraq, telling him, "You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father I appeal to".
Kaplan shows how these same beliefs - in Bush as a chosen leader and the Americans as a chosen people - permeate the government. The most outrageous statements have come from Lieutenant General William Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defence, who, during a church service in October 2003, declared that Bush was "in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this" and concluded that "Satan wants to destroy this nation… and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army", but Kaplan also notes how, in February 2002, when attorney general John Ashcroft described the “war on terror" as "a conflict between good and evil", he also explicitly spelt out its crusading subtext, commenting that, "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a religion in which God sends his son to die for you". This was a milder version of the comments made by some of America’s most prominent evangelists in the wake of 9/11, when Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion", Pat Robertson described Muslims as "worse than the Nazis" and Jerry Falwell called the prophet Mohammed "a terrorist", but it’s remarkable because it came from a senior position within the government and was never repudiated by the President himself.
Although the book begins with the Bush administration’s warmongering, the bulk of its pages look in detail at the myriad ways in which the integrity of almost every government department has been undermined by the demands of fanatical Christian extremists. The central plank of right-wing Christian fundamentalism is its opposition to abortion, which has been a source of virulently self-righteous indignation ever since the landmark Roe v. Wade judgment of 1973 made abortion legal in the US. In fact, as Kaplan points out, a number of the right-wing Christian pressure groups who have gained most from Bush’s largesse in the last five years - Beverly Lahaye’s Concerned Women for America, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schafly’s Eagle Forum and Judie Brown’s American Life League - sprang up in the years immediately following Roe v. Wade.
Although Bush maintained a moderate stance towards abortion on the campaign trail in 2000 - as part of his mentor and campaign mastermind Karl Rove’s endless juggling of moderate and right-wing target audiences - Kaplan describes how he has since begun chipping away at abortion rights, "proudly" signing the partial-birth abortion ban in November 2003, and following it, in April 2004, with the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which "declares foetuses to be full persons for the purposes of criminal prosecution". His appointment of John Ashcroft has also been a boon for pro-life groups. Ashcroft "opposes abortion even in the case of rape or incest" and once backed a proposed constitutional amendment to give legal protection to foetuses "at every stage of their biological development, including fertilization", a stance which, as Kaplan observes, "could have turned even certain forms of birth control into an act of murder".
Kaplan also points out that on Bush’s first day in office in January 2001 (on the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade), he reinstated Ronald Reagan’s notorious Mexico City Policy, whereby federal funds are immediately withdrawn "from any family planning clinic in the developing world that voices support for abortion or even mentions it as an option to clients". Kaplan suggests that Bush seemed not to know what he had actually done, quoting from a Washington Post interview in which he referred to "the money from Mexico, you know, that thing, the executive order I signed about Mexico City", and also reveals how, despite the pro-lifers’ exultation, the reinstatement of the policy has actually led to increased abortion in the developing world. She quotes a European Parliament report of September 2003, which concluded that, "As clinics close and access to reproductive services becomes more difficult for lack of funding, less poor women in Europe and worldwide can afford contraception, leading to an increase in unwanted pregnancies - and consequently abortions".
Kaplan also details how, after successfully attacking the largest non-fundamentalist family planning organization in the US - the widely-respected International Planned Parenthood Foundation, which runs the most extensive network of family planning organizations in the world, but which lost substantial funding following the reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy - Bush appointed members of Concerned Women for America to replace the American Medical Association as official delegates to the UN in an attempt to undermine the workings of the world’s second largest family planning organization, the UN Population Fund. She describes the furore they caused on their first appearance at the 2002 Children’s Summit, where they attempted to bully and intimidate other delegates, revealed their shocking double standards - they argued incessantly for the "right to life" yet "they were absolutely against people under 18 being exempt from the death penalty" - and where eventually, frustrated by a lack of cooperation from the countries of Latin America, they joined forces not only with the Vatican but also with the 'suspect' regimes of Sudan, Syria, Libya and even 'Axis of Evil' member Iran.
Kaplan goes on to show how the promotion of sexual abstinence before marriage - and an allied campaign to discredit the efficacy of condoms - is almost as much of an obsession for the Christian right as its opposition to abortion. The guidelines followed by fundamentalist Christian providers of abstinence-only programs - which were enshrined in law in 1996 but which have only taken a hold since Bush came to power - forbid "any mention that condoms and contraception can prevent pregnancy or STDs", leading Democratic Representative Henry Waxman to describe them as a "gag rule on information". Despite increasing evidence that pledges of abstinence do not actually lead to abstinence, that those who break their pledges are "less likely to use condoms… less likely to seek out medical care for STDs and less likely to be aware they had an STD at all", and even that 85% of parents would prefer comprehensive sex education to abstinence-only lessons, Bush has pledged to double the budget for abstinence programs in 2005 to $270 million.
On gay rights too, Bush has been heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalists, perhaps even more so than on the issues described above. Kaplan suggests, convincingly, that homophobia is not a priority for Bush’s inner circle, noting that the President has long-standing friendships with gay Republicans, and that Vice-President Dick Cheney has "a warm relationship" with his lesbian daughter Mary. However, despite persistent attempts to placate the homophobic right - allowing delegates to attend an HIV prevention meeting in December 2002, for example, where Peter LaBarbera of Concerned Women for America made a point of saying "I think you’re sick and demented" to Paul Kawata of the National Minority AIDS Council - the Christian right was galvanized into furious action by a landmark legal decision in 2003 - Lawrence v. Texas - that finally legalized sodomy. Unable to resist the demands of his evangelical voting base - 55% of whom are vehemently opposed to gay marriage - Bush finally capitulated in February 2004, calling for "an amendment to our Constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of man and woman as husband and wife".
Noticeably, promoters of abstinence programs and pro-life “crisis pregnancy centres” - which are often run in conjunction - have been among the chief beneficiaries of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which was established between 2001 and 2003. Despite apparently fulfilling the government’s legal obligation not to discriminate between secular and religious charities, Kaplan observes that the faith-based initiative actually "lifted any number of long-standing regulations that once safeguarded the church/state divide". Her research indicates that, although the office’s generous funding has reached a "sizable number" of secular community organizations, no money at all has been received by non-Christian religious groups, and the largest recipients of funding have been organizations representing the Christian right. These include Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing, which received a grant of $1.5 million, despite the fact that the organization had recently been investigated "for misusing relief funds to haul equipment for Robertson’s for-profit diamond mining firm".
More worryingly, Kaplan’s research suggests that "At the heart of Bush’s faith-based project beats the gospel of privatization, the old-school right-wing ideal of pushing any responsibility for social welfare from the government onto the private sector" - and more specifically, onto a private sector run largely by the Christian right. And as if this were not disturbing enough, Kaplan points out that this new ideal for social service provision also draws on another “old-school” philosophy: the suggestion that “all our social ills, from violent crime to drug addiction to poverty itself” are, in the words of conservative academic Myron Magnet, “the fruit not of economic deprivation but of inner defect”. Magnet’s words come from his book The Dream and the Nightmare, which Karl Rove regularly cites as his “political bible”, and which was “one of the first books he gave to George W Bush in the very early days of Bush’s presidential bid”, and they hark back, disturbingly, to the Social Darwinism of the late 19th century that morphed seamlessly into the pseudo-scientific bigotry of early 20th century eugenics (whose ultimate expression, lest we forget, was the Nazis’ Final Solution).
The corruption of genuine, impartial scientific inquiry, which is endemic in the skewering of policy related above, has also spread to almost every other department of government. The most high-profile example concerns the imposition, on the Parks Service at Grand Canyon - an organization that “operates under a Congressional mandate to promote scientific understanding” - of a book entitled Grand Canyon: A Different View, which is now stocked in their bookshop and which advances a Creationist claim that the Grand Canyon was formed during the Biblical flood. Kaplan reports how Bush himself has stated that “the jury is still out on creationism”, but although this incident is the one of the most obviously startling examples of the subversion of science in the Bush administration, Kaplan points out that “much of the Republican assault on science is taking place deep within the bowels of the administration, away from public view”. Despite the complaints of specialists - in February 2004, over 60 respected scientists, including 20 Nobel Prize winners, wrote a public letter complaining of widespread government interference in science - it seems that none of the government’s 250 or so scientific advisory committees is safe from what Henry Waxman has called “scientific McCarthyism”.
Numerous committees - in addition to the examples cited above - have seen the wholesale replacement of qualified scientific advisors by industry insiders and unqualified ideologues. The National Centre for Environmental Health, for example, now includes on its committee “two Christian doctrinaires who appear to have little expertise in environmental toxins”, Becky Gordon Dunlap, of right-wing pressure group the Heritage Foundation, who has a history of opposing environmental protections, and Dennis Paustenbach, a scientist who testified for Pacific Gas and Electric in the poisoned drinking water case that provided the basis for the film Erin Brockovich. Another committee, looking at human research protections, was scrapped, renamed and restaffed in its entirety. The old body had “angered the pharmaceutical industry by strengthening conflict-of-interest rules”, whereas its new incarnation was stacked with fundamentalist Christian doctors like Nancy Jones of the Christian Medical Association, who has referred to science as simply another “ideology” that “has been preferred over other dogmatic methods historically ascribed to philosophy and theology”.
While it’s likely that all these changes will have long-term effects that will be difficult to reverse for many years, Bush’s most effective strategy for establishing a permanent right-wing bias in the workings of government centres on his administration’s judicial appointments. Despite the fact that the Christian right, consumed by decades of anti-liberal rhetoric, continues to insist that “an out-of-control judiciary… is chipping away at religious liberties in this nation” (in the words of Family Research Council President Tony Perkins), Kaplan shows that the opposite is actually true. Building on a solid base of Republican judges established by Reagan and Bush Senior, and with the added bonus that Clinton, cowed by slim majorities, generally appointed only moderate Democrats, Bush has in fact been able to progress towards the establishment of a judiciary dominated by right-wing Republicans, a legacy that, because judges are appointed to life, will have disturbing and irreversible repercussions for decades to come. Although Democrats have managed to block six nominations - including Bill Pryor, who has called Roe v. Wade a decision in which “seven members of our highest court ripped the Constitution and ripped out the life of millions of unborn children”, and Claude Allen, who has called abortion “genocide” and who has a history of homophobia - Bush has gained approval for 169 of his nominees, all of whose beliefs are substantially the same as those of Pryor and Allen.
As with every other facet of the Bush administration, this revolution has been accomplished through the influence of powerful pressure groups, backed up by intimidation and other underhand tactics. The roll-call of lobbyists includes dozens of lobbying groups and pro-life organizations including the usual suspects Concerned Women for America and Focus on the Family (who dreamt up a project called “Stop Judicial Tyranny”); rabid pro-lifer Randall Terry, whose efforts to impeach the six Texan judges involved in the Lawrence v. Texas case included emailing three million prospective supporters with the message, "God Himself put child-killing, sodomy, and bestiality on the short-list of sins that will cause the destruction of the nation"; and the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, an unholy alliance of Christian fundamentalist groups and industry lobbyists, in which Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, the Free Congress Foundation and the Christian Coalition joined forces with Americans for Tax Reform, an organization dedicated to lowering corporate taxes, and the American Tort Association, which aims to limit corporate liability for wrongdoing. More prominent than all these groups, however, is the Committee for Justice, which is led not by leaders of the Christian right, but by some of the nation’s top corporate lawyers, reinforcing the "fortuitous convergence of evangelical and corporate interests" that underpins Bush’s America. The influence of Bush's judicial nominees is already being felt in American life. John Roberts, for example, a straightforward anti-abortionist who believes that "Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled", has already "found aspects of the Clean Water Act unconstitutional", and has supported the administration’s attempts to block access to the records of Dick Cheney’s energy task force, in which the Vice-President personally nominated 63 representatives, all from industry, to oversee an unprecedented expansion of business for the nuclear, oil and coal industries.
Quite what other horrors await us over the next four years - as Bush makes good his vow to spend his "political capital" - remains to be seen, but in the meantime - and in particular for those in need of further persuasion that all is not well in the 'The Land of the Free' - this is an unparalleled introduction to the super-rich cabal in charge of America’s toxic theocracy.