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From Personal Life to Public Policy: President Bush Brings Blind Faith To Foreign and Domestic Agenda

Friday June 27, 2003

I’m not the first to observe, with some trepidation, that the Bush administration is rapidly erasing the line that separates church from state. Never before so many prayer breakfasts in the White House, never before public money transferred to “faith-based” social programs offered by proselytizing churches. But I see a greater issue still, something that’s making rational political discourse impossible. Policies are becoming articles of faith. 

Take Bush economic policy. The dogma is that tax cuts will heal a depressed economy. There’s no proof this is happening; even Alan Greenspan is skeptical. Nevertheless, George Bush remains committed to Hooveresque trickle-down principles that find no support in the historical record. For how could cutting the taxes of the well-to-do possibly undermine the economic health of the nation, even if it produces deficits that make spendthrift liberals cringe? Faith that reaches extremes like this vies with Tertullian’s heroically inane declaration: “I believe because it’s absurd.” 

One could go on. Weapons of mass destruction? They must exist, because the CIA says they once did. Isn’t that as good as the Bible telling us so? Besides, Saddam was an evil man. Wouldn’t an evil man possess evil weapons? Isn’t that sufficient for true patriots? Must we, like doubting Thomas, lay hands on these weapons before we believe they exist? Global warming? Can’t be true. Would God create a world that wasn’t SUV-friendly? Anti-ballistic missile system? Why even bother to test it? Just build it and pray that it works.  

Does this mode of thinking sound familiar? It does to me. It reminds me of the catechism I learned in my religious instructions. The resurrection of Jesus, original sin, the immaculate soul of Mary needed no proof. As matters of faith, they would be true even if there were facts that spoke against them. Why? Because faith is the evidence of things unseen. To believe in the absence of facts—or better still, to believe in the teeth of the facts—is a spiritual virtue on which one’s salvation depends.  

I suspect such exercises in blind faith result from Mr. Bush’s intimate association with fervent evangelical supporters. The messianic certitude that has come to characterize his foreign and domestic agenda is grounded in the evangelical belief system that rescued him from alcoholism and saved his marriage.  

As a matter of personal choice, he has every right to cling to the creed that shaped his life. He is not, after all, the first born-again Christian to inhabit the West Wing. But one need only recall Jimmy Carter to see how gracefully the presidency and personal faith can be combined. Given the obvious sincerity of Carter’s piety, one might have expected evangelicals to give him their whole-hearted support back in 1980. But they preferred Ronald Reagan, because Reagan wore his religiosity on his sleeve. That’s what many politicized evangelical groups want. At the Pat Robertson extreme this becomes an outright demand that the United States become, by constitutional amendment, a Christian nation. 

George Bush is treating us to a strong dose of religiously correct politics. He would rather cater to his evangelical base than make even a few strategic concessions to the liberal public that gave Al Gore and Ralph Nader 2,300,000 more votes in 2000. True believers don’t compromise with error.  

In a March 10 “Newsweek” feature titled “Bush and God,” Howard Fineman reports that Mr. Bush spends his mornings reading Oswald Chambers, an evangelical preacher, circa 1920. Here’s a taste of what our chief executive is learning from Chambers: “If you debate for even one second when God has spoken, it is over for you. ... Be reckless immediately, totally unrestrained and willing to risk everything by casting your all upon him. ... You will only recognize His voice more clearly through recklessly being willing to risk your all.” 

Recently, while researching a novel about evangelicals, I discovered the strangest things being preached in evangelical churches—things I’d debate a lot longer than a second: obscure old prophecies about the second coming and the third temple and the rapture and the tribulation and, oh yes, that perfect red heifer. Well, I’m sure there are things I believe that look every bit as bizarre; but nobody is turning my eccentricities into policies of war and peace.  

In the novel, I employ Danny Silverman, a gay, Jewish novelist from San Francisco, to spoof the cultural agenda of the 70 million fundamentalists whose politics have more to do with the Book of Revelation than the New York Times. That’s easy to do on paper. But all the while I wrote, I knew the man in the West Wing views these matters in a more serious light. Because, after all, he believes he’s been appointed to do God’s will, and the more recklessly, the better. 

To which I’m sure Danny Silverman could only say “Oy!” 

Theodore Roszak is a Berkeley writer whose latest book is “The Devil and Daniel Silverman.” He will be speaking on “Surviving Fundamentalism”at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Rockridge Branch of the Oakland Library.