Friday, February 15, 2008

What they do in the name of God.

If there is one thing that has become eminently clear during the last several decades of American politics, it is that there is a lot of traction to be gained by appealing to the Christian population of the nation. There used to be a tradition of attempting to keep religion and politics separate in the United States. Preachers and ministers once preferred to keep "worldly affairs" out of the houses of God. But after the confusion and disillusionment of the Watergate Era, society was aching for some moral clarity. A born-again peanut farmer was the surprising beneficiary of that change, and a new lesson was learned in the corridors of state power. Ronald Reagan discovered quickly that there was a large segment of the populace searching for linguistic cues indicating the presence of faith. His speech-writers carefully crafted his addresses to deliver the message.

George H. W. Bush stepped back from his predecessor's example, deciding instead to convey the image of a competent bureaucrat rather than a true believer. However his son (who desperately needed something to do that didn't involve drugs and alcohol) was tagged with the mission of connecting to the growing evangelical movement. Leaving this task up to his hapless offspring exposed the lack of importance Bush Sr. attributed to this demographic. He paid the price for that oversight during his re-election bid. His successor (Bill Clinton) conveyed the image that he was a God-faring Southerner and managed to sustain that impression until the GOP leadership got wise and attacked him as a spiritual hypocrite. The lines were drawn in an accelerated culture war that continues to this day.

When the younger Bush ran for the presidency, he set the tone for his campaign by trying to sell himself as a "compassionate conservative". It didn't matter that he had put to death more men and women than any governor in history. Nor did people care that he was mainly concerned with corporate interests and the burgeoning oil and weapons industries. What counted were his constant references to God. He employed veiled language that intentionally spoke to Millenarian Christians. He claimed that his favorite philosopher was Jesus. After 9-11 he kicked the strategy into full gear. He talked of his revelation that God had chosen him to fight a holy war against evil-doers. When he sent troops to the Middle East to invade Iraq he asked the troops to pray for him. He never missed a chance to align himself with divinity.

A new political constituency has arisen in our times. The Christian Right (led by men like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Gary Bauer) continues to cultivate its influence with Republican leaders. They have formed a holy (?) alliance with Neocons and free market radicals. Together this coalition has been capable of turning out numbers that have made it possible to fix national elections. As long as they march in lock-step accord they can have a substantial influence on the political agenda of our government. In unity, they must be taken seriously by every politician across the land. But what exactly do they have in common? Many observers have suspected for years that each one of the subgroups making up this coalition has a different set of ultimate goals.

Where is the Christian feeling in a never-ending war for the control of resources? What about the flagrant disregard for the more unfortunate among us? Is stewardship of the Earth part of the mandate that God bestowed upon Man? While fiscal conservatives may give lip service to the "protection of the sanctity of marriage" and the "pro-life" cause, what is their true agenda? There's been an almost invisible fissure slowly widening into a great schism for years. The vast disagreements among what used to be indivisible elements within a conservative front are becoming self-evident to every member of the GOP. Meanwhile Democrats like Barack Obama are starting to appropriate the revivalist-tinged stylings that have been the sole province of Christian Evangelicals for years.

We are entering unsettling times that foretell a struggle for the definitions of hope, morality and care. Who among our politicians has the right to invoke the name(s) of God(s)? Is the profession of faith sufficient in itself, or are "good works" necessary for true spirituality? For a long time now the Republicans have appropriated for themselves a trio of potent symbols- the cross, the dollar and the flag. Is it possible that the Democrats could wrest at least one of these from the hands of a dying party? Or are the terms of this war already set in stone?

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