What’s Love Got to Do with It?: George W. Bush and the Religious Left

Joseph M. Knippenberg

September 1, 2004

On September 8th, I attended a forum in Atlanta, sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance, on "Religion in the 2004 Campaigns." On the basis of the Interfaith Alliance website and its literature, I expected largely to be admonished about how to conduct a campaign that is respectful of America’s constitutional traditions and religious pluralism. I thought that the Interfaith Alliance would be on the separationist edge of the church-state mainstream, but otherwise accommodating of (as its literature claims) "people of faith and good will" who wish to "promote democratic values," "defend religious liberty," and "challenge hatred and religious bigotry." While I might tend more toward accommodation than toward separation, I certainly would embrace those other descriptors.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. For many of the panelists, the threats to religious liberty, as well as the hatred and religious bigotry, come from one source—the Bush Administration. According to Bill Smith—a former associate of Karl Rove who has clearly turned on his erstwhile colleague—the core of the President’s reelection strategy is to mobilize his evangelical base by "narrowcasting" appeals to them. Far from being the uniter he promised to be in the 2000 campaign, Bush seeks only to increase turnout among conservative Christians and is making no effort to reach out to other constituencies. The challenges to Kerry’s religious bona fides, the promotion of the "culture of life," the support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, and the opposition to stem cell research are all directed at that one constituency. If he has to "demonize" his opponent and stigmatize gay Americans, so be it. If he has to instrumentalize religion for political gain, so be it. According to Smith, Karl Rove will do "whatever it takes" to win.

Former Clinton aide John Podesta was a little more circumspect. He conceded that the President himself was "careful and appropriate" in his religious language and appeals, but argued that the heavy lifting on these issues was left to surrogates, such as the recently departed Deal Hudson, who apparently was responsible for mobilizing Catholics against Kerry. Beliefnet editor Steve Waldman agreed, observing that Bush’s Republican convention speech was "careful, eloquent, and poetic," not to mention "responsible" and "part of the mainstream." But he too suggested that others at the convention had a covert agenda. Believe it or not, when Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki were "thanking God" that George W. Bush was president in the aftermath of 9/11, they weren’t just casually using a figure of speech. They were sending a message to the faithful about Bush 43’s providential role and calling. Bill Smith saw, not the hand of God, but the hand of Rove, in that language.

To be sure, not everyone on the panel was a relentless Bush-basher. Waldman writes both for Slate and National Review Online and is a genuinely thoughtful commentator on religion and politics. (I must confess, though, that I found his writing on the Democratic Convention somewhat more fulsome and less critical that his writing on the Republican Convention.) And then there was Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He came closest to fulfilling my original expectations of the panel, on the one hand calling the Bush Administration out on its efforts to get hold of church directories and on the other citing Paul Kengor’s recent National Review Online article, "Undivine Double Standard," to suggest that Bill Clinton engaged in substantially more God-talk while President than has George W. Bush.

My interest piqued, I went back to the transcript of the Los Angeles forum, held on June 23rd. By comparison with it, the Atlanta panel was a model of balance and sweet reason. In Los Angeles, Rev. James Lawson, Pastor Emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church asserted that the Bush campaign’s religious agenda was "false religion… It is not connected to a religious notion of human beings coming together across all sorts of divides and having community, humanity, a sense of common purpose, and all the rest of it. It is not committed to the notion of equality, justice, liberty, the rallying cries of 1776." Rabbi Leonard Beerman argued that "religion has served as the source of some of the worst outrages against the essential humanity of human beings that history has ever been able to create. And some of those same forces are at work in the world and in our own society today." Not to be outdone, Lawson wondered "at what point does this nation move to the point of no return, where we become indeed fully our own American fascism, our own American tyranny? At what point does Bush’s strategy and Karl Rove’s strategy push us beyond the point of any return?"

Elizabeth Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, referred to the "so-called unconstitutional, ridiculous, bile-filled, mean-spirited, Defense of Marriage Act." She also darkly suggested that gay marriage would be part of a Bush Administration push polling strategy, "a very, very dirty but oft now used campaign technique." Bill Smith agreed that gay marriage would be central to efforts to mobilize Christian conservatives: "With evangelicals, it’s, let’s talk about beating up on the gay community."

But the most profound meditation on the political significance of George W. Bush’s faith belonged to Ms. Birch: "And whether George Bush is serving his father, to be vindicated or somehow slay that dragon, or God, the Father, there is very little going on other than that one little germ of truth that helped him stop drink. There is very little analysis, good, deep, policy analysis, going on in grappling with what is relative mediation on our planet. He has no capability of moving around the planet the way Clinton did, to let off steam and keep people engaged."

I couldn’t agree more: "There is very little analysis, good, deep, policy analysis going on" here. There is a lot of name-calling and venting of spleen, a lot of hatred and even some religious bigotry, things to which the Interfaith Alliance is supposed to be opposed.

In Los Angeles, there was nary a negative word about John Kerry. In Atlanta, he was taxed for misunderstanding his situation, thinking too much like the first JFK, and for perhaps being a "bit cerebral." No one in either forum inquired into whether the standard Democratic religious trope—calling George W. Bush hypocritical when he claims to be religious but doesn’t expand the welfare state—might run afoul of the Interfaith Alliance’s stated injunctions against "disparaging your opponent’s religious belief" or "allowing political policy stances to define religious conviction."

I’m beginning to think that the Bush campaign isn’t alone in using code words. When the Interfaith Alliance says that it is promoting "democratic values," perhaps it means "Democratic values." Perhaps "hatred and religious bigotry" refer only to conservative hatred and religious bigotry.

John DiIulio once referred to some of his former colleagues in the Bush White House as "Mayberry Machiavellis," a description many of the forum participants would certainly apply to Karl Rove. But I would not call the representatives of the religious Left I have recently heard and read "Machiavellian." They are not duplicitous. They do not consciously use language in such a way as to confuse or mislead. No. They are so utterly convinced to the rightness and righteousness of their cause that they cannot imagine how their criticisms of President Bush’s alleged religious abuses could ever apply to them. Bush alone uses religion to divide. Bush alone impugns the faith of his opponents. Bush alone is self-righteous and Manichean. But I wonder. Perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.