Jesse Winchester fans may recognize the title reference.
In Bush's case, the Christian Right is a large part of the "seeds and stems" to which he's clinging politically at the moment. And as he more desperately pitches to his most devoted supporters on the Christian Right, the more he risks alienating more and more voters.
Bush's true constituency is, as he famously said, "the rich and the super-rich". The alliance between the cleptocracy and the Christian Right that defines today's Republican Party is one of the stranger alliances American politics has seen.
After all, how many male executives at, say, Halliburton would allow the Christian Right's principles against abortion stand in the way of paying for a girlfriend (or "mistress", if you prefer) to "get the problem fixed" if he "knocked her up"?
Very close to none at all, I would guess.
One of my commenters recently referred to this article, in which Michael Scherer recently gave us a glimpse of how the country club Republicans regard their Christian Right comrades : Abramoff-Scanlon School of SleazeSalon 11/03/05.
His article is about one of the other major Republican scandals of the moment. This part shows one of the movers and shakers of the Party talking to another insider about their Christian Right friends:
Consider one memo highlighted in a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday that [Michael] Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, sent the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana to describe his strategy for protecting the tribe's gambling business. In plain terms, Scanlon confessed the source code of recent Republican electoral victories: target religious conservatives, distract everyone else, and then railroad through complex initiatives.
"The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees," Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them." The brilliance of this strategy was twofold: Not only would most voters not know about an initiative to protect Coushatta gambling revenues, but religious "wackos" could be tricked into supporting gambling at the Coushatta casino even as they thought they were opposing it. (my emphasis)
There are always some portion of the public who are willing to be suckered at any given time. But I would hope that more of those who consider themselves Christian fundamentalists or otherwise supporters of the Christian Right would step back and take a look at how their allegedly Christian voting is being used by some really ugly operators.
It's not by any means self-evident to many Christians that our faith requires poor and working-class citizens to sacrifice in order to provide tax cuts to the wealthiest and most fortunate Americans, the ones who are already getting the greatest material benefits from the advantages the American economy provides. For example, Jimmy Carter in Our Endangered Values (2005) writes of the Bush tax cuts that have heavily subsidized the wealthiest:
[A]lmost every decision made in Washington since 2000 has favored the wealthy, often at the expense of middle-class working families and the needy, and fundamental legislation on taxation and expenditures has been designed to perpetuate these trends [toward a severe disparity of income].
Noting that the huge deficits we now have were created by these huge tax subsidies to the wealthiest, the former president writes:
What has happened since 2000 is almost incredible. At that time, the Congressional Budget Office projected a surplus of $281 billion in 2001, to accumulate $5.6 trillion more within ten years. Instead, the federal deficit will be almost $400 billion in 2005, with spending maintained at about the same level but with extraordinary revenue reductions because of a series of massive tax cuts for wealthier Americans. Projections are that this level of deficit spending will continue. The national debt increased from $i trillion to $4 trillion during the twelve years of the Reagan-Bush administrations, and since 2001 the Congress has had to increase the debt ceiling to $8 trillion, and it is heading in four more years to more than $10 trillion!
This fiscal approach, which will squeeze domestic programs, has been a well-understood goal of some conservative true believers since the origination of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, and other humanitarian programs under Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. The inheritance tax was originated by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, and is now an additional target for elimination—another massive reduction in the tax burden for the richest families in America.
Carter clearly thinks that, from a Christian religious point of view, that such policies look much more like pandering to the greed of the most loyal worshippers of Mammon rather than as an effort to express Christian beliefs on social responsibility.
Bill Moyers recently pointed to the incongruity of alleged Christian principles being used as a tool to further enrich the richest at the expense of everyone else: Setting the Record Straight CommonDreams.org 11/19/05. Speaking at the 50th anniversary celebration for the muckraking Texas Observer, which he once worked himself, he said:
In these pages, Larry Goodwyn ruminated on the difference between "a politics of the present" and "a politics of the future," urging liberals to think hard about whether their strategy meant a winning coalition 10 years down the road. Would the election next spring, say, of a "given liberal candidate in Dallas have any real meaning in altering the caste system under which the people of Dallas live?" The headline above that essay read: "Caste and Righteousness." It was a startling headline at the time, and it still fits today, alas. As The Texas Observer continues to remind us, Texas in 2005 is run by the rich and the righteous, producing a state of piracy and piety that even the medieval papacy couldn’t match.
Consider the scene just a few weeks ago when your Gov. Perry, surrounded by cheering God-folk, showed up at a pep rally in Fort Worth for yet another cleverly staged bashing of gay people, contrived to keep the pious signed on for the culture war so they won't know they are losing the class war waged against them in Austin by the governor and his rich corporate patrons. The main speaker was none other than the Rev. Rod Parsley of Ohio. Keep your eyes on Rev. Parsley. He is the new incarnation of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, that devout duo who channeled Elmer Gantry into a new political religion driven by an obsession to punish people on account of sex. Parsley runs a multimillion-dollar-a-year televangelism ministry based in Columbus, Ohio, with access worldwide to 400 TV stations and cable affiliates. He describes himself as neither Republican nor Democrat but a "Christo-crat" — a gladiator for God marching against "the very hordes of hell in our society." But he shows up with so many Republicans that he has been publicly described as the party’s "spiritual advisor."
The Rev. Paisley is the subject of a recent profile in the 11/10/05 American Prospect by Sarah Posner: With God on His Side. She does something that I don't see as often as I would like, which is to look with a skeptical eye at some of the actual business practices of the Christian Right operation under scrutiny. Her articles certainly goes pause to anyone who believes that honest stewardship of money and business affairs should be part of the responsibility of a Christian leader.
One of his Paisley's closest business associates declared bankruptcy, listing as one of his creditors one "Lucifer Fallenangel". How could even a Sinclair Lewis make stuff like this up?
Her article also makes me wonder whether Paisley and his World of Faith ministry is borrowing some cult-like practices from the "shepherding" movement while promoting a sucker-the-rubes approach to relieving followers of their money, in more ways than one:
Exactly how Parsley purports to "help" the poor, both black and white, is evident in his practice of Word of Faith theology, also known as the "prosperity gospel." Word of Faith is a nondenominational religious movement with no official church hierarchy or ordination procedures, which emphasizes the absolute prophetic authority of pastors, the imperative to make tithes and offerings to the church, and the power of an individual's spoken word to lay claim to their spiritual and material desires. Purveyors of Word of Faith, like Parsley, teach their flock to "sow a seed" by donating money to the church, promising a "hundredfold" return. Word of Faith has been popularized, in large part, by the immense growth of TBN - a nonprofit entity with a 24-7 lineup of regular evangelists and faith healers, including Parsley, assets of more than $600 million, and annual revenues approaching $200 million, making it the closest competitor to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.
The most prominent critics of Word of Faith are Christians who consider it a heretical distortion of the Bible. According to these critics, Word of Faith preachers prey on people of modest means, promising prosperity in return for putting money in the pocket of a self-anointed prophet. Ole Anthony, president of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation and a leading Word of Faith critic, regards the emphasis on financial abundance as evidence of God's blessing as "the oldest heresy in the church." He describes Parsley as a "power-hungry" man, living "an extravagant lifestyle that has become the hallmark of televangelists these days." With his wife and children, Parsley resides in a 7,500-square-foot house valued at more than $1 million. (my emphasis)
This business about the "abolsute prophetic authority of pastors" is an open invitation to abuse of all kind: financial, emotional, sexual. In the fundamentalist/Pentecostal world, this would be generally understood to mean that God talks directly to pastors and that they are capable of interpreting the divinely expressed will of God authoritatively. This is a degree of spiritual authority that virtually no mainstream church, including the Catholic Church, makes for its priests. Even the ill-conceived official Catholic notion that the Pope has the ability to make "infallible" proununciations on Christian doctrine isn't that drastic.
The notion of adjusting Christian beliefs to comfort the comforable is not new, of course. And one thing you can say for William Jennings Bryan and the fundamentalists who saw him as their champion in the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial is that the Great Commoner was always aware that the malefactors of Wall Street were willing to crucify the common people on that famous Cross of Gold. One of the the most famous preachers of the Gilded Age, Henry Ward Beecher, was on the other side of both issues from the positions taken by Bryan. John Kenneth Galbraith memorably described that latter Christian leader in The Age of Uncertainty (1977).
In those days, Social Darwinism was a welcome doctrine among the materially favored in America. That doctrine, really a distortion of the arguments of Herbert Spencer (which were bad enough in their undistorted version), conveniently reassured the inheritors of great wealth that their good fortune was the result of their inherent natural superiority to the common masses. Still, as Galbraith observed, this posed a problem then - as for the fundis today - because it accepted that frightening Darwinian theory of natural selection.
The Rev. Beecher managed to synthesize the two for his affluent congregation at Brooklyn's Plymouth Church. Galbraith wrote:
His reconciliation [between natural selection and Christianity] involved a distinction between theology and religion. Theology, like the animal kingdom, was evolutionary. Such change did not contradict the Holy Writ. Religion was enduring. Its truths did not change. Darwin and Spencer belonged to theology; the Bible was religion. So there was no conflict between natural selection and the Holy Scripture. I do not understand this distinction, and it is fairly certain that neither Beecher nor his congregation did either. But it sounded exceptionally good.
Beecher had other good news for his affluent flock. God particularly loved sinners, for He greatly enjoyed redeeming them. So, by implication, one could go out of an occasional evening and sin. The ensuing repentance and redemption would then do wonders for God's morale. Beecher thereupon proceeded to follow his own advice. Robert Shaplen, the author of the definitive study of Beecher's private and litigious life and later one of the most authoritative reporters on Vietnam and the Vietnam war, has shown how faithful he was in this regard. Besides comforting his rich parishioners on the legitimacy of their wealth, Beecher comforted their wives — some of them at least — by taking them to bed. Eventually one, Elizabeth Tilton, was assailed by the thought that even though Beecher was being redeemed, her case was not so clear. So she confessed not to God as intended but to her husband, and he sued Beecher. The jury disagreed on Beecher's guilt. No one who has since looked at the evidence has had any similar doubt.
Galbraith also shares his desire never to encounter either Herbert Spencer or the Rev. Beecher in the afterlife.
Today's Christian Right leaders may be just as appreciative of the righteousness of wealth, inherited or otherwise, as the Rev. Beecher was. But those affluent "country club" Republicans who think that the Christian Right song-and-dance is just a harmless device to scam the plebes into supporting the Republican cleptocracy would do well to think carefully about just where this unholy alliance is taking them. They might do well to consider the implications of the coalition described by the New America Foundation's Michael Lind from Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (2003):
While the Southern Protestant fundamentalists dominated the Republican Party at the level of activists and voters, they were under-represented among Republican policy experts, intellectuals, academics, and journalists. ...
Incapable of producing intellectuals of its own, the Southern right borrowed some from the East Coast left. In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Protestant fundamentalists found intellectual allies among the "neoconservatives." ... In their outlook as well as their backgrounds, these secular Northeastern intellectuals, often educated in, or employed by, Ivy League universities, could not have been more unlike the "Bible-believing Christians" of the American South.
At first the neoconservative-fundamentalist alliance was limited to the shared goal of supporting Israel against its critics ... Over time, however, the leading neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, editor of The Public Interest, and his son William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, gradually adopted the views of the Southern religious right on social policy, like opposition to abortion and gay rights,hostility to biotechnology, and support for government subsidies to religious schools. ...
By the year 2000, a Frankensteinian operation stitched the bodiless head of Northeastern neoconservatism onto the headless body of Southern fundamentalism. ...
While this theory was useful in justifying the alliance of ambitious East Coast apparatchiks with Deep South voters, it suffered from fatal flaws. To begin with, ordinary Protestant fundamentalists continued to believe that Catholics were not genuine Christians and that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and secularists would burn in hell for eternity unless they converted to Christianity. The Christian Coalition's attempt to create a Catholic wing failed because of the anti-Catholic bigotry of the fundamentalists. And the enduring racial prejudices of Southern fundamentalists prevented them from winning over black Protestants, whose religious views were similar to their own. (my emphasis)
We're now seeing the toxic results of this alliance in many different ways. In the Iraq War. In the Katrina crisis, when a national government crippled by anti-government ideology and massive tax-cuts for the wealthiest showed its world-class incompetence at emergency response. In the sahamless crony capitalism symbolized by the word "Halliburton". In the disgrace of torture in the Bush Gulag, justified by a truly dictatorial-minded legal "theory" that would allow the president to overrid any law and the Constitution itself if he claims on his own that it's for national security. In the cheap, self-righteous bigotry of Republican fans of the Iraq War who routinely accuse those who critize that monumental disaster of committing treason by doing so. All the while defending the outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame, a genuine act of treason by the stadards of most Americans.
That toxic brand of fanaticism is the spawn of the union between Republican celptocracy and Christian Right theocracy.