Sunday, October 17, 2004

# Posted 1:29 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

"THE FAITH-BASED PRESIDENCY": That is Ron Suskind's description of the George Bush's time in office. Suskind develops his argument in great detail in the current issue of the NY Times Magazine. (Hat tip: MY)

Even though Suskind's anecdotal evidence is less than impressive, I share his concern about Bush's apparent inability to question the highly contoversial assumptions on which his policies are based. More than anything else, I think that this explains my instinctive attraction to John Kerry and his thirst for information.

The unique aspect of Suskind's argument is his direct and uncompromising effort to explain Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity as a direct extension of his faith in God. Even though the President's critics often murmur about the connection between his faith and his policies, I can't recall anyone other than Suskind actually making an explicit and detailed argument about the connection between the two.

I am especially wary of such argument because I am aware of my own profound prejudices about the Christian right and its political agenda. After a dozen years of Jewish education, it is almost impossible not to have a negative attitude toward any Christian who insists that the Bible should guide the hands of politicians and policymakers.

Yet for the moment, I have decided to suspend my prejudices about the Christian right and ask how much actual evidence there is to justify the pervasive caricature of evangelicals as simple-minded and intolerant. I am especially looking forward to reading the work of JS, one of my colleagues at the Miller Center, who is now working on a dissertation entitled "Compromising Crusaders: Passion, Deliberation and the Christian Right." Here is how he describes his research:
From the founding of the United States, many thoughtful observers of its political system have regarded the public activities of religious movements as a threat to individual freedom and deliberative democracy. Most recently, social scientists and public intellectuals have denounced the Christian right for violating the norms of a pluralist democracy. Yet scholars have not examined the movement deeply enough to understand the inner workings of its principal political organizations. By doing exactly that, this dissertation demonstrates that the Christian right is not the uncompromising movement that detractors fear.

Although Christian right organizations do—as their critics contend— arouse moral passions, they do so in order to mobilize apathetic citizens. But once they have mobilized citizens, most of these organizations then labor diligently to moderate and inform the passions they have provoked by teaching activists how to become civil, compromising, and strategic actors in the public realm.

Elites within the Christian right undertake these labors because success in electoral politics requires it. Understanding this fundamental tension between the exigencies of mobilization, on the one hand, and successful activism, on the other, is critical to any thoughtful evaluation of the Christian right.
In the opening paragraphs of his NYTM essay, Ron Suskind writes that
Faith asserts its hold ever more on debates in this country and abroad. That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge. But faith has also shaped his presidency in profound, nonreligious ways. The president has demanded unquestioning faith from his followers, his staff, his senior aides and his kindred in the Republican Party. Once he makes a decision -- often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position -- he expects complete faith in its rightness.
Susking later observes that:
Every few months, a report surfaces of the president using strikingly Messianic language, only to be dismissed by the White House. Three months ago, for instance, in a private meeting with Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pa., Bush was reported to have said, ''I trust God speaks through me.'' In this ongoing game of winks and nods, a White House spokesman denied the president had specifically spoken those words, but noted that ''his faith helps him in his service to people.''
I don't think that the White House is above playing such games. Yet if Bush's certainty comes from his faith in God, where do the certainty of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the rest of the inner circle come from? For that matter, what about Reagan's legendary certainty and his immunity to facts?

Even though Bush bears far more responsibility than Suskind for reinforcing negative stereotypes about Christian evangelicals, I think that the time has come for America's coastal elites to reconsider their attitude toward political Christianity.
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