The Public Eye Magazine - Fall 2005
WITH GOD ON THEIR SIDE
How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in
George W. Bush's White House
The New Press, 2004, 322 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader
The story of George W. Bush's religious
awakening has become a contemporary
legend: a tale of a hard-drinker
turned pious Christian. Whether it's true or not, Bush's alleged
conversion is trucked out repeatedly, presumably because many
Americans are comforted by the notion of a God-fearing executive
who, like them, once wallowed in sin.
But like most legends, scrutiny reveals flaws in both the narrative
and its denouement. In fact, Esther Kaplan's With God
on Their Side exposes the turpitude and racism that undergirds
the Bush administration, from justifying war by lambasting Islam
as "a religion of violence" to endangering teenagers by denying
funding for school-based sex education programs that mention
contraception or abortion. It's a terrifying read, rife with examples.
What's more, Kaplan's documentation connects the dots,
demonstrating how Christian fundamentalism has intruded into
virtually every aspect of U.S. life.
Let's start with GWB himself.
While previous presidents have consistently
affirmed their belief in God,
Bush goes one step further and purports
to have a direct line to the
Almighty. Kaplan reports that when
the president met with then-Palestinian
Prime Minister Mahmoud
Abbas in 2003, he told him that
"God told me to strike at al-Qaeda
and I struck them, and then he
instructed me to strike at Saddam,
which I did, and now I am determined
to solve the problem in the
Middle East." God also weighed in
when Bush was pondering his first
run for the White House. "God wants me to do it," he announced
to televangelist James Robison. Months later, in the aftermath
of 9/11, he told Time magazine that God had chosen him to lead
the world's war on terror.
Not only does Team Bush believe itself to have Divine
approval, it believes its agenda represents God's will. That's right:
God is anti-abortion, anti-gay, and scornful of the Kyoto Protocol
on Global Warming and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
on Nuclear Arms. He—there is absolutely no possibility of He
being She—like the Bush administration, sees the United
Nations as one step short of Satanic internationalism, aka One
World Government. After all, just look at the UN Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women. The thought of ratification, Kaplan writes, sends the
Bush team into apoplectic panic. To hear them tell it, the Convention
would require the United States "to hand over our right
to decide our own laws on such issues as family law, parental rights,
religious exercise, education, abortion regulation, employment
pay scales, quotas in educational institutions, workplaces and
elected offices, and forbid us from recognizing that men and
women are fundamentally different."
Indeed, Bush's posturing often reeks of anti-feminist backlash
and is an overt reaction to the blurring of gender roles that
women's and GLBT movements have trumpeted since Stonewall.
But as horrifying as the administration's rhetoric is, it is their policies
that pack the biggest punch. Take AIDS. Twenty-plus years
into the pandemic, we know that reducing the risk of infection
by practicing safer sex and using clean needles cuts transmission.
Sadly, this is not a message fundamentalists wish to promote.
Instead, an all-out war on condoms, hinged on the fact that prophylactics
don't stop the Human Papilloma Virus, has been
launched. Money for programs that
promulgate abstinence as the only
solution to STDs, including AIDS,
has been free-flowing. Worse, AIDS
organizations critical of this stance
have been punished. Fifteen groups,
all previous recipients of federal
funding, were called to task and
subjected to months of intensive
audits. Those reined in include the
Gay Men's Health Crisis, The
National Association of People with
AIDS, and The Stop AIDS Project.
Similarly, Christian fundamentalists
have swooped into public
schools with curricula penned by religious rightists to teach abstinence
to America's youth. Again, federal money—hundreds of
millions of dollars—has been made available for a host of projects.
Kaplan quotes John Marble, of National Stonewall Democrats,
about his research into Teen Mania and other anti-sex efforts.
"The abstinence-only message is deeply linked with Evangelical
Christianity. You're really hoping everyone will come to Christ
and wait till marriage for sex. If you're struggling with homosexual
thoughts, you need to convert to Christianity and that
will cure you."
And then there is abortion, an ever-present religious-right
obsession. Bush's reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, or
Global Gag Rule, prohibits U.S. financed international family
planning groups from performing abortions or counseling
women about their options, even with funds raised separately.
Hypocrisy rears its head here, Kaplan writes, because reducing
family planning has caused a groundswell of abortions and an
increase in female death from illegal procedures. "A Population
Action International report," Kaplan continues, "cites clinic
closures in country after country. In Kenya, five family planning
clinics were shuttered after having their USAID funding cut off
for refusing to comply with the policy; one facility was the only
center serving some 300,000 people in a vast, poor neighborhood
Sound absurd? Doubters need only remember that this is the
Lord's volition, conveyed directly to GWB.
Other Divine orchestrations ally conservative evangelical
power brokers with corporate leaders and judicial appointees who
eschew church/state separation. While the book never fully
explains the alliance between industrial big-wigs and religious
conservatives—Is it that power loves power? Or is wealth an overt
display of God's beneficence?—the relationships Kaplan chronicles
offer chilling proof of far-reaching partnerships.
In addition, I wish Kaplan had explained why a political faction
so concerned with fetuses and childbirth is so blasť about
global warming and environmental degradation. Will God
somehow protect the lungs of Christian children? Or will
Christ's return eviscerate such mundane concerns? The fundamentalist
Right's lackadaisical response to pollution is hard to
fathom, unless End Times prophesies depict the only future worth
Despite these lingering questions, With God on Their Side
presents a deeply unsettling look at the power Christian conservatives
have acquired. Bush's boosters —The American
Family Association, Concerned Women for America, The
Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and The Southern
Baptist Convention, among them—are champions of a biblical
worldview that supercedes democratic pluralism. Kaplan presents
these folks as forces to reckon with. If she is right, and I am
sure she is, we ignore them at our political and social peril.
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist. She writes for Z,
The Brooklyn Rail, Lilith, Library Journal, and Habitat Magazine,
and is the coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.