George W. Bush's January State of the Union address was, for the most part, nothing out of the ordinary. But then my former governor (yes, I'm a Texan) dropped an unusual phrase: "...there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people."
That phrase was not mere wordsmithing. I know it well. I know about polished church pews; I know about dress shoes that blistered my young feet and the smooth heft of the hymnal. As the son of a Baptist minister, I know. I know about the exuberant, saloon-worthy piano, the cat-eye-spectacled old ladies sliding "power" into one syllable, and I know the rest of the phrase: "There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r, in the blood, [men echo] in the blood, of the Lamb, [men echo again] of the Lamb. There is pow'r, pow'r, wonder-working pow'r in the precious blood of the Lamb."
Bush was stealthily passing the message to the flock, to my flock. The issues that have plagued that flock for a quarter century are integral to understanding the second self-professed "born-again" man in the White House, his political tactics and his war in Iraq.
Its fans call it the "conservative resurgence." Its detractors call it the "fundamentalist takeover." The astonishing fact is that many, perhaps most, Southern Baptists are unaware that the foundation of their faith has been officially pulled out from under them through systematic, long-term political manipulation. The people of God trust each other; when someone breaks the rules, they pray, they try to reconcile. But the abandonment of civil behavior always trumps good will.
Two people, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler (a former appeals court judge), perhaps as far back as the '60s, created the plan to transform a denomination. Like fundamentalists of every breed, they started with a simple premise: We're right. Everyone else is wrong. God is on our side, so what we do to those in our way is irrelevant, if our right triumphs over their wrong. That the central, selfless directive of Christianity is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a petty detail, imminently ignorable to God's self-appointed chosen.
The Southern Baptist Convention (currently around 16 million strong) is a bottom-up institution, with autonomous congregations and a democratically elected leadership whose proclamations have not, historically, been binding. One crack in the democracy was evident: The president appoints members to committees which hold sway over organizations like the Baptist press, Baptist seminaries and the missionary organization. The fundies (the decidedly non-affectionate term applied to them by detractors) calculated that winning the convention presidency 10 years in a row could gain them majorities on all committees and de facto control of all the national-level bodies.
The tactic was simple: Recruit like-minded pastors to scare people about the evil of liberalism which, they assured their flocks, was quietly taking over their institutions and diluting their theology. Those who did not endorse the literal truth of every word of the Bible -- "Biblical inerrancy" -- were on the slippery slope to unbelief. You're with us or you're against us.
They gained the presidency of the convention in 1979 with a pastor named Adrian Rogers, bussing in supporters to the annual convention to vote for their presidential candidate; the buses left just after the vote. The fundamentalists have retained the Southern Baptist presidency ever since. Their activities once they gained power were and are embarrassing to Christians who believe that ends can't justify means.
As soon as they could, the fundamentalists issued an ultimatum to the heads of the Baptist Press, who, they claimed, were unfair in their representations. When the two men refused to cease their supposed criticism, they were unceremoniously fired.
My father was a professor (a job considered somewhere in the neighborhood of heretic by the fundamentalists) at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas when one of the most brazen moves took place there in 1994. The enormously popular, longtime president of the seminary, Russell Dilday, the day after receiving the highest possible job evaluation from the fundamentalist Board of Trustees, was fired, locked out of his office by those same fundamentalists: He was too "moderate." The faculty was outraged. But the fundies weren't interested in the will of a bunch of liberal academics too far down the slippery slope to be saved. They were right, so the fate of the wrong was of no interest. Not long after, my father (and many others) left.
My father was invited back to the seminary two years ago, but in order to be considered, he had to go through a little formality, the signing of a document. The pillar of Baptist belief is called the "Baptist Faith and Message." In 1963, it was full of theological freedoms, and not a binding creed. It established belief in a direct connection between God and believer, the right of individuals to interpret scripture, and the primacy of Christ in the church.
The fundamentalists have so changed the statement that many say it abandons Baptist belief. The committee who rewrote it claim, in the preamble, that it is now one of "doctrinal accountability." In a denomination that exalts the individuality of belief, this raises the question of who Baptists are now accountable to. Many say it establishes the primacy of the Bible itself, rather than Christ-centered biblical interpretation. It adds, as a central premise of the faith, that women should "graciously submit" to their husbands, and cannot become ministers.
My father is in good company in refusing to endorse this document. The enormity of the change it establishes was made clear in 2000: Jerry Falwell, long to the right of Southern Baptists (and pretty much the rest of the world), joined the convention, and the other born-again President, Jimmy Carter, publicly renounced his 65-year membership.
The Bush administration's tactics and policies marry religious and patriotic fundamentalism. It's an unholy union.
Bush is in the White House despite losing the popular vote; that has not stopped him from pursuing a black-and-white vision of the world that ignores those who did not elect him. The administration's reasoning is classic fundamentalism: They know best. Those who dare to question their vision are "irrelevant."
The "with us or with the terrorists" political fundamentalism has now expanded to include those who critique Bush's war in Iraq. When Tom Daschle decried Bush's "miserable failure" at diplomacy, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert quickly responded that Daschle's words "may not undermine the President as he leads us into war, and they may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close." Patriotism is now a matter of total agreement with the White House or treasonous disagreement. This in a land founded on the ultimate act of dissent: revolution.
Rather than considering himself the servant of the people, Bush, it seems, considers himself God's chosen to make over the world. The dropping of references for the ears of the Christian right is a regular occurrence; the term "evildoers," derided by some as not a real word, is quite real to the biblically informed, because it comes straight from the Book of Psalms.
Bush's extremism has led America to a frightening new state, one where the highly praised term "leadership" means defying the will of the people, not representing it. The administration creates majorities to support its policies rather than creating policies to reflect majorities. The administration's international "backing" for the war in Iraq is, in reality, a coalition of leaders who are "willing" indeed: willing to defy the anti-war sentiment of, in some cases, 80 or 90 percent of their countrymen. Still, it's comforting to know that we wade into the quagmire of the Middle East with the full support of Latvia and Eritrea.
The confidence to ignore public opinion is easily acquired from Bush's belief in a higher endorsement. Bush's autobiography is called A Charge to Keep, a title borrowed from a hymn:
A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill;
Oh may it all my pow'rs engage, to do my Master's will!
The Southern Baptist fundamentalists conquered their denomination; they have every reason to hope the Bush administration will make over the world in their image.
Bush speaks to them -- often directly to them. He has surrounded himself with Christian conservatives, relied on them politically since early on in Texas. Combining their fervor with that of extremists of different stripe, his administration has fashioned policies of evangelistic zeal, ignoring cautionary advice from abroad and at home. And now that zeal has engaged America in a war that quickly proved more complicated and costly than Bush and people like Defense Policy Board chairman (until recently) Richard Perle, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz ever planned. But Bush the believer forges ahead, convinced that all costs, economic and human, are justified. Threats to Syria point to the next step.
Richard Land (president since 1988 of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Capitol Hill lobbyist, friend of Presidential advisor Karl Rove, and now Bush appointee to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) told the Christian Science Monitor before his nomination, "In the Reagan administration, they took our calls," but with Bush, "sometimes they call us."
The separation of church and state, long central to Baptists, is of little interest to the fundamentalists: In 1998, Richard Land, at a strategy meeting with Republicans and members of the religious right, told the Republicans, "No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage."
George W. Bush, former heavy drinker and alleged cocaine user, claims to have been brought to God in 1986 by Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham. His 1993 pronouncement to an Austin-American Statesman reporter that non-believers will go to hell infuriated a lot of non-believers, but cemented his now nearly infallible reputation among Southern Baptist fundamentalists -- a group that, perhaps more than any other, helped Bush rise to power in Texas.
In the '80s, Karl Rove advised nearly every Republican campaign in Texas, before then a Democratic stronghold. A large factor in Republicanizing Texas politics was the courting of the religious right, a specialty of Rove. He is a Christian of some sort, but he refuses to discuss much of anything with reporters, especially the specifics of his faith. Those specifics would clearly reveal much about the man often dubbed "Bush's brain."
The religious beliefs and affiliations of some of the other main players in the Bush administration are not often discussed. A recent Newsweek article chronicles the centrality of religion at the current White House, including the ever-present phenomenon of Bible studies. Attorney General John Ashcroft is a Pentecostal Christian, an extremely conservative, sometimes fundamentalist brand of faith, as evidenced by his covering of nude statues in the Justice Department.
Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, is Jewish; he appears to be more cerebral neoconservative than religious fundamentalist. Rove's office neighbor is Elliot Abrams, convicted of lying to Congress in Iran-Contra days. He now handles Middle East policy for the National Security Council, and he holds strong views: Not only has he written in praise of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-right policies, he's also written about the danger of dilution of the Jewish people by assimilation.
For many extremists, the heavily represented pro-Likud faction has occasioned cries of "Jewish cabal." But current policy is not so easily pinned down; it is a convergence of fundamentalisms, regardless of the faiths involved.
Rove is a talented matchmaker among the main powerbases of Republican thought. The East Coast, mainly Jewish, neoconservatives and southern Christian fundamentalists are easily reconciled. Many in the Jewish community are wary of the proselytizing Christian contingent, but the strong pro-Israeli bent of the fundamentalists (who nonetheless are often, remarkably, anti-Semitic) has allowed an alliance between the most extreme elements of both religions.
Rove's real trick was getting the Christian fundamentalists to dance with someone besides the one what brung them. Most dubious business practices are at odds with Judaeo-Christian ethics, but the fundamentalist camp was seduced into trafficking with big business by access to money and political power. The best example is Karl Rove's securing of a $10-20,000 per month Enron consultancy for Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and senior advisor to the Bush campaign. Reed is the embodiment of Rove's brand of Republicanism: a man who can simultaneously endorse Christian and Jewish fundamentalism and hop in bed with the purely profit-driven, secular business world.
Bush's own conversion seems sincere. He seems to be a true believer, heavily influenced by the Republican powers that surround him; only a man who believes he is ordained by God to lead America into a grandiose struggle of (literally) Biblical proportions could stun reporters with his state of, as a BBC reporter put it, "serenity" as bombs began to fall on innocent Iraqis.
America is without question the best friend Israel has, and Bush is strengthening the ties; on the first day of Bush's war in Iraq, plans surfaced for $10 billion in aid for Israel. This seemingly suicidal timing in terms of already-hostile Arab reaction to the war becomes clearer with some theological education.
Many fundamentalists (and many moderates, too) live in constant expectation: At any moment, maybe the very next, a distant trumpet might sound; the clouds might give way and the unimaginable, shining visage of Jesus descend. Many Southern Baptists believe they are part of the final generation on earth. Opinions differ about the pre- and post-return details, but they often include an Anti-Christ. Many fundamentalists encourage unilateralism because that Anti-Christ is expected, by current interpreters, to lead the European Union or the United Nations.
Another thing is clear to many literal interpreters of the Bible: Israel -- all of Israel, even the bits currently underneath the Palestinians -- must belong to the Israelis before Jesus can return. Obviously, a two-state peace settlement precludes that. Bush has indeed endorsed a Palestinian state, but the day such a settlement is signed, especially with E.U. or U.N. support, Bush's solid backing by many fundamentalists will be in question.
The alliance between Jewish and Christian fundamentalists received a great boost when Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, convicted in the '80s by his own government for standing by while Lebanese Christians slaughtered hundreds of Palestinians, "a man of peace."
The administration's ties to the current Israeli government run deep. Richard Perle is a major figure in the un-battle-tested royalty of the armchair hawks (his nickname: Prince of Darkness). Perle just resigned the chairmanship of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board because of a conflict of interest. He was retained by Global Crossing to advise them on a deal in need of approval by the Pentagon, for which he would be paid $725,000, $600,000 of which was contingent on the success of the deal. The less reported fact is that he will stay on as a member of the board.
In 1996, Perle advised Sharon's Likud party. His advice: Israel's claim to the Palestinian territories is "legitimate and noble"; Israel should abandon the Oslo Accords and retake the territories, even though, as Perle's co-advisor Douglas Feith, now Underscretary of Defense for Policy, later said, "the cost in blood would be high." Feith called this a necessary "detoxification." More men of peace.
In the early '90s, Paul Wolfowitz authored (with an unknown degree of help from then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney) a security strategy for the elder Bush that was striking in its implications. A global American military presence would engage in pre-emptive wars to keep ambitious rivals in check. Old alliances like NATO would be ignored in favor of temporary coalitions of convenience. Bush Sr. had to publicly back away from its extremity, and Cheney played a major role in revising the document.
The original document evolved into a manifesto of sorts for a Wolfowitz-related group called the Project for the New American Century. In their version, which dates to early 2001, the Project claims that the most receptive climate for their vision of global American power would be in the aftermath of "some catastrophic and catalysing event, like a new Pearl Harbor." When bin Laden unexpectedly provided just that, they were prepared.
The current, freely available National Security Strategy of the United States endorses the exact same ideas. Wolfowitz's call for a permanent military presence in the Middle East explains Bush's insistence on war at any cost better than the clear threat of Hussein's ineffective drones, short-range missiles and supposed relationship with bin Laden, who called Hussein an infidel.
The Pope (not considered a Christian by many Southern Baptists), most mainline Protestants and even some Southern Baptists decry the war as unjust, un-Christian and dangerous. The unsurprising exception is the Southern Baptist Convention leadership. Current president Jack Graham (no relation to Billy) blessed the attack on Iraq as a just war whose purpose is, of course, peace. Nevermind that preemptive (or, in this case, preventive) war seems rather at odds with the peacemaking Jesus blessed in the Bible.
I despair for my people. Christianity calls for peacemaking and unconditional love for all humankind, not warmongering and furthering the gap between rich and poor. Jesus' only recorded act of anger was directed against the money-changers who set up shop outside the temple; the business-driven Republican Party has likewise set up shop outside the Southern Baptist church. Republicans will continue to profit as long as Southern Baptists are willing to hoodwink themselves, ignoring the disparity between Christian ends and Republican ends.
I despair, too, for my country. The "us or them" administration is sowing the seeds of hatred between America and the rest of the world, and, most terribly, between Americans. Thank goodness Bush is right about one thing: " ... there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people."
The Muslim fundamentalist bin Laden wants a holy war with Jewish and Christian fundamentalists. With George Bush in charge, he's got it.
The issue is not, in the end, religious. It's not racial. It's philosophical: No matter what religion or political view provides a starting point, the end destination of the march toward absolutism is the willingness to cease caring about unbelievers as human beings. That is a danger greater than any weapon of mass destruction.
James Heflin is an arts writer at Massachusetts' Valley Advocate, where a version of this article originally appeared.