God Have Mercy
The Christian Right Wins Again
At the beginning of his presidential quest, George W. Bush went out of his way to welcome the odd fellows of the old New Right coalition. To that end, he hosted weekend gatherings in Texas that included the family-values preacher James Dobson, beloved pastor to millions of middle-aged female television viewers, and Ralph Reed, the feared political consultant to the Christian Right. In his own proposed programs the Texas governor doffed his hat to the Almighty. Like his father, promoter of the ludicrous “thousand points of light,” Dubya, under the rubric of “compassionate conservatism,” took up Reagan’s ideas for turning FDR’s social-welfare safety net into an industry for tax-exempt church charities. He spoke glowingly of projects such as pastors running cell blocks in his state’s prisons. When asked which philosopher had had the most influence on him, he answered, “Jesus.”
Certainly the blue-blooded Bushes aren’t exactly the sort of people you’d expect to meet in a Pentecostal church. The Reagan White House reportedly hosted faith-healing prayer sessions (at times, the president is said to have paused to look up to see if He was coming). Dan Quayle, the veep choice of Dubya’s dad, was perfectly at home in such settings, making campaign appearances before Christian groups, which sank into melodiously mewing trances. But can anyone imagine George W. Bush wiping the smart-ass smirk off his aging preppie face long enough to talk in tongues?
The Bush family has always been suspect among the New Right, and not just because of its less-than-zealous expression of religious beliefs. Remember that the right picked Reagan in the 1980 primaries over Bush in large part because they distrusted Bush as a lib symp (some even thought he was a Communist traitor) who had sold out the nation as head of the CIA and had ties to the hated Trilateral Commission, a pro-globalism group, which, to the Christian Right, presages the coming of the Beast. The Christers suspected Bush Sr. of being Satan’s mole, a secular humanist, a member of the sapper gang in the early skirmishes of the great war of Armageddon that will sort out the Christians from the unbelievers.
Partly for this reason, Dubya is determined to suck up to the fundamentalist Christians, lest they sabotage him later on. The speech at Bob Jones University can be seen as a small step forward in the healing process between the Bushes and the fundamentalist right. Against the setting of the South Carolina primary, it was also a way to offset Gary Bauer, who had been steadfastly representing the Christian Right and was in the process of throwing his support to McCain.
It would appear that Bush’s religious pandering ought to help Gore, offering him a chance to paint Bush into a corner as the candidate of the fundamentalist right. In so doing, Gore could reproduce the successful strategy used by FDR, who made political capital by opposing a group of right-wing Christian political losers, including the demagogic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, the racist populist Gerald L.K. Smith, and Gerald B. Winrod, the charismatic Kansas preacher who fawned over Hitler. Before World War II, Roosevelt unleashed a furious attack against the Christian Right of that day, castigating them as traitors and even dragging them into court.
Of course, Gore is no FDR, and in terms of opportunistic choices, it seems he’d rather position himself with the Christian Right than against them. Thus, in the early primary fights Gore was busily reinventing himself again. So, in addition to having been a tobacco grower, a pig farmer, the inventor of the Internet, the savior of Love Canal, a combat soldier, a college basketball whiz, and the model for Love Story, the veep was revealed to have had a religious experience, which caused him to become a born-again Christian. What with Tipper battling Satan in pop music, they are the perfect Christian couple, suggestive of, say, Dan and Marilyn Quayle.
Under Clinton-Gore, the Democratic Party already has opened an accommodation with the Christian Right by weakening the social-welfare network and toying with the idea of government funding for private church schools and other church-based activities. And Bill Bradley hasn’t been off-base highlighting Gore’s shifting position on reproductive rights. If politics continues its current course, and Gore further convulses himself in an attempt to attract the Christian vote, handing over what’s left of welfare to the churches will become a more viable political project in Congress. And pro-choice supporters may have more to worry about than they think.
Campaigning through California’s Central Valley last week, “proud Reagan Republican” John McCain found himself in a nasty war of words with none other than the former president’s son Michael Reagan, who hosts a popular West Coast talk show on the Premium Radio Networks. The heated chat ended with Reagan hanging up on McCain. A few extracts of this extraordinary exchange give an idea of the controversy that could dog McCain were he to become president:
Michael Reagan: “. . . there’s some great concern [that] Warren Rudman, who is your overall campaign chair, would be in such a position in a McCain administration to appoint judges like Judge Souter to the bench, as was done during the Bush administration. . . .
Senator McCain: Ah, Warren Rudman did not appoint Judge Souter, President Bush did. . . .
Reagan: Yes, but . . .
McCain: Second of all, Warren Rudman is a fine, decent man who served his country in the Korean War, [was] attorney general of his state, and a senator who was highly respected. It was President Bush that appointed Justice Souter.
Reagan: Right, but Warren Rudman . . .
McCain: Warren Rudman is 70 . . . let me finish, please, could I finish? Ah, ah, Warren Rudman is 70 years old, he’s been, he had a serious illness. He’s not interested in playing any active role in a McCain administration, and I resent enormously phone calls that were made by Pat Robertson saying that he was a vicious bigot. I think that one might be. . . .
Reagan: The question is . . . what kind of judges would you appoint to the bench? Would they be Souter-like? Would they be judges in the make of a Bork, a Thomas? What kind of judges could we see from a President McCain?
McCain: My record is very clear as to who I have supported and my record is very clear in public statements that Justice Scalia is a justice that I admire very much. I also happen to admire Justice Rehnquist, Chief Justice Rehnquist, who is from the state of Arizona. . . .
Reagan: All right. Next question, education. . . . What is the McCain plan?
McCain: Choice, ah, by the way, before we go into that, ah, are you—it doesn’t disturb you that Pat Robertson would call up people and say that, that, ah, Warren Rudman is a vicious bigot? I’d like you to talk about that a little bit.
Reagan: No, senator. No, senator. No, senator, because, let me tell you, I think that gets off . . .
McCain: No, let me tell you, let me tell you, when the man’s name is maligned and his reputation is maligned then it ought to be talked about, OK?
Reagan: Senator McCain, goodbye.
[Reagan hangs up on McCain.]
Reagan: Senator McCain, goodbye. [pause] You know something. I’m ripping this up. You lost my vote.
Even before Ralph Nader announced he would seek the Green Party nomination for president, the tiny party’s Oregon contingent was holding an odd convention in Portland, at which members voted to approve Nader. It was an unusual gathering since the party, which prides itself on its egalitarianism, charged those attending $10 a head to enter and vote. Vociferous Greens who don’t like Nader—noting that he barely campaigned the last time he ran—said the fee amounted to an illegal poll tax, which effectively banished those with no money and prevented other candidates from putting forward their programs.
“It is a membership fee,” said Patrick Mazza, a founder of the Oregon Green Party. “The Seattle Greens also have a membership requirement of $15. Nationally, there has been a level of controversy among Greens over whether membership fees should be a criteria for voting, or whether it should be open to all registered party members.”
By a vote of one, the Virginia House of Delegates last month passed legislation to reduce the penalty for sodomy from a five-year felony to a $250 fine. At least under the proposed new law, people convicted of having had anal or oral sex won’t lose the right to vote or hold professional licenses. Chances of final passage are uncertain since it must now go through the conservative Senate and then be accepted by Virginia’s conservative governor, Jim Gilmore. Right-wingers fear a tidal wave of sodomy and ‘‘crimes against nature’’ will sweep the state if the lighter law is enacted.
Additional reporting: Kate Cortesi