The Great Divider


Stare for 30 seconds at the blue-state/red-state map of the continental United States and you might get a cold shiver, for the stark grouping of the colors looks as if we’re having a second Civil War. It’s not that bad—but it’s bad.

President Bush, he of the victorious red states, says—just as he did four years ago upon his first victory—that he will be a uniting force. But then, how to explain why the acts of this unifier’s first four years have brought us to such disunion?

Bush was asked that very question at his post-election news conference. He chose to skate away. Speaking to those Americans who had not voted for him—more than 55 million of the 115 million who cast ballots—he promised to extend an olive branch. But there was a catch. “I’ll reach out,” he said, “to everyone who shares our goals.”

His reach extends, therefore, only to yea-sayers, not to anyone who might express reasonable dissent from a Bush policy decision.

Apparently, dissenters are blue people. They do not understand red. They do not have faith. They must be ignored, defeated, or converted.

Later in the press questioning, Bush said he now has “the will of the people at my back” and added:

“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” That didn’t sound like a man who was going to offer much hospitality to the losers.

Clearly, this election offers no evidence that there’ll be much reaching out now—by either side. And maybe that’s the way it has to be. Maybe we’ll have to endure a long, pitched political battle before we can decide what kind of nation we want to be. Comparatively speaking, we’re still a young state—very powerful but lately very childlike, wanting everything but not willing to sacrifice very much to get it. We’re a nation that has very little in common with the nation that emerged from World War II and has very little memory of it. Sometimes it takes a brutish and even prolonged fight for a people to find their core, their glue of union. And of course there’s always the chance that they’ll find the opposite.

The Republicans have no incentive to reach out now. Their majorities in both houses of Congress grew larger in this election. At the moment, they own Washington—and want to make the condition permanent. The stunned Democrats will have to do their outreach in places other than the capital city.

They must go into all those heartland rural and suburban areas of the country to find out why so many of the working-class, churchgoing people who once were glued to the Democrats’ issues have now turned away—alienated, some say, over a sense that the party that gave them Social Security and the G.I. Bill and affordable mortgages doesn’t relate to them anymore on social and cultural issues like sex, marriage, and small-town virtues. There’s also a contention in the Midwest and Western states that Democratic liberalism from the Northeast and the West Coast has taken on elitist tones that seem to place more importance on spotted owls than on blue-collar jobs. The relentless Republican mantra about “family values”—whether sincere or not—has capitalized on this disenchantment.

Some of the Republican preachments have an ideological, radioactive glow. The Grand Old Party maneuvered successfully to put propositions banning gay marriage on many state ballots. Voters in 11 states—including pivotal Ohio, whose electoral votes got Bush over the top—approved the referenda. In those states, churches with socially conservative congregations were central in getting out the vote. Evangelical Christians—of whom Bush is one—were the core of this voter drive. It would appear that, contrary to long-standing political dogma, this time a larger voter turnout benefited Republicans more than Democrats.

Does anyone else find it eerie that the terrorists who want to bury America shout “God is great!” as they blow up American soldiers in Iraq, and the American president shouts “God is great!” right back at them? Obviously it depends on whose God you’re talking about. In holy wars, one notices, each side says its God is the true divinity and the other side’s is a false one.

Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan have been carrying on a kind of holy war for more than half a century. I have witnessed Pakistani troops praising Allah as they mowed down more secular Bengalis in East Pakistan. And I have covered Hindu extremists’ attacks on Muslim citizens in India. Bestial is too nice an adjective for these slaughters.

Perhaps I digress. But I raised the holy-war analogy because there’s a feel of holy-war fever in America. And I don’t believe that religion should ever be kidnapped so it can be used as a rationale for war. There is no rationale for war except self-defense.

Our founding documents and their authors all spoke of God and religion, but they said these were private things, to be protected by the Constitution. No man’s religion was to be forced onto those with other beliefs. America was built as a refuge from religious persecution. That’s the reason for our principle of separation of church and state.

Some of the Republicans who were swept into the U.S. Senate with the Bush victory talk a lot about their Christian conservative beliefs. Jim DeMint, chosen in South Carolina, says he would ban gays from teaching in public schools, along with single pregnant women who live with their boyfriends. John Thune, who defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota, is also a Christian conservative—one of his campaign ads defined him as a “servant leader.” He wants to see constitutional amendments against flag burning and gay marriage.

Just before the election, James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and a major figure in the Christian conservative movement, told The New York Times that George Bush had made the Republican party pay attention to the movement. Speaking of God, Dobson said: “I felt he wanted me this time to pour myself into this, no matter how much pain or stress or physical inconvenience, to try to influence this election. God may have chosen a different track. I don’t perceive it, but he might.”

Of the many paradoxes in this election’s voting patterns, religion and morality issues may be the key puzzle still to be deciphered. It is not unfair to point out that President Bush repeatedly spoke major falsehoods in order to win public support for the invasion of Iraq. He has never acknowledged his twisting of the truth. How does this fit with Christian morality? Thousands have died in this war. Do Christian conservatives believe that God has a larger plan that made the president’s lying to the public acceptable?

Perhaps of greater moment is whether we can follow this president’s plans and still call ourselves a secular democracy.