Where the World's Views of America Come into Focus
By Adam Szostkiewicz
Translated By Marek Szorc
George W. Bush owes his election, above all, to the Christian evangelicals. He won by almost four million votes - the same amount that Karl Rove, the president's famous campaign strategist, estimated as the total number of the religious right in the electorate. His electoral mobilization plan worked (though the turnout increase cannot be attributed solely to right-wing Christians, as 15 million more Americans voted this time.) So who are these evangelical Christians?
During the campaign, pollsters asked voters which issues they considered most important: the Iraq War, terrorism, the economy, the environment etc. But according to Dr. Lance Montauk of the San Francisco University Hospital, people don't base their decisions on these issues alone.
"Fewer and fewer people identify with one party or the other, or have clearly formed political convictions. Take for example the southern guy who likes to shoot and is therefore for Bush, because he defends the right to bear arms. That same guy lost his job as a result of the free trade policy of Bush's government. The guy comes home and sees gay marriages on TV. Who do you think he'll vote for?"
Before the November [presidential] election, the Christian Coalition sent out 70 million copies of an electoral guide to all fifty states, in both Spanish and English. It reminded voters of Kerry and Bush's take on abortion, public schools, and tax cuts - but it didn't openly call on them to vote for Bush.
The intention, however, was to make sure that voters had no doubt which of the two candidates cared more about faith, family, and freedom. Immediately after Bush's victory, the Christian Coalition intensified its signature gathering effort for its campaign to "Win Back America." Christian Coalition activists wanted to win America back from the hands of the "judicial tyrants" of the federal Supreme Court.
What's wrong with the [Supreme Court] Justices? They legalized abortion, seek to remove the Ten Commandments from public places, and ban the Pledge of Allegiance, with the excuse that it is contrary to the freedom of religion because it invokes God. "Send us letters of support for congressmen who demand that Congress pass laws in accordance with the will of the nation," say leaders of the Coalition. "Distribute the petition among your friends, families and churches."
Organizations like the Christian Coalition are the motors of the American religious right. Its base is composed of Christians of various denominations and churches. For some, the religious right is a movement that inspires hope for America's moral rebirth, for others it is a dangerous sect of religious bigots.
In San Francisco, once the world capital of hippiedom, it is the latter view that dominates. In this part of the world, political neutrality means supporting the Democrats; if someone dares to back the Republicans, he'll be shouted down as being intolerant, says Dr. Montauk. "Bush supporters either stay silent or get out of the city."
But America is more than just California. In the late nineties when Bill Clinton was president, the Coalition was derided as part of the scrap heap of history. But the Coalition returned. Its founder, the Reverend Pat Robertson, campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1988. But the Republicans, though conservative, weren't eager for an open alliance with the religious right. They were afraid that its social radicalism would frighten away moderate and secular voters.
But in the end, the voices of those who saw the radicals' votes as necessary for Republicans and who supported a tactical alliance with them, came to dominate the Party. They tried to downplay or ignore controversial issues like school prayer, abortion or the rights of sexual minorities, while pushing slogans about the war on crime and the growing problem of unwed mothers.
DO WHAT YOU WANT, BUT QUIETLY
Leaders of the Christian Right for their part soon learned the art of electoral politics. Ralph Reed, one of the Coalition's strategists and Pat Robertson's successor, forced the organization to moderate its tone: Do what you want, but quietly; speak up only after you've achieved power. Political struggle is like guerilla warfare - don't betray your positions to the enemy.
The Coalition succeeded and incorporated the earlier conservative Christian movement - the Moral Majority. The name is significant. It was meant to be a movement bringing together all Americans who felt they were being discriminated against in their own country, even though they formed the majority. The Moral Majority fought against legalized abortion, homosexuality, and the undermining of traditional family values in the media. It had supporters among both Republican and Democratic voters. Officially at least, it kept its distance from partisan politics.
Falwell and Robinson, both idols of America's faithful, became famous again after 9/11. Along with the Islamic terrorists, they also blamed godless Americans - "pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, the ACLU, and all those who provoke God's anger." Three days before the 2004 presidential election, the 71-year-old Reverend Falwell attacked John Kerry for his opposition to a ban on gay marriage. "It's as if 150 years ago someone said, personally I'm against slavery but if my neighbor wants to have two slaves, go ahead."
Now, after Bush's second victory, Falwell wants to resurrect the Moral Majority for the twenty first century. It is to be called the Faith and Values Coalition. Like the Christian Coalition, it is meant to help the president appoint anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court and to seek a candidate who could be the next Bush.
Under Clinton, the opponents of the Christian fundamentalists joked that the Moral Majority was a double myth - neither moral nor a majority. Today the Democrats and the religious left (which of course exist in the U.S. as well) aren't laughing. Even the very liberal representative of the latter, Bishop John Shelby Spong, admits that the political map of America after the elections illustrates the social consequences of "the death of God."
AFTER THE DEATH OF GOD
As a left-wing cleric, Spong is mourning the recent electoral results. According to Spong, the red states were not capable of coming to terms with the end of the traditional understanding of God and the place of religion. That's why they are defending obsolete ideas and a stale vision of the world. In the blue states on the other hand - in places where the spirit of modernity is triumphant, places that cannot be forced into the old framework of religious faith - we are witnessing the birth pangs of a new vision of God.
"As long as childbirth has not been successfully completed, America will remain torn into two camps which symbolize contrasting responses to the same very real spiritual crisis." How accurate is this diagnosis? Well the fact is, there's a lot less blue than red on the map of America.
Not all Christian evangelicals are fundamentalists seeking to remove evolution from the educational system and murdering doctors at abortion clinics. Many of them, probably a large majority, are simply traditionalists attached to two very American ideals - a personal faith in Christ and working for the local community in that spirit. They aren't politically active on a daily basis. Instead, they occupy themselves with bible studies, prayer and help their fellow citizens and try to convert their fellow citizens' (normally, the two activities are linked) in jails, retirement homes, educational and cultural institutions, or simply on the street.
Under Clinton, that sort of religious-social activity was not supported by government funds. Under Bush, the situation has changed radically, which of course provokes the left to protest that this is the favoring of organized religion at the cost of religious neutrality.
Critics have also highlighted the names of evangelical activists - defenders of life and family - who Bush has nominated to represent the U.S. in the U.N. and other international forums. There they have allied themselves with the Vatican and delegates of Muslim states. But the greatest tension comes from the constant desire of evangelicals to mount campaigns aimed at American liberals
REVEREND GRAHAM'S SLIPS OF THE TONGUE
Probably the most famous Christian evangelical in the world is the Reverend Billy Graham. Like many Christians like him, he belongs to the powerful Southern Baptist Church. Like almost all Southern Baptist's, he underwent a spiritual rebirth - "he accepted Christ into his personal life," and accepted the Bible as the one and only infallible guide. From that point on, his sermons have drawn crowds in the U.S. and around the world.
His wife Ruth is a daughter of American missionaries who went to China. The couple has five children, nineteen grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She took care of the home and brought up the children, he occupied himself with preaching the gospel and earning money for his family and his missionary organization (he made an enormous fortune which he uses to finance his religious-charitable activities). Ruth went to school in what is now North Korea, winning the Reverend Graham friends even among the Communist authorities. He also served the North's former dictator Kim il-Sung as a diplomatic mailman.
When President Reagan invited him to a reception for the Gorbachevs [former leader of the Soviet Union and his wife], the Reverend amused Mrs. Gorbachev with a discussion of the bible. "When one begins to seriously talk with people who call themselves atheists, it becomes clear that they have inside them a hunger for truth and the purpose of life," reminisces Graham. Asked what advice he would give his eldest son, he responded "Study the Word, follow the Bible in your life and spend time with your family." That is the credo of the evangelicals.
But even Dr.Graham has had his problems. He was accused of using his influence on President Nixon to remove journalists of Jewish origin from the media. He was angry that they criticized the Vietnam War. The Reverend had long denied this, but two years ago, recordings of one of his conversations with Nixon became public: "I have many friends among the Jews because they know I'm a friend of Israel, but they don't know what I think of what they're doing to our country." Graham apologized and said he didn't remember the conversation.
He isn't the only leader of Christian America who flirts with anti-Semitism. In one of his many books, Reverend [Pat] Robertson spoke of a conspiracy of Jewish bankers seeking to rule the world. That doesn't stop some of Christian evangelicals from supporting the Israeli state. That gives them the support of religious conservatives, and pro-Israeli American Jews. Conservative Catholics are another group of allies, who in practice are almost the same as evangelicals, even though the latter are almost all Protestants. American Catholics are on the defensive after a series of sex scandals in the Church. Anger and bitterness push them in the direction of the evangelicals, who mistrust elites.
AN AMERICAN RAIO MARYJA?
If this story of America's right-wing Christians reminds anyone of the Radio Maryja movement and its role in Polish politics, I recommend caution. [the "Radio Maryja" movement is shorthand for Poland's Catholic extreme right. Radio Maryja is their very popular radio station.] The similarities are at times striking but can also be quite misleading - A farmer from the middle of nowhere [in the U.S.] gets up early in the morning and checks the futures market and his e-mail - only then does he go pray. And the cities [in the U.S.] where people of color are moving are also strongholds of the conservative Christians. The Christian [Right] occupies a different social class than the Catholic one in Poland.
The Reverend Graham, old and suffering from Parkinson's [disease] is now turning things over to a new generation of preachers. Perhaps the most talented is the Reverend Rick Warren. He's a prophet of the 21st century mega-church. Twenty years ago he started from nothing. Together with his future wife, he founded a seven-person bible discussion group in California. Two hundred people attended his church's first service. Today he has tens of thousands of faithful and millions of readers - he also writes spiritual bestsellers. Republican politicians give them to each other as presents. Warren's community is made up of modern looking people - clean, relaxed, and well dressed - no depressing hicks.
You can see the same thing in Colorado Springs, near Denver, at the headquarters of the New Live Church, another powerful Christian-Right organization. Houses of Christian businessmen who give large amounts of money to the church surround its prayer center. No one here wastes time singing hymns. The activists are active - they organize campaigns against abortion and homosexuals. And with all of the moral slogans, they enlarge the president's political base. The head of the Church, Ted Brendle, was a guest of President Bush at the White House. That's how American Christians do politics these days.
This Christian infantry and its leaders are full of energy. But if this army gets out in front of the civilians (i.e. most of the Republican electorate, which is far less religious and less interested in social issues) and forces its extreme right-wing program on Bush, the pendulum of public opinion will swing in the opposite direction. If Bush becomes hostage to the religious-right, he'll lose moderate Republicans and that will increase the chances for a Democratic victory in four years. In a deeply divided America you can't push too hard - even under Jesus' command.