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America is about to do away with Bush, but will it do away with religious fanaticism?


Historically, whenever politics and religion mixed, the results were catastrophic for humanity. In the developed world today, politics and religion have, thankfully enough, gone for the most part their own separate ways, but not so in the United States where the religious right is not merely thriving but has aligned itself with conservative political ideology and corporate power and thus not only legitimates intolerance and bigotry but has formed the basis for an emerging authoritarianism that easily derides appeals to reason, dissent, dialogue and secular humanism.

With George W. Bush’s presidency coming to an end, religious fundamentalism in the US seems once again to be in overdrive in its effort to define politics through a reductive and somewhat fanatical moralism, this time centered on its support for Sarah Palin, the newest light in the evangelical quest to make religion the ultimate measure of one’s politics. This kind of religious zealotry has a long tradition in American history extending from the arrival of Puritanism in the seventeenth century to the current spread of Pentecostalism. This often ignored history, imbued with theocratic certainty and moral absolutism, has been quite powerful in providing religious justification to the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, the parlance of the Robber Barons and the patriarchy-imbued discourse of “family values.”

The historical lesson here is not only that moral certainty when mixed with politics produces zealots who believe they have a monopoly on the truth and a legitimate rationale for refusing to engage ambiguities, but that it also fuels an intolerance toward others who do not follow the scripted, righteous path of officially sanctioned beliefs and behavior. “Family values” is now joined with an emotionally charged rhetorical appeal to “faith” as the new code words for cultural conservatism. This trend has been most evident under the presidency of George W. Bush, whose policies nourished and strengthened a number of antidemocratic forces, including the Republican Party’s war on science, an elaborate system of wiretapping, torture, an imperial presidency, the rise and influence of right-wing Christian extremists, and a government draped in secrecy, and an all too casual willingness to suspend civil liberties. In the tawdry mix of politics and religious extremism that has defined American politics in the Bush era, we have witnessed an alliance of conservative politicians and right-wing Christians which has sought to make an impact on key policy areas ranging from abortion and sexual conduct to the way evolution is taught in schools.

A glimpse of this history was evident when George W. Bush kicked off his first presidential campaign by speaking at Bob Jones University and soon afterwards appointed Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, as one of his top advisers. A more recent indication of the mixing of power, religion, and politics occurred when Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 fully embraced the support of right-wing religious television personality John Hagee, who has argued among other things that all Muslims have a “mandate to kill Christians and Jews.” McCain also courted the support of Rod Parsley and the late Jerry Falwell, right-wing religious extremists whom McCain had once labeled as “agents of religious intolerance.”

For the last eight years under the Bush administration, religious correctness exercised a powerful influence on American society. The morality police were everywhere, denouncing everything from Janet Jackson’s out-of-wardrobe display to the wanton satanic influence of the television show Desperate Housewives. But the morality police did more than censor and impose their theocratic moralism on everyone else’s behavior; they also elected politicians whose religious fanaticism and democratic bad faith did not augur well for the future of democracy in the United States. Dressed up as in the rhetoric of religious faith and biblical certainty, right-wing religious extremists have kept the virus of hatred alive while arguing, as Chris Hedges points out, “that American Christians have been mandated by God to make America a Christian state….[Needless to say], the only legitimate voice in this state will be Christian. All others will be silenced.” At a recent McCain rally, Republican North Carolina representative Patrick McHenry made the point clearly when he told the crowd that “liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God.” Clearly, in this rather narrow view of politics, there is no room for dissent or for those who question the self-righteous precepts of Christian religious extremism.

The rise of the religious zealot as politician is readily apparent in the rise to the highest levels of government by religious hucksters such as former attorney general John Ashcroft and born-again Christian conservatives such as Bush himself, as well as in the emergence of a new breed of faith-bearing politicians who cut across party lines. Conservative Christian moralism in the last decade traveled straight to the highest levels of power, as was most obvious in the 2004 election to the U.S. Senate of a new crop of what New York Times columnist Frank Rich called “opportunistic ayatollahs on the right.” For instance, the then elected senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, not only publicly argued for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions but also insisted that lesbianism is so rampant in the schools in Oklahoma that school officials let only one girl at a time go to the bathroom. Jim DeMint, then a senator from South Carolina, stated that he would not want to see “a single woman who was pregnant and living with her boyfriend teaching in the public schools.” DeMint has also declared that he wanted to ban gays from teaching in public schools, as well. Jon Thune, the then newly elected senator from South Dakota, supported a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, not to mention another amendment making permanent Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. Four years later, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin argued that women should be denied an abortion even if they conceive a child as a result of rape or incest. Her reactionary Bible-thumping ideology and scorn for the environment, science, and women’s rights were on full display in her classic right-wing fundamentalist opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research coupled with her support for teaching Creationism in public schools. She has also argued that the U.S. mission in Iraq is a “task that is from God.”

Widely recognized as creating the first faith-based presidency, George W. Bush did more during his two terms in office to advance the agenda of right-wing evangelicals than any other president in recent history, and it is conceivable given the current need for affirming one’s faith in politics that his successor will not challenge those faith-based policies. Indeed, while neither Obama or McCain are contaminated with the religious fanatical beliefs of George W. Bush, neither one of them is likely to take on the Christian right and change the course of the impact of religion in American politics. Indicative of how deeply entrenched religion is in American politics, toward the end of his acceptance speech for the Democratic Party’s nomination as president, Barack Obama borrowed repeatedly phrases from the New Testament and has said all along that he will continue with Bush's "faith-based" social welfare programs if elected president of the United States.