Bush: The New Age candidate of the Christian Right?

BushprayingIt’s been almost a week since Ron Suskind did his best to electrify the anti-evangelical voter base on behalf of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and, thus, the Democratic Party. His “Without a Doubt” essay was a rock, thrown into the pond of elite media opinion shortly before the battle to save civilization. The ripples should continue until the election. Once again, here is his lead:

Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that “if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.” The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.

You may as well have added a few more pairings to that list — the smart and the stupid, the sane and the almost insane or, in the terminology of sociologist James Davison Hunter, the progressive and the orthodox. The bottom line was crystal clear: President Bush and his supporters are dangerous fundamentalists and linked at the theological hip with the very Al Qaeda fanatics they say they oppose. They are spiritual blood brothers.

It was no surprise Jeff “The Hulk” Sharlet at TheRevealer.org posted an essay in response to the Suskind opus. It was also not surprising that Sharlet caught the serious flaw in Suskind’s fundamental charge against the president — that he is a fundamentalist.

No, Sharlet had another label to pin on George W. Bush, a much more creative and insightful label. Bush, he says, is in his heart of hearts closely linked to the no facts, just faith school of thought often called “New Age.” Based on what we know about Bush’s faith, and there are very few specifics on the record, Sharlet believes that one of the last things anyone could call Bush is a “fundamentalist.” There is no such thing as a vague fundamentalist. Here is a large chunk of Sharlet’s argument:

A common aspect of many New Age schools of thought (though not all) is a gentle disdain for perceived reality. That’s different from the fundamentalist aversion to worldliness; rather, this approach views the “real world” as that which is within the mind or heart or spirit of the believer. That idea is often dismissed as a modern bastardization of psychology, but many New Agers argue that their beliefs are actually ancient; and, despite the fact that the superficial characteristics are often of a recent vintage, there’s some truth to that assertion. New Age religions are, literally, reactionary, responses to what’s been called the disenchantment of the world. Another word for that process is the Enlightenment, with its claims of empirical accuracy. New Age movements attempt to revive — or create anew — pre-Enlightenment ideas about magic, alchemy, ghosts, and whatever else practitioners can glean from a record for the most part expunged by institutional Christianity.

Christian fundamentalism, meanwhile, is the child of the Enlightenment, a functionalist view of faith that’s metaphorically `scientific.` It’s scripture as read by a cranky engineer who just wants to know how God works. The Bible, for a fundamentalist, isn’t powerful literature demanding our ever-changing discernment; it’s an instruction manual. And fundamentalists think that’s a good thing.

Magic_bush_1You can disagree with Sharlet’s point of view, but he is on to something. Nevertheless, I think he needs to consider another explanation for the phenomenon that bugs him.

Perhaps Bush is vague because his faith is vague. Perhaps he is, in the end, a five-star example of a free-church Protestant whose faith is highly personal, highly individualistic and not linked to a particular creed or set of dogmas. In a strange way, Bill Clinton had the same kind of faith — only it appears that he reached some different conclusions. Truth is, nobody knows. No one knows many of the specifics of Bush’s faith, because he only talks about his beliefs in very general, emotional terms.

And all those pew-sitting Bush supporters? Are they New Agers or fundamentalists?

Sharlet notes that Bush believers long for moral absolutes, but they:

… (Don’t) care about empirical definitions. They’re not literalists, in the sense that they don’t cling to language. In fact, they don’t trust language, which is why they read clunky, soulless translations of scripture, when they read it at all. The Community Bible Study approach to biblical education through which Bush found his faith is not based on intense reading, but on personal meditations built around a sentence or two. Bush himself doesn’t study the Bible; he samples phrases and invokes them like spells.

That may be true of Bush (again, we really don’t know) and it may be true of many people who call themselves “born-again Christians,” but don’t believe in getting much more specific than that. But this distrust of precise language is certainly not true of the president’s many supporters among Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, hard-core Baptists, traditional Lutherans, evangelical Presbyterians and a host of other believers who are more than willing to say the Apostles Creed without crossing their fingers.

I wrote Sharlet and asked him if, in effect, he had placed the president on trial and found him guilty of being a perfectly normal, off-the-rack, born again, megachurch, name it-claim it American Protestant.

And one more thing. If some journalists and intellectuals are screaming bloody murder about Bush’s faith being too vague, imagine how much noise they would make if he started getting specific and naming names, doctrinally speaking. In a strange sort of way, John “I was an altar boy” Kerry is in a better position to talk about his faith. Since he is, supposedly, part of a highly doctrinal faith — Roman Catholicism — he can stand up and describe his faith by rejecting the specifics. That works.

Sharlet wrote back, concerning Bush: “I don’t think there’d be a problem if he was doctrinal, so long as he respected separation of church and state. The mistake most pundits make, I think, is in assuming that that separation is simple; it’s not.”

I am sure there is more to come on this subject, as strategists on both sides rally their troops.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    My response to Terry’s email was a little flip only because I’m laid up with what I hope isn’t bronchitis. But I should add that Terry asked me whether I was “accusing” Bush of being a Free Church Protestant. In fact, I wasn’t “accusing” Bush of anything. And, just to be clear, I’m not a Kerry supporter, either; as I already wrote on The Revealer, I’m not voting.

    What I did say about Bush was that there similarities in his faith, as revealed by his supporters and detractors, and some brands of New Age thinking. Terry says that there’s no way for us to know that Bush doesn’t really read the Bible; I guess I was assuming that the numerous books and documentaries by Bush supporters were reliable sources. Not to mention the the Community Bible Study program, which de-emphasizes serious study in favor of therapeutic meditations and discussions. I’m not accusing them of anything, either; that’s just what they do.

    Moreover, I didn’t say Bush’s faith was “vague”; I said it was “magical.” There’s nothing vague about magical thinking. Magical thinking is, in fact, very specific about what it can accomplish, just as Bush has been.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It’s so hard to get the tone right in emails. The “accuse” thing is a perfect example. We need an irony typeface.

    * I came closer to what I meant when I said that Bush had been put on trial and found guilty of being, etc. etc. I was trying to be a bit absurd with the wording. What I really mean is that Bush is a normal believer, of that vague school.

    * And where did I say that he doesn’t read the Bible? He does. So does Clinton. What I said is that his specific beliefs appear (again, how would we know) to be very vague and free of doctrinal specifics. I know lots of people who read the Bible all the time and they still have a radically individualized, private faith.

    * Is there a “magical” creed somewhere? Jeff, I know what you are getting at. It may seem highly precise to you that Bush has faith in faith itself, in his gut, in his instincts. I can see that. But that sounds totally vague and Sheila-like to me.

    I find it fascinating that so many people who hold highly specific and articulated beliefs have so much faith in a president whose beliefs seem so — vague and centered in feelings and emotions.

    Better?

  • Bec

    Long-time reader, first-time poster…(I think)

    I read Sharlet’s essay and thought much the same thing as tmatt…and having abandoned that free-church tradition, I was glad to see it articulated so clearly…thanks to both (tmatt and Sharlet) of you for your work on this one.

    Bush’s faith-in-faith thing is no different than that of so many who fill those big, fluffy mega-churches.

    It’s something that the mainstream media, I think, has missed, because they themselves have missed some of those differences between a true, KJV-only fundamentalist and the mega-church-style Evangelical. The former vote for Bush, probably, because he’s opposed to killing the unborn. The latter vote for him, in part because of his opposition to abortion, but also because he seems to approach his faith in the same warm, fuzzy, seeker-sensitive way they do. He is one of their own.

  • harris

    One other aspect: this “faith in faith” is also peculiarly American. That is it doesn’t need a religious base, but rather is the common coin of much of our life. We see it when celebrities are interviewed, when we read various business books, etc. It is such an American trait.

    The relative absence of content in the President’s faith is also noted by Ayelish McGarvey at The American Prospect (“As God Is Hist Witness” http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=8790)

  • aziz

    I also saw this on Jeff Sharlet’s blog regarding Ayelish McGarvey’s American Prospect piece on Bush’s theology…Sharlet seemed to love the piece.

    http://www.therevealer.org/archives/timely_001048.php

    It seems like she blasted Suskind out of the water, but the story has had really mixed reviews. Terry, I’m interested to hear what you think of it.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    There was this one line from the Suskind story said by a Bush official:

    “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    I can’t decide if it’s moral/New Age relativism or the arrogance of believing you create your own weather system. Either way, that one line waves major red flags for me. It’s post-modern philosophy coming from a presidential team that swears by Biblical truth. Something tells me you can’t mix them without major consequences down the line. It ain’t grounded in Micah 6.8, that’s for sure.

    I’ve been a Christian for nearly 15 years now, and the worry that has nagged at me all this time is that the Christian church is too cozy with politicians. If we as a body start riding on the GOP or Dem bandwagon, and they’re spouting this language that’s bordering on un-Biblical and self-worshiping, what happens when their fall happens? We go over with the bandwagon… and pretty much leave ourselves like the English church now, stuck with low attendance and daily, desperate prayers for a revival.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DW:

    Politics is compromise. That’s a given. The issue is whether you have any idea what the principles are that support anyone’s actions in the political community. What is the long-range goal? What are the compromises that accomplish anything?

    But it is always interesting to note what a politician WILL NOT, under any circumstance, compromise. Clinton, for example, was willing to nail labor, but never compromised on any issue related to abortion. (He mad symbolic compromises in Arkansas, but not when it mattered.) You would have to say that abortion was his north star, as opposed to progressive economics or something tied to old-fashioned liberalism and the old Democratic coalition.

    Here is an image used by many in DC: The Democrats can afford to stiff labor, because labor has nowhere else to go. The GOP can, in the end, afford to stiff the Religious Right because IT has nowhere else to go. Make sense?

  • Pat O’Driscoll

    Hey, I’m a couple of days late to this particular party, but some thoughts from the ranks of the fallen-away in reaction to Terry’s posting about this:

    May I focus a moment on the “fundamental/fundamentalist” thing? As a newspaper journalist myself, I know we often get wrong our simplistic references to “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” and, for that matter, even “Christian.” We can and should do better, and it’s discouraging and infuriating that newspapers still fumble repeatedly.

    That said, look again at Suskind’s lede/nut graf in the NYT Mag piece, the thing that triggered this thread. He DIDN’T say Bush is a fundamentalist, and I’d argue that his use of the word here is part of a series of images (“modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion”) that were meant to summarize, not to precisely identify or label.

    Fault Suskind if you want for his views and, OK, his sloppy imprecision with terminology. But in this 8,000-word article, the word “fundamentalist” occurred just twice more, and neither was in reference to Bush, either.

    Also, frankly, I read the NYT piece with a double-meaning sense of “faith.” Bush’s Christian religious faith, sure — but also that “true-believer” sense of rightness and righteousness that isn’t always about religious belief.

    All of that said, I agree with both Terry and Jeff about Bush’s faith, what little we know of it. Sounds far more New-Age/magical/free Protestant than anything else — not (to quote the “Seinfeld” catch phrase) that there’s anything wrong with that!

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    What a remarkably pleasant discussion! I guess Get Religion’s demand that posters be civil worked. Anyway, apologies, Terry, irony upon irony upon irony not translating into email. We’re undertaking the same investigation from somewhat different perspectives.

    Two minor points: 1. You raise the possible interpretation that Bush can stiff the religious right because they have nowhere else to go. Of course, that’s not true — they can go where they always have over the last century when they felt stiffed — back to their churches. I predict there will be a separtist strain that won’t vote because a)they recognize Bush is mostly just talk about abortion; b)they believe he misled the country, and lying ain’t Christian; c)he’s proud.

    2. I was enthusiastic about Ayelish McGarvey’s piece not because I’m a rabid Bush basher (as I said, I’m not voting, though not for the reasons above), but because she decided to tackle Bush’s revealed theology head-on and take him at his word, something most journalists are either too “respectful” or too snotty to do.

  • http://www.dailykos.com/user/Troutfishing Troutfishing

    Hi – I’ve never seen this venue before, but I’ve been studying the rise of the religious right in America quite intensely of late and – reading through the commentaries here – I’ve noticed a curious absence. Let me point at that by way of an elliptical lead in :

    [ note also - this essay grew in the telling. I intended to write a short comment but it grew into an entire essay, of which this is the first draft. I'll rework it into - I hope - more lucid and polished form as I have time in the next couple (busy) weeks ]

    _________________________

    The Religious Right as a New Age Christian, Moral Relativist Cargo Cult ? -

    Several loose hypotheses about the resurgent American religious right have been floating around in my head for several years now, that it is : 1) a “New Age” mutation of Christianity, a hybrid which involves magical thinking about the power of beliefs and faith to alter fundamental underlying aspects of the reality we live in, and 2) the real metastasis of moral relativism in American society – even as “moral relativism” is constantly inveighed against and excoriated by leaders of the movement.

    But, although I think there is much to be gained from those perspectives as lenses into the religious right, they – like all frames of reference – also obscure much :

    [ What this Movement is really About : A New Theology called Dominionism ]

    : those are speculative notions, but the rise of the Religious Right in America is tied to and propelled by the recrudescence of a Dominionist theology which has sharply broken from centuries of mainstream Protestant tradition, a theology which demands of it’s faithful that they establish a worldly “kingdom of God”, a “Dominion” of the faithful over the profane world and over all nonbelievers and which subordinates both America and – eventually – the World to perceived Biblical law.

    In this, the American religious right is now propelled by the same ideological zeal – or fanaticism which inspired the Christian Crusaders and which and guided the armies of Islam as they swept outward in all directions from Mecca to establish a new major world religion.

    _____________________

    In my own life, I have until rather recently ignored – almost to the point of sublimation – the pronouncements and behavior of the Religious Right, and also belittled the movement and discounted it’s growing political power (though I count a member of that movement in my immediate family) until recently because I did not have an overall explanatory frame of reference – and so the cultural expressions of the movement seemed to me to be a bad, tasteless joke – the religious equivalent of black velvet paintings of unicorns, Jesus Christ, or Elvis Presley : and it’s political expressions seemed to me a rather worrisome but inchoate and naive force, a force which surely would be driven back in the end by Enlightenment rationality and by the more temperate, ecumenical, and inclusive religious tendencies, those which recognize the need for secular governance as a precondition to the peaceful coexistence of different and, at times, clashing and competing religious faiths.

    I was very wrong on this, and my instincts were confused for a lack of any explanatory frame to bind together my clashing visceral impressions of the behavior of the new religious right

    _______________________

    A Cultural Schism with Dark Underpinnings

    The Religious Right – in both cultural and theological terms – has sheared off from the American mainstream, and though it could never be classed as a cult simply for the wide profusion of competing tendencies within the movement, it carries some of the characteristics of cult-like behavior – especially in it’s inclination towards ideological self protection.

    Significant elements of the Religious Right have become cultlike :

    : cultlike for a sense that the cultural and intellectual offerings of wider American society are suspect, impure, and to guarded against by firewalls of the now flourishing alternative Christian culture industry……..

    : cultlike for an aggressive rejection of many of the mainstream tenets of modern science, the very existence of Global Warming or the proposition – - that the Earth’s carrying capacity – as defined especially by those biological systems which undergird and support human life, produce oxygen, maintain the atmosphere, and so on – - amount to some sort of scientific conspiracy foisted by the imagined dark forces of secular humanism………

    : cultlike for a paranoid expressed as a sense that it now fights an apocalyptic war against evil, an evil that is seen as omnipresent and manifested in specific humans, politicians, and political parties, which leaders of the movement claim to be able to identify with the inerrant of a Torquemada, in a titanic battle begriming to approach a climax [ see : http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=426 - Village Voice, May 18, 2004 for a vivid description of this ] ……..

    : cultlike for not one, yes, but for it’s many charismatic leaders who lay claim to an absolute inerrancy of Biblical and prophetic interpretation which begs – but not to the faithful – the invocation of numerous Biblical warnings against false prophets, and who even – at the depths of Dominion Theology – claim that humans have the right to rule on Earth “as” God : call that a theocracy, a caliphate, or a Talibanate – but there it is : man as God (this has received scant notice except for a few in the Christian and the Christian evangelical community who call these doctrines “heresy” and “blasphemy”)……..

    : cultlike further for the fact that – and this has been barely acknowledged by wider American culture, by commentators of any stripe – that this theological drift has also come to be characterized by explicit teleological doctrines which hold that any and all methods, including – quite explicitly – violence and deceit – are justified in the service of the goal : the establishment of Dominionist Christian rule. (citations provided on request)…..

    : cultlike – dangerously so – for it’s growing militancy, for the militancy which colors it’s religious and secular speech (although it would not grant that distinction), for the hate speech by it’s leaders – more characteristic, usually, of extreme fringe hate groups, which has often called for the elimination of entire classes of society, likening this to a “fumigation” (Pat Robertson) and which can be seen at times noticeably mirrored in the speech of believers….

    : cultlike for it’s implicit belief that it is fighting a literal war, and for the manifestations of that belief – in – surprisingly – recruitment tactics that in some cases are modelled along “cellular” lines such as those employ by terrorist groups (references on request), in a highly conscious overall strategy which seeks to place believers (Dominionists, whether Catholic, Protestant, or even from the Unification Church ) in key positions of political office at all levels.

    : cultlike, further, for it’s development of “parareligious” organizations which both seek to enhance and support faith (sometimes for quite positive reasons) but also sometimes carry overtly militaristic overtones : hence, the movement of the “Kingdom Warriors”, the rise in Christian clubs playing what could be seen as military training exercises, and the rise in “Christian” martial arts training schools.

    : cultlike, further, for it’s attempts to place believers in the US military establishment [ see : http://www.yuricareport.com/Dominionism/InfiltratingTheUSMilitaryGenBoykinsWarriors.html#_edn4 ] and even to win converts, in the US Special Forces, who are guided – as believers – by mentors in “tightly disciplined” and “accountable” relationships which, as in proselytizing and conversion efforts in civilian sectors by the religious right, employ practices that are highly distinctive of cults :

    : cultlike for an emphasis on the breakdown, or elimination of individuality ( citations on request ) which demands, in a highly disciplined overall environment, a subculture of constant self disclosure in which believers are urged to renounce and never to hold any personal secrets. These practices are common in both terrorist groups, cult groups, and in some types of military training where absolute inter-group loyalty is crucial to that group’s survival and success.

    : cultlike to the extent of individual commitment demanded – members of the highly influential COR (Coalition on Revival) are required to swear a blood oath, that they will give their lives in their attempt, if need be, in the service of attaining Dominionist rule.

    ( references on request : all the preceding accusations are not mine but have been made by journalists who cover the religious right extensively or by apostates from the Religious Right movement who feel that it has strayed from core principles of Christianity, from an emphasis on Gospel teaching.)

    ________________

    So – in short – the American Christian right (and parallel movements in Australia and elsewhere around the Globe) has evolved into a largely parallel culture which is growing increasingly cult-like and militant in it’s overall agenda, the push for a “Dominion” which is very much of this eEarth – it’s split from mainstream culture, into an alternate vision of reality, has been guided and shaped by a growing empire of Televangelists, overall Christian television and radio broadcasting, Christian music, and all manner of Christian cultural offerings and products that mirror their counterparts in larger society. To live in this realm, in the bosom of this culture is to never experience challenges to the faith, and it is to live apart from all those not of the faith :

    So, now, the religious right views larger, secularized American culture with a similar uncomprehending eye that the larger culture casts at the Religious Right : as a bizarre “otherness” which is, to them, obviously evil.

    Forces on both sides of the divide eye each other warily and with mutual incomprehension and distaste : at their worst, much of the rest of American culture – whether overtly secular or simply not of faith traditions which are not involved with the religious right – looks across the divide with incomprehension, distaste, scorn, and fear. And the religious right scowls or glares out, in turn, with an equivalent incomprehension that views secularized culture – all culture, even, which is not overtly based on Biblical precepts (such as they interpret those) as a corrupting abomination, a Satanic force which seeks to drive God (as they see God) from the land and from their lives.

    The tension along that cultural divide has long been felt, and lived by a few – and suspected by far more as an inchoately felt sense of unease – at the growing evidence of committed Christian ideologues at the highest levels of government, at the sudden and expanding phenomenon of “Faith Based” government as expressed through “Faith Based” prisons, social programs, birth control programs (abstinence), and so on, at the sense – perhaps – that somehow which defies description or analysis is occurring, some malevolent shift in American culture and politics marked by anger, confrontation, fear, and extreme political – almost inexplicable – mendacity.

    This emergent cultural divide is felt, yes – and quite keenly by many.

    But, what has been far less well known, truly understood, or felt at a level – by those opposed to theocratic projects – which is so faint as to be wildly disproportionate to the threat is this :

    Leaders of the Religious Right publicly articulated a well defined plan – with explicit timetables that so far have been met (and will continue to be met if George W. Bush is reelected) for the gradual takeover of US government over the course of the ensuing two decades.

    The tactics were fashioned by skilled, well seasoned political advisors, and Texas came first : the takeover of the Texas State GOP has been written of quite extensively, but the movement continued until now we are at a political junction in American politics where one bifurcation point – that represented by George W. Bush – leads to a likely transformation of the Supreme Court, into a theologically driven, biblically oriented legal body and to a further cementing of the influence of the Religious Right on the Presidency, the Federal Judiciary, and a Congress in which, currently, 41 Republican Senators can boast of a 100% record of voting approval from Pat Robertson’s “Christian Coalition”, while all but one or two of the rest can boast an 80% approval rating – and the raft of upcoming legislation which advances the legislative agenda of the religious right (some of which has been drafted by John Titus, lawyer to Judge Roy Moore) will stand a much higher likelihood of passage in the event of a second George W Bush Presidency :

    In that case, to suggest that America would be transformed beyond recognition in the next four years might be hyperbolic. But what is likely is that November 2nd would later come to be seen as, in retrospect, a watershed event, debacle or a final rout, in the battle between those in America who favor secular government and those who seek to conform American governance and jurisprudence to their own idiosyncratic interpretations of Biblical law.

    ______________

    For an entry point into this difficult topic, please see this post (with attached discussion) from Metafilter.com, a group blog (membership currently closed, alas) with about 17,000 members which has a liberal and decidedly intellectual – and polite, for the most part, bent.

    http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/36265

    In it, I supply links to an abundant amount journalism on the rise of the religious right – some of it be reporters who have covered the movement for two and even three decades.

    I also am starting a group blog on the religious right : I’m putting entries for it into my dairy on Dailykos.com (at the first link, “my homepage” or URL) and aggregating them, along with expected contributions from others

    Here

    [ Personal disclosure - I do not call myself a Christian, although I try to live by Christian precepts (as outlined in the Gospels). I have two ministers in my family : one, my father - a Methodist from the tradition of the "Social Gospel" ]

  • http://www.dailykos.com/user/Troutfishing Troutfishing

    Also, I added a considerable amount to that essay – if anyone wants to read it, it’s over here :

    http://www.dailykos.com/user/Troutfishing

    It’s titled, provisionally, ” A SAVAGE GOD OF ANYTHING GOES : Has the Religious Right become an amoral, relativistic cult for Theocracy ?”

    The title on Kos is slightly different – titles can only be 100 characters. I prefer this one – smoother, and it turns an assertion to a question : preferable in this case.


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