Presidential Referendum

The Choice 2004, Frontline’s documentary overview of the lives of John Kerry and George W. Bush, foregrounded two key moments from the President’s career, moments that are by now familiar to all who have followed his development. The first was his road to Damascus conversion — the moment when he turned his life over to God and gave up drinking. The second was his father’s primary loss to Pat Robertson in 1988 — the moment when George, Jr. recognized the power of the evangelical vote and thought to himself, “I can do this.” He would become an asset for his father in that regard and would later rely on heavy appeals to the Religious Right in his own successful campaigns against Ann Richards and Al Gore.

Not surprisingly, President Bush was at his best last night when asked about his faith and family. Ignoring for a moment the relevance of such questions in a supposed domestic policy debate that never addressed the environment, the Patriot Act, or stem cell research, those two questions allowed Bush to put aside policy (which is awfully complicated) to talk instead about feelings and relationships. They allowed him to slip into the comfortable rhetoric of evangelicalism. And Bush, to his credit, hit those softballs out of the park. Bush speaks eloquently — yes, I said it — about his faith because it is clearly important to him and because it has a language all its own. But this leads me to wonder: To whom exactly was he speaking?

The significance of Bush’s insight in 1988 was that by speaking directly to the Religious Right in a language that they understood — by hitting hard on “moral issues” like abortion, marriage, and public displays of faith; by using the coded language of “stewardship,” “devotion,” and “providence” — he could accomplish three main goals:

  1. Transform a single position (on, say, abortion) into a fixed political identification and, in so doing, make of that position an objective barometer of a candidate’s moral fitness to lead (Clinton’s whoreishness played directly into the Right’s hands in that regard). Abortion, the argument goes, is objectively wrong; therefore candidates who support abortion are objectively unworthy of office.
  2. Solidify the Republican base by offering them a moral imperative to get out and vote. The large (and growing) network of evangelical churches in America, then, becomes a grassroots movement of its own, fostered by everyone from James Dobson and Billy Graham to Tim LaHaye and Thomas Kinkade.
  3. Nail shut the coffin on those strains of New Deal Democratic politics in the South that had been dying slowly since before Carter left office, and, in the process, grab control of the House.

And so I ask again: To whom was Bush speaking last night? Every poll confirms that Bush and Kerry have solidified their bases. There are many, many Americans who will vote to re-elect President Bush solely because of his pro-life stance or because they see in him a reflection of themselves — someone whose life was radically changed by an encounter with God and who exercises daily the rituals of evangelical life: quiet times, prayers of confession, small group Bible studies. (That, after a decade of steady declines, the number of abortions has, in fact, increased under Bush is a subject for another day.) Bush’s genuine confession of faith last night was, I’m sure, one of the few moments of grace and honesty that many voters (most of whom are understandably cynical and apathetic about politics at large) recognized in an otherwise contentious campaign season.

And so, for the millions of voters who are comforted by the language of evangelicalism, I’m sure that Bush’s performance last night reinforced all of the values that they had already projected onto him. But what about the rest of us? What about Christians (like me) who are deeply troubled by Bush’s conflation of regressive and immoral tax restructurings and arrogant imperialism with Divine Providence? What about Christians (like me) who also believe in liberal democracy and who see a clear separation between the purposes of the State and the Church? To be frank, we see in President Bush a man of faith who is not competent to lead. We see a man who, even after four years in the White House, has great difficulty articulating even the most fundamental of his policy decisions, even when those policies are valid. We see a man who, like the kings of old, is dangerously close to turning religion into a justification for despotism.

And what about those undecided voters in the middle who don’t understand the coded messages in Bush’s religious rhetoric, who in fact feel excluded by it? I promise that they saw a very different debate last night. They saw a man who, incapable (and even suspect) of reason, turns instead to fancy and dogma for guidance. Which leads me to believe that this election will, in a very real way, be a referendum on Bush’s 1988 insight. Granted, there are millionaires who like his tax cuts and neocons who like his foreign policy and gun owners who will vote for whomever the NRA endorses, but Bush seems to be putting his fate in the hands of his apostles. And it scares the hell out of me to think that it might work.