Religion has always played a powerful role in the daily lives of Americans. But it has never wielded such influence in the highest levels of American government as it does under the Bush presidency. Moreover, the religious conservative movement that has come into political prominence with the election of George W. Bush views him as its earthly leader. As Washington Post staff writer Dana Milbank, puts it:
For the first time since religious conservatism became a modern political movement, the president of the United States has become the movement’s de facto leader–a status even Ronald Reagan, though admired by religious conservatives, never earned. Christian publications, radio and television shower Bush with praise, while preachers from the pulpit treat his leadership as an act of providence. A procession of religious leaders who have met with him testify to his faith, while Web sites encourage people to fast and pray for the president. 
Considered the leader of the Christian right, Bush is viewed by many of his aides and followers as a leader with a higher purpose. Bush aide, Tim Goeglein, echoes this view: “I think President Bush is God’s man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility.”  Ralph Reed, a long time crusader against divorce, single-parent family and abortion and current head of Georgia’s Republican Party, assesses Bush’s relationship with the Christian right in more sobering political terms. He argues that the role of the religious conservative movement has changed in that it is no longer on the outskirts of power since it has helped to elect leaders who believe in its cause. Referring to the new-found role of the religious right, he claims “You’re no longer throwing rocks at the building; you’re in the building.”  Bush has not disappointed his radical evangelical Christian following.
Believing he is on a direct mission from God, President Bush openly celebrates the virtues of evangelical Christian morality, prays daily, and expresses his fervent belief in Christianity in both his rhetoric and policy choices. For example, while running as a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush proclaimed that his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ. Further, in a speech in which he outlined the dangers posed by Iraq, he stated “We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May He guide us now.”  Stephen Mansfield in his book, The Faith of George W. Bush, claims that Bush told James Robinson, a Texas preacher: “I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is gong to need me....I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.”  Surrounded by born-again missionaries and with God, rather than the most basic tenets of American democracy providing a source of leadership, Bush has relentlessly developed policies based less on social needs than on a highly personal and narrowly moral sense of divine purpose. Using the privilege of executive action, he has aggressively attempted to evangelize the realm of social services. For example, he has made available to a greater extent than any other president more federal funds to Christian religious groups that provide a range of social services. He has also eased the rules “for overtly religious institutions to access $20-billion in federal social service grants and another $8-billion in Housing and Urban Development money. Tax dollars can now be used to construct and renovate houses of worship as long as the funds are not used to build the principal room used for prayer, such as the sanctuary or chapel.”  He also provided more than $60 billion in federal funds for faith-based initiatives organized by religious charitable groups.  Not all religious groups, however, receive equal founding. The lion’s share of federal monies goes to Christian organizations, thus undermining, via state sanction of some religions over others, the very idea of religious freedom. In addition, he has promised that such agencies can get government funds “without being forced to change their character or compromise their mission.”  This means that such organizations and groups can now get federal money even though they discriminate on religious grounds in their hiring practices. The two programs that Bush showcased during his January 2003 State of the Union speech both “use religious conversion as treatment.”  Bush has also created an office in the White House entirely dedicated to providing assistance to faith-based organizations applying for federal funding. Moreover, Bush is using school voucher programs to enable private schools to receive public money, and refusing to fund schools that “interfere with or fail to accommodate prayer for bible study by teachers or students.”  The Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, made it clear how he feels about the separation of church and state when he told a Baptist publication that he believed that schools should teach Christian values. When asked to resign by a number of critics, Paige refused and his office declined to clarify, if not repudiate, his suggestion that either public schools should teach Christian values or parents should take their kids out of such schools and send them to parochial schools. His office replied curtly: “The quotes are the quotes.”  The Bush administration has also refused to sign a United Nations declaration on children’s rights, unless it eliminates sexual health services such as providing teenage sex education in which contraception or reproductive rights are discussed. On the domestic front, Bush has passed legislation halting “late-term” abortion, tried to pass legislation stopping the distribution of the morning-after pill, and eliminated financial support for international charities that provide advice on abortion. Such measures not only call into question the traditional separation between church and state, they also undercut public services and provide a veneer of government legitimacy to religious-based organizations that prioritize religious conversion over modern scientific techniques. As Winnifred Sullivan, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School puts it, the conservative evangelical proponents of the faith-based initiative “want government funds to go to the kinds of churches that regard conversion as part of your rehabilitation. It’s a critique of secular professional social service standards.” 
Unfortunately, Bush’s religious fervor appears more indebted to the God of the Old Testament, the God who believes in an eye-for-an-eye, the God of vengeance and retribution. Hence Bush appears indifferent to the seeming contradiction between his claim to religious piety and his willingness as the governor of Texas to execute “more prisoners (152) than any governor in modern U.S. history.”  Nor does he see the contradiction between upholding the word of God and imposing democracy on the largely Muslim population of Iraq through the rule of force and the barrel of a gun. Indeed, while Bush and his religious cohorts claim they are working to exercise great acts of charity, it appears that the poor are being punished and the only charity available is the handout being given to the rich. For instance, as funds were being distributed for faith-based initiatives, congress not only passed legislation that eliminated a child tax credit that would have benefited about 2 million children, it also agreed to a $350 billion tax cut for the rich while slashing domestic spending for programs that benefit the poor, elderly, and children
Bush is not the only one in his administration who combines evangelical morality with dubious ethical actions and undemocratic practices. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Christian fundamentalist who holds morning-prayer sessions in his Washington office, added another layer to this type of religious fervor in February of 2002 when he told a crowd at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Nashville, Tennessee that the freedoms Americans enjoy appear to have little to do with the men who wrote the US Constitution since such freedoms are made in Heaven. Ashcroft argues that, “We are a nation called to defend freedom–a freedom that is not the grant of any government or document but is our endowment from God.”  Without any irony intended, Ashcroft further exhibited his rigid Christian morality by having the “Spirit of Justice” statue draped so as to cover up her marble breasts while at the same time he has violated the constitutional rights of thousands of Muslims and Arabs who since September 11, 2001 he has arrested, held in secret, and offered no legal recourse or access to their families. Such harsh treatment rooted in a Manichean notion of absolute good and evil represents more than an act of capricious justice, it also undermines “the presumption of innocence, as well as the constitutional rights to due process, to counsel, and to a speedy and public trial” and in legitimating such treatment, “the Bush administration has weakened these protections for all, citizens and aliens alike. In the process, it has tarnished American democracy.” 
Behind the rhetoric of religious commitment is the reality of permanent war, the further immiseration of the poor, and the ongoing attacks on the notion of the secular state. There is also the force of intolerance and bigotry, the refusal to recognize the multiplicity of religious, political, linguistic, and cultural differences–those vast and diverse elements that constitute the democratic global sphere at its best. Hints of this bigotry are visible not only in the culture of fear and religious fundamentalism that shapes the world of Bush and Ashcroft, but also in those who serve them with unquestioning loyalty. This became clear when the national press revealed that a high-ranking Defense department official called the war on terrorism a Christian battle against Satan. Lt. General William Boykin, in his capacity as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, while standing in front of pictures of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jung II, asked the parishioners of the First Baptist church of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma the following question: “Why do they hate us?...The answer to that is because we are a Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers.” He continued, “Our spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”  For Boykin, the war being fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, and, maybe eventually at home against other non-believers, is a holy war. Boykin appears dead serious when claiming that other countries “have lost their morals, lost their values. But America is still a Christian nation.”  This language is not merely the ranting of a religious fanatic; it is symptomatic of a deeper strain of intolerance and authoritarianism that is emerging in this country. It can be heard in the words of Reverend Jerry Falwell who claimed on the airwaves that the terrorist attack of 9/11 was the result of God’s judgment on the secularizing of America. He stated: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians, the ACLU, People for the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”  It can be heard in the diatribes of the founder of the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson, who argues that Islam is not a peaceful religion, and in the claims of many other Christian fundamentalists in America. The emergence of a government sanctioned religious fundamentalism has its counterpart in a political authoritarianism that not only undermines the most basic tenets of religious faith but also the democratic tenets of social justice and equality. Of course, this type of religious fundamentalism supported largely by politicians and evangelical missionaries who run to the prayer groups and Bible study cells sprouting up all over the Bush White House has little to do with genuine religion or spirituality. Those who believe that biblical creationism rather than evolution should be taught in the schools, or that the United States “must extend God’s will of liberty for other countries, by force if necessary”  do not represent the prophetic traditions in Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. These traditions foster belief in a God who is giving and compassionate, who rejects secular policies that bankrupt the government in order to benefit the rich, or that produce laws that disadvantage the poor and impose more suffering on those already in need. It is a tradition espoused by the Reverend James Forbes Jr., head of the Riverside Church in New York City and captured in his assertion that “poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.”  Joseph Hough, the head of Union Theological Seminary, speaks for many religious leaders when he argues that what passes as Christianity in the Bush administration is simply a form of political machination masquerading as religion, making a grab for power.
Apocalyptic Biblical prophesies fuel more than the likes of John Ashcroft, who opposes dancing on moral grounds, or David Hager, appointed by Bush to the FDA’s Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs, “who refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women (and believes the Bible is an antidote for premenstrual syndrome),”  they also fuel a world view in which immigrants, African-Americans, and others marked by differences in class, race, gender, and nationality are demonized, scapegoated, and subjected to acts of state violence. Such rhetoric and the policies it supports need to be recognized as a crisis of democracy itself. What progressives and others need to acknowledge is that the Bush administration’s attempt to undo the separation between church and state is driven by a form of fundamentalism that both discredits democratic values, public goods, and critical citizenship and spawns an irrationality evident in the innumerable contradictions between its rhetoric of “compassionate conservative” religious commitment and its relentless grab for economic and political power-- an irrationality which has more in common with fascism than with any viable tradition of democratic rule.
Henry A. Giroux is the Global Television Network Chair Professor at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Palgrave, 2004); Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9-11 (Rowman and Littlefield 2003); The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (Palgrave, 2003). He can be reached at: email@example.com. Visit his website at: www.henryagiroux.com.
* Special Thanks to
Michael Alexander Pozo of The St. John's University Humanities Review for
providing DV with this essay. Check out
the SJU Humanities Review website to read more excellent articles and
1. Dana Milibank,
“Religious Right Finds Its Center in Oval Office,” Washington Post (December
24, 2001), p. A02.