Book Review

The Public Eye Magazine - Fall 2005

How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House

Esther Kaplan

The New Press, 2004, 322 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader

The story of George W. Bush's religious awakening has become a contemporary legend: a tale of a hard-drinker turned pious Christian. Whether it's true or not, Bush's alleged conversion is trucked out repeatedly, presumably because many Americans are comforted by the notion of a God-fearing executive who, like them, once wallowed in sin.

But like most legends, scrutiny reveals flaws in both the narrative and its denouement. In fact, Esther Kaplan's With God on Their Side exposes the turpitude and racism that undergirds the Bush administration, from justifying war by lambasting Islam as "a religion of violence" to endangering teenagers by denying funding for school-based sex education programs that mention contraception or abortion. It's a terrifying read, rife with examples. What's more, Kaplan's documentation connects the dots, demonstrating how Christian fundamentalism has intruded into virtually every aspect of U.S. life.

Let's start with GWB himself. While previous presidents have consistently affirmed their belief in God, Bush goes one step further and purports to have a direct line to the Almighty. Kaplan reports that when the president met with then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, he told him that "God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East." God also weighed in when Bush was pondering his first run for the White House. "God wants me to do it," he announced to televangelist James Robison. Months later, in the aftermath of 9/11, he told Time magazine that God had chosen him to lead the world's war on terror.

Not only does Team Bush believe itself to have Divine approval, it believes its agenda represents God's will. That's right: God is anti-abortion, anti-gay, and scornful of the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on Nuclear Arms. He—there is absolutely no possibility of He being She—like the Bush administration, sees the United Nations as one step short of Satanic internationalism, aka One World Government. After all, just look at the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The thought of ratification, Kaplan writes, sends the Bush team into apoplectic panic. To hear them tell it, the Convention would require the United States "to hand over our right to decide our own laws on such issues as family law, parental rights, religious exercise, education, abortion regulation, employment pay scales, quotas in educational institutions, workplaces and elected offices, and forbid us from recognizing that men and women are fundamentally different."

Indeed, Bush's posturing often reeks of anti-feminist backlash and is an overt reaction to the blurring of gender roles that women's and GLBT movements have trumpeted since Stonewall. But as horrifying as the administration's rhetoric is, it is their policies that pack the biggest punch. Take AIDS. Twenty-plus years into the pandemic, we know that reducing the risk of infection by practicing safer sex and using clean needles cuts transmission. Sadly, this is not a message fundamentalists wish to promote. Instead, an all-out war on condoms, hinged on the fact that prophylactics don't stop the Human Papilloma Virus, has been launched. Money for programs that promulgate abstinence as the only solution to STDs, including AIDS, has been free-flowing. Worse, AIDS organizations critical of this stance have been punished. Fifteen groups, all previous recipients of federal funding, were called to task and subjected to months of intensive audits. Those reined in include the Gay Men's Health Crisis, The National Association of People with AIDS, and The Stop AIDS Project.

Similarly, Christian fundamentalists have swooped into public schools with curricula penned by religious rightists to teach abstinence to America's youth. Again, federal money—hundreds of millions of dollars—has been made available for a host of projects. Kaplan quotes John Marble, of National Stonewall Democrats, about his research into Teen Mania and other anti-sex efforts. "The abstinence-only message is deeply linked with Evangelical Christianity. You're really hoping everyone will come to Christ and wait till marriage for sex. If you're struggling with homosexual thoughts, you need to convert to Christianity and that will cure you."

And then there is abortion, an ever-present religious-right obsession. Bush's reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy, or Global Gag Rule, prohibits U.S. financed international family planning groups from performing abortions or counseling women about their options, even with funds raised separately. Hypocrisy rears its head here, Kaplan writes, because reducing family planning has caused a groundswell of abortions and an increase in female death from illegal procedures. "A Population Action International report," Kaplan continues, "cites clinic closures in country after country. In Kenya, five family planning clinics were shuttered after having their USAID funding cut off for refusing to comply with the policy; one facility was the only center serving some 300,000 people in a vast, poor neighborhood of Nairobi."

Sound absurd? Doubters need only remember that this is the Lord's volition, conveyed directly to GWB.

Other Divine orchestrations ally conservative evangelical power brokers with corporate leaders and judicial appointees who eschew church/state separation. While the book never fully explains the alliance between industrial big-wigs and religious conservatives—Is it that power loves power? Or is wealth an overt display of God's beneficence?—the relationships Kaplan chronicles offer chilling proof of far-reaching partnerships.

In addition, I wish Kaplan had explained why a political faction so concerned with fetuses and childbirth is so blasť about global warming and environmental degradation. Will God somehow protect the lungs of Christian children? Or will Christ's return eviscerate such mundane concerns? The fundamentalist Right's lackadaisical response to pollution is hard to fathom, unless End Times prophesies depict the only future worth considering.

Despite these lingering questions, With God on Their Side presents a deeply unsettling look at the power Christian conservatives have acquired. Bush's boosters —The American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and The Southern Baptist Convention, among them—are champions of a biblical worldview that supercedes democratic pluralism. Kaplan presents these folks as forces to reckon with. If she is right, and I am sure she is, we ignore them at our political and social peril.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist. She writes for Z, The Brooklyn Rail, Lilith, Library Journal, and Habitat Magazine, and is the coauthor of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.

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