Crossing the church-state line

Thomas Jefferson warned of the dangers of becoming a "priest-ridden people," but a conservative clergy was essential to Bush's victory.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Published November 11, 2004 9:58PM (UTC)
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The election of 2004 marks the rise of a quasi-clerical party for the first time in the United States. Ecclesiastical organization has become transformed into the sinew and muscle of the Republican Party, essential in George W. Bush's reelection. His narrow margins in the key states of Florida, Iowa and Ohio, and elsewhere, were dependent upon the direct imposition of the churches. None of this occurred suddenly or by happenstance. Nor was this development simply a pleasant surprise for Bush. For years, he has schooled himself in the machinations of the religious right, and Karl Rove has used the command center of the White House as more than its Office of Propaganda.

Bush's clerisy represents an unprecedented alliance of historically anti-Roman Catholic, nativist evangelical Protestants with the most reactionary elements of the Catholic hierarchy. Preacher, priest and politician have combined on the grounds that John F. Kennedy disputed in his famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960. Every principle articulated by Kennedy has been flouted and contradicted by Bush: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference ... where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope or ... any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."


From the White House, Rove operated a weekly conference call with selected religious leaders. Evangelical churches handed over their membership directories to the Bush campaign for voter registration drives. According to the Washington Post, "clergy members attended legal sessions explaining how they could talk about the election from the pulpit." A group associated with the Rev. Pat Robertson advised 45,000 churches on how to work for Bush. One popular preacher alone sent letters to 136,000 pastors advising them on "non-negotiable" issues -- gay marriage, stem cell research, abortion -- to mobilize the faithful. Perhaps the most influential figure of all was the Rev. James Dobson, whose radio programs are broadcast daily on more than 3,000 stations and 80 TV stations, and whose organization has affiliates in 36 states, and this year created a political action committee to advance "Christian citizenship."

On June 4, Bush traveled to see the pope. In another meeting that day, with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, according to a Vatican official, Bush "complained that the U.S. bishops were not being vocal enough in supporting [Bush] on social issues like gay marriage and abortion," and suggested to Sodano that the Vatican "push the bishops."

The Vatican was astonished at the brazen pressure and did not accede. Nonetheless, more than 40 conservative bishops worked in league with the Bush campaign against John Kerry -- part of a crusade against their own declining moral authority. The American church is in crisis as Catholic opinion on abortion and stem cell research leans closer to that of the general public. And the exposure of rampant pedophilia among priests has undermined traditional belief in the church's sanctity. Electing a liberal Catholic as president would have been a severe blow. So conservative bishops denounced Kerry, spoke of denying him Communion and even talked of excommunication. Sunday after Sunday, from thousands of pulpits, epistles were read and sermons delivered telling parishioners it was sinful to vote for candidates who supported gay marriage and abortion.


The Catholic Kerry received 5 percent less of the Catholic vote than the Southern Baptist Al Gore did four years ago. In the crucial state of Ohio, where an anti-gay-marriage initiative was on the ballot, Bush won two-thirds of the "faithful" Catholic (those who attend mass every week) vote and 55 percent of the Catholic total. Combined with the support of 79 percent of white evangelicals, this gave him his critical margin nationally and in the swing states.

The religious right is not a majority and hardly a "silent majority," but it was indispensable to Bush's victory. Across the country, it has become the most energetic, reliable and productive part of the Republican organization. The ultimate value in its values-based politics is power, just as it was worldly power that sustained the medieval church, and the assertion of that power began within days after the election.

When moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is seeking the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, said that he would oppose any nominee to the Supreme Court who would seek to outlaw abortion (a nomination that might come soon, as Chief Justice William Rehnquist is dying), Dobson denounced Specter, "He is a problem and he must be derailed." Who will rid the president of this troublesome senator? Almost instantly, Specter clarified his position, announcing that he meant no such thing and that he had supported many judges who were against abortion.


"History, I believe," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes."

But we're not all Jeffersonians now.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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2004 Elections Catholicism