Steven Waldman: 2004 Convention Blog

Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman writes daily dispatches from the 2004 political conventions.

 

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How Bush Has Changed Evangelicalism


We have spent much time analyzing the effect of evangelicalism on Bush, but an argument can be made that his effect on the religion is just as profound.

Terry Eastland, the publisher of the Weekly Standard, mentioned to me at the last convention that he thought Bush had altered evangelical Christianity by making it more open to religious pluralism. I think he’s right.

Keep in mind, the number one Evangelical political leader is no longer Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, it’s George W. Bush. The fact that he has insisted that faith based grants be available for Muslims, Jews or any other group – and his relentlessly upbeat rhetoric about Islam – has certainly given Evangelical Christianity a different face and perhaps changed some hearts as well. It’s easy to forget just how much worse things could have been for Muslims here if Bush hadn’t embraced Islam after 9/11 as a “religion of peace.” This really annoyed evangelicals but he did it anyway.

It was a key reason Beliefnet named him a finalist in its 2001 Most Inspiring Person award. “Bush went farther than he needed to, and his comments carried special weight coming as they did from someone as religious as he. Just as it took Nixon (a fervent anti-Communist) to open up relations with China, and it took Bill Clinton (an antipoverty Democrat) to reform welfare, it took Bush-–a devout Christian-–to legitimize and defend Islam.”

Was it God, Billy Graham--or a Hangover?


Forgive the rather cynical headline, but I was surprised when reading two recent books about President Bush and his faith to learn that Bush’s original explanations for why he quit drinking were not quite as spiritual as subsequent ones ("There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar," he later said. "I found faith. I found God.")

The books--"The Faith of George W. Bush" by Stephen Mansfield and "God and George W. Bush" by Paul Kengor--both recount this story. The morning after his 40th birthday bash, he went jogging as usual. "This dash, however, was not like the others," writes Kengor. "When he returned he felt awful. He went back to the hotel and informed Laura flatly, 'I'm quitting drinking.'"

Mansfield quotes Bush directly. "This run was different. I felt worse than usual, and about halfway through, I decided I would drink no more."

Cynics might say that it was experiencing his 40-year-old body not rebounding from boozing the way it used to that caused him to stop drinking. But both authors point out that whatever the proximate cause, it was his faith that gave Bush the self-disciple to do it. And self-discipline, they note, had not been something Bush had demonstrated prior to his religious conversion.

Can I Say I Was Tear-Gassed?


President Bush has dramatically improved the spiritual lives of Democrats. My evidence is that the anti-Bush demonstrations in New York on Sunday had many more God-related placards than one customarily sees from the Left. Among those I saw:

Who Would Jesus Bomb?
Keep Your Religion Out of My Body
I Love My Country. I Believe In God. I Support John Kerry.
God Told Me Not to Vote for Bush
God's Way Is Love Not War

And, less poetic, Ashcroft is a Pious Toad.

It was sometimes hard to tell who was protesting what. There were actual Communists, attacking both parties. There were Republicans pretending to be Communists, carrying signs like "Ask France First" and "Communists for Kerry." Then there were liberals dressing up as Billionaires For Bush, shouting "Lower the Minimum Wage!" and "Tax Wages, Not Wealth."

Two women were handing out material protesting the persecution of the Falun Gong. Next to them another woman handing out brochures was wearing a t-shirt that said "Free" something. I figured it was Free Tibet until I got closer and saw it was "Free Pizza" and that the brochures were coupons.

While trying to make my way over to the Christian Defense Coalition rally, I saw a New York City policeman pick up a protester who was slow to get out of the way and hurl him over a metal barricade. The protestor's buddies moved toward the police who quickly retaliated by spraying them with tear gas. A few drops bounced off the rabble and hit me. It only stung a teensy bit but I think it's enough so that I can now tell my kids I got tear-gassed trying to cover the convention.

By the time I made it to the Christian Defense Coalition rally, it had ended. Luckily, Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue and now head of a group called Society for Truth and Justice was still there, flanked by a volunteer holding a poster declaring, apropos of nothing, "Islam Supports Kerry." Terry hates Kerry but is fuming over the Bush campaign's spotlighting of pro-choice politicians like George Pataki and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "It's despicable that they are the new poster boys of the Republican Party," he said.

Reverend Clinton


Earlier Sunday morning, I had attended services at Riverside Church. It's a gorgeous cathedral, with triumphant stained glass windows, a huge, luminous gold cross, and preachers who speak in multiple languages about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In fact, I briefly had a "Why-can't-we-all-get-along" moment, when it occurred to me that both liberal and conservative Christians really do believe in God and Jesus as Lord. That may sound like an obvious point, but I think deep down many conservatives believe that liberal Christians are faking it. And more than a few liberals doubt the sincerity of conservatives.

My fantasy of conservatives and liberals passing the peace at Riverside vanished when I began to realize how furious liberal Christians are at having their piety challenged. For some time now, conservative Christians have had a monopoly on righteous rage. But there are signs that liberal Christian torpor is declining. It would be only appropriate that such a movement take life at Riverside. For many years, it was the pulpit of William Sloane Coffin, one of the most effective anti-war clergy of the 1960s. Riverside's current senior pastor, James Forbes, spoke at the Democratic convention and clearly has ambitions to lead a liberal Christian movement.

But yesterday's featured preacher was Bill Clinton. "Politics and political involvement dictated by faith is not the exclusive province of the right wing," he declared at the outset. In an extemporaneous speech brimming with Bible quotations, Clinton essentially laid out a playbook for the Religious Left.

It's worth reading the whole sermon but the gist of his argument was that it is not only social issues like abortion or gay rights that are laden with "values." Clinton was particularly insistent that we view tax policy as a forum for expressing values and religion. In his view, each program that Congress could have passed but didn't because it no longer had the money was a statement of values--because it was tax cuts for the wealthy that drained the treasury. So, refusing to allocate government money to double the number of port inspectors was not only unwise security policy--they're the ones looking for biological and chemical weapons--it was immoral, he argued.

Clinton repeatedly recast familiar political arguments in religious terms. The misleading swift boat ads were not about politics but "bearing false witness." "It is wrong to demonize and cartoonize one another and ignore evidence and to make false charges and to bear false witness. Sometimes I think our friends on the other side have become the people of the Nine Commandments."

On Tuesday, Riverside is calling on people around New York City to stand outside with candles or flashlights to protest the Bush administration's policies. It'll be interesting to see how many folks they can rouse.

Faith Based Plan: Mission 5% Accomplished


A recent study rebutted the view that President Bush’s faith based initiative had fizzled. In fact, Bush has "moved aggressively" to promote religiously-connected programs–-not through legislation but through executive action, according to a new report from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The administration says that, as a result, more than $1 billion has made it to faith based groups.

But Bush had two major elements in his Compassionate Conservative agenda. One was his effort to make it easier for religious groups to get aid, an effort I generally supported. The other was a proposal that would have enabled taxpayers who didn't itemize-–most people-–to take deductions when they made contributions to charity. Supporters estimated that such a plan would cost $20 billion but generate an $80 billion increase in charitable giving. It was an ambitious and (I think) admirable proposal.

Alas, President Bush had to choose during budget negotiations between fighting for the charitable deduction and his proposal to repeal the estate tax. Bush decided to fight for the estate tax repeal instead of the charity tax deduction.

Dollars isn't the only way of keeping score, but it's certainly one. Bush's initial proposal to release the "armies of compassion" involved $20 billion that would leverage $80 billion more. Depending on how you count it, then, his $1 billion in grants represents either 5% or 1.2% of his goal.

Did Conservative Bishops Help Kerry?


Kerry has pulled ahead of Bush among Catholics, according to a few recent polls. Earlier in the year Bush was winning among Catholics 56% to 41%, according to Gallup polls. Now, Kerry is leading 51% to 45%.

The fascinating thing is that this shift didn't occur after the Democratic convention. It happened in May. What was going on in May? That was when there was the most coverage of conservative bishops and Catholic activists suggesting that Kerry be denied communion for being pro-choice. The shift to Kerry may have resulted simply from the fact that the attacks on Kerry notified Catholics of something that they hadn't known about the candidate: that he was Catholic.

The shift to Kerry may also be because, while Bush is more in sync with the Catholic Church, Kerry is more in sync with the Catholic voters, the majority of whom are pro-choice. Perhaps the voters themselves, some of whom have had their own Catholic credentials challenged, felt sympathy for him as a kindred, misunderstood spirit. A recent Pew poll showed that 72% of Catholics believed it was improper for bishops to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. Even Republican Catholics didn't like it.

It all makes me think: if Bush loses, one of the indirect causes may be the Catholic Church sex scandal. To the extent it reduced the moral authority of the Church, it diminished the Catholic hierarchy's political influence on Catholic voters. Note to Karl Rove: Blame Cardinal Law.

1,235,000 Abortions Under Pataki


Based on New York Department of Health statistics, Beliefnet estimates that roughly 1,235,000 abortions have been performed in New York State on Republican Governor George Pataki's watch. For those who believe that an abortion is murder, he has presided over a blood bath. To be sure, a governor does not have the power to stop abortions, but states can impose regulatory hurdles to make it harder--such as parental notification. Pataki has not tried to do that. Fair to ask: why have the Catholic bishops been so quiet about the record of this pro-choice Catholic Republican governor?

Actually, to their credit, some pro-life activists do plan to picket Pataki and Giuliani during the convention here. I'll let you know how those go.

Where Are Those Evangelicals Hiding?


The old conventional wisdom was that the evangelicals must have voted in massive numbers for Bush last election. Then we learned that Bush strategist Karl Rove believed that turnout was actually so limp in 2000 that they ought to be able to rustle up an extra 4 million evangelical votes this time.

But WAS evangelical turnout really that bad last time? According to the National Survey of Religion and Politics conducted by Professor John Green, turnout among "religious right" voters was 56%. The national average was 51%. So it was a bit above average. To get an extra four million votes, the Republicans will have to generate evangelical turnout significantly higher than the national average. Understand that and you understand why the Republican party has put so much money and muscle into organizing churches for Bush. Raising evangelical turnout is going to be very important--and very hard.

Bye Bye Amy, Joe, and Gordon


My wife has taken my kids out of town for the week of the convention. She's terrified of traffic mayhem, less from terrorists than the anarchists. The existential question: This being New York, how can one tell if the anarchists are having an impact?

 

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