Roughly 40 years ago Robert F. Kennedy eloquently argued
for idealism in a time of great conflict. He said, “Some
men see things as they are and say why. I dream things
that never were and say why not." The growing schism
now rending America is far more frightening: it is between
those who see things as they are, and those who choose
to believe in the objectively false so long as it props
As Ron Suskind recently reported in
the New York Times, our current Administration sees
reality not as the battleground, but as one of its
enemies. He quoted a senior advisor to the President
as deriding Suskind as a member of the “reality-based
community” — a group clearly seen as worthy
of scornful neglect by Team Bush. “We create
our own reality,” this advisor told Suskind.
This is profoundly sobering. Perhaps the biggest
argument relied upon by the religious in attacking
atheism is that religion is what keeps right and wrong
from becoming meaningless — in effect, that
without God, what remains is nihilism. But what could
be more nihilistic than a government that believes
it creates its own reality?
As frightening as it is to contemplate a government
that believes it can reframe reality to suit its own
ends, we now have confirmation of the degree to which
its supporters have swallowed (and thereby encouraged)
this propaganda. A new study by the nonpartisan Program
on International Policy Attitudes (affiliated with
the University of Maryland) demonstrates what many
of us have intuited for some time: support for George
W. Bush is dependent upon a constellation of perceptions
about the world that are all demonstrably false.
The statistics PIPA reports are not merely frightening;
they are the stuff of nightmares:
“Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer
to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant
WMD program, 72% of Bush supporters continue to
believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major
program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent
assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual
WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer
concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program.
Kerry supporters hold opposite beliefs on all these
Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe
that Iraq was providing substantial support to al
Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this
support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters
assume that this is also the conclusion of most
experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this
was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. Here
again, large majorities of Kerry supporters have
exactly opposite perceptions.”
The PIPA study confirms what has been anecdotally
obvious for some time. Attempts to remove the scales
from the eyes of the Bush supporters generally fail
because the conversation breaks down so quickly into
fact vs. fantasy. We point to failure after failure,
error upon error, lie after lie, yet reason gains
no purchase on minds closed to all such evidence.
In the other America, facts and logic simply don’t
What explains this utter disconnect from reality?
How can we have spawned a populace so susceptible
to fairy tales? There can be only one answer: fundamentalist
One of the basic questions about how we make our
way through the world is, “What do you do when
belief and data collide?” A core tenet of post-Enlightenment
Western society is that a rational person will drop
a hypothesis that is contradicted by good empirical
evidence. It is the scientific method enshrined by
Descartes and Bacon, and, for good or ill, it has
given us every scrap of technology and science. But
we see evidence in every corner that this is not how
people live their lives.
Bizarre hybrids like “Creation Science”
notwithstanding, fundamentalist religion rejects reason.
Reason embraces the possibility of error; absolutist
religion must deny it. By definition, Fundamentalists
maintain belief by rejecting the data.
Look at the declining role of science and reason
in our society and wonder how we could be anywhere
but this sorry juncture. A 2001 Gallup poll found
that 45 percent of Americans believe evolution is
flat-out wrong; the Washington Times reports
that more than 60 percent of Americans believe that
the Biblical Genesis and Noah’s Ark stories
are literally true. True believers are pulling their
children out of public school by the thousands to
avoid contaminating them with unwanted questions.
All of those children are being bred to believe what
they are told, and that the world view of their parents
and teachers is correct — simply because they
The brilliant cynic Karl Rove saw that the religious
right had manufactured millions of Americans programmed
to follow without asking questions or demanding accountability.
In short, America’s heartland had produced a
substantial population that believes rather than thinks.
Rove understood that all he had to do was provide
a leader callous enough to speak their code and claim
the shepherd’s mantle. The subtle part of Karl
Rove’s subtle genius is that he has positioned
Bush not merely as President, but as Messiah —
the touchstone of a belief system. That he accomplished
this feat while flying under the radar of the mainstream
press is one of the great feats of modern politics.
If you think of the Bush White House as a Church,
many things begin to make sense. Religious leaders
don’t take hostile questions at press conferences,
or debate policy with non-believers. Followers do
not debate their infallibility. Non-believers are
hectored, then ignored, and finally scorned. And most
significantly, fundamentalists create belief systems
that banish critical thinking. As the Catholic Church
learned hundreds of years ago, reason cannot be tethered
to dogma, and inevitably contradicts it. Fundamentalist
leaders know this, and tie reason to the devil instead.
Accept that reason is no longer essential to decision-making,
and a host of policies snap into focus. The decision
to invade Iraq is now the most obvious assault on
reality-based decision-making, but there are many
others. Global warming is denied in the face of virtual
consensus among scientists; billions of dollars have
been transferred to defense contractors building missile
defense systems that most experts agree will be useless;
energy policy assumes infinite resources; environmental
policy suspends belief in cause and effect. The old
separation between church and state has become a separation
between church and reality, and government increasingly
stands opposite reality.
As the actions and polices of this Administration
show, faith-based government obviates the need for
Constitutional protections. Any American sixth grader
should know that “checks and balances”
form the basis of our system of government. What we
usually talk about are the ways each of the three
branches of our government limits the excesses of
the others. But at root, they all depend on a more
fundamental kind of checking and balancing: the reality
check. And when reality ceases to be the touchstone
for policy, the very concept of checks and balances
The result has been a tragic symbiosis. Its value
to Bush et al. is obvious: as Mel Brooks once said,
it is good to be the King. God’s powers are
by definition absolute, yet God, despite His omnipotence,
takes a pass on accountability. The worse things become,
the more tenaciously true believers cling to their
views of Him. A tragedy like 9/11 might make others
question their faith, but not the Bush disciples.
A dangerous world increases the need for comfort,
and if filling that need requires a belief in the
objectively false (like Saddam-9/11 links, or Iraqi
WMDs), so be it. Pointing out that Bush did nothing
to prevent 9/11, or has made us less safe with his
new crusade, is unavailing. The faithful vest in the
object of their faith attributes based not on reality,
but the size of the hole they expect him to fill.
A sickening spiral ensues: the further Bush drifts
from the moorings of reality, the stronger the support
from his disciples becomes.
That is why the Kerry campaign will find it impossible
to convert Bush’s followers. Non-believers are
ill-equipped to be effective iconoclasts. The normal
tools of persuasion are ineffective with fundamentalists.
Facts are dismissed as challenges to their faith;
exposing flaws in Bush’s character only deepens
their conviction. The Church of Bush encourages the
faithful to see themselves as a minority persecuted
for their beliefs (e.g., the “liberal media”
shibboleth), and to be resolute in resisting the infidels.
The lies and transgressions of bishops like O’Reilly
and Limbaugh are easily forgiven, because they help
the flock to keep the faith. And that faith, more
than financial self-interest or the Constitution or
world peace, is the thing they most want to protect.
Bush’s chief of staff recently said that Bush
views America as a ''10-year-old child" in need
of the sort of protection provided by a parent. And
so Bush becomes Father figure — with a capital
“F,” and gives comfort to His children.
The Bush campaign’s widespread use of the picture
of Bush comforting the child of a 9/11 victim, and
the religious imagery it conveys, are deliberate.
Bush’s constant thrumming of 9/11 is akin to
the Christian emphasis on crucifixion — showing
the stigmata to trigger and reinforce the need to
trust and believe.
Bush conflates religion and politics not because
he wants the religious to see him as one of them.
He does so because he knows that if they treat politics
as a form of religion, he becomes their God. And to
lose faith in God, no matter how overwhelming the
evidence, is unthinkable.
An irony unappreciated by his flock, of course, is
that you don’t have to abstract very far to
reach a level at which it is difficult to distinguish
between Bush orthodoxy and that of the Islamists he
demonizes. Indeed, by opposing reality, Bush becomes
the Pope Urban for a new century, while effectively
casting John Kerry as Galileo. And much as it did
four centuries ago, a large segment of the population
prefers to believe that the sun revolves around the