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The Church of Bush


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.


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 up doctrine.

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 points.

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 count.

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 religion.

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 say so.

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 loses meaning.

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 earth.

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