Looks like Karl Rove found his 4 million evangelicals. That was the number of fundamentalist Christians Rove always estimated didn’t show up at the polls in 2000, and it turned out to be Bush’s rough margin in the popular vote. Thus, with a failed war sliding into chaos, and loose nuclear material dotting the Russian countryside still waiting, three years after 9/11, to be snugly fitted in the proverbial terrorist’s briefcase, the most important election in decades was apparently won on the non-issue of gay baiting. Or at least we thought it was a non-issue; surprising everyone, the top issue in exit polls was “moral values,” and judging by the 11 states that approved constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage by mostly huge margins, “moral values” is shorthand for “saving Christendom from the homos.”
Those state initiatives fueled the mobilization no one expected, although in hindsight the tactic seems obvious. The Sunday before the election, I spotted a couple of Republican staffers pretending to be gay-pride activists outside a Democratic polling place in an African-American part of Fort Lauderdale. Trying to fool the black Baptist churchgoing crowd with their favorite new social wedge issue, the Republicans in poor political drag paced the line of voters with signs yelling, “Vote for Kerry — vote for gay adoption.” We chased them away fairly easily, and I wrote at the time how the stunt seemed so feckless that it smelled of desperation.
Who knew that encounter would become emblematic of the election? What looked like a minor incident turned out to be widespread in many states, and that was just the iceberg’s tip; beneath the surface, opposition to gay marriage galvanized a massive person-to-person get-out-the-vote effort that probably tipped the scales, certainly so in Ohio, where the most stringent of the anti-gay state constitutional amendments passed by 62 to 38 and where one in four voters identified themselves as evangelicals. That gave Bush another squeaker of an electoral victory. It also padded the popular vote with that extra few million, the so-called mandate, much of it accrued in those other states with similar amendments on the ballot — solid red territory where Bush’s victory was axiomatic but the evangelicals came clamoring out of the woodwork in unexpected droves, eager for the opportunity to explicitly deny rights to their fellow citizens. It was a cynical ploy, if effective, and one that shamefully marked the first time since the founding fathers deemed African-American men three-fifths of a human being that constitutional law has been so misused. So much for Christian agape.
I was surprised but not shocked. In my political travels, I have come across countless people whose politics is motivated entirely by a literal reading of the Scriptures — in translation, of course; it would be asking too much for the literalists to interest themselves in the Hebrew Bible itself or the New Testament’s original Greek. It’s amazing, really, to what extent these people live their lives — and want to dictate ours — by extracting a moral compass from a game of theological telephone.
Take Phil, of Phil’s Calzone Factory in Fort Lauderdale, where I had lunch a few days before the election. Like many evangelicals, Phil was as deeply irrational as he was patient and courteous, coming out to sit down with me and solicit my opinion — although his effort was probably an attempt to see if I could be converted. Ultimately, the entire discussion was moot, because all that mattered to Phil was Revelation. This is why Phil wasn’t really that worried about the second Intifada, or Pakistan breaking apart and the fundamentalists getting ahold of its nuclear weapons, because those are favorable omens, signposts of the accelerating End of Days. For Phil and his co-religionists, there is no distinction between prophecy and self-fulfilling prophecy.
Those of us who rarely leave the comfort of Peet’s Coffee or venture east of the 57 have no idea how prevalent the Phils are. I ran into representatives of the Eschatological Vote all over the country, even in the house of my host in Hollywood, Florida, an attorney named Paul Hancock, who had argued Bush v. Gore for the Democrats in front of the Florida Supreme Court in 2000. There, in Paul’s living room, I was accosted on my last day in Florida by the woman who walks his dogs, who waited all of 30 seconds before announcing that she is the reincarnation of Jesus.
“What do you do?” she asked. I said I was covering the election.
“I’m not allowed to say what I do,” she said at first, sounding like a child who had been scolded many times for eagerly alerting the neighbors that she had lice. Unable to contain herself, she filled me in anyway: “Don’t let Paul know I told you, but I’m the vessel through which Christ helped re-elect President Bush.” I noted that she was wearing head-to-toe denim, including her hat, the same basic outfit worn by one of the female gay baiters at the polling station in Fort Lauderdale a few days before.
“I’m responsible for Bush winning,” she added.
“Well, me and Jesus,” she clarified. “I compare myself to Moses and Noah. Moses brought the people out of slavery. I am the Lord, our Righteousness. Jesus is using my body. I had a dead man for four years. And then a spirit for one. The next one’s coming . . .”
This woman voted.
As did the quarter of the electorate with similar fervor. And now they will demand some political quid pro quo from the administration they empowered. Exhibit A was the immediate hue and cry that has already cowed poor Arlen Specter into submission for suggesting that Bush would have a hard time getting any adamantly pro-life Supreme Court nominees past the Judiciary Committee while he sat in the chairmanship. Fine, the religious right rose up to announce, keep that up and maybe you won’t be chairman.
I wonder what all those Republican Majority for Choice people I spent time with at the RNC will think when Roe v. Wade comes under immediate assault this term. I knew then that they were fooling themselves about the nature of their party, and that was only confirmed after listening to a lot of Christian radio in Florida. “My only measure,” one guest said when asked to comment on a show exploring biblical perspectives on politics, “is whether the candidate values the sanctity of life.” He went on to say — with other guests concurring — that the fundamental test of morality is pro-life, the principle from which all other moral decisions flow.
Consider this. Evangelical Christianity has elevated what Bush calls “promoting a culture of life” to the highest moral authority. Not only does this offer an inconsistent ethics, since that culture of life apparently prefers embryonic life above all others and certainly does not extend to Iraqi civilians or Karla Faye Tucker, the woman Bush mocked after putting her to death in an episode that even Gary Bauer thought repugnant; but it also hints at the basic exclusionary nature of Christian fundamentalism, which says that those who are not pro-life cannot exercise morality. No matter how much they loved The Passion, for example, evangelicals like Phil will tell you (as he told me) that deep in their heart of hearts, they know that Mel Gibson’s Catholicism prevents him from being saved.
And that goes double for Jews and gays, making the quarter or so of each of those groups that cast ballots for Bush last week the most deluded electoral cohort in history. Gays, as we saw last week, are simply not wanted by Republicans, except in effigy. And as much as evangelicals have become staunch supporters of Israel, the Jews for them are just a means to an apocalyptic end. Once the last of us makes aliyah, they hope, the Armageddon clock strikes midnight. What the Jews for Bush forget is that those of us who don’t accept Christ will be left behind to fight off many-headed demons and be covered in boils and all that. And since when is triggering the days of tribulation part of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s mission statement?
Speaking of which, I sometimes wish He would hurry up and get on with the Rapture: Then we’d be rid of the evangelicals and could return to a permanent Democratic majority in an instant. (The only question for the pollsters to figure out then would be how the many-headed demon vote would break.) Since that’s unlikely, though, the Democrats need to learn how to engage Christianity rather than pretend it’s irrelevant. Today’s reactionary fundamentalism was not always the norm. Nor must it remain so. Between the standard parochial fare from evangelicals, I heard a lot about the progressive message of the Gospels on Christian radio as well. One of the speakers on the show about the intersection of religion and politics pointed out that Christ himself was a true pacifist. And that the Bible is primarily concerned not with sexual morality but tending to the poor and other social-justice concerns. And that all the bible-thumping in the world doesn’t make one a good Christian, which is what Kerry thoughtfully pointed out by recalling Kennedy’s invocation of the Book of James, “Faith without works is dead.”
It took (fittingly) 40 years for the right wing’s co-option of Christianity, and we saw the culmination of that on November 2. It may take 40 years to recapture religion and put it in its rightful place on the left, but it’s time to start now and begin reviving that missing agape. “Evangelicals can quote Scripture and exegesis all day,” one black minister commented during the same show. “But they don’t live the Word outside the four walls of the church. If they did, and fully understood Christ’s walk on Earth, they’d probably vote Democrat.” Amen.