Conservatism, Religion and the Bush Administration:
A Review of Two Recent Books on the White House, the Law, and The Influence of Christian Fundamentalists

Charles Tiefer, Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes (University of California Press 2004)

Esther Kaplan, With God On Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House (New Press 2004)

The two books under review -- Charles Tiefer's Veering Right and Esther Kaplan's With God On Their Side -- make similar arguments: Influences of evangelical Christians and secular conservative are moving the Bush Administration to the far right.

Tiefer -- a University of Baltimore Law School professor who has served both as Solicitor of the House and Assistant Legal Counsel to the Senate -- takes the broader view of events. His book explains the religious, corporate, and legislative forces behind the administration's social and foreign policy agendas.

In contrast, Esther Kaplan -- who writes for The Nation and The Village Voice - focuses on the religious influences. Kaplan makes a compelling case that conservative Christians are the predominant ideological voice in politics today.

Taken together, these books explain how Bush's broader conservative agenda - well-detailed in Tiefer's book -- has merged with the right-wing Christian agenda. Moreover, when read in conjunction, they offer particular insight into current events, such as the fight over Bush's judicial nominations and the promise of conservatives to end the Senate filibuster.

Tiefer's Veering Right: A Portrait of Bush's First Term, Focusing on Ashcroft

Tiefer's first chapter is devoted to former Attorney General John Ashcroft's role during Bush's first term as the main spokesperson for the religious right. And the second chapter chronicles the war on civil liberties led by Ashcroft.

These chapters are adeptly written, but much of the material may be familiar to readers - especially readers of this site.

More important to the understanding of current events is Tiefer's chronicling of how Senate and House rule changes, combined with Karl Rove's Machiavellian tactics and strong-arming by congressional leaders Tom DeLay and Bill Frist, have all but removed Democratic party (and even centrist Republican) participation in the legislative agenda. He notes how in the rare instance when moderates of either party were able to prevail in the first Bush term, it was often due to the rules as they then existed- including the now-endangered rule permitting filibusters.

Still, there was payback: When Vietnam War veteran and multiple-amputee Max Cleland (D-Ga.) voted to end the Republican-led filibuster stalling the passage of the first homeland security bill authored by Senator Lieberman, Karl Rove masterminded Cleland's electoral defeat.

Tiefer deftly details the role of big business in the Bush Administration - including how administrative agencies have become the pawns of Bush's corporate donors.

For example, former Interior Secretary Gail Norton and Former EPA head Christie Todd Whiteman oversaw massive revisions of regulations that benefit big business and threaten the environment.

Tiefer follows the money trail. In his view, no domestic policy agenda has ever been so strongly driven by the demands of corporate donors. As payback to donors, logging and snowmobiling in national parks are now allowed and public health is sacrificed to less stringent rules for the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Tiefer traces Bush's obsession with "revamping" social security to a courting of the financial industry. Wall Street, he points out, has much to gain from Bush's plan. Pushing for "private accounts" when even many of his own party question whether they are a safe and effective way to alter Social Security may be designed more to fill campaign war chests with financial industry dollars than to institute real reform.

Traditionally, big business has given more to the party in power, but has hedged its bets by giving some to the minority party. Not anymore. Tiefer argues that Bush programs are so pro-business (and anti-everyone-else) that Republicans are now, in essence, cornering the market on contributions from corporations and those who head them.

Donors' influence, Tiefer notes, isn't limited to domestic concerns: Tiefer explains how Vice President Cheney took control of money to "rebuild" Iraq in a way that virtually removed oversight of any spending.

He also describes how no-bid contracts to Halliburton and its affiliates, Bechtel, and other big players in the Bush money machine, cost the taxpayer millions. And he chronicles how Cheney and Rumsfeld saw to it that procurement regulations were rewritten to exempt businesses from accountability.

Tiefer argues that the Bush Administration is marked by lack of accountability to the taxpayer, often achieved by amending or evading laws and regulations designed to shine light on government procurement. Indeed, he makes a persuasive case that the taxpayer-funded Coalition Provisional Authority, now disbanded but then run by Paul Bremer, was purposely created as a virtual law-free entity to do the will of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department.

Tiefer persuasively connects this lack of accountability with the Bush administration's worship of secrecy.

Kaplan's With God on Their Side: Religion's Influence on the Bush Administration

While Tiefer touches on Ashcroft's religiosity, Kaplan makes religion influences on the Bush Administration her main subject. Though her book - like Tiefer's -- was published in 2004, her focus was prescient: In the first Bush Administration, Ashcroft's pious religiosity marked him as somewhat unusual; in the second term, his views have become almost mainstream and the influence of religious conservatives greatly magnified.

The President himself publicly professed his "born again" faith on a Dallas-based religious television show. White House and congressional leaders now talk about their "faith" as if it were central to all of their policies. Tom DeLay, immersed in scandal, may be the most prominent to tout his religious beliefs, but he is far from alone. And Democrats have responded in kind: Hillary Clinton is peppering her speeches with references to her own "faith."

How did this happen? Kaplan helps us understand that, in fact, it's been a long time coming.

Providing a historical perspective, Kaplan notes that the religious right has been, since the 1970s, dramatically growing in financial wealth and numbers. Literally tens of millions of Americans now count themselves as born-again believers.

And many take their political marching orders from the big-name preachers or local pastors who follow on the coattails of the well-known rainmakers. Kaplan cites a poll after the 2000 election that found that 79 percent of evangelicals who voted for Bush did so after being contacted by a right-wing religious organization.

Gary Bauer -- who ran for President in 2000, and was an early loser in the primaries -- said then that the largest constituency in the Republican Party is the religious right. Kaplan quotes Bauer as saying, "We've gone way beyond the point where we need a seat at the table….We're in a position to offer others a seat at the table, because we really are the heart of the party."

President Bush truly may have been "born again," but he, and Karl Rove, have not failed to take political advantage of what may (or may not) have been a sincere conversion. As Kaplan reminds us, evangelicals were cool to George H.W. Bush. George W.'s fervor in his faith differentiates him from his father, and allows him to court this important constituency.

This isn't a new strategy, as Kaplan notes. Before Bush announced his run for the presidency in June 1999, Rove had lined up endorsements from a host of evangelical Christian organizations and televangelists, including Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Bob Jones III.

Kaplan traces Bush's so-called "compassionate" conservatism to Christian fundamentalists who believe people need God at least as much as they need food, shelter, and medical care.

The religious right has taken control of the Bush Administration's stance towards procreation, sex education, and AIDS. Government websites omit the fact that using condoms prevents AIDS. Abstinence-only sex education gets the government's seal of approval at home and in third-world countries (where almost half the population is infected with HIV).

Research grants studying how to prevent HIV among homeless, gay, and transgendered populations have been terminated. And grants for crisis pregnancy centers and Planned Parenthood have been curtailed while the government hands out millions to church-based "pro-life" organizations.

Bush's right-wing religious agenda is being played out not only in the Oval Office and the Congress, but in the halls of justice. Bush hopes to put his hand-picked judges on the federal bench and give them lifetime licenses to promote the evangelical agenda.

And beware any sitting judge who dares to express views that don't fit the Christian right's party line: Preachers and members of Congress have declared war on them, calling for their impeachment. Respect for judicial independence has vanished. Judges who will vote their way get the nod.

Kaplan quotes Tony Perkins of the right-wing Family Research Counsel referring to the federal judiciary as the "black plague." And she attributes to Focus on the Family's James Dobson the prediction that the federal judiciary, as it exists, will "destroy the family and bring down this nation."

But more than 60 percent of the federal bench is made up of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush nominees (more than 200 of them are George W.'s own nominees), with ten of the thirteen federal appellate circuits having a majority of Republican-appointed judges.

From a Republican point of view then, it's hardly fair to say the federal judiciary is a liberal institution: Republicans dominate the current federal judiciary at least as strongly as they dominate the two other branches of the federal government.

Recent public warnings to federal judges who did not vote the way the conservatives wanted them to in the Terri Schiavo case, are intended to intimidate jurists who are supposed to be independent (indeed, whose independence is protected by our Constitution). These threats are designed to thwart the balancing influence of the minority of federal judges who were appointed by Democratic presidents.

Has the Republican Party Become the Christian Right Party? And Will It Stay that Way?

Even Republicans are taking note of the sea change in their party. No less a Republican stalwart (and Bush and Ashcroft friend) than former Senator John Danforth has warned that this change is not for the good. In a March 30, 2005 New York Times op-ed focusing on the Schiavo case, Danforth wrote, "The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active. It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement."

Will there be a backlash? Tiefer predicts that the Republican party will turn so far to the right that Americans -- whom, he believes, are mainly centrist -- will revolt. He points to how the country moved to the right after the liberalism of Johnson's Great Society and the Earl Warren Supreme Court, and predicts a contrary movement to the left (or at least, the center) will occur now.

Unfortunately, however, there are few - if any - signs of an incipient backlash. Even as conservatism has grown, from the 1970s to today, civil liberties have weakened - and attention to the needs of ordinary Americans, and to human rights, has diminished.

Maybe the great American experiment in secular democracy is coming to an end. If that is the case, Tiefer and Kaplan's books will help answer not just for today--but for tomorrow--the disturbing question of how it happened.

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