March 2005

Bryan Miller

nonfiction

With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House by Esther Kaplan

Esther Kaplan’s With God on Their Side is the kind of book that forces you to read only a chapter or two a day for fear your blood pressure will hit critical mass and the veins in your head will start popping like overfed blood ticks.

Kaplan, a former senior editor of the Nation and writer for other pinko publications like the Village Voice and Out, creates a secular Bible on which pissed off free-thinkers with that rare penchant for fact and reason can thump. (Unlike the actual Bible, however, it contains almost exclusively verifiable information that is by all accounts true.) One can’t quite say Kaplan blows the lid off the machinations of the Christian Coalition and other Jesus-freaked lobby groups that grind in the belly of the Bush machine -- it was never much of a secret. What she does is take the anecdotal and the presumed and find the facts that bear it out. While one can hardly claim to be surprised that religious groups, very often those of the fundamentalist stripe, have great influence on a president who can barely heat up a piece of toast without crediting God for his actions, Kaplan’s findings are shocking if only for their volume and intensity.

For instance: “God Hates Fags” is a popular sign for the saved to wave around AIDS clinics, but they should probably add “...and Bush REALLY Hates Fags” to the list. Beneath the obvious strain toward a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, Kaplan finds even more insidious doings: the Bush administration refocusing AIDS research dollars to emphasize “mother-to-child transmission, responsible for less than 200 infections a year in the United States, but never mention[ing] gay men or drug users, though these populations experience 20,000 to 30,000 infections each year.”

This from the same administration that uses threats of suspended funding and even the bully tactics of tax audits for family planning and disease control organizations that continue to espouse their scientifically-verified message of safe sex and condom use rather than preach the administration’s abstinence only policy.

This is the same Bush, by the way, who appointed Bob Jones University graduate Jerry Thacker to his AIDS advisory council, Thacker being notable for falling back on the time tested theory that AIDS is “the gay plague” but spinning out more interestingly worded condemnation by calling homosexuality “a sinful deathstyle.”

There’s no shortages of for instances in Kaplan’s book. In fact, the book is bloated with them, almost too dense, as stuffed as a Florida ballot box. Kaplan’s prose is sharp and clear. She takes aim at her targets with a bare minimum of verbal pyrotechnics or self-gratifying cuteness, and consistently her arrows find their marks. The beating heart of With God On Their Side is a brilliant and meticulous array of research and information which Kaplan presents concisely.

Kaplan explores (although not quite as thoroughly as she investigates other issues) the emergence of the Christian right from its disorganized roots to its vocal minority designation in the 1970s all the way to its faux-majority status in the new millennium. This, she tells is, is largely thanks to Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich who first employed the tool of direct mail solicitation in order to politicize churchgoers and help usher them into the right-wing party. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Beverly LaHaye (guilty, at the very least, of literary crime by association for being married to Tim LaHaye of Left Behind pseudo-fame) carried the torch with their TV networks and mobilized groups that channel the fearful energy of tithers and repenters into the focused power of voters and letter writers.

These groups, highly organized and well-connected, flex a great deal of muscle in a Republican administration who can pretty much thank them for getting elected not just once but twice in a pair of the most closely contended races in American history.

And Bush does return the favor, not just with his public statements and broader policy changes which often must be geared to at least appear somewhat centrist, but in the classically under-the-radar moves like allocating funds and appointing committee members and judges. These very advisory group heads and members of the judiciary are directly influenced by the kind of disinformation spouted by agenda-driven Christian lobby groups who make no bones about God’s word trumping any of that paltry, unprovable scientific data.

What emerges most clearly in Kaplan’s book is a portrait of an administration (and its resulting sub-groups of power) less interested in information than ideology. The administration, from the top down, is populated by those who make decisions and then seek facts to support them, rather than the other way around. This is in some ways no surprise, considering the policies behind the invasion of Iraq, yet still baffling when it involves creationism-driven books in the gift shops at the Grand Canyon and blatantly faulty data on condom effectiveness.

Early in the book, Kaplan turns her gaze to Ashcroft, that stone-faced, old-school Puritan so full of Biblical fear and trembling that he breaks into a cold sweat at the sight of the bared bronze breast of blind lady justice and sees the tongues of hellfire tickling the feet or any who dare drink or dance or do much of anything else. Kaplan writes of the former Attorney General, “And he has done battle against secularism whenever the opportunity arises. Early in his tenure, he expunged a pro forma phrase, ‘there is no higher calling than public service,’ from Justice Department letters to constituents and Congress, arguing, ‘There is a higher calling than public service, which is to God.’” It’s obvious, then, that like the atheist who does not wish to swear on Bibles or bow before the ten commandments in court houses, these twice-born government officials don’t want to be forced into saying something that contradicts their own ideology, they just can’t (or won’t) see the issue from the other side.

The greatest flaw in Kaplan’s book is her uncertainty in the administration’s movie. Occasionally she asserts that they are ideologues of the first order, and yet other times she suggests that they tow the Christian line only to appease their most powerful demographic. Are these forces driven by pollsters like Richard Wirthlin who calls an antigay marriage amendment “an ideal wedge issue”? And what of hate-fountains like Falwell who secretly confess to knowingly having gay staff members in his employ? How much of their own rhetoric do they believe? Kaplan never seems to decide, and while it gives the book a slightly incomplete feel, the point is fairly moot. The key element is not so much why and to what degree members of the Bush administration actively believe in the disinformation and discrimination, in the barely veiled hate-speech and moves toward an increasingly de-secularized government, but that they do and how they do it and why it must be stopped.

With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House by Esther Kaplan
New Press
ISBN: 1565849205
322 pages