Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Religion As A Political Weapon

Salon has an interesting story today about one of Karl Rove’s most craven legacies: exploiting religious voters for partisan political gain. Many people blame religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson for rallying the faithful to political causes, and while modern politicians have courted religious voters since Jimmy Carter’s day, Rove turned it into a cynical art form.

Let’s dial the time machine back to Ft. Worth, Texas, 1994:
... [T]he Christian right showed up at the Republicans' state convention in Fort Worth, in 1994, with enough delegates to seize control of the party. The dominant Christian faction tossed George H.W. Bush's handpicked state chairman and longtime friend, Fred Meyer, out of office and replaced him with a charismatic Catholic lawyer from Dallas. It banned liquor from convention hotels and replaced hospitality-room bars with "ice cream sundae bars," where chefs prepared designer confections. It summoned delegates to Grand Old Prayer Sessions, required Christian fealty oaths of candidates for party leadership, and made opposition to abortion the brand by which Texas Republicans would be defined. [....] After initially fighting the dominant evangelical delegation at the state convention -- proposing Texas Rep. Joe Barton as a compromise candidate for state party chairman -- Rove joined them.

The article points out that Rove “found religion, even if he didn't find Jesus.” It’s interesting and not surprising, since Rove is the rare atheist in the Bush White House, at least according to Christopher Hitchens. The Texas Christian conservatives were enormous patsies; maybe they were so happy to be at the party that they didn’t notice when Rove denied them access to GOP funds and worked to replace their party chairman with the non-Christian conservative John Cornyn.

I wonder if Rove didn’t secretly enjoy playing the religious political novices for fools. Or maybe not so secretly: David Kuo revealed that Rove openly referred to top religious leaders as “the nuts.”

There were all sorts of wonderful things that could be done by harnessing the voting power of clueless Christians. Kuo, who was a top official at the President’s Office Of Faith-Based Initiatives, saw this play out in the most craven of ways:

... Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the [Faith-Based Initiatives] office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly “nonpartisan” events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races.

Nineteen out of the 20 targeted races were won by Republicans, Kuo reports. The outreach was so extensive and so powerful in motivating not just conservative evangelicals, but also traditionally Democratic minorities, that Kuo attributes Bush’s 2004 Ohio victory “at least partially … to the conferences we had launched two years before.”

That’s bang for your buck, eh?

And so a religious-political movement was spawned, the same movement defended by people like Antioch pastor Tim Alexander, who urge the Democrats to follow suit. Thank God they haven't listened.

Liberals spend a lot of time shouting about separation of church and state issues, while religious people giddy with access and influence have spent little time examining how this has affected their religious values. The religious right never noticed that it has traded mystery for certainty; that, as the late William Sloane Coffin said, their "God is too small ... [and] the mirror opposite of the Jesus we find in the four Gospels."

Some religious voters have awakened from their stupor, as shown by last August’s Pew Research Center study of politics and faith. The Democrats may not be getting Christian right converts, but they shouldn’t expect to, not after the anti-liberal propaganda that’s been spread by the likes of, well, Karl Rove. But the Republican Party is losing conservative religious voters; these folks are just staying home, and all the gay-baiting can’t seem to make a difference.

So it seems in this, Karl Rove’s greatest political triumph, is also his biggest failure. The architect's glass house is crumbling.