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RE-SCOPING SCOPES! Lawrence O’Donnell got it very right when he questioned George Bush’s religion: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2004

RE-SCOPING SCOPES: All of a sudden, everyone except golf pal Bob Schieffer is troubled by Bush’s religion. In today’s Times, Maureen Dowd even sets aside lightweight concerns to ask if the prez “mistakenly assumes that his concerns are God’s.” Well, actually, no, check that statement; Dowd simply asserts that Bush makes this assumption. Meanwhile, everyone’s scanning Pat Robertson’s comments to Paula Zahn (more below). Ron Suskind’s tangy article in the New York Times mag has largely touched off this discussion.

And yes, this discussion is long overdue, whatever its result might be—and the discussion has been amazingly frank in one unexpected locale. Last Thursday night, in Scarborough Country, Lawrence O’Donnell had finally heard enough. Guest host Pat Buchanan played the religion card for Bush. In reply, O’Donnell said things Big Major Scribes haven’t said out loud for many, many years:

BUCHANAN (10/14/04): John Kerry looks like an Episcopal priest up there. You know how he is. And George Bush does look like very much a man of the people, I think, and somewhat of a more basic, if you will, Baptist faith or Protestant faith from the South. And I think that’s very appealing...

O‘DONNELL: Well, but most Americans do not have that kind of simple-minded faith. George Bush’s God is a very strange God. This is a God who wants everyone to be free. That’s a very, very peculiarly frustrated God. That is a God that has been apparently frustrated for centuries in George Bush’s imagination.

Say what? Buchanan, who plays a rube on TV but is actually more cosmopolitan, laughed and allowed his guest to speak on:
BUCHANAN (continuing directly): Ever since the Garden of Eden.

O’DONNELL: Well, this is a God—this is also a God who gives the gift of freedom. He says that‘s a gift from the almighty, that the Afghan people got this gift from the almighty this year. What was George Bush’s God doing to those people up to now? You see, that’s the problem with this. For very simple-minded religious people, that stuff works. That is a minority of the American population.

Yikes! It’s been years and years since major scribes took pot-shots like that at professed religion. As the debate proceeded, Bob Zelnick sensibly said that he’d judge Bush’s policies, not his faith. But O’Donnell wasn’t finished:
O’DONNELL: The danger of simplification is that God wants him to do what he is doing. God wants people to be free; therefore, I, George Bush, will free them. That‘s a dangerous political implication.
The following night, the discussion continued. After conventional matters were limned, Buchanan returned to the ancestral wars:
BUCHANAN (10/15/04): Lawrence O‘Donnell is still with us, along with Paul Kengor, who’s joining us. He‘s the author of God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life. Lawrence, I want to ask you, you believe that the president’s faith is simple-minded?
“Yes, it’s extremely childish,” O’Donnell said. “He anthropomorphizes God and attributes to human motivations, human desires, human aspirations, all these things that you and I, Pat, in Catholic education were taught not to do very, very specifically.” Just like that, the pair of pundits were debating whether God has desires:
BUCHANAN: Do you believe that God wills that all men be saved?

O’DONNELL: No, I do not.

BUCHANAN: Do you believe God desires that all men be saved?

O’DONNELL: No, I don’t believe that God has desires. What we were taught in Catholic education is God’s ways are unknowable. The essence of the Catholic God is that God works in mysterious ways. George W. Bush doesn’t think God works in mysterious ways. George W. Bush thinks he knows what God wants, and George W. Bush then says, I am here to execute what God wants.

On Monday, the debate entered Day 3, with Scarborough himself presiding. Cable conservative Shmuley Boteach was on hand, prepared to dispense scripted cant (Boteach is a rabbi). But land o’ goshen! The times were a-changed! O’Donnell even fought against that!
BOTEACH (10/17/04): People like Lawrence O‘Donnell—and Lawrence is a fine man, I know him...believe that religion is actually a lobotomy. It makes you into a moron, that the fact that Bush is stupid, it’s actually because he has this faith, which makes him silly enough to see the world in black and white. I would rather have us dumb men of faith, who see that Bush is good and Saddam is evil. I would rather have us than have a guy like Kerry, that couldn’t get it right in Vietnam, saying that our troops were evil and the communists were good.

O’DONNELL: What does this have to do with prayer? What does this have to do with religion? What are you talking about?

BOTEACH: What I’m talking about is that religion gives you the vision to know what‘s right. What Bush prayed for before that war was can I remove a tyrant, so that he doesn’t gas Kurdish children in their homes?

O’DONNELL: “Gives you the vision to know what is right.” Did religion give him the X-ray vision to see the weapons of mass destruction? What did he pray for that was right?

And O’Donnell, piling heresy high atop outrage, even slammed Democratic pols, men whom he knows personally. “I think the Kerry references to God are phony. I think every reference Bill Clinton ever made to God was phony. I think every reference Jimmy Carter made to God was political and phony and designed to trick people who believe in God to believe in them.” At this point, O’Donnell’s host restored order. “Well, you know what?” he said. “ We will be right back. I will tell you what—that’s inflammatory language for a lot of us in Scarborough Country!”

Inflammatory it was—and long overdue. For decades, secularists and religious moderates have stood aside as the Robertsons, the Boteachs and yes, the George Bushes have offered their versions of public piety. Everyone agreed not to notice the more absurd aspects of their professed faith. As they stared off into air, secularists and religious skeptics had a plainly mistaken belief. They believed that they had won a war some time after the Scopes monkey trail—that society had driven a brand of religious simplist into the fringe and into the corner. But those religious simplists didn’t give up, and it’s fairly clear that they’re now back in power.

In truth, that monkey trial (which the simplists basically won) decided next to nothing. Yes, it’s true; by the 50s and the 60s, it seemed that simplist forces had lost a great war. But simplism is built in the human gene pool. Religious simplists will always be with us, and their views should be publicly challenged, just like everyone else’s.

For decades, polite public pundits have looked away as simplists professed their inspiring faith. Lawrence O’Donnell got it right when he spoke up in Scarborough Country last week. We strongly suggest that you read those transcripts, and prepare for a long strong debate.

MCGARVEY RIDES AGAIN: Say what? Ayelish McGarvey is at it again, this time questioning Bush’s faith! “Bush is no devout evangelical,” the synopsis on her Prospect article says. “In fact, he may not be a Christian at all.”

For ourselves, we’ll stand with Zelnick; as a general matter, we think it’s hard, if not pointless, to judge major pols’ inner states. We’ll simply judge this president’s actions. But McGarvey does something very important; she rejects the idea that we are required to assume that Bush’s religious professions are sincere. Is Bush sincere in his public statements of faith? We don’t have the slightest idea. But neither do your Big Major Pundits. McGarvey is quick to remind them of this, and yes, they need big-time reminding.

WE’VE GOT TROUBLE: Right here in River City! And yes, that starts with a T, and that rhymes with a G, and that stands for “gene pool!” Speaking with Zahn, Robertson drew an intriguing analogy:

ZAHN (10/19/04) There is this magazine called Sojourners magazine, which, by its admission, is a liberal Christian magazine.

ROBERTSON: Semi-socialist.

ZAHN: But they're running an ad right now that rebuts your claim that God has taken a side in this election—

ROBERTSON: I would never say somebody had to vote for anybody. That would be terrible. I haven't said that. I just said, I think God's blessing [Bush], and I think it's one of those things that, even if he stumbles and messes up—and he's had his share of goofs and gaffes—I just think God's blessing is on him. And you remember, I think the Chinese used to say, you know, it's the blessing of heaven on the emperor. And I think the blessing of heaven is on Bush. It's just the way it is.

Robertson thinks he knows who heaven is blessing—just as people in imperial China thought they knew that heaven was blessing their emperor. The impulse to think such implausible thoughts is rooted deep in the human gene pool. The instincts that drove medieval Chinese also drive many contemporary Americans. They haven’t been challenged on this impulse for decades. With simplist power steadily growing, O’Donnell got it right when he did.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Zahn, of course, is the psychic’s best friend. How far will big pundits go to cater to rubes? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/18/01 and 7/24/01, to recall Zahn’s appalling example.