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With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right Paperback – November 22, 2005
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"Scrupulously researched and documented, and enlivened by Kaplan’s trenchant reportage . . . [a] journalistic masterpiece." Mark Crispin Miller, The Globe and Mail
"Kaplan’s exposé is welcomeand alarming." Mike Marqusee, The Independent (London)
"A call to arms to battle those forces who want to return America to the dark ages." Janeane Garofalo
"A truly shocking dossier of recent religious fundamentalist incursions into the soul of American democracy." Tony Kushner
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There are excellent chapters about the Republican romance with pseudo-science, the current administration's inept attempts to deal with the worldwide AIDS crisis, and GOP attempts to mix moralism and public health policy. But the best chapter is the one about stacking the courts. The author argues that an essential part of the Reagan-Bush agenda has been an attempt to remake the courts as a reactionary force for generations to come. And the net result is that average Americans have no legal protections against the corporate world, laws to protect disabled people are invalidated, and even Constitutional rights supposedly in force since the founding of the Nation are compromised.
The subtitle and numerous comments throughout the book assume that the "Christian Right" is somehow connected to the Christian Faith. However I do not believe that it is correct to blame those of us in the Christian Community for the fact that there are unbelievers, total phonies, and outrageous hypocrites within the ranks. The "Pseudo-Religious Right" would be more accurate terminology.
My background therefore colors my reaction to this book. Like Kaplan I have grown increasingly dismayed by the role that right wing religion has come to play in American political life. Like Kaplan I believe that this influence has been uniformly awful. Like Kaplan, I think that everything possible must be undertaken to inform the public at large of the specific ways religious agendas are harming America. I think the book is not quite perfect, but it nonetheless contains a large amount of very useful information of which all voters need to be aware.
Let me point out two things that Kaplan does not raise, but that I believe at the heart of the matters at hand. First, one reason that the Founders wanted a sharp separation between Church and State (and despite the reinvented history of Pat Robertson and the Dominionists, there is absolutely no question of where they stood on the matter) was that they understood that if you introduced religion into politics, it essentially took on a party flavor. And the fortunes of specific parties waxed and waned. Madison understood this better than anyone. If you tie religion to specific political beliefs and stances, if the general public turns against those beliefs and stances, it turns against religion as well. We see this happening right now with my old Southern Baptist Convention, with poll numbers increasingly showing a broad negative perception of Southern Baptists because of their involvement in politics. I think these numbers are going to increase and I believe that the stagnant membership in the SBC churches will begin to decline. All of this could have been predicted twenty-five years ago when the denomination shifted sharply to the right.
The second thing that I want to point out that Kaplan neglects is a fact that a disturbingly small number seem to be aware of: most Christians in the United States do not support the far right. Most Christians are either moderates or liberals. Roman Catholics, for instance, tend to be anti-abortion and sympathetic to many so-called pro-family measures (though there is great diversity in the American Catholic church, since the vast majority of Catholics believe in birth control, despite the teachings of Rome, and many support a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion as well), but on most other issues the Church is either moderate or left leaning. And while contemporary Protestantism is dominated in the public eye by Southern Baptists and the Pentecostal denominations, the large number of protestant denominations that are much further to the left are ignored. Even many Baptists, such as American Baptists and Swedish Baptists, are much further to the right than the SBC.
Still, none of this changes the importance of Kaplan's book. In a series of chapters she shows specifically how the religious right has penetrated American government and begun to dictate policy in increasingly disturbing ways. Several chapters of her book cover aspects of the relation of the religious right to the Bush administration and the Republican Party of which most people are already aware. In other words, that those on the religious right overwhelmingly support the GOP and provide them with funding. What most Americans are unaware of is the incredibly harmful influence that the religious right has had on public policy.
The damage that religious right beliefs have been doing comes in several key areas. For instance, the fear of Darwinian science has led to an assertion of non-scientific creationist ideas in weird and unexpected places. In our National Parks, for instance, books reflecting the almost universally and globally held scientific consensus have been replaced by equally universally and globally disdained books reflecting a creationist understanding of geology. In other words, books reflecting our foremost experts on geology have been replaced by writings by ideologues.
Understandings of the ultimate course of world history have led to an uncritical support for Israel and an utter disregard for the Palestinians. Granted, the Bush administration is hardly the first to take this position, but even in the Reagan administration there was unqualified criticism of Israel for the expansion of the settlements. Under Bush and his similarly minded religious right cohorts, we have seen the most hands-off approach towards Israel since the nation was created in 1948. What is truly scary is that the religious right in truth has no genuine concern for Israel or the Jews. Their only concern, as seen in the violently anti-Semitic LEFT BEHIND series (I say this because there as in much religious right ideology Jews are not taken as they are and wish to be, but for the role that the right presumes they are destined to play, i.e. mainly as cannon fodder in a series of unspeakably violent tragedies) is in making conditions right for Armageddon and a massive military conflict. There is absolutely no question that a dramatic escalation of military activities in Israel and Palestine would be greeted with great joy in the Religious Right, while an effective two-state solution guaranteeing the Palestinians a nation and recognition of their rights would be cause for consternation and regret. As Kaplan rightly points out, are these the kinds of people we want in charge of our foreign policy?
Beliefs in sexual morality have caused almost unprecedented problems in public policy. World bodies dealing with AIDS have become increasingly frustrated with the US in attempts to deal with AIDS (a frustration that has increased since the publication of Kaplan's book). While most organizations want to deal with the issue taking a multi-tiered approach, including condoms, the US representatives, a disturbing number of them without backgrounds in public health but instead chosen for their religious positions, insist on emphasizing abstinence above all others. Increasingly the US has come to be perceived as on the margins of this and other world health issues. If the US didn't have large amounts of cash and political clout, we would be completely ignored by the international community. We are largely irrelevant in terms of the ideas that we have to offer.
Abstinence has also inflicted damage on domestic policy. Increasingly sex education in the US has come to reflect only the beliefs of the religious right ideologues. Although it is too early to say for sure, but it appears that abstinence only education is considerably less effective in preventing pregnancy rates. In fact, pregnancy rates have gone up slightly among teens even while sexual activity has gone down.
These are only a few of the areas that Kaplan covers in her book. She writes extensively about how right wing religious ideology has harmed AIDS research, almost all public health research, environmental research and policy, and a host of other areas.
I do want to point out what I think is the book's most serious shortcoming: a minimal discussion of the Dominionist movement. There is a brief mention of this, but the small but very influential group of people who intentionally stay beneath the radar but who have as their agenda the recreation of America as a Christian Nation exert a huge amount of influence on the religious right. Even most on the Right are unaware of their true beliefs. The Dominionists bring forward only their least objectionable beliefs, such as the anti-historical claim that the US was created as a Christian nation and that we should be once again. But they keep many of their beliefs out of the public eye, such as the belief of the most ardent Dominionists that no women should be allowed to work and should stay home and be caretakers (though given the fact that there are more women than men in the population, I am not sure how that works out). Or their internal debates as to whether homosexuals should be stoned to death or burned, i.e., the most ardent Dominionists don't disagree over whether they should die, but only on the Biblically agreed method of execution. Luckily, other books similar to Kaplan's, such as Kevin Phillips AMERICAN THEOCRACY and Michele Goldberg's KINGDOM COMING address dominionism as great length. It is her failure to take up this incredibly important topic that keeps me from giving it five stars.
All of this leads to the question: what next? Books like this are a crucial first step. People like Sara Diamond and Frederick Clarkson have been warning us about the dangers of the far religious right for years. With polling showing that even most Republicans feel that the Religious Right has too much influence in American life, it is looking like the mood in the country is shifting against the religious ideologues. On a policy level, the success of the Religious Right has depended entirely on the general ignorance of the public. Not many Americans would support "abstinence only" as the primary approach to dealing with AIDS in Africa. Or refusing to fund any AIDS studies because it might be of benefit to gays (most Americans are opposed to Gay marriage, but support Civil unions and every other fundamental right available to US citizens). Information is the key. Books like Kaplan's, and those mentioned above by Phillips and Goldberg, or more specialized books such as Stephanie Hendricks's DIVINE DESTRUCTION: DOMINION THEOLOGY AND AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY are helping.
My recommendation for those coming to learn about these issues for the first time to read this and one other book. Kaplan is great in talking about the specific influences that the religious right is having on public polity. But she is somewhat weak on the ideology under girding the religious right. Michele Goldberg's KINGDOM COMING: THE RISE OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM is basically an updating of the work by Sara Diamond and Frederick Clarkson in the 1990s. Together, these two books can help expose the pernicious influence that the religious right has had on contemporary American politics. My hope is that gradually my fellow Christians will come to their senses and start moving back to a Biblically instead of politically mandated understanding of the role of Christians in society.
In almost every way one can think of, Kaplan documents the ways that the extreme right-wing Christian community, led by George W Bush, has used their anti-science, anti-intellectual and anti-reason point of view to shape policy, often to disastrous results.
Many will superficially see this book as "anti-religious." This is not necessarily so; this book is anti-irrationality, and then, if the shoe fits, wear it.
One could also write a book on the irrationality of some left-wing religious activists as well and that would be justifiable; but it is safe to say that at this moment in time, the Religious Right's embrace of a coming rapture, their belief in an inerrant bible and rejection of mainstream science in favor of Creationism and other pseudo science overwhelms the dangers posed by any other religious class in the US!
This book is a must for those blissfully unaware of the ways that the fundamentalist religious beliefs of others can some day profundly change their lives. For those who already know, this is a great compilation with all the facts neatly assembled in one book.