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Wednesday, October 20, 2004 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: 21 AIDS Activists Arrested At Bush-Cheney 2004 HQ...
2004-10-20

God & The Presidency: An In-Depth Examination Of Faith In The Bush White House

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Journalist Ron Suskind examines how Bush’s belief in God has impacted his presidency, how some of Bush’s supporters believe he is an instrument of God and the growing concern among many non-Evangelical Republicans. One former Reagan/Bush official says, "Just in the past few months. I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do." We also speak with Esther Kaplan author of the new book, "With God On Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House." [includes rush transcript]

With 13 days left until voters go to the polls in one of the most significant elections in US history, President Bush and Senator John Kerry are intensifying their campaigning, particularly in a handful of so-called swing states. Concerns abound nationwide that voters may be intimidated from voting and that a repeat of the 2000 elections may unfold. This campaign has been marked by extraordinary dirty tricks, personal attacks, and smear campaigns. All against the backdrop of multiple US occupations and US military deaths rising every day. Both campaigns say they will make the US safer over the next four years. But while Iraq and foreign policy dominate much of the public discussion on the elections, other key domestic issues are at stake.

The next president will have a major influence over the composition of the Supreme Court and laws governing a woman"s right to choose. And it is this issue of abortion that is one of the lynchpins of the support President Bush receives from increasingly powerful, right-wing evangelical Christian groups. Much has been written about the significant role these groups have played in supporting the Bush campaign. Bush has opened the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to right-wing Christian groups more than any president in history. They are well-funded, well-organized and well-connected.

Today, we are going to spend the rest of the hour taking an in-depth look at the role religion has played and is playing in the Bush presidency and election campaign. In a moment, we will be joined by two journalists. Esther Kaplan is author of the new book "With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W Bush"s White House." We"ll also be joined by Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Price of Loyalty: George W Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill." His latest piece in The New York Times Magazine is called "Without a Doubt," which is about the role of faith in the Bush presidency. But first, we wanted to play an excerpt from the final presidential discussion at the University of Arizona on October 13, when the candidates were asked by moderator Bob Sheiffer of CBS News about the role religion plays in their lives.

  • President Bush speaking at the final presidential debate in Tempe, Arizona
  • Exerpt: "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House"
  • Esther Kaplan, author of the new book "With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George W Bush’s White House."
  • Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is author of "The Price of Loyalty: George W Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O"Neill." His latest piece in The New York Times Magazine is called "Without a Doubt," which is about the role of faith in the Bush presidency.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue on the issue of faith and the White House, with 13 days left until the voter goes to the polls in one of the most significant elections in U.S. history, President Bush and Senator John Kerry are intensifying their campaigning particularly in a handful of so-called swing states. Concerns nationwide that voters may be intimidated from voting, and that a repeat of the 2000 elections may unfold. This campaign has been marked by extraordinary dirty tricks, personal attacks and smear campaigns, all against the backdrop of multiple U.S. occupations and U.S. military deaths rising every day. Both campaigns say they’ll make the U.S. safer over the next four years. But while Iraq and foreign policy dominate much of the public discussion on the elections, other key issues are at stake. The next president will have a major influence over the composition of the Supreme Court and laws governing a woman’s right to choose, and it’s this issue of abortion that is one of the lynchpins of the support President Bush receives from increasingly powerful right-wing evangelical Christian groups. Much has been written about the significant roll these groups have played in supporting the Bush campaign. President Bush has opened the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to right-wing Christian groups more than any other president in history. They’re well-funded, well-organized, and well-connected. Today we’re going to spend the hour taking an in-depth look at the role religion has played and is playing in the Bush presidency and election campaign. We’re joined by Esther Kaplan, author of With God on Our Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House. Also Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O’Neill. His latest piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a cover story called "Without a Doubt," which is about the role of faith in the Bush presidency. But I first want to play an excerpt from the final presidential discussion at the University of Arizona — discussion on October 13th when the candidates were asked by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News about the role religion plays in their lives.

BOB SCHIEFFER: You were asked before the invasion or after the invasion of Iraq if you had checked with your dad. And I believe, I don’t remember the quote exactly, but I believe you said you had checked with a higher authority. I would like to ask you, what part does your faith play on your policy decisions?

GEORGE W. BUSH: First, my faith plays a big part in my life. That’s when I was answering that question, what I was really saying to the person was that I pray a lot. And I do. And my faith is a very — it’s very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for troops in harm’s way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls. But I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an almighty and if you choose not to. If you’re a Christian or you’re Muslim, you’re equally an American. That’s the great thing about America is the right to worship the way you see fit. Prayer in religion sustains me. I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, well how do you know? I said, I just feel it. Religion is an important part. I never want to impose my religion on anybody else, but when I make decisions, I stand on principle, and the principles are derived from what I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That’s manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we’ve unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free — that’s what I believe, and that’s one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the almighty, and I cannot tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march. So, my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me and religion is a part of me.

AMY GOODMAN: George Bush speaking at the final presidential discussion, Tempe, Arizona. Meanwhile, a new documentary has just been released, and the producers, evangelical Christians, are billing it as an alternative to Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s called George W. Bush: Faith in the White House. It’s produced by Grizzly Adams Productions. This is an excerpt.

NARRATOR: Regardless of the political outcome, there have been a great many changes at the White House. The president encourages Bible study, opens meetings with prayer, and unabashedly references God in his public pronouncements. According to Newsweek magazine, "This presidency is the most resolutely faith-based in modern times — an enterprise founded, supported and guided by trust in the temporal and spiritual power of God." BBC correspondent Justin Webb reported that nobody in government spends more time on his knees than George W. Bush. The Bush administration hums to the sound of prayer. Prayer meetings take place day and night. It’s not uncommon to see White House functionaries hurrying down corridors carrying Bibles. His example has brought about a national phenomenon called the presidential prayer team. The person responsible for that is Meagan Gillan, Director of Communication.

MEAGAN GILLAN: The presidential prayer team is the nationwide initiative whose sole goal it is to stimulate prayer for the president, his cabinet and other key leaders on his team. It exists in perpetuity, to support in prayer whoever occupies the Oval Office. In addition, we call our members to prayer for the members of our military who serve around the world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. It spread like wildfire across the nation and before we knew it, we had 5,000, 10,000, some days as many as 28,000 people joining this effort to pray for the president. Today we’re happy to say we have over 3 million participating, and some weeks we have over 10 million hits on the website. All are people inquiring about prayer.

NARRATOR: Prayer meetings and Bible reading sessions were and are still conducted in the various departments of government. They’re not mandatory, but they’re not held in secret either.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary that has now been distributed to hundreds of thousands of people around the country called George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, produced by Grizzly Adams Productions. Our guests again, Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Esther Kaplan, author of the new book With God on Their Side. Esther Kaplan, let’s stick to the issue of the meetings in the White House. I don’t think most people are quite aware of this. Explain how they work.

ESTHER KAPLAN: Well, up until the war on terror and his morning terror briefings slightly disrupted his schedule John Ashcroft, for example, had daily prayer meetings in the Department of Justice. They were in his office, he led them. So you can see how a young, ambitious person in the Department of Justice — this would be really an invaluable chance to get some face time with the boss. So, part of the concern is not just that some government employees on their break, you know, want to pray. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. It’s being organized by the top people in the White House, by the top guy in justice. And so, it becomes this place where Christians who want to participate in this prayer have special access, arguably have a chance to advance their connections, their career, their power base within whatever department it is by participating in these prayer circles. There’s a real question. And I think that particularly coming from the person, the top law enforcement official in this country, John Ashcroft, for him to be muddying that line between government service and prayer is tricky. I want to just make a quick comment about that bit that you played from George Bush in the debates. I came across a column just — I guess it was from two days ago that Paul Wyrick, who was one of the founders of the Christian right. He’s one of the guy who came to Jerry Falwell and said, let’s found a moral majority in America. He kind of knitted together the movement. He’s considered the father of the movement. In a column on the right wing website, he claims credit for the fact that that question was asked by Bob Schieffer in the debate. He says, he wrote to Bob Schieffer, asked him to — to ask the president about his faith, and as he says, to my shock and surprise, Bob Schieffer did ask the question. I was delighted with President Bush’s reply. So, even a moment like that, there’s — there’s a careful coordination with Christian right leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind, are you surprised by that?

RON SUSKIND: Oh, no. Certainly not. There is a regular communication and ongoing sort of a shared support from the Christian right and the White House. I mean, you know the fact is, in some ways, it’s — it’s something that we’re familiar with on all sides of the political equation. In this case, you know, the Christian right, you know, as John Dilulio said to me in the story that I wrote in Esquire in 2002, at the end of 2002, that created a bit of a stir — he said you know, these guys are in and around the building. You know, at one point, he got into a push and shove — Dilulio did with Karl Rove. Dilulio was head of the faith-based initiative for this president through its first year, and basically Dilulio found out soon enough that he, as he said, that this was not about compassionate conservatism, but it was at least in large measure a mechanism, a vehicle, to fund and organize, direct the Christian right, using federal monies and White House organization, and support. And in the push and shove with Karl, basically, he was being encouraged to go and make nice and offer his assistance to Jerry Falwell and others. He said, I’m not going to do it. Rove said back something to the nature of well, Jerry Falwell, well, those people don’t have any real influence here. And Dilulio says, is that why they’re here all the time? I think this is part of the way this White House works. This is their core constituency. Think about Bill Clinton and his core constituency. Or George Bush the first or Ronald Reagan. The core constituency here, the energizing center of the base, are evangelical Christian conservatives. The conversations are minute to minute and every day.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece, Ron, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, "Without a doubt," "Bruce Bartlett, domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and treasury official for the first president Bush told me recently that, quote, 'if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting November 3.'" Explain.

RON SUSKIND: What Bruce Bartlett was talking about and Republicans that I speak with are concerned about, you know, I —- I’m not pro-Bush or anti—-Bush, I’m pro-fact. I’m a reporter. I try to talk to everyone I can. These days, especially after my book The Price of Loyalty came out, the main character Paul O’Neill, a locked-in republican, and virtually everyone in the book quoted as a republican. The book is out in paperback now with documents that O’Neill gave me in the back. You know, what is interesting is after the book came out, democrats embraced it, but after a month or so republicans started to call. Guys like Bruce Bartlett who served Ronald Reagan and George Bush the First, Roger Porter, the Harvard professor, who was domestic policy chief for the first President Bush. The comments were all similar. This is our song. This is our story of prudence, pragmatism abroad, et cetera. There is growing concern among the community in the republican party that this president is in no way someone carrying forward of the familiar ideas, let’s just say familiar ideas of the republican party. And the battle, the civil war, is between the two constituencies that George Bush relies on, old guard republicans who are increasingly dispirited and faith-based core that the president is ever-more inclining toward. You know, John Chafee, rather Lincoln Chafee, his son, the senator from Rhode Island said, said something very, very interesting in the story, again a republican — he said the key to the election will be the president’s effort to signal to the evangelical base that he is a messenger of God — this is coming from a United States senator, a republican — and to do that carefully so that he does not upset voters in swing states. The key to the election: signaling to the base that the president believes as many of them do, that he is actually a messenger of God.

AMY GOODMAN: Ron Suskind, we have to break for stations to identify themselves, and we’ll be back. Ron Suskind, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, cover story of this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a piece called "Without a Doubt." Also joining us, Esther Kaplan, her book is called With God on Their Side.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s take a listen to that clip from the film that is now being distributed around the country about George W. Bush by evangelicals.

GEORGE W. BUSH: When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart and changes your life.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush. We’re joined by Ron Suskind and Esther Kaplan, both authors. Ron Suskind wrote Price of Loyalty, Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side. Ron Suskind, following up on the quote and the second quote of Bruce Bartlett in your New York Times piece this weekend, the domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and treasury official for the first President Bush, Bartlett says, "Just in the past few months, I think a light has gone off for people who have spent time up close to Bush, that this instinct he is always talking about is this sort of weird messianic idea of what I thinks god has told him to do. This is why George w. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda," Bartlett says, "and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes that you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists driven by a dark vision. He understands them because he’s just like them." Your response.

RON SUSKIND: Well, it’s certainly a quote that has had some legs in the last few days. What is Bruce Bartlett talking about there? Well, it’s something that I think anyone who has studied human history, certainly in the modern era, is familiar with. How extremism often breeds extremism, how radical ideas often are most drawn to the opposing radical idea. I think that what Bartlett fears and again, many Republicans and Democrats, this is in some ways not a partisan issue, they fear sort of a dance of extremism a co-dependency of manner in which, you know, the clear-eyed and ideological views of the administration, of many in the administration, increasingly supported by this notion, as Bruce talks about, of a messianic faith. It acts as a sort of destructive counterweight to the extremism that is occurring around the globe. You know, I think if you step back from the — and look clearly at the global picture, what you find is a battle across the world between modernists and fundamentalists, between reason and religion, between the faith-based and reality-based communities. You find that in the Islamic world. You find it in much of the West. You certainly find it here in the United States. And that is — that’s become certainly since this Times story came out something of a catch phrase, the struggle to help people understand part of what’s happening here between the reality-based communities and the faith-based communities. You know, this Bruce Bartlett would be in the reality-based community, a Republican. You know, I had a meeting with someone in the White House who said, I as a reporter am in the reality-based community, but there is a counterweight. The faith-based community.

AMY GOODMAN: Esther Kaplan, you talk about in your book, with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the increasing number of evangelicals or missionaries going out, specifically specialists in converting Muslims. Can you talk about that whole movement?

ESTHER KAPLAN: Well, this is a really interesting way, and there are many ways, in which Bush’s foreign policy dovetails perfectly with the religious ambitions of the American evangelical movement. And there wasn’t a huge focus among American evangelicals in converting Muslims until just the last five or ten years. But is has really picked up speed. Now the obsession is something they called the "10-40 window." This 10 degrees to 40 degrees north latitude. And missionary operation after missionary operation are now focusing on this region. Evangelical colleges have opened up college majors in converting Muslims. And the trick is in many Muslim countries, there are very strict laws against proselytizing. So, there was — a great amount of excitement when the United States invaded Iraq, that this area that had been closed off to this 10-40 mission would now be opened, and huge amounts of money have been devoted to beginning to evangelize there. Even while the invasion was still going on, even during major combat operations, there were already people in there distributing videos, distributing tracts, and trying to win converts basically with US guns at their back. Despite the concerns of major religious Christian clergy on this, that this was really the wrong way to go about conversion, no one in the administration ever took a stance against it. And in fact, shortly after 9/11, I think it was in late November, Bush actually appeared in the Rose Garden with two Christian missionaries, who had been illegally trying to find Christian converts in Afghanistan. They had been imprisoned by the Taliban, because there was a law there against proselytizing, and he actually held a reception for them in the Rose Garden once they were released from custody, and claimed that was one of the reasons that he invaded Afghanistan was to secure their release.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s also of course the story of Lieutenant General William Jerry Boykin, that did get some attention. Fiercely anti-Muslim remarks reported in the NBC Nightly News and Los Angeles Times, but you say, you first saw the videotape, which was distributed by Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council with a cover letter. Can you talk about that?

ESTHER KAPLAN: Well, sure. Gary Bauer, James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, a lot of the key leaders on the Christian Right think of Jerry Boykin as a hero, akin to Judge Roy Moore in Alabama and his defense of his ten commandments monument in the state courthouse there. Gary Bauer in particular in his email updates which I receive constantly sings the praises of Jerry Boykin and calls on his constituency to write the White House and defend him. In fact, Boykin has not been censured for these remarks. But, yeah, he —

AMY GOODMAN: He’s the man who heads up the efforts to go after Osama bin Laden?

ESTHER KAPLAN: This is not a minor character. He is the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense. He was the one charged with Saddam Hussein and finding Osama bin Laden. And, yeah, in this video, he stands up — it’s not that he made a slip of the tongue — it’s a well-rehearsed talk with slides and a whole presentation, and he says, number one, that George Bush was put by god in the White House. He asked why is he president if he lost the popular vote? Well, it’s because god put him there, in his words, for "such a time as this." And he says that the war is a spiritual war against a spiritual enemy, and that enemy’s name is Satan. Now these are common sentiments among Christian Right leaders. Franklin Graham, who has often been a guest at the White House, who was the one who gave the benediction at Bush’s inauguration, has said very similar things. He has called Islam an "evil religion." President Bush, when pushed again and again, has refused to distance himself from these remarks, to condemn remarks like this from people within his own administration or within, as Ron Suskind said, his most cherished constituency, the Christian Right movement.

AMY GOODMAN: An interesting quote of John Ashcroft saying "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you."

ESTHER KAPLAN: Right. This is a public speech, a scripted speech that Ashcroft made it was actually a radio interview. I apologize. But he has since tried to claim that he was only talking about terrorists, but it’s obvious from the quote that he is characterizing the religion as a whole. Of course, this is the same Attorney General who’s really gone after Muslim charities in this country, cutting them off from their funds on often no evidence whatsoever, who’s rounded up thousands of Muslims in this country for — indeterminate detention. So, it’s troubling when you have the Attorney General, who is espousing these views, and then implementing policies that arguably punish Muslims.

AMY GOODMAN: Esther Kaplan, her book is With God on Their Side. Ron Suskind, in your piece "Without a Doubt" you talk about the article that you wrote for Esquire magazine in the summer of 2002, and then a meeting you had at the White House that — well, where you were talking about Bush’s former communication director, Karen Hughes.

RON SUSKIND: Right. After the story, which the White House didn’t like, even though I had a good bit of access to the West Wing and the White House and senior officials pretty much across the board, you know, after that, I had a couple of meetings in the months that followed, and one of them was a meeting with someone who talked about the distinction between the reality-based community and ostensibly the faith-based community that — that, you know, that — me, you know, and the reality based community and people like you, Ron, you believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality and essentially that the world doesn’t work that way anymore. You know, it’s about action, is essentially what the aide said. You know, we act, and we create new reality that you will judiciously study and you will act again and you can study that one, and that’s the way it all will ultimately sort of sort out. We’re history’s actors and you will study what we do. You know, by the same token, I think Esther’s point, which is interesting, is that the president simply doesn’t do what other presidents have done in public, when these issues come up. One of the scenes in the story that I wrote in the Times is very emblematic of this sort of omission where the president is at one of his "ask President Bush sessions," which are these carefully staged sessions that are taped with supporters who then, you know, seemingly in an impromptu fashion stand and ask him questions. One of the people stands up, I think it’s in Destine, Florida, and says, I have been a Republican my whole life, but this is the first time that I know god is in the White House. Now, most presidents — I think all presidents of the modern era would at that moment say just hold on one minute — a man is in the White House. None of us can know god’s will. You know, I respect your opinion but let me be very clear — et cetera. This president, as he has done in countless ways throughout this season of consent, simply says, "Thank you. Thank you." And the room erupts in applause. That is essentially the way that the campaign of a faith-based president looks. As the president, you know, circles the country, the great tent revival, the big tent revival rallies for the president, you know, populated at least in significant measure in most states by the faith-based center of his base. Remember, 42% of Americans now identify themselves as either evangelical or born-again. I think for those of us who live on the coasts, on the West Coast and East Coast, some — this comes as something of a surprise. I know that readers have been sort of, you know, emailing me saying could that be true? Well, it is. If you go out to the wide middle of the country, you will find that the ions are charged in a different way, and I think that part of the battle, some historians call the struggle between those in the coastline and the center of the country now, you know, as deep a cultural divide as there was before the Civil War.

AMY GOODMAN: Only a few seconds.

RON SUSKIND: That’s part of the cultural war we’re in at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question, and we only have a few seconds for your answer — in your New York Times piece, you discuss a recent confidential luncheon in Washington where President Bush spoke with his long-time supporters about what’s ahead for the second term — in just a few seconds can you summarize what he responded?

RON SUSKIND: Yeah. The controversy from that luncheon, and I have notes that are sound as they can be, and it was confirmed by many people in the room, including some quoted in the story, the president said that he wants to burst out of the blocks after his swearing in, to bring — to do fundamental tax reform, reform — privatize social security, privatization is the word that’s the hot button word — tort reform and the rest. I don’t think anyone in the room would think that the president would change his position, even though there are folks that have advocated a more dramatic privatization than the president has publicly asserted.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we are going to have to leave it there. Ron Suskind and Esther Kaplan, I want to thank you for being with us.

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