Saints and Winners

Two new books attack the Republican monopoly on God. But are there more than two sides to the issue?

Facing the invasion of mutant-Christian reactionaries bent on perverting the Constitution, what's a liberal patriot do? Two important new books propose opposite answers. Esther Kaplan's With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush's White House (New Press, $24.95) mostly just surveys the damage done by the Christian right, but it's effectively a blood-chilling call to beat 'em before they bomb us back to the stone-tablet age. In God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95), Jim Wallis says we should join 'em. Or rather, join his left-flank regiment of Christian soldiers. Founder of the Christian liberal mag Sojourners and a former Harvard scholar, he advises a sort of jujitsu move: Don't run from the moral-values warriors' assault on truth, justice, and the American way; embrace the values argument and turn it to progressive purposes. But first, let's turn to the crisis that could make such extreme tactics necessary. It's best to read Kaplan's comprehensive yet bite-sized book with a highball tall enough to soothe liberal heartache, but not tall enough to prompt you out of your armchair and into the street—her catalog of horrors might inspire you to do something that gets you arrested. Bush secretly authorized a giant cross on a 1-acre promontory in the middle of Mojave National Preserve. He came within a week of getting away with installing on his AIDS advisory council Jerry Thacker, who calls homosexuality "a sinful death-style" and erroneously claims that "pores in a latex condom are up to 450 times larger than a single cell of the HIV virus." (Never mind that a virus doesn't even have cells.) Bush's bogus science advisors falsely warn women that abortion may cause breast cancer. Bush ignored 80 Nobel Prize–winners and the 54 percent of Americans who advocate stem-cell research and heeded the ignorant 38 percent minority who oppose it. Instead, he favors the likes of Bill Pryor, a judge who opposes "the so-called separation of church and state" and compares gay sex to "necrophilia, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality." "The Bush administration has effectively turned over millions of dollars to the Christian right to distribute as it sees fit," writes Kaplan. It sees fit to lie about the efficacy of condoms in order to promote chastity, accelerating the AIDS death wave. For every doctor murdered by right-to-life fanatics, thousands of Africans are effectively murdered by U.S. condom-lie programs. In six years, Bush's abstinence program in Texas produced a teen pregnancy rate one and a half times the national average. Now it's the template for the nation. Meanwhile, Sudanese terrorists who rape non-Islamic women have an ally in Bush, whose representatives scuttle any world health-care funding that might involve abortion in war zones. The American Taliban is haunted by the idea of raped children—terrified that even one might not be forced to bear the offspring of her genocidal rapist. Extremists who would fight to the death to prolong Terri Schiavo's senseless life also fought for the worldwide right to execute minors. Is this what Jesus would do? Wallis is a Christian of a different stripe. A betrayed original supporter of Bush's faith-based initiatives, he now feels Bush's policy is "bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous." On the Jon Stewart show he railed, "I think that Jesus' top priorities hardly would have been a capital-gains tax cut and the occupation of Iraq. How did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-America?" In God's Politics, he busts the Bushies on their cold indifference to poverty, noting that the Bible mentions poverty thousands of times, versus no mentions whatsoever of abortion and gay marriage. He notes that Genesis and Psalms argue for saving the environment, not the corporations that poison it, and that the Bible does not justify lying to incite unnecessary war, nor the idea that America's army is the sword of the Lord. At first, Bush greeted Wallis by squeezing both his cheeks in a Texas welcome; after Wallis warned him that unless we "drain the swamp of injustice in which the mosquitoes of terrorism breed, we'll never defeat the threat of terrorism," Bush dropped him like a hot rock. But Wallis also rebukes the left for its symmetrically erroneous "secular fundamentalism." He wants to take us back to 19th century Christianity, when evangelicals allied with the left to fight for working-class economic reform, abolition of slavery, child labor laws, and women's suffrage. And, yes, that means more of us blue-staters should also go back to church. Where we went wrong, Wallis argues, was the 1925 Scopes trial, which humiliated and marginalized fundamentalists. When they came roaring back in the '80s after decades in the political desert, they were well and truly pissed off. And not without reason: Wallis blames the secular left for bashing and radicalizing the Christian right the way Mencken did when he called 1925 anti-Darwinists "hominids trooping down from the hills." Wallis says the separation of church and state ought not to mean the separation of faith from public life. Secular fundamentalists have no right to tell religious ones to cork it. The answer is not more secularism, Wallis argues, but better religious activism. He cries out for "a new option—one that would treat both Temptation Island and child poverty as morally offensive." He wants those of us on the left to reach across the aisle to foster a more Christian-tolerant secular progressivism. That means compromise, and teaming up to lower abortion and divorce rates, foster monogamy among gays and straights alike, emphasize moral values, and stop riling up the right by referring to Al Qaeda as some just comeuppance for U.S. imperialism. His most conservative plank is the one he wants pop culture to walk: out with sexy, sexist, violent entertainment that coarsens our national soul! No matter how stimulating his sermon, Wallis' book is list-happy, disorganized, and slapdash. His message is muddled: The secular left's only hope is to give up on free speech and join the Christian bonfire of the secular vanities. We'll simply trade progressive cultural values for social and economic ones. Better that children be fed than that their heads be fed on 50 Cent. But shouldn't the religious right have to meet us halfway in Wallis' "third way"? We'll start going to church again when they offer something in return. If the Christian right would respect Roe v. Wade, we'd give them guns enough to shorten all the lives they like. They can wallpaper the nation with the Ten Commandments if we can have the "death tax" back. School prayer? We're down with that—if they'll up school funding. We'll even let them lie to the kids a little. Go ahead, teach that Earth was created 6,000 years ago in six days by the little fish on their SUV bumpers. And we get $5 gas to save God's creation. When red-state evangelicals start driving hybrids to church, you'll see more blue in the pews. Jim Wallis will appear at University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St., 206-634-3400, Tues., April 12; and at Seattle First Baptist Church, 111 Harvard Ave., 206-624-6600, 7 p.m., Wed., April 13.

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