David Corn on Theopolitics


David Corn, The Nation‘s
Washington, D.C., editor
Photo by Brent Nicastro

This speech was delivered at the 28th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Nov. 12 in Orlando, Fla.

By David Corn

I bring you greetings from Washington, D.C., where it is always said there are no more wheels to come off the cart. I told E.L. Doctorow that I was working on this project called The Lies of George W. Bush, and he said, “You should put it out as a three-ring binder.”

I am one of the few people who believe that 2008 might give us the spectacle of seeing Dick Cheney actually running for president, despite everything he says. I have come up with the perfect campaign slogan for him: “Cheney in 2008: The Dick You Know.” It’s sad that we may not get to use that slogan, because really, that’s the sole thing that could unite the country. Anyone on either side could go for that!

I was asked to talk on theopolitics. I think this has been, as we’ve seen, a pretty bad stretch for the theopoliticians, not necessarily because they’re theopoliticians, but because they’re liars, incompetent, don’t trust the public, and don’t care about things like hurricane relief or telling the truth.

Events have started to catch up with them. Bush’s approval ratings are 38% now; he’s getting really close to Jimmy Carter levels, and one can expect that his ex-presidency will do a lot less to rehabilitate him than has Jimmy Carter’s. But the American public is fickle, and things can turn around fast. If there’s another terrorism attack, or if we decide to invade Syria, his numbers could go up right away.

Just because numbers are going really bad for him, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a tectonic shift against, say, the religious right. It doesn’t mean that your view of religion and politics is actually on the ascent, because Bush’s is going down. There’s a lot of mixed signals on this front. I’ll try to weave my way through some of them.

Secular Americans are in big trouble.

I really thought that secular Americans are in big trouble. I came to the realization that they were in a deeper hole than I expected back in 2002, during the Pledge of Allegiance flap. You might remember the appellate court in San Francisco voted 2-1 that putting the words “under God” in the pledge and making children recite that was anticonstitutional. As they put it, it was an endorsement of a religious notion: monotheism. It’s really hard to argue with that. You make a kid say, “one nation under God,” well, he’s not saying, “under God–for those people who believe in God.” He does not think, “under God, even though I might not believe in God.” You’re making a kid accept a religious notion.

The reaction was overwhelming. And it wasn’t just from Pat Robertson’s side of the aisle. Hillary Clinton said she was “offended by the decision.” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Majority Leader at the time, declared it “nuts.”

Let me disagree that it was nuts. Of course, you had House Speaker Tom DeLay leading a hundred members of the House, mainly Republican, out to the steps of Congress, where they sang “God Bless America.” Because this was, you know, such a threat! You had Michael Newdow, who had brought the case, being vilified. In an interview with Connie Chung, she asked him, “Are you proud to be an American?,” thus questioning his patriotism for raising this case. He said he was fighting for the Constitution, and she said, “The whole Pledge of Allegiance has to do with being patriotic, and supporting Americans and supporting the flag.” Totally missing his point.

In an interview on Fox News, Linda Vester said, “I think the problem here is that you’re just not that likable.” So here’s a man trying to raise a point. He brings it to court, he has his day, and you see what happens: a tremendous vilification.

Nine out of ten Americans say that they want “under God” in the pledge. Now, nine out of ten Americans probably don’t understand where the pledge came from. Does everybody remember who Frances Bellamy was? He wrote the pledge in 1892. Didn’t have the words “under God” in it. He was a–get this, I love this–a socialist minister, you know, a Christian socialist, who had a church in upstate New York, and was kicked out of it. By the end of his life, he had left organized religion. He moved down to Florida, actually, and saw that churches were segregated. That was it for him. When he left, he said he might not have anything else to do with the organized church.

So the pledge was written by a socialist rabble-rouser who hated organized religion. And now we’re worried about it not saying “under God.” For me, the most amazing reaction was that of George Bush. When this decision first came out, he called it “ridiculous.” Okay, I would assume that would be his first response. But the next day, he had a press conference with Vladimir Putin. Bush was asked about this decision and he said, “We need common- sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. And those are the kinds of judges I intend to put on the bench.”

Think about this. “Our rights are derived from God and those are the judges I want to put on the bench.” They always talk about a litmus test about abortion rights. Is this not a bigger litmus test? If you are either an agnostic, an atheist, or a Christian believer who just simply doesn’t believe that political rights or legal rights are derived from God, you’re out of the picture! Bush has written off all these people. You have to believe in God and believe rights are derived from God to get on the bench.

I believe only one person wrote about Bush’s statement. Me. I didn’t see anybody else pick up on this. Everybody was too busy either singing “God Bless America” or pulling their hair out or attacking Michael Newdow.

The whole episode–the fact that the president of the United States could make what is, I think, a pretty serious comment and just have it go completely unremarked in the Washington Post and The New York Times–just shows the dominant paradigm. Susan Jacoby had a good example in her book, Freethinkers. She talked about when Lincoln had to give the Gettysburg Address. Where did he go? He went to a battlefield. When FDR told us, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” after the Pearl Harbor attack, he did it in a radio address. When George Bush gave his first address after 9/11, he did it at the National Cathedral, and he basically ripped off the Letter to the Epistles in his language.

According to Bush, if you are either an agnostic, an atheist, or a Christian believer who just simply doesn’t believe that political rights or legal rights are derived from God, you’re out of the picture! You have to believe in God and believe rights are derived from God to get on the bench.

My wife is Dutch. Every time she hears an American politician say “God bless America,” she says, “We don’t do that in Holland.” You don’t hear Tony Blair doing that when he speaks, but little by little, you see the dominant paradigm, how politics have to pay heed to religion, and usually a particular type of religion.

There are some pockets of good news. One piece involves “intelligent design.” I think I’ve figured out why Bush seems to favor the teaching of intelligent design. I’m guessing that he looks at the fact that he’s president and realizes there has to have been divine intervention! Only explanation, right?

A few months ago, Bush said evolution’s a theory, intelligent design’s a theory, they both should be taught, which to me is like saying, “Some people think Elvis is dead, some people think Elvis is alive. We should teach both!”

Even Bush’s own science advisor said that intelligent design as a scientific theory was just total bunk and shouldn’t be anywhere near a science course. Even some more sensible Republicans, such as John McCain, recently said the same thing about intelligent design as Bush, pandering to the right.

The good news is that of all the elections that happened on Tuesday, perhaps the most significant was not the governor’s race in Virginia or New Jersey or Arnold Schwarzenegger being terminated in California (his biggest flop since Last Action Hero). It was the election in Dover, Penn. All eight members of the school board were kicked out of office by a popular vote. What makes this interesting is that Dover has about 70% Republican registration, which means Republicans were part of this. In fact, one of the leading forces was a minister and his son, who are Republicans. It shows there is this internal conflict within the Republican party, within Republicans who are sane, and don’t want to be seen as living in a town run by yahoos.

The same thing is going to happen in Kansas. You know it happened in the past. The Kansas Board of Education, which is a statewide entity, has ten members. They just voted 6-4 to institute a new curriculum that includes what they call intelligent design (we should just call it creationism). They did this in the past, and people paid attention and voted them out of office. Even though Tom Frank wrote a book called What’s The Matter With Kansas?, things are not so bad in Kansas that they will let this sit. So this will be only a temporary win for that side.

On the other hand, the bad news is, if you look at some of the opinion polls on evolution and creationism . . . not that encouraging. Give people a choice between believing in evolution, that life began 15 billion years ago, or believing that life was created in the present form about 6,000 years ago, and 48% believe in evolution, and 42% believe that man and woman did not evolve from other beings.

Other interesting polling data: if you ask people who believe in evolution, “How certain are you of your beliefs?,” only about 32% are “very certain.” If you ask people who believe in creationism, “How certain are you of your beliefs?,” it’s 62%. So the people who believe in the nonscientific theory believe in it moreso than the rationalists, who believe in evolution but still say, “You know what? I’m not quite sure who knows what’s out there.”

We’re talking about two very different ways of viewing the world, viewing information and processing information and coming to conclusions. Even when you follow the rational path, being rational means having some doubt. Following the irrational path, believing in a story of some sort, you can then be certain, because you made a leap of faith. You put aside evidence and are confident, which means it’s getting very hard to dissuade people like that. It’s a self-enclosed loop, as scientists might say.

If you track these beliefs against education, another interesting trend is the educational levels of the people who believe in present-formism. Of people who went to college, 27% opt for present-formism (doesn’t say which college they went to), and 66% believe in evolution. Of people with some college education, 42% believe in present-formism, and 51% believe in evolution. If you’re looking at people who just have a high school education, 36% believe in evolution–almost half the number of people with college degrees. Fifty percent–twice as many as the people with college degrees–believe in present-formism. It tracks directly with education levels.

It’s about feeling, it’s about faith, and it’s about fundamentalism at its root.

I was on a talk show the other day, and we were talking about the Dover election. The host, Derek McGinty, said, “I think this is coming up because there are people out there who feel persecuted.” He wasn’t talking about the 2% population that’s Jewish, or the .3% that practice Islam, or the Hindus out there. He was talking about Christian conservatives who run around saying that they’re “persecuted” in this country. And you know, I go on radio shows with these people, and I have to tell you, I just don’t get it. They say, “Oh, we can’t put up the Ten Commandments in a courthouse.” I say, “You can put it up in your house. You can put it on your T-shirt and walk around with it all day, or put it on your boxer shorts. You can paint it on your car and drive around.” You’re so free to put the Ten Commandments wherever you want. There are more places you can put it than where you can’t put it.” Just think about that.

So you can’t put the Ten Commandments in the courthouse? Big deal. Why does that bother you? I understand that Christianity evolved into a persecuted cult. But you guys won! You became a dominant religion. Good PR. You got your disciples out there, you pushed aside the competing religions, you know, the free market of ideas. You transcended the others. Then you walk around feeling persecuted? You’d think they were Jewish! (As a Jew I can say that.)

I was on with this very provocative rightwing radio talk show hosted by Michael Graham, who got fired from his show in Washington because he said the problem with terrorism was Islam, that Islam was the issue, not terrorism. He refused to say that he had misspoken. The radio station actually tried to keep him for a few days, but the outcry got so loud and they were talking about boycotting advertisers, so they let him go. We did a TV show together before all this happened, during which he said, “You know, you always say you don’t think Christians are persecuted, but do you know what happened in this Montgomery County high school? They were going to have their graduation in a church, but because there was a cross there, some people objected. And so they decided not to hold their high school graduation there.”

I said, “Yeah, so?”

He said, “Well, there you go. They’re persecuting Christians.”

“This was a public school?”


“Well, I’m still not following you, Michael.”

He goes, “Well, you think they would do that if it was going to be held in a mosque?”

And I said, “Can you even imagine a public high school holding its graduation in a mosque?”

He said, “That’s my point!”

I go, “What is your point?”

They’re so desperate to be persecuted, maybe so they can follow in the path of Christ, that they come up with these cockamamie examples!

Same thing with school prayer. You can have your kid pray 20 hours on the weekend and five hours in their home, not one minute at school, but there’s no talking sense with these people, because it’s not about sense. It’s about feeling, it’s about faith, and it’s about fundamentalism at its root. It says that “We’re so sure of our faith, and that we discount other faiths, that we really want it to be part of everyone’s everyday life.” As free as we are in America to do mostly whatever we want spiritually in our own free time, it’s still not good enough.

I get the feeling that as the world becomes more uncertain–through globalization, through further diversification of America, culturally, ethnically–that people with the inclination to be fundamentalist will hold on even more firmly. It’s a scary world out there, and we need masts to tie ourselves to, we need anchors. The economy is changing, so there’s more insecurity. This is sort of the Pat Buchanan line: Where is the America I grew up in?

I always tell Pat, you can’t bring it back. You have to adjust to the realities that we have now. Some realities we can control, some are policy-driven, NAFTA, and so on, and some we can’t control. Technology brings the world together; you can’t stop the flow of capital. So I think in this age of greater uncertainty, which people like Tom Friedman celebrate as a wonderful thing (easy for him to say), a lot of other people are going to be looking for more certainty. They’re not going to find it in the political realm. They’re not going to find it in their careers. They will find it in their churches. So roots of everything that you’ve been up against for years are going to continue to grow.

Not all America is lost to the Bible Belt.

Looking at some of the recent polling and the religious attitudes, the religious attitudes of Americans are closer to those of Third World Latin American countries than they are to any other nation in the West, in the developed nations. It’s staggering, absolutely staggering. When you ask questions like, “Do you believe in God?” 85% say yes. “Do you believe in a higher spirit, a universal force?” 11% say yes. “Do you believe in neither?” Only 3% agree. That is like the response in Guatemala and heavy Catholic Latin American countries.

If you ask any European countries about belief in a god, the levels are easily half, and the numbers of agnostics and atheists probably seven times the number in this country. Even in those countries where there’s a higher level of belief, the amount of churchgoing has plummeted. In countries like France and Spain, there are many people who say that they’ve lost their faith in organized expressions of belief.

Another interesting barometer, in terms of fundamentalism, are polls on the bible. “Do you believe the bible is the word of God to be taken literally?” Thirty-six percent of Americans say yes. One-third of all Americans believe that the bible, as written in English, is to be taken literally, and that God wrote it. (In English.) Asked, “Do you think the bible is the word of God but you don’t have to take all of it literally?” 42% say yes, which to me is even more intriguing. So you believe it’s the word of God, but you don’t have to take it literally? Hell, if I believed God had written that book, I’d be taking it quite literally!

Then how many people believe that it was written by men, not God? Thirteen percent. Only 13%. There is this profound religiosity in the American public. Eighty-five percent of Americans don’t rush to church every week, but we have a higher rate of churchgoers than other Western nations. I doubt the people who take the bible literally abide by every one of the Ten Commandments all the time.

While there’s this deep religiosity, there is a certain level–I don’t think as much as we’d like–of tolerance, and some measure of concern, for keeping religion out of politics. Not a lot, but some.

You ask people if the religious right has too much control over the Republican party, and 45% say yes, 43% say no. If you ask the same people, “Do you believe those nonreligious liberals”–maybe people like you–“have too much control over the Democratic party?” 44% say yes, 42% say no. Now, I don’t want to put anyone down in this room, but I really think that Jim Dobson has a little more control over the Republican party than you do over Harry Reid or Joe Biden. So there’s something to strive for! Try to beat the public’s expectations.

“Do you believe the religious right is going too far in imposing its religious view upon America?” 45% say yes, 45% say no. So, some concern, but not tremendous. “Do you think America is a Christian or Judeo-Christian country?” 45% say yes, and–here’s maybe some good news–45% call it a secular country. I presume they know what that means, and one out of two isn’t bad. Still, a full majority, 67%, believe that liberals are going too far to keep religion out of schools and the government. That’s a pretty big margin.

Even while half of Americans say this is a secular country, two-thirds believe that liberals are going too far to preserve the secular nature of the country–which shows you that about 17% of Americans are really confused!

An interesting subcategory of that 67% of people who see liberals going too far in keeping religion out of schools and government are African-Americans. Seventy-five percent of African-Americans who are politically aligned with the Democratic party as a group see liberals as going too far with making this a secular country.

If you ask “Which party do you see as friendly towards religion?,” 55% say the GOP is friendly, and only 29% see the Democratic as friendly. So you put all this together, and . . . you have a big mess! The mega-trends are obvious. This is a country where people like to believe that they believe in God, and they somewhat equate that with country, and some of them want to see a closer connection, and some don’t. But when you get down to the political level, the numbers are a little clearer. Republicans are much better able to tap into this stuff, and Democrats have to run against prejudices–or biases, I probably should say, more accurately–on these issues.

Well, Dover, Penn., was a very good sign. So was Tim Kaine winning as governor of Virginia. He talked a lot about his Catholic faith. One reason it came up–and this puts a sort of a jujitsu twist on this from a Karl Rove perspective– is that he brought up his religion because he was viciously attacked. The whole thrust of the campaign against Tim Kaine initially was that he was soft on the death penalty, that he wouldn’t kill people. They had these sad ads, with relatives of victims, people who’ve been killed, that were shot in a very stark manner, with someone saying, “My daughter was killed by someone, so on the death penalty I just don’t trust Tim Kaine.” They were vicious ads, and there were lots of ads of this nature.

Kaine came out and said, “I’m against the death penalty because I’m a Catholic. Those are my moral views, but I will follow the laws of the state. If this state passes the death penalty bill, which it has, I will not use my governor’s power to overturn it or go against it.” So he ended up talking about his Catholic faith, then attaching it to a liberal position. The hack ads didn’t work. They were after him on the death penalty, on immigration, and on guns–the Holy Trinity of the Republican party–and they failed. So now the Democrats are looking at Tim Kaine as an example of how to talk about religion, then actually win elections and still be a liberal. It’ll be interesting to see how people put this into practice.

I’m not sure I’m wise enough to understand exactly why Americans have this religiosity that other developed nations miss, what it is about our culture, our history, or our gene pool, that has led to this. Particularly if you go back and look at the writings of a fellow like Thomas Paine, who was very antireligion, so much so he had to be rehabilitated by historians. I don’t quite understand why there’s as little freethinking going on as there is in other nations, but I do say, regardless of that, it doesn’t lead right away to success for theopoliticians. It gives some a natural built-in advantage, a (no pun intended) fundamental advantage.

Those who want to take them on have to be smarter, more sophisticated, have to look for the openings and the right form of language to neutralize that advantage. If it can work in Virginia, that’s a pretty good sign that not all America is lost to the Bible Belt.

David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, writes on politics, the White House, Congress and the national security establishment. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University. His web column for The Nation is “Capital Games.” He is author of a political thriller, Deep Background; a biography, Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades (1994); and The Lies of George W. Bush (2003). Corn has written for a variety of national magazines and prominent daily newspapers, and is a regular commentator on TV and radio.

Freedom From Religion Foundation