When George W. Bush nominated John Ashcroft for attorney general, commentators portrayed it as the one bone that George W. Bush would throw to the religious right -- a way of shutting up the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons so he could ignore them henceforth. Oops. Instead of settling for Ashcroft and moving center, Bush spent his first week in office systematically fulfilling the Christian right's To Do list -- and adopting its (often-exclusionary) rhetoric. No end is in sight. Witness:
To control the spin, presidents often choose a theme of the week on which they and their flacks hammer. Does President Bush start with the tax cut on which he ran so hard? No. On prescription drug benefits? No. On military readiness? No. Bush's theme next week will be "Faith-Based Initiatives." In fact, President Bush will announce the Office of Faith-Based Action that he proposed during the campaign (though the name may be changed). As Bush's Web site boasts, the office "in the Executive Office of the President . . . will identify and remove federal regulations that bar faith-based organizations from participating in federal programs, and encourage the 50 states to establish their own offices of Faith-Based Action."
Recall that the welfare reform-era provision "Charitable Choice" (sponsored by then-Senator Ashcroft) already permits faith-based organizations to get federal funding to provide social services. So what federal regulations will the office axe? According to Marvin Olasky -- the evangelical Christian father of the term "compassionate conservatism" and a Bush mentor -- the offending regulations are those that deter groups receiving federal funds from evangelizing to recipients. Olasky criticizes the government for denying funds to organizations that "offer spiritual as well as actual food." And he praises President Bush for establishing such an office, even though he acknowledges it will be extremely controversial.
The proposal Bush pushed his first week in office was also a plum for religious righties: his education plan. Though the papers made much of Bush's downplaying his private and religious school voucher proposal, it is right there on page two. Bush seems to think that if he says his plan is palatable to everyone, then it will be. But even though Bush doesn't call his vouchers "vouchers," the unpopular proposal remains: Give federal vouchers for private school or tutoring to parents of children in failing schools. A voucher by another name is still a voucher, and Christian conservatives -- who have long made government funding of religious school tuition a high priority -- are delighted.
That's not all. After spending the campaign hedging on abortion, Bush proved that not only will he fight abortion rights, but that his opposition is strong enough that he is willing to scuttle family planning and reproductive health in the process. On his first work day as president (the 28th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade) Bush reinstated the policy that blocks all federal money from going to international family planning organizations that provide abortions or abortion counseling with their own money. There has long been a prohibition in place on federal money going to abortions overseas. So all this policy would do is cut U.S. funding that helps experienced organizations provide condoms to couples in AIDS-plagued Africa, pre-natal nutritional information to expectant mothers in poverty-stricken parts of India, and birth control to desperate and overburdened parents in Latin America. Christian conservatives have long pushed the policy -- and they got it on day one.
On the same day President Bush blocked family planning funds, he thrilled right-wingers by sending a written statement to protesters marching in front of the Supreme Court to dispute the Roe v. Wade decision. He wrote,
We share a great goal: to work toward a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected in law. . . But the goal leads us onward: to build a culture of life, affirming that every person, at every stage and season of life, is created equal in God's image.
Further, a Bush spokesperson announced that the president would ask the Food and Drug Administration to reevaluate the safety of the abortion pill RU-486 that the FDA approved in September (and has been safe and legal in France for more than a decade). If the FDA deems it unsafe, RU-486 would be illegal again in the United States -- just the way the Christian right wants it.
Bush even catered to religious conservatives on Inauguration Day. In the midst of a platitudinous speech about unity, Bush slipped in a paragraph promising to give "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque . . . an honored place in our plans and laws (my emphasis)."
Minutes later, Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell -- Bush's choice to give the benediction -- said, "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ. Let all who agree say amen." As non-Christians and those who didn't feel comfortable calling out their faith in a public setting (and perhaps on national television) squirmed, Christian evangelicals amened joyfully.
Also on Inauguration Day, Bush made one of his first presidential proclamations, declaring January 21, 2001 a "National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving." He "call[ed] upon the citizens of our Nation to gather together in homes and places of worship to pray along and together and offer thanksgiving to God." The religious right has every reason to swoon over its new Pastor-in-Chief.
In a remarkable show of self-restraint, conservatives kept their mouths shut throughout the campaign as George W. Bush shunned them (for the most part) so that he could sound moderate enough to get elected. They calculated that once they got their guy in, he'd cater to their every whim. As Bush's first week has shown with horrifying clarity, they were right in both senses of the word.