In November of 1992, shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president, a telling controversy arose at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. When a reporter asked the governors how their party could both satisfy the demands of Christian conservatives and also maintain a broad political coalition, Mississippi's Kirk Fordice took the opportunity to pronounce America a "Christian nation." "The less we emphasize the Christian religion," Fordice declared, "the further we fall into the abyss of poor character and chaos in the United States of America." Jewish groups immediately protested Fordice's remarks; on CNN's Crossfire, Michael Kinsley asked whether Fordice would also call America a "white nation" because whites, like Christians, enjoy a popular majority. The incident was widely seen as exposing a rift between the divisive Pat Robertson wing of the GOP and the more moderate camp represented by then-President George Herbert Walker Bush.
Fast-forward a decade. Republicans have solved their internal problems, and the party is united under our most prayerful of presidents, the born-again believer George W. Bush. Though not originally the favored candidate of the religious right -- John Ashcroft was -- Bush has played the part well. Virtually his first presidential act was to proclaim a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving; soon he appointed Ashcroft to serve as attorney general. Since then the stream of religiosity from the White House has been continuous. With the help of evangelical speechwriter Michael Gerson, Bush lards his speeches with code words directed at Christian conservatives. In this year's State of the Union address, Bush mentioned the "wonder-working power" of the American people, an allusion to an evangelical Christian song whose lyrics cite the "power, wonder-working power, in the blood of the Lamb" -- i.e., Jesus.
Bush also uses his office to promote marriage, charitable choice and school vouchers as conservative Christian policy objectives. Yet he has never endorsed, at least not explicitly, the time-honored religious-right claim that the United States is a Christian nation. Nor has he seconded Pat Robertson's cry that the separation of church and state is "a lie of the left." "There are a lot of libertarian Republicans and business-oriented Republicans who would be really turned off by that sort of rhetoric," explains John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics. Bush strategist Karl Rove, a political-history buff, presumably remembers the Fordice debacle.
But could Rove and Bush, through their diligent courting of the Christian right, be moving us toward a form of Christian nationhood anyway? To see what's new and dangerous about Bush's approach to religion, you have to look beyond the president's copious prayers and exhortations, which are legally meaningless. Clinton also showed immense political sympathy for religion, but he didn't nominate a slate of right-wing judges who could give the law a decidedly majoritarian, pro-Christian bent. And Bush has gone further than that. From school-prayer guidelines issued by the Department of Education to faith-based initiatives to directives from virtually every federal agency, there's hardly a place where Bush hasn't increased both the presence and the potency of religion in American government. In the process, the Bush administration lavishly caters to the very religious-right groups that gave us the dubious Christian-nation concept to begin with.
Consider Bush's faith-based initiative. In October 2002, the Department of Health and Human Services doled out $30 million to 21 religious and community groups as part of the faith-based program. Sure enough, $500,000 went to Pat Robertson's religious charity Operation Blessing. In addition, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a grant of $700,000 went to the National Center for Faith-Based Initiative, founded by Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, who has declared church-state separation "a fiction." Another $2.2 million went to Dare Mighty Things, a group affiliated with Chuck Colson, a Watergate felon turned evangelist who tries to convert prison inmates to Christianity and has the ear of the Bush administration. All of the religious recipients of Health and Human Services grants were connected to Christian ministries, mostly evangelical ones.
These grant allocations suggest that while Bush may not say he's forging a Christian nation, at the very least he's blending church and state to fund Christianity. And Health and Human Services is just one government agency now engaged in promoting faith-based initiatives. Under Bush, notes Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn, the departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Education all "are issuing regulations, guidelines and other directives that promote religion." Bush has also placed influential religious-right figures in his administration. Consider a few little-noticed examples. David Caprara, the head of AmeriCorps* VISTA, directed the American Family Coalition, a faith-based social-action group affiliated with Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Kay Coles James, a staunch anti-abortionist who was formerly a dean at Pat Robertson's Regent University and senior vice president of the Family Research Council, is now director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which monitors the federal workforce.
But the nexus of the religious right in the administration may be Ashcroft's Justice Department, which is well positioned to effect pro-Christian legal changes. Until recently, Carl Esbeck, who helped to draft the charitable-choice provisions of the 1996 welfare-reform legislation and directed the Center for Law and Religious Freedom at the conservative Christian Legal Society, headed the department's faith-based office. Over the years, Esbeck has been a leading lawyer and legal thinker involved in laying the intellectual groundwork for the Bush administration's current merging of church and state.
Something similar can be said of Eric Treene, formerly litigation director at the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who was appointed in June 2002 to serve as the Justice Department's special counsel for religious discrimination, a newly created position. According to Yeshiva University law professor and church-state specialist Marci Hamilton, Treene has been "in the trenches of trying to get religious entities special privileges under the law." No wonder the conservative Christian group Faith and Action, which seeks to remind legislators about the "prominent role that the word of God played in the creation of our nation and its laws," celebrated Treene's appointment as "a new day for Christians in Washington."
So far Treene has proved responsive to groups seeking to amplify legal protections for Christians. For example, following a complaint by the archconservative Liberty Legal Institute of Plano, Texas, Treene headed an investigation of Texas Tech University biology professor Michael Dini, who had promulgated a policy requiring that students seeking medical-school letters of recommendation from him be able to "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question, "How do you think the human species originated?" Despite the fact that recommendation writing is a voluntary activity, this was deemed discrimination against creationists. After Treene and the Justice Department opened their investigation, Dini changed his policy.
Treene also recently helped file a brief in a Massachusetts district court case arguing that a high school had engaged in "viewpoint discrimination" when it refused to allow Christian students to pass out candy canes distributed with religious messages. This time the Justice Department drew upon work by the Alliance Defense Fund, a "unique Christian legal organization" based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that was founded by Focus on the Family's James Dobson and other religious-right leaders. So forget about counting the mentions of God in Bush's speeches; it's legal coordination between the Bush administration and the religious right that could truly cause Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state to crumble.
Even when working in the federal government and responding to Christian-right legal groups, however, lawyers can only go so far to make America more hospitable to Christianity. To achieve their objectives, Christian conservatives have long realized they need sympathetic judges on the bench as well -- judges whose worldviews are suffused with religiosity. Judges, in short, such as Antonin Scalia.
In a January 2002 speech at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Scalia cited his religious views in order to defend the death penalty. He further argued that democracy has a tendency to "obscure the divine authority behind government" -- a situation that people of faith should approach with "the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible." As Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz wrote in a New York Times critique, Scalia "seeks to abandon the intent of the Constitution's framers and impose views about government and divinity that no previous justice, no matter how conservative, has ever embraced."
Bush has explicitly stated that he sees Scalia and Clarence Thomas as models for his judicial nominees. And most of them do fit the mold. On the church-state front, the most outrageous example is the nomination of Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor for a seat on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor is notorious for his defense of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has steadily fought to post the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. Almost as troubling is University of Utah law professor Michael McConnell, one of the intellectual giants behind the "accommodationist" approach to the First Amendment's religion clauses, who was confirmed for a post on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. McConnell's exaggerated notion of religious free exercise led him to criticize a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling revoking Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating, which he dubbed a failure "to intervene to protect religious freedom from the heavy hand of government."
Many of Bush's other judicial nominees, such as Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, have also been resolutely championed by religious conservatives. "A few of [the nominees] have specific histories on religion issues," explains People for the American Way legal director Elliot Mincberg. But the religious right, he adds, is "smart enough" to realize that conservative legal positions tend to come together in one package.
Granted, in some sense the Bush administration is only building upon previous legal and social trends that have brought church and state closer. Despite our thoroughly "godless" Constitution, as Cornell University scholars Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore have put it, these aren't very good days for strict church-state separation. Over the past 15 years, explains Vanderbilt University law professor and First Amendment specialist Thomas McCoy, the Supreme Court has gradually modified its church-state jurisprudence, especially when it comes to whether government money can go to individuals who then choose whether to distribute it to religious organizations. Last term, the court used this "neutral aid" approach to uphold an Ohio voucher scheme, a ruling that would have been unthinkable three decades ago.
Simultaneously, religion has seeped into American political life, often on a bipartisan basis. Clinton, after all, signed into law a version of charitable choice as part of the 1996 welfare-reform bill. He held prayer meetings regularly and declared that an atheist could not be president of the United States (despite the Constitution's ban on religious tests for public office). Clinton's views on religion were shaped by Yale University law professor Stephen Carter's 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, which argued that American society had come to exclude the religious from public life, a wrong that required remedying. In a 2000 legal article, Yeshiva University's Marci Hamilton called Clinton "the most religiously activist President in history" -- up until that point, anyway -- and accused him of being "oblivious to [James] Madison's warnings that all entities, including religious entities, are likely to abuse their power in the political process."
Still, there were limits to Clinton's attempt to make government friendlier to religion. Consider Clinton's and Bush's starkly opposed approaches to the contentious issue of school prayer. In 1995, Clinton's Department of Education released a set of school-prayer guidelines based on a consensus document drafted by groups covering the political spectrum, from the liberal People for the American Way to the conservative Christian Legal Society. The guidelines sought a balance between the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment, noting that students may engage in private religious speech, including prayer, but cannot harass other students or direct speech at a captive audience. School employees, meanwhile, should neither discourage nor encourage such speech.
The Clinton guidelines were legally accurate and had a reputation for helping school districts. Nevertheless, this February the Bush Department of Education -- headed by Rod Paige, who recently stumbled into a Fordice-style church-state brouhaha when he suggested that Christian schools instill better values than public ones -- released a new set of school-prayer guidelines. This time liberal and moderate groups weren't consulted. But two leading religious-right figures, Jay Sekulow of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and Ken Connor of the Family Research Council, claimed involvement in the drafting process.
The new guidelines advance a skewed picture of the law that favors the religious right. As the American Jewish Congress' Marc Stern protested in a letter to Paige, the guidelines "make no concession whatsoever to the rights of the captive audience" when it comes to school prayer, in the process misrepresenting the state of court rulings on the question. When it comes to church and state, "The Clinton people reached out to all segments, and really did attempt to work on consensus issues," says People for the American Way's Mincberg, who was involved in drafting the consensus statement that led to the Clinton prayer guidelines. "The Bush people are reaching out to their political allies only."
How much damage could Bush do in the long term? When it comes to the separation of church and state, one is always dealing with a slippery slope -- the notion that government involvement with religion will make it easier for more government involvement with religion to occur. That is, after all, what the framers were trying to prevent. But provided that you're willing to think in these terms, the picture is fairly clear. "The goal here," says American United's Lynn, "is to erode the vitality of the church-state separation principle, to get a lot of judges in place who have trouble distinguishing between that which is illegal and that which is sinful, and to put in place regulations -- and perhaps later statutes -- that make it easier to require Americans to pay for the Christianization of the country."
That's the goal of Christian conservatives, anyway. Yet it may not be Bush's conscious objective. Although religiously devout, his highest calling is re-election. And as a source of fundraising, grass-roots manpower and sheer votes, the religious right is crucial to that push. Karl Rove has explicitly stated that when it comes to turning out the white, evangelical Republican base in 2000, "There should have been 19 million of them, and instead there were 15 million of them. So 4 million of them did not turn out to vote."
"I don't think Bush has set out to reshape church and state relationships, but by doing the kind of politics that he's been doing, there are some strong implications," says the University of Akron's Green. Those implications were summarized, in their most radical form, by Pat Robertson in his 1992 book, The New World Order. There, Robertson wrote, "There will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world." America is certainly on top of the world, and with George W. Bush in the White House, religious conservatives are standing there with him.