Column: How Bush Sold Out the Christian Right





Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois.

Recent developments in the president's course of shaping his"faith-based initiative"-a hefty alternative to government attending the needy-prompt questions about the evolution of conservativism. Amidst the Great Depression's massive unemployment, for example, President Herbert Hoover wrote that"many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples." Yet it's doubtful that he conceived this incredibly insensitive assessment as a deliberate deception. Hoover really, truly believed in the power of conservative ideology to explain and overcome adversity under any circumstances. He was not a practicing hypocrite; just a failed politician handcuffed by unswerving devotion to ideological principles. He rarely presented himself as anything other than he was, or issued political pronouncements as anything other than what they said.

Is George W. Bush the same conservative True Believer in ideological cornerstones, such as the oft-touted faith-based initiative? Or does that legislative objective mostly represent expedient and counterfeit piety to mask hostile policies toward the poor?

Given his bait-and-switch record from campaigning to administrating, one is, with all partisanship aside, reasonably led to the latter. Bush's history of swift reversals on, for instance, environmental guarantees, instantly laid a legitimate foundation for such conjecture. But his sudden turnabout on the faith-based initiative is startling in its depth of deception and sadly underreported by media.

And for a bowl of pea soup, is a Mahayanan Tendai Buddhist justly required to entertain born again-ness while barking hallelujahs or wailing in some unknown variation of Esperanto if he finds himself in Sylacauga, Alabama?

From mid-1999 till May, 2001, Bush hailed a coming financial boon to faith-based charities through a provision to allow non-itemizing taxpayers (usually those with lower incomes) to deduct charitable contributions. One prestigious accounting firm estimated the benefit to charities at $15 billion a year (when Congress temporarily permitted such deductions twenty years ago, non-itemizers' giving indeed increased by 40 percent).

Soon after Bush sent his tax-cut proposal to Congress, however, the administration quietly abandoned this provision. Why the rapid withdrawal? Because Bush already had prepared himself to promptly disinherit anything that might endanger his top-loaded tax cuts.

The tax proposal's upper-class thrust was critical to the White House's emotional health, so billions more to the homeless and hungry-which could cut into some chap's wherewithal for a third Jaguar-was intolerable."The right thing to do," said administration spokesman Ari Fleischer, is to hope for future efforts to revive the charitable deduction. One assumes that means the White House will flash only a show of support then, too.

The faith-based fantasy was a gone goose anyway. Such was the case when Bush began spouting about it two years ago in search of votes in Middle America, and few surely knew that better than the"straight-shooting" duo of Bush-Cheney. The very concept of a church-state wedding is stupendously anti-constitutional-and only modern, archconservative lawyers could assault the Bill of Rights on the matter with a straight face and ideological cattle prod.

In a Washington Post interview last March, the president acknowledged"a lot of concern about proselytization." (And he can't pronounce"subliminal"?) With exhaustive logic he then put this concern to rest:"I am mindful of those complaints and our policy will be - will understand that." Well, as long as he's mindful. As for the pesky issue of church-state separation, it seems Bush had again trumped opponents by having his staff" carefully" write the legislation. If only someone had thought of that before.

Bush neglected a couple little things, though. There may indeed be" churches on every corner … where somebody can come and have their hearts changed and their lives saved," as he reflected. But which common church in Sylacauga, Alabama does a Mahayanan Tendai Buddhist seek out when needing a hand on the way to Enlightenment? And for a bowl of pea soup, is he justly required to entertain born again-ness while barking hallelujahs or wailing in some unknown variation of Esperanto?

On the politics of the faith-based initiative, prospects were dismal enough with a tied Senate. Now they're hopeless. Case closed.

But Bush doesn't mind. He didn't intend to navigate the charitable deduction through Congress to begin with. A congressional Democratic staffer told the Post,"there wasn't a lot of push coming from the White House" during recent tax-package negotiations; an unnamed administration official agreed that"priorities" lay elsewhere-meaning top-down rate cuts and the death of death taxes.

Nor will he mind the Senate mangling his faith-based initiative when the time comes. It was, after all, just a cynical elective ploy. Now there are bigger missile systems to fry, the wealthy to console, and so little time.

An American Civil Liberties Union's spokeswoman was only half right when saying,"In his zeal to pass his faith-based initiative, President Bush is willing to distort the truth." The zeal was never there, but distorting the truth, for sure, is now daily SOP at the White House. Hoover would have gagged on it.


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