It's been almost a week since Ron Suskind did his best to electrify the anti-evangelical voter base on behalf of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and, thus, the Democratic Party. His "Without a Doubt" essay was a rock, thrown into the pond of elite media opinion shortly before the battle to save civilization. The ripples should continue until the election. Once again, here is his lead:
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that "if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3." The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
You may as well have added a few more pairings to that list -- the smart and the stupid, the sane and the almost insane or, in the terminology of sociologist James Davison Hunter, the progressive and the orthodox. The bottom line was crystal clear: President Bush and his supporters are dangerous fundamentalists and linked at the theological hip with the very Al Qaeda fanatics they say they oppose. They are spiritual blood brothers.
It was no surprise Jeff "The Hulk" Sharlet at TheRevealer.org posted an essay in response to the Suskind opus. It was also not surprising that Sharlet caught the serious flaw in Suskind's fundamental charge against the president -- that he is a fundamentalist.
No, Sharlet had another label to pin on George W. Bush, a much more creative and insightful label. Bush, he says, is in his heart of hearts closely linked to the no facts, just faith school of thought often called "New Age." Based on what we know about Bush's faith, and there are very few specifics on the record, Sharlet believes that one of the last things anyone could call Bush is a "fundamentalist." There is no such thing as a vague fundamentalist. Here is a large chunk of Sharlet's argument:
A common aspect of many New Age schools of thought (though not all) is a gentle disdain for perceived reality. That's different from the fundamentalist aversion to worldliness; rather, this approach views the "real world" as that which is within the mind or heart or spirit of the believer. That idea is often dismissed as a modern bastardization of psychology, but many New Agers argue that their beliefs are actually ancient; and, despite the fact that the superficial characteristics are often of a recent vintage, there's some truth to that assertion. New Age religions are, literally, reactionary, responses to what's been called the disenchantment of the world. Another word for that process is the Enlightenment, with its claims of empirical accuracy. New Age movements attempt to revive -- or create anew -- pre-Enlightenment ideas about magic, alchemy, ghosts, and whatever else practitioners can glean from a record for the most part expunged by institutional Christianity.
Christian fundamentalism, meanwhile, is the child of the Enlightenment, a functionalist view of faith that's metaphorically `scientific.` It's scripture as read by a cranky engineer who just wants to know how God works. The Bible, for a fundamentalist, isn't powerful literature demanding our ever-changing discernment; it's an instruction manual. And fundamentalists think that's a good thing.
Perhaps Bush is vague because his faith is vague. Perhaps he is, in the end, a five-star example of a free-church Protestant whose faith is highly personal, highly individualistic and not linked to a particular creed or set of dogmas. In a strange way, Bill Clinton had the same kind of faith -- only it appears that he reached some different conclusions. Truth is, nobody knows. No one knows many of the specifics of Bush's faith, because he only talks about his beliefs in very general, emotional terms.
And all those pew-sitting Bush supporters? Are they New Agers or fundamentalists?
Sharlet notes that Bush believers long for moral absolutes, but they:
... (Don't) care about empirical definitions. They're not literalists, in the sense that they don't cling to language. In fact, they don't trust language, which is why they read clunky, soulless translations of scripture, when they read it at all. The Community Bible Study approach to biblical education through which Bush found his faith is not based on intense reading, but on personal meditations built around a sentence or two. Bush himself doesn't study the Bible; he samples phrases and invokes them like spells.
That may be true of Bush (again, we really don't know) and it may be true of many people who call themselves "born-again Christians," but don't believe in getting much more specific than that. But this distrust of precise language is certainly not true of the president's many supporters among Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, hard-core Baptists, traditional Lutherans, evangelical Presbyterians and a host of other believers who are more than willing to say the Apostles Creed without crossing their fingers.
I wrote Sharlet and asked him if, in effect, he had placed the president on trial and found him guilty of being a perfectly normal, off-the-rack, born again, megachurch, name it-claim it American Protestant.
And one more thing. If some journalists and intellectuals are screaming bloody murder about Bush's faith being too vague, imagine how much noise they would make if he started getting specific and naming names, doctrinally speaking. In a strange sort of way, John "I was an altar boy" Kerry is in a better position to talk about his faith. Since he is, supposedly, part of a highly doctrinal faith -- Roman Catholicism -- he can stand up and describe his faith by rejecting the specifics. That works.
Sharlet wrote back, concerning Bush: "I don't think there'd be a problem if he was doctrinal, so long as he respected separation of church and state. The mistake most pundits make, I think, is in assuming that that separation is simple; it's not."
I am sure there is more to come on this subject, as strategists on both sides rally their troops.