Thursday, October 13, 2005

Is Anyone Actually Listening to Bush?

Maybe it's just me. But I keep not hearing Bush say things. Or maybe it's that I'm hearing Bush not say things. Either way, the next day, I read about the great tumult caused by the things he apparently did not not say.

First, there was his sweeping call for American energy conservation. I didn't hear it (as I outlined in a woefully overlooked posting), but it was front-page news thanks to the media execs who did hear it.

Then there was the time Bush said he hasn't sat down, which I heard as him saying he hadn't sat down, but which the White House press corps and their bosses back at the DC bureaus and in New York heard as him saying he and Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers had never, ever even mentioned the word "abortion" to each other.

Now, there's the religious test Bush didn't say Miers had to pass to secure her nomination. I heard him not say that. But, again, the mainstream media and the blogosphere have heard him say something that I missed.

The LA Times said:

President Bush indicated Wednesday that Harriet E. Miers' religious beliefs were one reason he nominated her to the Supreme Court — comments that drew quick criticism from liberal groups, which said religion should not be considered a qualification to sit on the nation's highest bench...

Bush previously has stressed his knowledge of her character, but this was the first time hepublicly referred to her faith when asked about picking her.
The Associated Press went even further, magically ascribing motives to what Bush said:
The White House tried Wednesday to patch a growing fissure in the Republican Party over Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers by pointing to her conservative religious beliefs. "Part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion," President Bush said.
Clearly, the thrust of the media coverage has been that Bush chose to raise the issue of Miers' religion, he did so for reasons that are (for unexplained reasons) apparent to mainstream journalists, and his comments can safely be interpreted as indicating that Miers' nomination stemmed from her denomination.

Let's examine those three premises by looking at the transcript:

Q Why do people in this White House feel it's necessary to tell your supporters that Harriet Miers attends a very conservative Christian church? Is that your strategy to repair the divide that has developed among conservatives over her nominee?

PRESIDENT BUSH: People ask me why I picked Harriet Miers. They want to know Harriet Miers' background; they want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion. Part of it has to do with the fact that she was a pioneer woman and a trailblazer in the law in Texas. I remind people that Harriet Miers is one of the -- has been rated consistently one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States. She's eminently qualified for the job. And she has got a judicial philosophy that I appreciate; otherwise I wouldn't have named her to the bench, which is -- or nominated her to the bench -- which is that she will not legislate from the bench, but strictly interpret the Constitution. So our outreach program has been just to explain the facts to people. But, more importantly, Harriet is going to be able to explain the facts to the people when she testifies. And people are going to see why I named her -- nominated her to the bench, and she's going to make a great Supreme Court judge.
Bush uttered all of one sentence about religion, saying solely that Miers has one. However, the questioner clearly raised the issue of religion, making its inclusion in Bush's response indicative of nothing other than that he chose to be responsive to the specifics of the question. Also, the question was not, as the LA Times reported, "about picking her" or even about the role of religion in picking her. In fact, the question explicitly concerned the campaign after the fact to boost Miers' chances. So, Bush's answer should be taken in the context of promoting Miers, not picking her.

Why did the mainstream media misread this? Partially, it's due to the same factor that led them to misread his comments on abortion and conservation: They think they're smarter than he is. They're not, on average, which is why the media's misreads so often work to his advantage.

This time, the misread isn't exactly working to his advantage. But this time it's not due to media arrogance about Bush's ignorance, it's due to media ignorance about Bush's arrogance.

Let's stipulate for a minute that all the bloggers and the mainstream media are wrong in their interpretation of Bush's remark that "part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion." The coverage suggests (or "indicates," to use the LA Times' word) that Bush was admitting that her religion influenced his choice. The reality is that Bush was admitting that religion was relevant in selling that choice to a religious audience. The Constitution may prevent applying a religious test to applicants for public office, but it certainly doesn't bar the use of religion to boost the popularity of those applicants.

Even if Bush did factor in Miers' religion when choosing her, the reporting is still wrong, because he didn't say he did. So, why would all the commentators get this one so wrong, when the proper context was right there in the question Bush was answering? The reason is that all the commentators -- mainstream, online and otherwise -- are now hip to The Code.

We all know The Code. It's the lexicon Bush used to discuss his faith in benign-sounding ways that actually signal political positions. It's how Bush could run as a compassionate conservative in 2000, while using terminologies that the Christian right recognized as shibboleths from the clan of anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-women, anti-Hollywood, anti-porn, anti-northeast, anti-intellectual crusaders.

Almost instantly, the blogosphere caught on. Five years later -- post-Iraq, post-Katrina -- the media, too, are eager to demonstrate they won't be had again. They're hip to The Code, too, now.

That's why everyone's reading Miers wrong. When Bush -- and therefore his proxies -- uses The Code now, in reference to Miers, he -- and therefore, without knowing it, his proxies -- is no longer signalling specific policy positions.

After all, while her career indicates a solidly Bushian view of corporate America and the executive branch, her approach to the social issues that underpin The Code has been scattershot. She didn't want the law changed to permit penis-to-anus contact, but she has endorsed some concept of civil rights for gays and certainly hasn't devoted any particular energies to demonizing them or legislating against them. She seems firmly anti-abortion, but doesn't seem to be as committed to the idea that the law should be anti-abortion. She started a lecture series to honor a pro-choice Texas lawyer who fought for women's rights.

What, then, does The Code now mean? Well, I've argued that it's usually instructive to take the president literally when he says something. And what he said was that her "religion" was a part of her life.

So, what is her religion? Here's what has to say about Miers' denomination:

In the Washington, D.C. area Miers has regularly attended a small number of different Episcopalian congregations. These include St. John's Episcopal Church (across the street from the White House, where Pres. Bush often attends services), Christ Episcopal Church (in Alexandria) and Falls Episcopal Church (a highly evangelical congregation near Alexandria which is in many ways similar to Valley View). Miers has also occasionally attended her family's church, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. Miers clearly feels an affinity for Episcopalian churches due to her childhood experiences and the continued Episcopalian affiliation of parents and family. Nevertheless, Miers has clearly expressed religious views and exhibited a preference for moral/ethical standards which are regarded as more conservative than those held by mainstream American Episcopalianism and the leadership of the Episcopal Church. Despite her church attendance patterns while in Washington, there is no evidence that Miers currently refers to herself as an "Episcopalian."
So, she's Episcopalian. But not "Episcopalian." Her sometime boyfriend, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, has called her "half Catholic, half Episcopalian." She also attended Presybterian churches as a child. So, could Bush have meant that he picked her because she holds an approved mix of Catholic, Episcopalian and possibly Presbyterian theological positions? But if theology were the driving factor, wouldn't Bush have wanted someone who holds the same theological positions he does? In other words, if he's applying a denominational religious test, why would Bush, a Methodist, have appointed a Catholic chief justice and now an associate justice who appears to be Episbytholic? Or at least Casbypalian?

So, clearly, theological tenets, especially in someone so ideologically opaque as Miers, are not what Bush was talking about when he referred to Miers' religion. Which makes it fair to ask, well, if he wasn't using The Code, and he wasn't shorthanding her religious beliefs, what the hell else could he have been referring to?

It's my belief (you can argue whether it's fact- or faith-based) that Bush was referring to her faith. Not her faith in religious facts, but the simple fact of her faith. What the mainstream media, and much of the blogosphere, has misunderstood about Bush's born-again evangelicalism is that it's not dogmatic. Bush is not a student of the Bible. He himself talks about his faith not as a belief in specific teachings or values of Jesus. When Oprah Winfrey asked him what role his faith plays in public policy, his answer was telling, in that it revealed that his faith is essentially a supernatural endorsement of egocentrism and masked insecurity:

Q: What part does your faith play on your policy decisions?
BUSH: My faith plays a big part in my life. Prayer and religion sustain me. When I make decisions, I stand on principle, and the principles are derived from who I am.
He said it himself. His principles are not those laid down by Jesus. They're derived from who he is.

He has said that he came to his faith not because the teachings of Jesus moved him, but because Billy Graham walked him through a fairly typical Christian born-again experience. It's hard to grasp the nature of this experience from the outside. But evangelical author Tim LaHaye reveals the internal experience of it when his characters accept Jesus in his best-selling phenomenon, "Left Behind."

Even in LaHaye's own words, the experience is not one in which unbelievers are exposed to the teachings of Jesus and come to believe in them. In fact, even in LaHaye's own book, the characters who accept Jesus don't even read the Bible first. All they do is plumb the depths of their worthlessness, confront the fears that can accompany disbelief (see: Pascal's Wager) and embrace the redemptive and, yes, salvational ecstasy that comes with believing that they could be loved by a divine entity. That's it. No theology. No asceticism. Nothin'. In fact, no meaningful denomination and no Code!

Bush genuinely likes Miers. And they clearly see eye to eye on many things. But they haven't seen eye to eye on everything (remember, she supported ABA input on SCOTUS appointments). So, unless Bush has secretly -- and I highly doubt this -- grilled Miers thoroughly on exactly where her religious beliefs have led her politically, the reality is that Bush may not know how she'd rule. Don't forget, Bush has misjudged born-again Christian appointees before. (And John DiIulio's sin? It wasn't just betrayal, or criticism. He dared to reveal that, once he got inside the White House, he discovered The Code didn't apply.)

What the mainstream and now, ironically, the Christian right, don't seem to understand is that he'd appoint Miers despite not knowing her every future ruling. Why? Because the nature of Miers' faith is, to him, the same as that of his own. In fact, he already revealed how he defines this faith, when he said Miers has "a good heart." That's why he, ostensibly a Methodist, is comfortable relying on religion when nominating a Catholic, or a Prethopalian: Because the values, the theology, the positions simply don't matter to him. All that matters is this vague notion of "faith." Because he feels safe, unchallenged, around people of this "faith" -- because he doesn't have to fear their judgment, as long as they, too, retain "faith" as the principle lens through which they view the world.

Bush's faith, this modern-day, context-free, Jesus-Lite mutation of self-elevating Christianity, is not a sham. I'm sure in its own way it's just as heartfelt as Miers' or the Pope's or Jim Jones' religion. But until the media wake up to what the Christian right is starting to understand -- that Bush's faith is really just a self-delusional self-worship -- then Bush won't be the only one hearing voices that aren't there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No one with any sense actually listens to Bush. Bush is your brain on drugs.

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