Friday, October 21, 2005

The Christian Game

If Christians in this country had any doubts about how President Bush has used them for his own political gain, those doubts should have vanished as of yesterday.

With his numbers sinking and his latest nominee to the Supreme Court mired in criticism from left, right and center, President Bush played the Christian Game like a compulsive gambler pulling an ace from his well-worn sleeve.

It should be clear to everyone--finally--that President Bush's so-called "religious" convictions have more to do with political calculus then they do with the sanctity of a personal relationship with God. The cold, manipulative way that the White House used its PR machine to invoke Christianity in the Miers debate was so obvious, so transparent, that even his most strident, church-going supporters must now see that the President does not love them as brothers and sisters, so much as he spends them like poker chips at the table.

At 11:54am Tuesday (Oct 12, 2005), the President--who had not previously said one word about
Harriet Miers' Christianity, suddenly engaged in the following exchange with a reporter about Miers' religion:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. 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. (see the full exchange here )

This statement has all the familiar marks of a public relations bait, rehearsed in advanced with Karen Hughes and Karl Rove to be dangled in front of the press as a strategy for shifting the debate.

The out-of-place phrase in this statement by the President came via these nine awkwardly delivered words, "And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion." Such a strange way to speak about a person. Why not just say that he picked Harriet Miers because her Christian beliefs gave her judicial disposition that he and other Americans would admire?

The answer is simple: Because this statement was not about admiration for Harriet Miers's Christianity--which in other circumstances we may have been allowed to admire. Instead, it was a line designed to reframe the debate. It was a gambit, a ploy, a trick.

The line "And part of Harriet Miers' life is her religion," was not about the President's convictions, but the end result of a political meeting with Karl Rove in which options for rescuing the President's poll numbers were discussed, where somebody in the room proposed that they use the Christian frame, and where everyone in the room, including the President, agreed that at this juncture, they should try to use their Christian supporters to save themselves--from political ruin.

And so Rove must have sent the President notes with instructions, such as, "Mr. President: Here's the "religion" line you should use in order to gain some political points."

And then the President must have rehearsed it.

And then he used it at 11:54am, Tuesday morning.

A short while later, as the second stage of the plan, the White House Press Secretary fielded dozens of questions about this statement by the President--leading the media away from the real story of Miers' being chosen because she was loyal to the President, not because she was the best for the job.

This was phase two of rolling out the Christian frame, of the President's attempt to use Christianity to save his political skin.

And by Tuesday evening, it had worked. Christian televangelists across the country were singing Miers' praise. The President's deft use of the Christian frame had lured these leading lights of the Evangelical TV movement to his side, and how it seemed that his choice for Supreme Court Justice was widely supported by those who represented the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. The Christian frame was at work, and the President controlled it.

And with that support firmly in place, the President played his final card: he quickly turned against his Christian supporters by switching the debate from Miers' religion to her "qualifications."

On Thursday morning, the White House woke up and began to attack anyone who suggested that Harriet Miers' Christianity was an important part of why she was nominated. And in the Press Gaggle that day--to a stunned room of reporters who had just the day before been told over and over and over again that Harriet Miers was chosen because of her religion--Scott McClellan spit in the face of the President's Christian supporters. Miers' Christianity was a side issue, he said. Not a real issue.

If Christians in this country had any doubts about how President Bush has used them for his own political gain, those doubts should have vanished in those moments Thursday, as the President quickly climbed on their backs and then pushed them under the political waters.

There should be no doubt left by anyone in this country, that there is a vast difference between the various types of Christianity that have become popular in this country over the past few years, and the cynicism of a calculating politician who abuses the idealism of those Christians for political gain.

It should have become clear to everyone by Thursday, that President Bush sees Christians in America are little more than a gamble in a political game that he is losing, a poker chip kept in his breast pocket to be tossed on the table in desperate moments.

It should be clear, now.

© 2005 Jeffrey Feldman


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