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By Nathan Bierma


Content & Context

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AN IMPLAUSIBLE CONSPIRACY

If, as Christian Smith argued recently in B&C, faith is an area of particular ignorance for the mainstream news media, then the risk is high for paranoia to spread about how President Bush's faith—and the faith of his evangelical supporters—determines his policies. In a cover story for the Boston Globe's Ideas section earlier this month, less out of enthusiasm for Bush's policies than the desire to clear up popular misconceptions of evangelicals, Alan Jacobs set out to debunk the conspiracy theory that the President is doing the bidding of certain religious groups.

For a conspiracy to work, Jacobs says, it would require eschatological agreement among fundamentalists. Instead, Bush is purported to be a spokesman for groups with opposing eschatological views. "President Bush could scarcely be a premillennialist and a Reconstructionist at the same time," Jacobs says. But to leftist intellectuals who don't appreciate these nuances, all fundamentalists are alike and represent a single nefarious influence.

Even if such lumping together were justified, critics would have to demonstrate that the Bush Administration prizes theology over politics, stubbornly clinging to ideology and rejecting political pragmatism. Says Jacobs: "The scenarios [two critics] construct require Bush and his key advisers to be people who read the Bible in light of a coherent theology that yields a specific political program (rather than politicians whose chief concern is getting reelected)." But Bush is surrounded by politicians, not religious crusaders. "With the exception of John Ashcroft, there's no one among his core advisors who could possibly teach him what right-wing evangelical politics are supposed to look like."

The most important rug to pull out from under conspiracy theorists is the assumption that all evangelicals have a lobbyist's level of clarity and zeal about religion and politics. Instead, evangelical social and political identity can be ambiguous. The critics Jacobs cites confuse evangelicals with fundamentalists, when in fact many evangelicals who read Left Behind also "watch 'Oprah," go to the movies, and send their children to public schools," Jacobs says. In short, President Bush would have a hard time pleasing all evangelicals, because not all are as certain as fundamentalists about what they want. "The likelihood that his thinking and his policies are shaped by a single, coherent, radical ideology is virtually nil."

Drawing lines between religion and politics is always a tricky business. President Bush, Jacobs notes, is a United Methodist, and so is Hillary Clinton. And the one recent president who does the most to justify theocratic conspiracy theories is Jimmy Carter. Jacobs doesn't take the time to address legitimate concerns about the rhetoric of civil religion in the President's speeches, or note its echoes of the religious rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. But Jacobs' prominently featured essay should be convincing enough to keep the Bush Administration out of The X-Files.

Related:
Martin Marty on "Bush and God" in Newsweek (story and CT's commentary)
Earlier:Seven myths about evangelical voters

PLACES & CULTURE

From the Chicago Tribune:

ULURU, Australia—Nearly every weekday, rocks sent from around the world arrive here at the headquarters of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Some are the size of gravel. One weighed 75 pounds. But they all have one thing in common: They were taken from a sacred mountain by travelers later weighed down by remorse. Most of the stones are pieces of Uluru, the huge red formation in the middle of the Australian outback that is widely known as Ayers Rock. … The giant red rock is an awesome sight. Rising 1,140 feet from the desert floor, its sides are nearly vertical. In the shifting light of the outback, it can change from a reddish-orange hue to a deep red. For some, visiting it is a mystical experience. Surrounded by desert scrub and enveloped by the dry heat, Uluru lies almost directly in the center of the continent. A solid piece of sandstone more than 2 miles long and 1 1/4-miles wide, it gets its unusual color from the rusting of iron in the otherwise gray rock. When there is rain, waterfalls cascade down the sides, forming waterholes that have long been a source of life for animals and people.

From the New York Times :

ELMIRA, N.Y.—This small city in the state's Southern Tier was not the setting for fence painting or frog-jumping contests, and its river could never compare with the Mississippi. But that mattered none to Mark Twain, who spent many summers and wrote some of his most famous works here. … While so-called Twainiacs usually know of Elmira's influence, casual readers often associate the writer more with his childhood antics in Hannibal, Mo., or his permanent home in Hartford. But in the last few years, Elmira officials have begun considering how to attract thousands more tourists interested in Twain without disrupting the scholars of his work who already come here for the same thing he did, a quiet place to study and write. "There are all kinds of ideas now in the works," said Gretchen E. Sharlow, interim director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.

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