Last week the Bush administration made an important announcement. I'm not referring to the selection of a new economic team, which will make absolutely no difference to policy. I'm talking about the executive order removing longstanding barriers between church and state.
The announcement didn't attract much attention amid the furor over Trent Lott. Yet it contains the seeds of a similar future uproar. The media were shocked, shocked to discover that prominent Republicans have a soft spot for segregation — something that was obvious long before Mr. Lott inserted his foot in his mouth. One of these years they'll be equally shocked to discover that prominent Republicans have a soft spot for theocracy.
Of course, the administration insists that the new policy isn't intended to allow government-funded proselytizing. And it would surely deny that by explicitly permitting religious discrimination in hiring — organizations that receive federal contracts can "take faith into account in making employment decisions" — it is opening up a new source of patronage for its friends on the Christian right.
Why am I not reassured?
For one thing, we are well advised not to trust anything the administration says about the goals of its domestic policy. John J. DiIulio, who initially headed the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, told a reporter, Ron Suskind, that this White House had no interest in the substance of policy, caring only about political payoffs: "What you've got is everything — and I mean everything — being run by the political arm."
Mr. DiIulio repudiated his own carefully drafted, 3,000-word letter to Mr. Suskind after Karl Rove put a horse's head in his bed. (O.K., I'm not sure about that last part.) But the best guess about any domestic policy from this administration is that its real purpose is to cater to a part of its base. And which part of the base wants to blur the line between church and state?
George W. Bush is always careful to speak in favor of faith in general, not any faith in particular. Congressional leaders are less careful. Last spring Tom DeLay, soon to be House majority leader, told a church group that: "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world — only Christianity." He also said he was on a mission from God to promote a "biblical worldview" in American politics.
By the way, one piece of that biblical worldview involves scientific education. After the Columbine school shootings, Mr. DeLay suggested that the tragedy had occurred "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud." Guns don't kill people; Charles Darwin kills people.
Mr. DeLay isn't an obscure crank; he's the most powerful man in Congress. Still, is he an outlier? No. Don Nickles, now challenging the wounded Mr. Lott for Senate leadership, is less given to colorful statements, but is as closely aligned with the religious right as Mr. DeLay.
And the influence of the religious right spreads much further. The Internet commentator Atrios, who played a key role in bringing Mr. Lott's past to light, now urges us to look into the secretive Council for National Policy. This blandly named organization was founded by Tim LaHaye, co-author of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels, and is in effect a fundamentalist pressure group. As of 1998 the organization's membership contained many leading Congressional figures in the Republican Party, though none of the party's neoconservative intellectuals.
George W. Bush gave a closed-door speech to the council in 1999, after which the religious right in effect endorsed his candidacy. Accounts vary about what he promised, and the organization has refused to release the tape. But it's notable that he appointed John Ashcroft as attorney general; Mr. Ashcroft gives every appearance of placing his biblical worldview above secular concerns about due process.
I'd like to think that the furor over Trent Lott's nostalgia for Jim Crow, hidden in plain sight for years, would serve as a signal to ask about other uncomfortable truths hidden in plain sight. But I suspect that it won't, that we'll soon go back to worrying about politicians' haircuts.
And then, years from now, when it becomes clear that much public policy has been driven by a hard-line fundamentalist agenda, people will say "But nobody told us."
Originally published in The New York Times, 12.17.02