This is Not a Religion Column: Christian Candidate Quiz Bowl

There is a sense in circles once strictly liberal, lately broadened to include retired generals, nervous money, and mild-mannered Republicans, that the long nightmare—not just the Bush administration but the last three decades of piety politics, brought by the 43rd president to a tortured crescendo—is coming to an end. Cheney’s been beaten back into his bunker, and Bush is beating his chest, reportedly pounding his pecs before a group of Texas pals and hooting “I am thepresident! I am the president!” This cannot even be construed as canny stupidity, like Ronald Reagan letting “slip” a joke about bombing the Evil Empire, like LBJ slapping his pecker across the presidential desk and daring Senate foes to measure against him. Bush’s ape routine is simply proof that evolution is real and that it has a reverse button.The president is regressing, shrinking, squeaking as he dwindles. “Lookat me! Look at me!” But the adults, the clever and the wicked, are turning away, leaving the zoo, by choice or under armed guard.

Not just Turd Blossom and Gonzo and Wolfie and Libby, not just Craig and Vitter and Foley, Ney and DeLay and Duke Cunningham, but also the lesser-known luminaries of the many right-wing revolutions that seemed once, not so long ago, to be cresting irresistibly together, Christian crusaders and invisible handers and “New American Century” dreamers all riding the same tsunami.

Consider now the crestfallen. This week’s winners: Tim Goeglein, “pipeline to the President” for religious conservatives, given the shove after a blogger discovered he was plagiarizing a column for his hometown paper, borrowing from, among others, the Pope; and Daniel Cooper, the veterans’ undersecretary of benefits who resigned after veterans’ groups complained that he spent more time spreading the gospel than the wealth; the sex fiends: Dr. Deal Hudson, given the job of winning the Catholic vote for Bush, accused by a former student of rape and Dr. David Hager, tasked with blocking the abortion pill, accused by his ex-wife of rape; the hypocrites: former USAID director Randall Tobias, exporter of abstinence-only lessons and import market for Central American sex slaves and Kenneth Tomlinson, tasked with bringing the “objectivity” of family values and laissez-faire economics to public broadcasting even as he funneled its funds to his personal horse racing operation; and the thieves of all varieties: domestic policy advisor Claude Allen, a moral values man convicted of shoplifting, Robert Stein, appointed comptroller for the Coalition Provisional Authority despite a 1996 fraud conviction, convicted again in 2006 of stealing $3.6 million from Iraq, with which he purchased, among other luxuries, grenade launchers, and Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, the C.I.A. executive director indicted this past spring for fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering.

And yet, if there is this sense in those newly expanded liberal circles that the Republican Party is broken, shattered from within, there remains dangerous confusion about its rank and file. Democrats hope and declare that the Christian Right is a spent force, Timeexclaims that it’s now the Democrats who get religion, and faith-based advisors counsel the party that it will win evangelical voters, stripped of their former heroes, if only it avoid unseemly matters like the rights of homosexuals and women. Such rumors are based in part on data—Pastor Ted Haggard is in gay exile, Reverend Jerry Falwell is in Heaven—but in the main they’re gut feelings, hardening intoconventional wisdom, soon to be reported as fact.

Which is how you make not a political reality, but a fable. Pull the one essential thread out of its fabric—fundamentalism—and see if the whole story of right-wing defeat and liberalism ascendant doesn’t unravel like a cheap suit on a blue dog Dem voting more money for the war. “Fundamentalism” is bigger than Ted Haggard, bigger than Jerry Falwell, bigger than the president, who, if defectors from his regime are to be believed, has lost all but a sliver of his religion. It’s bigger and older and more enduring than the political coalition currently called the “Christian Right,” soon to becalled history. American fundamentalism is first and foremost a theology—a story about God, man, good, evil, and what happens when you die. It is only secondarily a politics.

Sometimes politicians attempt to locate themselves within the fundamentalist story. When they succeed, like Bush in 2000, their fortunes gleam. When they fail, as Fred Thompson did, they look like old shoe leather. Either way, the story survives. It must; it’s as old as the nation, and there is no America without fundamentalism.

That’s not to say that America was founded as a Christian nation, as fundamentalists claim, or that fundamentalism contributes something essential to democracy. Hardly; it strains against democracy, longing not for the will of the people but for the strong hand of the Lord. But its ethos has been with us since the beginning. If the proto-fundamentalists at the Constitutional Convention who tried to dedicate the new nation to Christ failed to overcome the spirit of Jefferson and the maneuvering of Madison—the architects of the wall of separation between church and state—they nonetheless were able to seed history with a thousand little pieties, now taken up by today’s spiritual warriors, in Congress, in Christian colleges, in the quiet rooms of Washington where lowly prayer cells gather as they tweak and twist and chisel away at that crumbling barrier.

“Barrier” is too strong a word for what remains of the divider between church and state, solid enough in the early days of the republic that to propose that mail service stop on Sundays was taken as a sign of religious fanaticism. That was a long time ago. Now, there is no wall; only a hedge, over and through which church and state blend into one another with ever less distinction.

Which leads me to a modest proposal. None of the three leading candidates, and certainly not Huckabee, have proposed rebuilding that wall. All express comfort with the many faith-based offices Bush planted throughout the federal government. All offer their faith as a credential for election. All right then; let’s play by their rules.Let’s take their faith seriously, as seriously as we take their foreign policy platforms and their health care plans. Let’s ask the toughest questions we can. Not, “Is Obama secretly a Muslim?”—that’s a stupid question. Rather, let’s quiz McCain on his new Baptist credentials, ask Hillary why she rejects the social gospel, demand that Obama explain how, exactly, he will be “guided by prayer” in the oval office, as he boasted in a mailer to South Carolina voters. All three present their Christianity as essential to their political identities. Great; let’s find out what they know about their Christianity. I propose this not as a boost to Hillary, who’s by far the most theologically literate, nor as a slam on McCain, who may not actually know that Baptists are supposed to have been, you know, baptized. Rather, I simply want to know what they know. How about a debate in which Hillary and Obama each explain how Revelation will help them make decisions?

It’s time to take political faith seriously. And if doing so strikes you as invasive, unseemly, and irrelevant to the job the candidates are seeking—well, then, it’s really time to take faith seriously, including its uses and abuses in a democracy where piety and cynicism have long been comfortable companions. Bush won’t be taking either with him when he goes.