Doubt and Dubya
How should an American humanist vote, asks Paul Kurtz
George W. Bush was installed as President of the United States by a brazen judicial coup d'état. Al Gore (who had 500,000 more votes than Bush) carried all of the precincts in Washington, D.C., except the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority of 54 was sufficient for the coronation of Bush. Bush won by 271 electoral votes, one more than a majority hardly a mandate and largely because the Supreme Court did not allow the counting of disputed ballots in the State of Florida to continue. Only the black caucus in the House of Representatives has had the courage to openly protest, but to no avail. Surprisingly, most Americans have accepted the authority of the Supreme Court, even though its partisan behaviour was egregious. Many humanists supported Ralph Nader in the last election. He complained that there was little real difference between the Republicans and Democrats and that the US was already ruled by a One-Party Corporate State the Republocrat Party. The key issue is money in politics and the influence of financial contributors and lobbies on governmental policy and the legislative process. Most humanists at the last moment voted for Al Gore considering him the lesser of two evils.
The elevation of Bush to the Presidency by court dictat has sent chills through the humanist community: first, because there are serious doubts about Bush's ability to govern effectively (Bushisms are legion, such as "I don't want to import foreign oil from other countries"); second, because the Bush Regency draws too heavily on his father's dynasty; and third, and most seriously, because Bush's ideological agenda is in line with that of the Religious Right. Would Bush bring warring factions together in a spirit of compromise, or would he seek to impose his "compassionate-conservative" agenda on the country? The razor-thin Republican majorities in the House and Senate will make this difficult to do so. There are some indications that Bush and the Republican leadership in the Congress are willing to negotiate differences, though the nomination of hard-line conservatives to key cabinet posts and Bush's initial right-wing policies are ominous signs. Bush has denied funding for international organisations that provide abortion and contraceptive counselling, and he wishes to open virgin lands in Alaska to oil drilling.
As I see it, the overriding issue in America today is the dizzying growth of corporate power by means of mergers and acquisitions. Who has the guts to enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust laws? The Clinton administration tried, though somewhat feebly and there were massive conservative efforts to destroy him during the impeachment inquisition. The corporate control of the United States is especially ominous in regard to the media, which is increasingly controlled by a small number of conglomerates. In this process dissenting views critical of religion and defending rationalism and humanism are ever-rarer to find. Newspaper chains, radio and TV networks, book and magazine publishers, are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. I fear that America is already ruled by a plutocracy devoted to pro ecclesia et commercia. Texans Bush and Cheney are often characterised as nominees of the oil companies. Republican efforts to repeal estate taxes and lower income taxes predominantly of benefit to the wealthy is now being marketed to the public as a way to stimulate the economy and to forestall an economic downturn. Though it may also be viewed as a payoff to the ruling élite. Bush's emphasis on deregulation is a sop to the corporate lobbies.
No doubt, for every dismal generalisation about America, a positive counter-generalisation can be found; there are so many contradictory tendencies in this pluralistic nation. It is still an open democratic society in which there is upward mobility. Yet two million people are in its prisons and capital punishment is justified by appealing to the Old Testament idea of retribution. The United States is the only major democracy to apply this vindictive rule. Indeed, as Governor of Texas Bush approved of 40 executions and he refused to pardon anyone.
Festering religiosity pervades the culture. For example, Bush believes that the greatest philosopher was Jesus; he believes that both creation and evolution should be taught in the public schools, though he will leave it to the local school boards to decide; and he affirmed that the Ten Commandments should be posted everywhere how primitive can you get!
The Democrats were almost as bad as Republicans on this score. Both Gore and Lieberman aped the professions of religious piety of their conservative counterparts. Neoconservative prelate John Richard Neuhaus has for years been complaining that God had been excluded from the public square "It is naked," he complained. In our view this is as it should be in a secular democracy. Well! The Lord's name has now been brought back with a vengeance with pious declarations of "God bless America" everywhere. Gore and Lieberman stated repeatedly during the campaign that the USA. is a "religious country", committed to "God's purposes", and part of our "Judæo-Christian tradition". Lieberman, an observant Jew who does not drive or work on the Sabbath, declared that the Constitution does not protect freedom from religion (as humanists had assumed), but only freedom for religion. And Gore agreed with him. There is also a united effort by Republicans and Democrats alike to defend "faith-based charities" a blatant break with the principle of separation of church and state.
What especially concerns humanists is that a future conservative Supreme Court may seek to rewrite the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This is interpreted by conservative Justices Rhenquist, Scalia and Thomas to mean that it will not allow any one sect of religion to be officially established over others it would not defend irreligion as equal to religion. Humanists are now apprehensive that the Justice Department under John Ashcroft (Mr Bible Virtue himself) will make life miserable for atheists, agnostics, rationalists and secular humanists. Ashcroft in his speech to Bob Jones University declared, "Unique among nations, America recognised the source of our character as being Godly and eternal. . . . We have no king but Jesus." One has to be careful that these fears of apocalypse under a new Right-Wing Anschluss are not exaggerated; for the US in a sense is a universal culture, in which every doctrine has always contended. Yet the mood of the country is today predominantly spiritual-paranormal-religious; and there are few if any signs that public opinion is about to change on this salient point. We look with envy at British reticence about religion.
In an interview that I gave to the New York Times on 23 December 2000, I pointed out that few, if any, candidates for public office (none that I could remember) had the courage to openly admit that they were atheists or agnostics. The US Constitution states that no test of religious belief is required of a candidate perhaps not de jure, but a de facto belief in God does seem to be obligatory if one is to get anywhere as a candidate for office. A basic criterion of American patriotism today is tied up with whether one believes in a Supreme Being. In this process religious dissenters, rationalists and humanists are marginalised and demonised.
Humanists thus look ahead to George W.'s administration with genuine apprehension. They wonder whether the culture wars will exacerbate or whether a new bipartisan mood of "harmony" and "unity" a sign of an authoritarian rather than a democratic society will consume them. We are geared up for an all-out battle to defend the open society and the rights of dissenters from a possible Reign of Intimidation.