God, Bush, and Functional Atheism

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My family and I attend a conservative Presbyterian church in a fairly conservative place (western Maryland), so it is not surprising that our congregation consists in large part of supporters of Republicans in general and the George W. Bush Administration in particular. I suspect it would be more surprising if our small Presbyterian Church in America assembly were a mass of Democrats (or even libertarians), given the politics of modern America.

One of the publications our church receives is Citizen, which represents the political arm of the Focus on the Family organization founded and run by James Dobson. Citizen is unabashedly pro-Republican, although Dobson periodically has warned the party that it must impose a "pro-family" agenda or Dobson will leave and take his votes elsewhere.

The latest edition of Citizen comes with a cover picture of Bush standing in a church with a large wooden cross hanging from the wall behind him. The photograph is supposed to convey the juxtaposition of two important symbols, the Christian Cross (which is above Bush’s head) and the President of the United States. Yet, the look on Bush’s face is one of complete arrogance; indeed, Bush’s expression expresses the opposite of the message given by the humility of Jesus, who died on the cross.

What I have seen in the aftermath of the election from Bush-supporting evangelicals has been their silly belief that they have "won" something. Yet, when one examines the record of this administration, the term "Christian" does not come to mind. Instead, I would like to coin the phrase "functional atheism" to describe the Bush Presidency.

While I have not used "functional atheism" in previous articles to portray the actions of the U.S. Government under Bush, I have come close, calling outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft, who openly espouses his Christian beliefs, a "nihilist." What I mean by "functional atheism" is this: the U.S. Government is a utilitarian enterprise which operates by the simple rule of force (as opposed to a rule of law). The concepts of "right" and "wrong" are limited to what is useful for increasing or protecting the rule of the state, period. The participants in the system do not deviate from those standards, whether or not they meet the requirements of what Christians of the past would have termed "just."

In the past week, new revelations of vast abuses of U.S. prisoners being held in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay have appeared in the news. Yet, many of the same people who condemn these atrocities are quite willing to see government officials engage in the same behavior toward Americans. While abuse, torture, and outright lying and criminal behavior by participants in the "justice system" are common, the public gives a collective yawn and juries continue to swallow the lies that prosecutors feed to them. Although the accessible examples of such behavior are legion and have been well-documented elsewhere, I will give some of my own.

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano in a recent article gave a couple of terrifying but all-too-typical stories of torture and abuse of people in this country. The first involved the accusation (almost surely false) of massive child molestation against two owners of a Florida daycare center in 1984. The chief accuser was then-Dade County State’s Attorney Janet Reno (yes, that Janet Reno) who was in the middle of a tough re-election campaign and was determined to get a guilty verdict.

Reno was able to have then-18-year-old Ileana Furster, Frank Furster’s wife, held without bond. Furthermore, the young woman was placed nude in a solitary confinement cell, being in full view of male and female guards. In 1998, Ileana described some of her treatment:

They would give me cold showers. Two people would hold me, run me under cold water, then throw me back in the cell naked with nothing, just a bare floor. And I used to be cold, real cold. I would have my periods and they would wash me and throw me back into the cell.

(Note: This action came at a time when prosecutors around the country were engaging in child molestation witch hunts against day care owners, the original accusations stemming from the encouragement in the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention Act, better known as the Mondale Act. It provided federal money to states that prosecuted alleged child abuse, and prosecutors were all-too-happy to jump into the mix. Many of the accusations were outlandishly false, but prosecutors and their media stooges managed to keep the enterprise going until the accusations collapsed under the scrutiny of a particularly egregious set of charges mounted in Wenatchee, Washington, a decade ago. However, even today, some people are serving life terms for "child molestation" crimes they almost certainly did not commit. Frank Furster is one of them.)

Finally, Reno began to visit Ms. Furster on a regular basis and browbeat her with accusations and promises of a life sentence unless she cooperated (that is, told the jury what Reno wanted her to say). Further visits from psychiatrists who allegedly specialized in "recovering memories" — which has turned out to be another form of government quackery — finally got their intended results. Ileana haltingly accused her husband in court (she has since recanted) and Frank Furster was found guilty.

Keep in mind that this case, as well as the infamous Grant Snowden case, in which Reno falsely accused a Miami police officer of massive child molestation won her fame and adulation from among the Democratic Party faithful. (Snowden received a life sentence, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction after it said that the evidence Reno presented amounted to fiction and her tactics were based on torture and abuse.) In fact, Reno was so feted by the party that Hillary Clinton successfully pushed her to be U.S. Attorney General in 1993, saying that Reno was "good on children’s issues."

In other words, Reno engaged in the application of what can only be termed torture, and the political classes loved her for it. That Reno would set off a huge massacre at Waco a month into her tenure — and receive public adoration for it — only confirms to me that Americans have no problem with the state employing torture and murder, as long as it is applied to people they deem as being unpopular or "out of the mainstream." (Or it is not happening to them or their friends and relatives.)

The second example involves Reno’s successor, John Ashcroft. In his recent farewell speech, Ashcroft cited the "conviction" and imprisonment of the alleged "Lackawanna Six" as an example of a "successful" tenure at the DOJ. As Napolitano writes, instead of awards and self-congratulations, what should have been handed out were a number of indictments against U.S. attorneys.

Briefly stated, the case proceeded as such: after originally calling the accused Muslims (some of whom were American citizens) part of a "terror cell," the government’s case soon fell apart for lack of evidence as it became obvious that the accused posed no threat and were not planning terrorism. However, after a federal judge condemned the government’s case, U.S. attorneys told the men that if they did not plead guilty to outlandish charges, the government would simply hold them as "enemy combatants," which would mean the loss of due process, no access to lawyers, and no chance of a fair trial, only summary judgment. (Of course, one can argue that it is nearly impossible to receive a fair trial in this country already.)

Faced with such odds, the men capitulated. Instead of condemning the actions of government prosecutors, as someone who had sworn before God to "protect and defend the U.S. Constitution," Ashcroft gave them awards then bragged to the nation about the whole thing.

While atheists will disagree with me, an underlying base for the rule of law and due process is that there is a "higher power" (or God) who dispenses ultimate justice. For many years, a watchword in criminal justice was "better to let 20 guilty men go free than one innocent man to be convicted." People could believe that and live by it, since they believed that even if a guilty person avoided justice for the time being, he would have to face God sooner or later.

In our "sophisticated," secular society, that is no longer the case. As a neighbor’s car bumper sticker proudly proclaims, "There’s only now." In the context of criminal justice, if someone is not convicted right now, then that person avoids justice forever. When Larry King asked Bob Jones III, president of the Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University about the prospect of innocent people being executed by the state, Jones replied that even if that were the case, that was OK, since he believed the death penalty is a good thing. Jones gave a utilitarian answer that the atheistic champion of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, would have applauded.

Conservative Christians are forever applauding people like Bush and Ashcroft because they believe that the presence of such conservative Christians gives "legitimacy" to their own religious beliefs. Yet, Bush and his minions have not governed like Christians, but far from it, as the record clearly demonstrates. From the demolition of Falluja to the imprisonment of Martha Stewart and the Lackawanna Six, the Bush Administration has governed with a cynicism that has been hard to match. (Although, I will admit, previous administrations have set precedents of their own. The Bushies are hardly alone in their destructiveness; however, the Nixon and Johnson administrations did not claim to be "Christian.")

The actions of Bush, Ashcroft, and others in this government are made by people who apparently do not fear God. While they may claim to be Christians — and are near-worshipped by many in the evangelical and fundamentalist community — they govern as though they were atheists. That is why I call them "functional atheists." And I say this with no insult intended to atheists, many of whom have demonstrated a greater commitment to rule of law and real justice than Bush and Ashcroft could ever dream of doing.

December 22, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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