TWO DAYS after the September 11 cataclysm, the Rev. Jerry Falwell laid
down his own prophetic interpretation of the attacks, revealing more than he
might have liked about his low view of the state of American life.
Appearing on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" television show, Falwell blamed the
excesses of American liberalism as exemplified by the ACLU, NOW, and pro-
choice, feminist and gay groups in general, for the growing distance between
God and America. Falwell argued that humanists working to "secularize America"
had provoked a disenchanted deity into retracting some sort of heavenly anti-
terrorist shield, thus enabling "the enemies of America to give us probably
what we deserved."
During the broadcast, host Robertson, a 1992 and 1996 Republican
presidential candidate, nervously concurred with Falwell's analysis. But
recognizing a brewing public relations debacle that could eclipse Falwell's
1999 jeremiad against PBS's innocuous Teletubbies, Robertson and Falwell
quickly began issuing clarifications and apologies for bad timing -- if not
necessarily for the underlying belief.
Several weeks later, in early October, a similar hell-and-brimstone call
for religious redemption coursed over the airwaves. It announced, among other
things, that "no one can deny the great sins of polytheism and (its goal) to
share with God in His sole right of sovereignty and making of the law." Unlike
the Revs. Falwell and Robertson, a besieged Osama bin Laden saw no public
relations' advantage in retracting any part of his Oct. 6 video declaration of
war against the West.
The shared reasoning of America's and Islam's best known purveyors of
fundamentalist thought was ironic, scary and hardly coincidental. The message
of fundamentalism; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or what-have-you, is
remarkably unified. It is paternalistic, sternly moralistic, anti-feminist and
a reaction against the secularism and commercialism that is a signature of the
modern world. There could not have been a better metaphor for the violently
clashing views of the secular and the fundamental worlds than the fiery fall
of New York's World Trade Center twin towers.
But the September 11 attacks also revealed a difficult conundrum for the
Bush administration, the most conservative presidency in history, now forced
to deal with the contradiction of fighting the fundamentalist mullahs abroad
while supporting the fundamentalist Moral Majority at home. So far, however,
it has proven to be a largely untroubled straddle. How is one to justify the
deep satisfaction in the de-veiling of Afghan women at the same time as
advocating that the abortion rights of American women disappear behind the
veil of federal edict?
So far, with liberal Democrats more or less asleep in exposing this blitz,
the White House has gotten away with it by playing a clever game of political
"good cop/bad cop." It is a routine that has elevated first lady Laura Bush
into the public face of secular humanism, at least in terms of the good news
of the liberation of Afghan women from Taliban repression and support for the
widows and orphans of the World Trade Center attack.
And while the president stays above the fray in his role as commander-in-
chief, the nitty-gritty of the American fundamentalist agenda is being brought
alive by the current attorney general, John Ashcroft. Ashcroft, President
Bush's "bad cop" and his administration's gift to the Christian right.
Military tribunals, racial profiling, violations of attorney-client secrecy
and prolonged unreported detention aside (although the Bush administration's
assault on civil liberties can hardly be considered an aside), Ashcroft is the
spearhead of the effort to use America's state of constitutional distraction
to further the issues of greatest concern to homeland-based fundamentalists.
Among these are the attempt to roll back abortion rights, bar human embryo
stem-cell research, challenge Oregon's assisted-suicide law, attack
California's medical-marijuana initiative and other laws that are seen as
furthering the liberal, secularist agenda.
The most striking feature about the Bush administration's double-barreled
assault on civil liberties and lifestyle is the post-attack Republican
conversion to robust federalism. So much for the state's rights agenda that
has been a supposed matter of faith in the modern GOP. The Bush administration
has discovered the wonders of such once feverishly protested "liberal" means
to power, such as presidential decree and federal intervention, which were
used to great effect in areas such as civil rights and environmental
Now, those same tools against which Republicans have fulminated for years,
and against which Bush campaigned, are driving the administration's attempts
to win such "sanctity of life" issues as medical research on human embryos.
This issue is well understood by American fundamentalists as a Trojan Horse
maneuver, such as the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions, through which
to achieve the most deeply held fundamentalist desire; an end to legal
abortion as guaranteed American women by Roe vs. Wade.
The Bush administration should be congratulated on its nearly flawless
intervention in Afghanistan. But nothing less than loud protests will do in
the face of the embrace of the American fundamentalist agenda at home under
the protective cover of fighting fundamentalism abroad.
The final irony is that like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bush
administration is very much a minority government. Handsomely outvoted in the
popular vote and the barest possible winner in the electoral count, Bush
should be very careful about mistaking popular support for the war against
terrorism as a mandate to institute the agenda of Falwell, Robertson and their
allies, members of what can, without blinking, be called "the American Taliban.
Freelance writer Richard Rapaport in San Francisco at RJRap@aol.com.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle