Leipzig: setting the stage. I wondered what it would be like, going to Europe. Not just Europe, either, but a country where, not too long ago, the border guards used to probe gas tanks for goods being smuggled between a divided Germany. Would I be a returning hero? Would people welcome me with open arms? Would they invite me in for a bite to eat and provide me with all the necessary accommodations a stranger far from home can often only hope for? The following are two aspects of the United States that I was greeted with when I arrived for the Leipzig award ceremony on May 11th. Let me first say that I was welcomed with open arms. I was invited in for a bite to eat, and I was cheerfully and enthusiastically, as if I were a returning hero, provided with all the necessary accommodations a stranger far from home can often only hope for.
USA: the only country not to sign the children rights convention
May 10, 2002
On Thursday (9 May 02), after Somalia finally signed the 1990 children rights convention during the world childrens summit in New York, the USA is now the only country in the world that continues to reject it. As reported on May 10, 2002 by the German development aid organization WORLD VISION, an alliance of non-governmental organizations vigorously criticized the position of the USA in an open letter to the American government branch concerned with public health.
Modified closing document
WORLD VISION expressed disappointment with a series of non-binding formulations in the modified closing document of the world childrens summit, but still welcomed the progress thus far made to the agreement. A spokesman of the Child Rights Caucus held the USA chiefly accountable for the weaknesses in the closing document. The fact that the USA steadfastly held onto its position put the outcome of the childrens summit in question, explained the critics.
God Bless America:
The special connection between religion and politics in the USA
Background of politics
May 6, 2002
by Thomas Spang, edited by Brigitte Helfer
In the days following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Americans, as could be expected, sought consolation in their Flag and in the patriotic hymns they had learned in school. Hardly a television channel could be found that was not playing "American the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." On Sundays, more people than usual flocked to their churches, and evangelical preachers - the representatives of the conservative movement in American Protestantism - hurried from points far and wide toward New York for the purpose of propagating checks, prayers and good words for the victims of the terroristic Apocalypse.
Others attempted to exploit the horrible events to sow discord. Two leaders of the Christian right, for instance, the reverends Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, went on prime time to say that God was punishing America for permitting homosexuality and feminism. George W. Bush also availed himself of spiritual support. Right before the most important speech of his short term in office on September 20th, when he formulated America's answer to Terrorism, the President assembled in the White House an impressive circle of religious leaders from all faiths.
Only those who have had their eyes and ears fast shut could ignore the unique fusion of religion and politics in America after September 11. There also appeared in broad daylight something that had always hovering right beneath the surface of the American political system: on one side there is the strong separation of church and state on an institutional level, but on the other side is the devout piety of the Americans that understand themselves to be "one nation under God," as it says in their "Pledge of Allegiance." The Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville had already noticed in his first journey to America in 1832 that "religion here is connected with almost every patriotic feeling and with all national traditions." From that, experts on America later developed the theory of "civil religion", which serves as a stage to explain the peculiar contradiction that has been a part of the American self-perception from the first moment on.
The role of religion in society today is still an importance difference between the Old and the New Worlds. While, in the United States, four out of ten Americans go into a church, synagogue, mosque or temple (of which there are 300,000 in the country) at least once a week, in Germany not even one out of ten citizens regularly visits the half-empty houses of God. The churches here at home can continue to keep up their buildings, clergy and social services only because of the close relationship between church and state that is regulated in the Reich-Concord. In America it is the absence of the state that makes the congregations not only strong, but popular as well. Randall Balmer of Columbia University in New York, one of the leading experts in the American world of faith, explains the popularity of churches in the USA this way:
This is due to the free market of religions. You have here, in the figurative sense, all the "God businessmen" who are in competition with each other and who recruit members. Therefore, religion in America is hopelessly popularist. The preachers here have always directed their attention to the masses. There is no state church.
Proceeding from that is a religious pluralism that seeks its own kind in the world. Today the Christian church alone is divided into 220 to 250 different basic denominations. With that in the background, there is also the phenomenon of the people's preachers who address the masses in the USA. They include icons such as not only Billy Graham and Robert Schuller, political figures like James Dobson and Jessie Jackson, but also charlatans like television evangelist Jim Baker, who went to prison in the middle 1980s for squandering the pennies he collected from good-hearted Christian people. The churches themselves are organized like businesses, with their preachers acting at the top as business managers. They use market researchers to find the best locations for new churches, they found daughter companies and hold competitions among their congregation for welfare, Bible and recreation programs.
Take the First Baptist Church in Orlando, for instance. The area used for parking in front of the modern concrete structure would suffice for a mid-size airport, and the prayer spaces could just as well serve as a modern concern auditorium. This mega-church is among the 20 largest houses of worship in America with more than 10,000 members. The congregation even has the services of its own media pastor, because chief pastor Jim Henry does not have enough time for public relations work. Steven Smith, the young media pastor, sees a direct comparison between his church, which has 200 full-time and 200 part-time employees, and a business:
Our senior pastor Jim Henry would correspond to the CEO, the operating manager of this enterprise. Besides him we have 16 pastors who operate in specialized areas. We have a leading business pastor and a representative to whom the other clergy are accountable for billing. And don't forget the volunteers. In addition to these are a committee that monitors the business transactions of the church. That is where some decisions are discussed that cannot be made without surveying the members, such as real estate acquisition.
When Pastor Jim Henry talks to the 4,000 to 4,500 faithful on Sundays, a local television broadcaster carries his service for the old, the sick, and the home-bound. One of the Orlando Southern Baptist's recipes for success is modern music. In America, "Christian Rock" has its own genre, as the large record companies have recognized for some time. In the past year alone, "Jesus-rockers" have bought 50 million CDs. This is one of the trends being pursued by the conservative Protestants of the First Baptist Church, who book the Metro-Live combo for their services. Pious lyrics and rock chords provide the mix that pull the public in place far beyond Orlando's city limits:
"I wanted to dance, I know that is stupid," Hope Wolf sings a Christian Rock oldie that plays on the prohibition to dancing practiced by strict Baptist congregations, "But if the world would see the light, then they would dance like us." [English words back-translated from German]
Of course the new expression does not change the content of the Southern Baptist theology. It goes without saying that Pastor Smith strongly supports the controversial decisions of recent Baptist conventions. Women, for instance, may no longer act as clergy and the official church doctrine is that wives joyfully subject themselves to their husbands. Reverend Henry did not leave any doubt in his congregation, either, from his pulpit during the last presidential elections, as to what would happen if the flock would not vote Republican:
When a nation permits 30 percent of its children to come into the world out of wedlock, one and a half million children to be murdered by abortions, mistreatment by spouses and child abuse to become daily routine, the divorce rate to be higher than ever before, God's name to be mocked and let's art make fun of Jesus - People: if we don't turn things around, then God will target America.
The political strategists in Washington are aware of this influence, and they know that fundamentalist churches have a rather strong power of organization. Bush can chalk his comeback after an apparent defeat in the New Hamshire primaries up to the high-principled fundamentalists on the street in South Carolina who went from door to door for him to campaign for the promising pro-life candidate, an abortion opponent. Religious expert Randal Ballmer is convinced that, without the support of the Christian rightwing, no Republican will ever become US president.
So today it is those who belong to the politically active and to the Christian right who are the most reliable Republican voters, as once the union members were for the Democrats.
Chief Bush advisor Karl Rove has understood this mantra of Republican presidential politics from the beginning. That is why Bush passed the litmus test of the Christian right during a visit to the arch-reactionary Bob Jones Bible school in Greenville - a route that all successful Republican candidates since Reagan have followed. Theologically, the school stands on the extreme rightwing fringe of the Protestant spectrum. In the "cult" section of its bookshelves are volumes that refer to the Roman Catholic Church.
Those at the helm of the fundamentalists put on a decidedly casual self-image. Upon closer examination, however, it can be seen that not even the advertising videos can conceal the regime of control established by "Dr. Bob." The university's 30-page-long list of regulations spell out what is hidden from public view. Unmarried men and women, for instance, may enjoy each other's company only in the presence of chaperones, and dating outside the university is permitted only with parental approval. One glass of beer constitutes grounds for expulsion. This moral code is praised in the advertising videos as follows:
Christian parents and child-rears must brace themselves for an uphill battle if they intend on bringing their children up to lead a life in God's perspective and to love the Lord. Bob Jones University offers a compelling Christian curriculum that helps to attain this goal.
Although Bush carefully maintains his distance from Bob Jones University, he cannot forget what he has to thank the Christian right for. Thus he has rewarded his supporters with the most important interior political office in the USA, the justice ministry. John Ashcroft is an honorary graduate of this school and is known for morning rounds of prayer in his office and for rituals such as the annointing of his skin with meat drippings prior to his initiation into office. Less well known members of the cabinet, such as health minister Tommy Thompson, as well as a whole phalanx of experts in the second or third wings also have their roots in this environment.
US President George W. Bush himself comes less from the fundamentalist than he does the evangelical spectrum. He is still a member of the Methodist Church, which is one of the large Protestant popular churches of the middle class. He probably was impressed with Billy Graham, who is a long-term friend of the Bush family and whom he has stated he has to thank for leading him on the path to Jesus. During the governor's campaign in Texas he sought advice from the preacher of the masses in a family dispute. George W. has the theory that only Christians can claim a place in heaven, while his mother Barbara takes a less rigorous line of approach. Graham sides with Bush, but has cautioned him to be more wary.
With that episode as background, many observers have asked whether Bush's comment about the crusade against terrorism was indeed a blooper, or whether that was not exactly what he meant. Frank Bruni, chief of the Washington office of the New York Times and author of the highly regarded Bush biography "Ambling into History," which has just been released in the USA, is not sure on this point.
If a friend of mine says he is on a crusade, it does not mean that he is on a religious mission. Because this word also has a earthly meaning. Therefore I am not sure whether that was a glimpse of his inner self or just a carelessly used phrase. It is misused very frequently.
Bruni believes Bush's role as a moralist is less questionable, because in his speeches he likes to use strong adjectives like "good" and "evil," "just" and "unjust." He borrows words from clergymen in his speeches. Bush talks about "armies of compassion" that he would like to see mobilized to combat poverty, and he characterizes people with attributes such as a "man of faith" and countries as an "axis of evil." Lately he has begun regular sermons, such as recently in the military academy in Lexington, Virginia:
The path into a peaceful future can be found in the non-negotiable demand for human dignity. It demands the control of right, the limitation of the state, respect for women, private property, justice for all and religious tolerance. These principles belong to no nation, no nation is exempt from them.
According to columnist Bill Keller, Bush found his calling in the events of September 11th. Since then he has been convinced that God elected him for a definite purpose and has shown him what this purpose is. Bruni, one of Keller's colleagues with the New York Time, would not go so far as to say that the President thinks he is on a divine mission, but nevertheless does not see this dimension completely excluded from Bush's perspective.
My take is that he does not think, OK, God created me for this moment in history, but more like this: if I were not the right one for this challenge and could not make the grade, then God would not have let me to get this far. That is a slightly different take.
In foreign state politics this self-perception degenerates into a moral rigor that is much applauded by conservative Republicans and the Christian right. On Bush's chalkboard the world appears as a place in which good and evil are very real and are locked in battle with each other. In Lexington the President contrarily repeated his notion that Iraq, Iran and North Korea form an Axis of Evil, a notion that caused great disappointment in Europe the first time he said it:
In their threat to peace, in their evil ambitions, in their destructive potential and in the suppression of their people these regimes have founded an Axis of Evil. And the world must confront them.
As it has for many other White House experts, for Presidential biographer Bruni there is no question but that the Christian right has won significant influence upon Bush. Members of the alliance include the former chief of the Christian Coalition and current Bush advisor Ralph Reed, the chief of the Free Congress Foundation Paul Weyrich, and speech writer Michael Gerson. The latter strongly sympathizes with the circle of rightwing intellectuals surrounding journalism professor Marvin Olasky, who coined the term "compassionate conservatism." The lean academic rejects welfare programs in general as inefficient and argues for a return to private initiative:
Simply doing away with these programs is not the correct alternative. We must work on building a civil society. By that I mean institutions that are bigger than the individual, but smaller than the government. Those would include religious groups, grass-roots movements, volunteer groups, unions and other groups in which people voluntarily gather to work for the common good.
Olasky regards programs as particularly successful if they are originated by religiously affiliated organizations. Because of the strict separation of church and state in the USA, it has not yet been allowed for the government to use tax money to support such programs, such as for drugs or prisons. If it were up to Bush, that would soon change. Right after he was inaugurated, Bush established an office in the White House for church and state relations, whose mission consisted of reviewing how religiously motivated groups, so called "faith-based organizations" could obtain state assistance.
So far the President has had little success in implementing this concept. The first chief of the office for "Faith-Based" initiatives, John D. Diulio, threw in the towel after six months. The legislation is stuck in Congress, under the prospect of rigorous criticism from civil rights advocates, and parts of it have now also come under attack from the "Christian right." Their leaders are concerned that religions that offend people, such as the Nation of Islam, Scientology, or the Hare Krishna movement, might receive money from the state.
The discussion about the initiative shows that Bush cannot be so easily pressed into a black-white scheme. While part of his base is formed by the Christian right, he is not one of their ideological hardliners. Bush biographer Bruni said:
There are some things that cannot be immediately recognized as evangelical or fundamental Christian. There are the stories that he tells, certain words he uses, intonations of his voice, etc, by which he may be recognized. In his election campaigns he spent a lot of time on the religious right. They have not always gotten everything they wanted. To that degree Bush is not their slave. But he is someone who enjoys their support.
The role of religion in America and its influence on US politics should not be underestimated under George W. Bush. The President's worldview is formed by religion and religion is the centerpiece of his idea of "compassionate conservatism." Bush is not a fundamentalist, rather an evangelical and, above all, a moralist. Simply writing off the President as a lightweight without analyzing this dimension of his thought and behavior will lead to the misunderstanding that currently mars trans-Atlantic relations. Since Jimmy Carter, probably no President has so seriously meant it as much as Bush when, at the close of his speech, he pleads for the blessing of God upon America.