In 2005 the BBC produced a film called The Power of Nightmares. The film was directed by Adam Curtis. The style of presentation, in its content and background music, suggested menace, the sense of dread and suspicion that animated the two opposing leaders whose struggle preoccupied world attention after 9/11/2001: Osama Bin Laden, representing the Islamist movement, and George W. Bush and his administration. The film was constructed to provoke, even to irritate, especially an American audience.
Whatever might be said about the film, it included some information about the opinions and activities of notable American officials that few Americans seem ever to have heard of. So I reproduce selections from the film [drawing from the screenplay posted by Bill St Clair]. What they reveal is a body of individuals within the Republican Party who were willing to exploit the religious populations of the country through unseemly manipulation of information.
A central point of the film was that the Neoconservatives who came to power with George W. Bush had been influenced by Leo Strauss’s notion that societies run on myth. For these neoconservatives myth is good when it mobilizes populations to take on “good” projects, even if the “myth” is indeed untrue. Many of the neocons entered government and participated in the Nixon and later Republican administrations. They had ideas and agendas, but they had the problem of how to mobilize the American people to join in their particular reading of the world and what to do about it.
Truncating much that ought to be said about the context, I here reproduce what the film reveals about the way the “neocons” got their “troops” – by appealing to the sentiments of the evangelical community. This is the story I reproduce here.
A major shift in the conservative white community had taken place during the Carter administration. The white “evangelical” community turned against Jimmy Carter, the only President who had a Bible class before being elected President and returned to his Bible class afterward. The reason for this abandonment of Carter was this [according to Ralph Reed, Active Faith, p. 105]]:
“The greatest spark of the [white evangelical] movement was not abortion but an attempt by the Carter-appointed head of the Internal Revenue Service to require Christian and parochial schools and academies to prove that they were not established to preserve segregation or they would risk losing their tax-exempt status. … For conservative evangelicals it was nothing less than a declaration of war on their schools, their churches, and their children. More than any other single episode, the IRS move against Christian schools sparked the explosion of the movement that would become known as the religious right.”
Ronald Reagan, a new-age president, saved the white conservative community from Jimmy Carter. Whatever his personal beliefs were, Reagan easily articulated the concerns of the white evangelical movement. We pick up the narrative here from “The Power of Nightmares.”
From Part One:
Voice Over: And at this very same moment, religion was being mobilized politically in America, but for a very different purpose. And those encouraging this were the neoconservatives. Many neoconservatives had become advisers to the Presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. And as they became more involved with the Republican Party, they had forged an alliance with the religious wing of the party, because it shared their aim of the moral regeneration of America.
IRVING KRISTOL , Founder of Neoconservative movement: The notion that a purely secular society can cope with all of the terrible pathologies that now affect our society, I think has turned out to be false. And that has made me culturally conservative. I mean, I really think religion has a role now to play in redeeming the country. And liberalism is not prepared to give religion a role. Conservatism is, but it doesn’t know how to do it.
VO: By the late ‘70s, there were millions of fundamentalist Christians in America. But their preachers had always told them not to vote. It would mean compromising with a doomed and immoral society. But the neoconservatives and their new Republican allies made an alliance with a number of powerful preachers, who told their followers to become involved with politics for the first time.
JAMES ROBISON , Fundamentalist Preacher, 1980: I’m sick and tired of hearing about all of the radicals, and the perverts, and the liberals, and the leftists, and the Communists coming out of the closet! It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America! We must do it!
Rev. Robinson epitomized the particular way the religious right described those who supported progressive change in America: as “radicals, perverts, liberals, leftists, and Communists.” This became the rhetoric by which the conservative leaders of the country, especially in the South, characterized the progressive movement in America.
PAUL WEYRICH , Religious activist – Republican Party: The conservative movement, up to that point, was essentially an intellectual movement. It had some very powerful thinkers, but it didn’t have many troops. And as Stalin said of the Pope, “where are his divisions?”. Well, we [Republicans] didn’t have many divisions. When these folks became active, all of a sudden the conservative movement had lots of divisions. We were able to move literally millions of people. And this is something that we had literally no ability to do prior to that time.
INTERVIEWER (off-camera): Literally millions?
WEYRICH : Literally millions.
Note Weyrich’s terms: The Republican Party was able to “move literally millions” of evangelical Christians by harnessing the agenda of social conservatives in the South to rhetoric of the evangelical tradition. Some evangelical preachers may have felt it accorded with their own social perspective; at least some became useful voices for the politically conservative movement. Conservative rhetoric worked for the evangelicals who believed it as well as for the neoconservatives who merely found it useful.
VO: And at the beginning of 1981, Ronald Reagan took power in America. The religious vote was crucial in his election, because many millions of fundamentalists voted for the first time. And as they had hoped, many neoconservatives were given power in the new administration. Paul Wolfowitz became head of the State Department policy staff, while his close friend Richard Perle became the Assistant Secretary of Defense. And the head of Team B, Richard Pipes, became one of Reagan’s chief advisers. The neoconservatives believed that they now had the chance to implement their vision of America’s revolutionary destiny—to use the country’s power aggressively as a force for good in the world, in an epic battle to defeat the Soviet Union. It was a vision that they shared with millions of their new religious allies.
From PART TWO
WILLIAM KRISTOL , Chief of Staff to the Vice President, 1988-92: For Strauss, liberalism produced a decent way of life, and one that he thought was worth defending, but a dead end where nothing could be said to be true; one had no guidance on how to live, everything was relative. Strauss suggests that maybe we didn’t just have to sit there and accept that that was our fate. Politics could help shape the way people live, that politics could help shape the way that people live, teach them some good lessons about living decent and noble human lives. And can we think about what cultures, and what politics, what social orders produce more admirable human beings? I mean, that whole question was put back on the table by Strauss, I think.
VO: The neoconservatives set out to reform America. And at the heart of their project was the political use of religion. Together with their long-term allies, the religious right, they began a campaign to bring moral and religious issues back into the center of conservative politics. It became known as the “culture wars.”
[ TITLE : Christian Coalition commercial ]
VO (on commercial) : Your tax dollars are being used to sponsor obscene and pornographic displays.
PAT ROBERTSON : I don’t like Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and Savior, being dumped in a vat of urine by a homosexual, and then have my money to pay for it! I think that’s obscene.
ROBERTSON : Satan, be gone! Out from this [unintelligible]! C’mon!
VO: For the religious right, this campaign was a genuine attempt to renew the religious basis of American society. But for the neoconservatives, religion was a myth, like the myth of America as a unique nation that they had promoted in the Cold War. Strauss had taught that these myths were necessary to give ordinary people meaning and purpose, and so ensure a stable society.…
MICHAEL LIND , Journalist and former neoconservative: For the neoconservatives, religion is an instrument of promoting morality. Religion becomes what Plato called a “noble lie.” It is a myth which is told to the majority of the society by the philosophical elite in order to ensure social order.…
LIND : In being a kind of secretive elitist approach, Straussianism does resemble Marxism. These ex-Marxists, or in some cases ex-liberal Straussians, could see themselves as a kind of Leninist group, you know, who have this covert vision which they want to use to effect change in history, while concealing parts of it from people incapable of understanding it.
VO: Out of this campaign, a new and powerful moral agenda began to take over the Republican Party. It reached a dramatic climax at the Republican Convention in 1992, when the religious right seized control of the party’s policy-making machinery. George Bush became committed to running for President with policies that would ban abortion, gay rights, and multiculturalism. Speakers who tried to promote the traditional conservative values of individual freedom were booed off the stage.…
VO: For the neoconservatives, the aim of this new morality was to unite the nation. But in fact, it had completely the opposite effect. Mainstream Republican voters were frightened away by the harsh moralism that had taken over their party. They turned instead to Bill Clinton, a politician who connected with their real concerns and needs, like tax and the state of the economy.….
VO: At the end of 1992, Bill Clinton won a dramatic victory. But the neoconservatives were determined to regain power. And to do this, they were going to do to Bill Clinton what they had done to the Soviet Union: they would transform the President of the United States into a fantasy enemy, an image of evil that would make people realize the truth of the liberal corruption of America.
VO: But despite all his efforts, Kenneth Starr could find no incriminating evidence in Whitewater. Nor could he find any evidence to support any of the sexual scandals that had come from the Arkansas Project. Until finally, his committee stumbled upon Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which Clinton denied. And in that lie, the neoconservative movement believed they had found what they had been looking for: a way to make the American people see the truth about the liberal corruption of their country. A campaign now began to impeach the President. And in the hysteria, the whole conservative movement portrayed Clinton as a depraved monster who had to be removed from office. But yet again, the neoconservatives had created a fantasy enemy by exaggerating and distorting reality.
JOE CONASON , Author ‘The Hunting of the President’ : They were trapped by a mythological person that they had constructed, or persons—the Clintons, these scheming, terrible people who they, the noble pursuers, were going to vanquish. I think, in the leadership of conservatism, during the Clinton era there was an element of corruption. There was an element of a willingness to do anything to achieve the goal of bringing Clinton down. There was a way in which the people who perceived Clinton as immoral behaved immorally themselves. They ended up behaving worse than the people who they were attacking. …
They commissioned David Brock to uncover every possible evidence of unseemly behavior in Bill Clinton’s past. This is the story the film presents of that period, based on an interview with David Brock himself.
From PART THREE
VO: Since then, Brock has turned against the neoconservative movement. He now believes that the attacks on Clinton went too far, and corrupted conservative politics.
INTERVIEWER (off-camera): Was Whitewater true?
BROCK : No! I mean, there was no criminal wrongdoing in Whitewater. Absolutely not. It was a land deal that the Clintons lost money on. It was a complete inversion of what happened.
INTERVIEWER : Was Vince Foster killed?
BROCK : No. He killed himself.
INTERVIEWER : Did the Clintons smuggle drugs?
BROCK : Absolutely not.
INTERVIEWER : Did those promoting these stories know that this was not true, that none of these stories were true?
BROCK : They did not care.
INTERVIEWER : Why not?
BROCK : Because they were having a devastating effect. So why stop? It was terrorism. Political terrorism.
INTERVIEWER : But you were one of the agents.
BROCK : Absolutely. Absolutely.
So it turned out that none of the accusations against Carter were true and the Republican leadership seems to have known it all the time. The whole point was to slander Clinton.
And it was to continue appealing to the loyalty of the evangelical “troops” who could be persuaded to support the Republican Party even if the grounds of their appeal were cynical: There is little evidence that the Neocons shared the deep convictions of the evangelicals whom they sought to use for their projects.
I post this material because I suspect few Americans are aware of these affairs. I have lamented that the Republican Party seems tragically to have gone astray, to have lost its authentic moral fiber. These comments by individuals who seem to have been directly involved in the movement since the 1980s give us some clues as to how this misadventure took form.