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Karl Rove and the politics of religion

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 26, 2008 | 3:10 pm

Last spring, Karl Rove was outed by atheist superstar Christopher Hitchens as a fellow nonbeliever.

“He doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”

But last night Rove told me he is in fact a religious person, though he didn’t specify how his Christian roots manifest themselves in his life.

Rove was in Los Angeles to speak at the Gibson Ampitheatre, one of a number of distinguished voices in this year’s Public Lecture Series by American Jewish University. His invitation had caused a bit of consternation in the Jewish community, but he quickly won over many of his skeptics, which I wrote about in an article that will be online Thursday.

“I spent part of my childhood in Utah,” Rove said at a VIP dinner before the lecture. “I went to a high school that is 95 percent Mormon, and only in Utah could a Presbyterian and a Jew both be gentiles.”

Regardless of his own beliefs, Rove, who left his post as chief adviser to President Bush in August, was instrumental in helping Bush monopolize the support of evangelical voters and making religious rhetoric an essential part of presidential campaigns, something we are seeing plenty of this year.

“Roosevelt used to say to his speech writer, Rosenman, Don’t forget the God stuff at the end. That’s a bit colloquial,” Rove said, “but the point is Americans have always valued leaders of faith.”

In fact, as early as 1800, in the race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, religious piety and divine reverence played an important role in politics.

As Jefferson and John Adams, a publicly devout Christian, slugged it out on the campaign trail, the Gazette of the United States ran this:

THE GRAND QUESTION STATED

At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: “Shall I continue in allegiance to

GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS
PRESIDENT;

Or impiously declare for

JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!”

Jefferson was vehemently attacked for being a godless, slave-owning (-impregnating) sinner. But the underlying issue was what kind of liberties would this country afford its few voting members and everyone else who lived here. Jefferson favored greater freedoms while Adams sought to strengthen the office of the president. (A proto-Bush?)

Still, many people couldn’t get over the fact that Jefferson didn’t believe in God. And though he eventually won through a complicated process in the Electoral College, some members who didn’t want to give their vote to an atheist said they would rather “go without a Constitution and take the risk of civil war.”

Now, though, Godtalk dominates—whether it is about what kind of Christian John McCain is, why evangelicals can’t stand Hillary Clinton or whether Barack Obama is a “covert Muslim.” The question, and it’s one Rove didn’t answer, is why did religious rhetoric has become so central to running for president. So-called “moral-values issues” were just as important to voters in elections that brought Bill Clinton to the White House as those that elected and re-elected George Bush. Something else is certainly at play.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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