By Kenneth Kowald
One of the things I learned in all of them was that the tone and the direction of the agency, whether headed by a CEO or a commissioner or an executive director, was set by the head of the organization. What you got was a reflection of the thinking of the boss. It is no less so in the federal government, of course. The president sets the attitude and the agenda for the administration. Therefore, any intersection of religion and politics is the result of the thinking of the boss in the White House.Since you and I pay the salaries of all these people in the federal government, it is appropriate to examine not only their thinking but more importantly, their actions. Because, as we are learning to our regret almost every day, words do not have the meaning we believe they have. In this “Alice in Wonderland” world, a word is not what it is supposed to mean, but what the speaker says it means.To cite just two words, we have “compassion” and “conservative.” But what do they really mean? Is it compassionate to have more people living in poverty Ð and many more in deep poverty Ð than we had six years ago? Is it compassionate to have many millions more without health care than we had six years ago? Is it conservative to try to sell off our natural wonders Ð protected first by Theodore Roosevelt Ð to the highest bidders?And that was just the beginning. The words tumble out, but have little relation to reality. Consider: “No Child Left Behind,” “I am a unifier, not a divider,” “Wanted: Osama bin Laden, dead or alive,” “Bring 'em on,” “shock and awe,” “mission accomplished,” “cut and run,” “in the final throes” and “very low food security” (which means hunger). Then there is “stay the course,” which morphed into “getting the job done,” “we'll be flexible,” “full speed ahead,” “open to change,” “a new way forward” and “sustain, govern and defend.” Clearly, Madison Avenue has conquered Washington. We are in the la-la land of empty slogans.The boss in the White House claims to be a “born again” Christian. The only other president who claimed that to my knowledge was James Earl Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia who went on after his term in office to win a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts throughout the world, which continue to this day. The incumbent can lay claim, most will agree, to a penchant for oil deals and getting rid of underbrush on his Texas estate.But, comparisons are odious, so we'll let that one go. After all, I guess it is all in what you mean by the words you speak. Jimmy Carter, to my recollection, did not flaunt his religious views. Perhaps that is because in reading his Bible (and Carter still teaches Sunday School in a church in Georgia), he noted Christ's injunction not to display your piety on the street corners. That's where The Lord's Prayer comes in. While it may be recited collectively by congregations, it was designed to be a private prayer, not a public exclamation.But, even after he was born again, it appears the incumbent retained some of his previous characteristics. In a generally complimentary 2002 book, Frank Bruni, who covered the 2000 campaign for The New York Times, admitted, “The Bush I knew was part scamp and part bumbler, a timeless fraternity boy and heedless cutup, a weekday gym rat and weekend napster, an adult with an inner child that often brimmed to the surface or burst through.”That's a picture of the boss as he entered the White House.In Bob Woodward's most recent book about Bush, “State of Denial” published in October Ð and who was praised for his two books about this administration Ð is quoted by one reviewer as showing a president “as a passive, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.”That's a picture of the boss as he is today. Next time, we'll explore how what he is and has been has shaped our government and what it is means for the dangerous interaction of politics and religion.