Frank Rich accidentally writes a Republican’s dream review.
It’s a shame the job of disassembling George W. Bush: Faith in the White House fell to The New York Times‘ Frank Rich. If just the facts of Rich’s account of the film are correct, it’s the worst kind of hagiography, thuggish and hokey at the same time. But the same adjectives are fairly applied to Rich’s review. Fans and enemies of Bush will take predictable cues from it, the former smiling smugly at Rich’s inadvertent confirmation of their belief that liberals don’t even know how much they don’t know, and the latter smirking through Rich’s brawling attack.
Take the line that gives the review its headline: “This movie aspires to be ‘The Passion of the Bush,'” writes Rich. Well, no, it doesn’t. Rich evidently didn’t get that Mel Gibson’s Passion was not a casually chosen title, but a reference to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. However hard Faith in the White House strives to anoint Bush as some kind of divine warrior-king, it can’t and surely doesn’t suggest that he died for our sins. Rich’s confusion is the kind of stupid mistake that makes Christian conservatives believe in the myth of the liberal media.
Rich rightly nails, so to speak, the movie’s equation of Bush with Jesus; split-screen depictions of Bush and Christ hardly makes for subtle filmmaking. And he counts off a few absurd claims, such as the notion that Bush has overseen the vaccination of 22 million Iraqi children, when there are only 25 million Iraqis total.
But such lies are not much worse than snarky, ill-informed, and bigoted remarks such as this: “A Newsweek poll shows that 17 percent of Americans expect the world to end in their lifetime. To Karl Rove and company, that 17 percent is otherwise known as ‘the base.'” It’s not, in fact — extremely Revelation-minded Christians tend not to vote at all.
Then there’s the Jewish question. Rich is quite sure that Bush is throwing the Jews to the wolves. He suggests that while Bush’s campaign has made special outreach efforts to Catholics and Mormons, he’s ignored Jews. But that’s not the case; indeed, at the Republican National Convention, the G.O.P. threw a special invite-only Jewish event just like the one Ralph Reed hosted for evangelicals. Reed may even have attended it; he’s made a point over the last several years of touring the lecture circuit in the company of right-wing rabbis.
Rich rips off his deepest point from South Park: “In this spring’s classic South Park parody, ‘The Passion of the Jew‘…one of the kids concludes: ‘if you want to be Christian, that’s cool, but you should focus on what Jesus taught instead of how he got killed. Focusing on how he got killed is what people did in the Dark Ages, and it ends up with really bad results.’ He has a point.”
Maybe so; but there’s nothing in Rich’s review to suggest that he understands that this is a particular theological strain rather than an essential truth about Christianity. “How [Jesus] got killed” is what people did in the Dark Ages, before the Dark Ages, and ever since; for better or worse, it’s orthodox Christianity.
What’s interesting, and what Rich doesn’t understand, is that it doesn’t seem to be Bush’s brand of Christianity. As Alan Cooperman in The Washington Post, Alex Jones on MSNBC.com, and Ayelish McGarvey in the next issue of The American Prospect have documented, Bush’s faith is hardly conventional. Indeed, it may not even be evangelical. We know that Bush came to his faith through a program created by Community Bible Study, a group that de-emphasizes sin and pays scant attention to the trinity. We know that Bush backers trumpet his years on the wagon as proof of his spiritual growth, a very therapeutic, and limited, vision of the role real evangelical faith might play in a believer’s life.
And yet Faith in the White House — and Rich — leave these oddities unexamined. Faith in the White House does indeed sound like it’s determined to make the case for Bush as God’s tool at any cost, but Rich is equally determined to lump all Christians — and all fools — into one congregation.