From the Archives: March 1988

RELIGION AND electoral politics tend to be mutually debasing. Take the apparent exception, Jimmy Carter. His politics were informed by his theological insights: a regard for the poor and despised (he was the first U.S. president to take the Third World seriously); a sense of human limit (he did not take it for granted that Americans have a right to consume a disproportionate share of the world’s goods); and a recognition of the humanity of others, even of enemies (the Soviet Union was not the Evil Empire for him).

The result of this conjunction of theological and political views was a resounding rejection from the electorate, and especially from those who seemed closest to him on the theological spectrum, Southern Baptists. The lesson seems to be that it pays, in presidential politics, not to take your religion seriously. ...
The preference of evangelicals for the religious stance of Ronald Reagan proved that pseudo-religion works best in our political races. President Reagan’s religiosity barely rises above the level of superstition. Michael Deaver ... says that the president consults his horoscope every day, regularly carries five or so lucky charms in his pocket, and is “nuts for religious phenomena.”...

Why would evangelicals and others reject a sincere believer in the gospel, like Carter, for Reagan’s profession of a hodgepodge of make-believe beliefs? The reason is that Reagan brings them a more marketable God. 

Garry Wills was the author of Reagan’s America when this article appeared.

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Small Screen, Great Drama

IT’S A TRUISM to say that television is outpacing cinema for entertainment quality and depth of exploration. Since The Wire appeared a decade ago, studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.

Recently I’ve been struck by the set-in-the-’80s espionage thriller The Americans, the deeply haunting police procedural True Detective, the hilarious pathos of Louie and Veep, and the sly, shocking Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs: All hugely entertaining, dramatically credible, and challenging both as works that require sustained attention and in terms of what they say about life. The Americans is really an exploration of marriage and cultural identity wrapped up in Cold War cloaks-and-daggers; True Detective is a lament for the broken parts of America, and an affirmation that friendship endures above almost everything else; and Hannibal is a postmodern delving into Dante’s Inferno, looking at the underbelly of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

What’s most exciting is that it’s now considered viable to make drama that actually asks real questions about life and is prepared not to answer them pat. Along with the vast amount of social media conversation about these works, what we have is more akin to ancient forms of public entertainment that required a kind of audience participation—theatrical catharsis meeting gathered conversation to produce a community hermeneutic. When we talk about TV and cinema, we’re talking about ourselves.

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Warrior in Chief

Peter Bergen, a director of the New America Foundation, writes: “The president who won the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after his inauguration has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.”

And he adds up the evidence of the past four years:

"Mr. Obama decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in Al Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden."

These actions, allegedly against the “threat of terrorism,” are reminiscent of the so-called Reagan Doctrine against the “threat of communism” in the early-to-mid 1980s.  We’re still paying the price for the use of covert operations to attack insurgents, while supporting repressive and corrupt governments in that era. The Mujaheddin who were armed and trained to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan are now the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighting the U.S. occupation.  The price of the last four years is yet to be seen, but history suggests it will be substantial.