Monday, October 29

Fearing Fear Itself

The New York Times
Fearing Fear Itself

In America’s darkest hour, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the nation not to succumb to “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” But that was then.

Today, many of the men who hope to be the next president — including all of the candidates with a significant chance of receiving the Republican nomination — have made unreasoning, unjustified terror the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Consider, for a moment, the implications of the fact that Rudy Giuliani is taking foreign policy advice from Norman Podhoretz, who wants us to start bombing Iran “as soon as it is logistically possible.”

Mr. Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a founding neoconservative, tells us that Iran is the “main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11.” The Islamofascists, he tells us, are well on their way toward creating a world “shaped by their will and tailored to their wishes.” Indeed, “Already, some observers are warning that by the end of the 21st century the whole of Europe will be transformed into a place to which they give the name Eurabia.”

Do I have to point out that none of this makes a bit of sense?

For one thing, there isn’t actually any such thing as Islamofascism — it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination. The term came into vogue only because it was a way for Iraq hawks to gloss over the awkward transition from pursuing Osama bin Laden, who attacked America, to Saddam Hussein, who didn’t. And Iran had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11 — in fact, the Iranian regime was quite helpful to the United States when it went after Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

Beyond that, the claim that Iran is on the path to global domination is beyond ludicrous. Yes, the Iranian regime is a nasty piece of work in many ways, and it would be a bad thing if that regime acquired nuclear weapons. But let’s have some perspective, please: we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden’s.

Meanwhile, the idea that bombing will bring the Iranian regime to its knees — and bombing is the only option, since we’ve run out of troops — is pure wishful thinking. Last year Israel tried to cripple Hezbollah with an air campaign, and ended up strengthening it instead. There’s every reason to believe that an attack on Iran would produce the same result, with the added effects of endangering U.S. forces in Iraq and driving oil prices well into triple digits.

Mr. Podhoretz, in short, is engaging in what my relatives call crazy talk. Yet he is being treated with respect by the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination. And Mr. Podhoretz’s rants are, if anything, saner than some of what we’ve been hearing from some of Mr. Giuliani’s rivals.

Thus, in a recent campaign ad Mitt Romney asserted that America is in a struggle with people who aim “to unite the world under a single jihadist Caliphate. To do that they must collapse freedom-loving nations. Like us.” He doesn’t say exactly who these jihadists are, but presumably he’s referring to Al Qaeda — an organization that has certainly demonstrated its willingness and ability to kill innocent people, but has no chance of collapsing the United States, let alone taking over the world.

And Mike Huckabee, whom reporters like to portray as a nice, reasonable guy, says that if Hillary Clinton is elected, “I’m not sure we’ll have the courage and the will and the resolve to fight the greatest threat this country’s ever faced in Islamofascism.” Yep, a bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power — which aren’t even allies — pose a greater danger than Hitler’s panzers or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did.

All of this would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration adopted fear-mongering as a political strategy. Instead of treating the attack as what it was — an atrocity committed by a fundamentally weak, though ruthless adversary — the administration portrayed America as a nation under threat from every direction.

Most Americans have now regained their balance. But the Republican base, which lapped up the administration’s rhetoric about the axis of evil and the war on terror, remains infected by the fear the Bushies stirred up — perhaps because fear of terrorists maps so easily into the base’s older fears, including fear of dark-skinned people in general.

And the base is looking for a candidate who shares this fear.

Just to be clear, Al Qaeda is a real threat, and so is the Iranian nuclear program. But neither of these threats frightens me as much as fear itself — the unreasoning fear that has taken over one of America’s two great political parties.

Saturday, October 27

The Evangelical Crackup

The New York Times
The Evangelical Crackup

The hundred-foot white cross atop the Immanuel Baptist Church in downtown Wichita, Kan., casts a shadow over a neighborhood of payday lenders, pawnbrokers and pornographic video stores. To its parishioners, this has long been the front line of the culture war. Immanuel has stood for Southern Baptist traditionalism for more than half a century. Until recently, its pastor, Terry Fox, was the Jerry Falwell of the Sunflower State — the public face of the conservative Christian political movement in a place where that made him a very big deal.

With flushed red cheeks and a pudgy, dimpled chin, Fox roared down from Immanuel’s pulpit about the wickedness of abortion, evolution and homosexuality. He mobilized hundreds of Kansas pastors to push through a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, helping to unseat a handful of legislators in the process. His Sunday-morning services reached tens of thousands of listeners on regional cable television, and on Sunday nights he was a host of a talk-radio program, “Answering the Call.” Major national conservative Christian groups like Focus on the Family lauded his work, and the Southern Baptist Convention named him chairman of its North American Mission Board.

For years, Fox flaunted his allegiance to the Republican Party, urging fellow pastors to make the same “confession” and calling them “sissies” if they didn’t. “We are the religious right,” he liked to say. “One, we are religious. Two, we are right.”

His congregation, for the most part, applauded. Immanuel and Wichita’s other big churches were seedbeds of the conservative Christian activism that burst forth three decades ago. In the 1980s, when theological conservatives pushed the moderates out of the Southern Baptist Convention, Immanuel and Fox were both at the forefront. In 1991, when Operation Rescue brought its “Summer of Mercy” abortion protests to Wichita, Immanuel’s parishioners leapt to the barricades, helping to establish the city as the informal capital of the anti-abortion movement. And Fox’s confrontational style packed ever more like-minded believers into the pews. He more than doubled Immanuel’s official membership to more than 6,000 and planted the giant cross on its roof.

So when Fox announced to his flock one Sunday in August last year that it was his final appearance in the pulpit, the news startled evangelical activists from Atlanta to Grand Rapids. Fox told the congregation that he was quitting so he could work full time on “cultural issues.” Within days, The Wichita Eagle reported that Fox left under pressure. The board of deacons had told him that his activism was getting in the way of the Gospel. “It just wasn’t pertinent,” Associate Pastor Gayle Tenbrook later told me.

Fox, who is 47, said he saw some impatient shuffling in the pews, but he was stunned that the church’s lay leaders had turned on him. “They said they were tired of hearing about abortion 52 weeks a year, hearing about all this political stuff!” he told me on a recent Sunday afternoon. “And these were deacons of the church!”

These days, Fox has taken his fire and brimstone in search of a new pulpit. He rented space at the Johnny Western Theater at the Wild West World amusement park until it folded. Now he preaches at a Best Western hotel. “I don’t mind telling you that I paid a price for the political stands I took,” Fox said. “The pendulum in the Christian world has swung back to the moderate point of view. The real battle now is among evangelicals.”

Fox is not the only conservative Christian to feel the heat of those battles, even in — of all places — Wichita. Within three months of his departure, the two other most influential conservative Christian pastors in the city had left their pulpits as well. And in the silence left by their voices, a new generation of pastors distinctly suspicious of the Republican Party — some as likely to lean left as right — is beginning to speak up.

Just three years ago, the leaders of the conservative Christian political movement could almost see the Promised Land. White evangelical Protestants looked like perhaps the most potent voting bloc in America. They turned out for President George W. Bush in record numbers, supporting him for re-election by a ratio of four to one. Republican strategists predicted that religious traditionalists would help bring about an era of dominance for their party. Spokesmen for the Christian conservative movement warned of the wrath of “values voters.” James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was poised to play kingmaker in 2008, at least in the Republican primary. And thanks to President Bush, the Supreme Court appeared just one vote away from answering the prayers of evangelical activists by overturning Roe v. Wade.

Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Nor is the problem simply that the Democratic presidential front-runners — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — sound like a bunch of tent-revival Bible thumpers compared with the Republicans.

The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines that go much deeper. The phenomenon of theologically conservative Christians plunging into political activism on the right is, historically speaking, something of an anomaly. Most evangelicals shrugged off abortion as a Catholic issue until after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But in the wake of the ban on public-school prayer, the sexual revolution and the exodus to the suburbs that filled the new megachurches, protecting the unborn became the rallying cry of a new movement to uphold the traditional family. Now another confluence of factors is threatening to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

The founding generation of leaders like Falwell and Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene. Falwell died in the spring. Paul Weyrich, 65, the indefatigable organizer who helped build Falwell’s Moral Majority and much of the rest of the movement, is confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs because of complications from a fall. Dobson, who is 71 and still vigorous, is already planning for a succession at Focus on the Family; it is expected to tack toward the less political family advice that is its bread and butter.

The engineers of the momentous 1980s takeover that expunged political and theological moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention are retiring or dying off, too. And in September, when I called a spokesman for the ailing Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy, another pillar of the Christian conservative movement, I learned that Kennedy had “gone home to the Lord” at 2 a.m. that morning.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

The backlash on the right against Bush and the war has emboldened some previously circumspect evangelical leaders to criticize the leadership of the Christian conservative political movement. “The quickness to arms, the quickness to invade, I think that caused a kind of desertion of what has been known as the Christian right,” Hybels, whose Willow Creek Association now includes 12,000 churches, told me over the summer. “People who might be called progressive evangelicals or centrist evangelicals are one stirring away from a real awakening.”

The generational and theological shifts in the evangelical world are turning the next election into a credibility test for the conservative Christian establishment. The current Republican front-runner in national polls, Rudolph W. Giuliani, could hardly be less like their kind of guy: twice divorced, thrice married, estranged from his children and church and a supporter of legalized abortion and gay rights. Alarmed at the continued strength of his candidacy, Dobson and a group of about 50 evangelical Christians leaders agreed last month to back a third party if Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee. But polls show that Giuliani is the most popular candidate among white evangelical voters. He has the support, so far, of a plurality if not a majority of conservative Christians. If Giuliani captures the nomination despite the threat of an evangelical revolt, it will be a long time before Republican strategists pay attention to the demands of conservative Christian leaders again. And if the Democrats capitalize on the current demoralization to capture a larger share of evangelical votes, the credibility damage could be just as severe.

“There was a time when evangelical churches were becoming largely and almost exclusively the Republican Party at prayer,” said Marvin Olasky, the editor of the evangelical magazine World and an informal adviser to George W. Bush when he was governor. “To some extent — we have to see how much — the Republicans have blown it. That opportunity to lock up that constituency has vanished. The ball now really is in the Democrats’ court.”

I covered the Christian conservative movement for The New York Times during the 2004 election, at the moment of its greatest triumph. To the bewilderment of many even in the upper reaches of his own party, Karl Rove bet President Bush’s re-election on boosting the conservative Christian turnout, contending that Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because four million of those voters stayed home. President Bush missed few opportunities to remind evangelicals that he was one of them — and they got the message.

I bowed my head in a good number of swing-state churches in 2004. I saw the passion Bush aroused among theologically orthodox Protestants. And I got to know many of the most influential conservative Christian leaders, most of whom threw themselves into urging their constituents to the polls.

Now, as the 2008 campaign heated up in the months before the first primaries, I wondered how the world was looking from the pulpits and pews. And so I went to Wichita, as close as any place to the heart of conservative Christian America. Wichita has a long history of religious crusades. A hundred years ago, Carrie Nation made her name smashing up Wichita’s bars. More recently, the presence of Dr. George Tiller, a specialist in late-term abortions, has kept anti-abortion passions high, attracting Operation Rescue to Wichita for the Summer of Mercy protests in 1991. Two years later, a lone activist shot and wounded Dr. Tiller. Evolution, the flash point that split mainline and evangelical Protestants in the early 20th century, is still hotly debated in Wichita. The Kansas school board has reversed itself on the subject again and again in recent years.

At the same time, Wichita is also a decent proxy for plenty of other blue-collar but socially conservative places like Allentown, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio — the swing districts of the swing states that decide elections. A center of aerospace manufacturing, Wichita was a union town and a Democratic stronghold for much of the last century. But all that changed when the conservative Christian movement took root in its suburban megachurches three decades ago, turning theological traditionalists into Republican activists. That story was the centerpiece of the liberal writer Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” He might have called it “What’s the Matter With Wichita?”

I arrived just in time for the annual Fourth of July Patriotic Celebration at the 7,000-member Central Christian Church, where Independence Day is second only to Christmas. Thousands of people drove back to the church Sunday evening for a pageant of prayers, songs, a flag ceremony and an American history quiz pitting kids against their parents. “In God We Still Trust” was the theme of the event. “You place your hand on this Bible when you swear to tell the truth,” two men sang in the opening anthem.

“There’s no separation; we’re one nation under Him.”

“There are those among us who want to push Him out And erase

His name from everything this country’s all about.

From the schoolhouse to the courthouse, they are silencing

His word Now it’s time for all believers to make our voices heard.”

Later, as a choir in stars-and-stripes neckties and scarves belted out “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a cluster of men in olive military fatigues took the stage carrying a flag. They lifted the pole to a 45-degree angle and froze in place around it: a re-enactment of the famous photograph of the American triumph at Iwo Jima. The narrator of a preceding video montage had already set the stage by comparing the Iwo Jima flag raising to another long-ago turning point in a “fierce battle for the hearts of men” — the day 2,000 years ago when “a heavy cross was lifted up on top of the mount called Golgotha.”

A battle flag as the crucifixion: the church rose to a standing ovation.

There was one conspicuous omission from the Patriotic Celebration: any mention of President Bush or the Iraq war. The only reference to the president was a single image in a video montage. Bush was standing with Donald Rumsfeld, head bowed at a grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Every time I visited an evangelical church in 2004, it seemed that a member’s brother or cousin had just returned from Iraq with reports that much greater progress was being made than the news media let on. The admiration for President Bush as a man of faith was nearly universal, and some talked of his contest with John Kerry as a spiritual battle. It would have been hard to overstate the Christian conservative leadership’s sense of the presidential race’s historical significance. In the days before the election, Dobson told me he believed the culture war was “rapidly approaching the climax, with everything that we are about on the line” and the election might be “the pivot point.”

The morning after the Republican triumph, a White House operative called Dobson to thank him personally for his support, as Dobson told me in conversation later that day. He bluntly told the operative that the Bush campaign owed his victory in large part to concerned Christian voters. He warned that God had given the nation only “a short reprieve” from its impending “self-destruction.” If the administration slighted its conservative Christian supporters, most importantly in filling Supreme Court vacancies, Dobson continued, Republicans would “pay a price in four years.”

On that front, at least, Bush has not disappointed. President Bush’s two appointees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., have given Dobson and his allies much to be thankful for. Nor has Bush flinched from any politically feasible Christian conservative goal, even when it has been unpopular. He has blocked federal financing for embryonic stem-cell research and intervened to help keep Terri Schiavo on life support. But of course there were moments when the White House seemed to care more about Social Security reform, and in the end the culture did not change.

Today the president’s support among evangelicals, still among his most loyal constituents, has crumbled. Once close to 90 percent, the president’s approval rating among white evangelicals has fallen to a recent low below 45 percent, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals under 30 — the future of the church — were once Bush’s biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders. And the dissatisfaction extends beyond Bush. For the first time in many years, white evangelical identification with the Republican Party has dipped below 50 percent, with the sharpest falloff again among the young, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew and an expert on religion and politics. (The defectors by and large say they’ve become independents, not Democrats, according to the polls.)

Some claim the falloff in support for Bush reflects the unrealistic expectations pumped up by conservative Christian leaders. But no one denies the war is a factor. Christianity Today, the evangelical journal, has even posed the question of whether evangelicals should “repent” for their swift support of invading Iraq.

“Even in evangelical circles, we are tired of the war, tired of the body bags,” the Rev. David Welsh, who took over late last year as senior pastor of Wichita’s large Central Christian Church, told me. “I think it is to the point where they are saying: ‘O.K., we have done as much good as we can. Now let’s just get out of there.’ ”

Welsh, who favors pressed khaki pants and buttoned-up polo shirts, is a staunch conservative, a committed Republican and, personally, a politics junkie. But he told me he was wary of talking too much about politics or public affairs around the church because his congregation was so divided over the war in Iraq.

Welsh said he considered himself among those who still support the president. “I think he is a good man,” Welsh said, slowly. “He has a heart, a spiritual heart.”

But like most of the people I met at Wichita’s evangelical churches, his support for Bush sounded more than a little agonized — closer to sympathy than admiration. “Bush may not have the best people around him,” he added, delicately. “He may not have made the best decisions. He is in a quagmire right now and maybe doesn’t know how to get out. Because to pull out now would say, ‘I was wrong from the very beginning.’ ”

Some were less ambivalent. “We know we want to get rid of Bush,” Linda J. Hogle, a product demonstrator at Sam’s Club, told me when I asked her about the 2008 election at her evangelical church’s Fourth of July picnic.

“I am glad he can’t run again,” agreed her friend, Floyd Willson. Hogle and Willson both voted for President Bush in 2004. Both are furious at the war and are looking to vote for a Democrat next year. “Upwards of a thousand boys that have been needlessly killed, it is all just politics,” Willson said.

The 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention — the core of the evangelical movement — may be rethinking its relationship with the Republican Party, too. Three years ago, I attended its annual meeting in Indianapolis and tagged along as the denomination’s former president and several of its leaders invited the assembled pastors across a walkway to an adjacent hotel for a Bush-Cheney campaign “pastors’ reception.”

Over soft drinks, Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director then working for the Bush campaign, told the pastors just how far they could go for the campaign without jeopardizing their churches’ tax-exempt status. Among the suggestions: “host a citizenship Sunday for voter registration,” “identify someone who will help in voter registration and outreach” or organize a “ ‘party for the president’ with other pastors.”

Republicans should not expect that kind of treatment from Southern Baptists again any time soon. In June of last year, in one of the few upsets since conservatives consolidated their hold on the denomination 20 years ago, the establishment’s hand-picked candidates — well-known national figures in the convention — lost the internal election for the convention’s presidency. The winner, Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., campaigned on a promise to loosen up the conservatives’ tight control. He told convention delegates that Southern Baptists had become known too much for what they were against (abortion, evolution, homosexuality) instead of what they stand for (the Gospel). “I believe in the word of God,” he said after his election, “I am just not mad about it.” (It’s a formulation that comes up a lot in evangelical circles these days.)

I asked Page about the Bush-Cheney reception at the 2004 convention. He sounded appalled. “That will not be happening with me,” he said, repeating it for emphasis. “I have cautioned our denomination to be very careful not to be seen as in lock step with any political party.”

Southern Baptists called their denomination’s turn to the right the “conservative resurgence,” meaning both a crackdown on unorthodox doctrine and a corresponding expulsion of political moderates. Page said he considered his election “a clear sign” that rank-and-file Southern Baptists felt the “conservative ascendancy has gone far enough.”

Page is meeting personally with all the leading presidential candidates in both parties — Republican and Democrat. (His home state of South Carolina is holding an early primary.) But unlike some of his predecessors, he won’t endorse any of them, he said.

“Most of us Southern Baptists are right-wing Republicans,” he added. “But we also recognize that times change.” For example, Page said Christians should be wary of Republican ties to “big business.”

Elders like Dobson say the movement has been through doldrums before. Think of the face-off between the Republican Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton in the 1996 election. Dobson later said he had cast his ballot for a third party rather than vote for a moderate like Dole. But then, it was defeat that sapped morale; today, it is victory. Some younger evangelical conservatives say they are fighting just to keep their movement together. (Dobson told me he was too busy to comment for this article.)

The Rev. Rick Scarborough — founder of the advocacy organization Vision America, author of a book called “Liberalism Kills Kids” and at 57 an aspiring successor to Falwell or Dobson — has been barnstorming the country on what he calls a “Seventy Weeks to Save America Tour.”

“We are somewhat in disarray right now,” he told me, beginning a familiar story. “As a 26-year-old man, I heard there was a born-again Christian from Georgia running for president.” Millions of evangelicals turned out for the first time in 1976 to vote for Jimmy Carter. But then, the story goes, his support for feminism and abortion rights sent them running the other way.

“The first time I voted was for Carter,” Scarborough recalled. “The second time was for ‘anybody but Carter,’ because he had betrayed everything I hold dear.

“Unfortunately,” Scarborough concluded, “there is the same feeling in our community right now with George Bush. He appeared so right and so good. He talked a good game about family values around election time. But there has been a failure to follow through.”

For the conservative Christian leadership, what is most worrisome about the evangelical disappointment with President Bush is that it coincides with a widening philosophical rift. Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.

Older evangelical traditionalists like Prof. David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston argue that the newer approaches represent a “capitulation” to the broader culture — similar to the capitulation that in his view led the mainline churches into decline. Proponents of the new evangelicalism, on the other hand, say their broader agenda reflects a frustration with the scarce victories in the culture war and revulsion at the moral entanglements of partisan alliances (Abu Ghraib, Jack Abramoff). Scot McKnight, an evangelical theologian at North Park University in Chicago, said, “It is the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the 20th century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.”

Secular sociologists say evangelicals’ changing view of society reflects their changing place in it. Once trailing in education and income, evangelicals have caught up over the last 40 years. “The social-issues arguments are the first manifestation of a rural outlook transposed into a more urban or suburban setting,” John Green, of the Pew Research Center, told me. “Now having been there for a while, that kind of hard-edged politics no longer appeals to them. They still care about abortion and gay marriage, but they are also interested in other, more middle-class arguments.”

Some rebellious evangelical pastors and theologians of the new school refer to themselves as the emergent church. Others who are less openly rebellious but share a similar approach point to the examples of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. “What Warren and Hybels are doing is reshaping the perception of what it means to be a Christian in our country and our world,” McKnight says.

Warren and Hybels are also highly entrepreneurial. Each has built a network of thousands of mostly evangelical churches that rely on their ministries for sermon ideas, worship plans or audio-video materials to enliven services. As a result, their influence may rival that of any denominational leader in the country.

Warren, pastor of the Saddleback church in Lake Forest, Calif., is the author of the best seller “The Purpose Driven Life.” His church has sold materials to thousands of other churches for “campaigns” called 40 Days of Purpose and, more recently, 40 Days of Community. If more Christians worked to alleviate needs in their local communities, he suggests in the church’s promotional materials, “the church would become known more for the love it shows than for what it is against” a thinly veiled dig at the conservative Christian “culture war.”

Warren is clearly a theological and cultural conservative. Before the 2004 election, he wrote a letter to other pastors emphasizing the need to combat abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But these days Warren talks much more often about fighting AIDS and poverty. He raised hackles among conservatives last year by having Barack Obama give a speech at his church. And he also came under fire last year when he traveled to Damascus, Syria, where he implicitly criticized the Bush administration for refusing to talk with unfriendly nations.

“Isolation and silence has never solved conflict,” he said in a press release defending his trip.

Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, is very possibly the single-most-influential pastor in America; in the last 15 years, his Willow Creek Association has grown to include more than 12,000 churches. Many invite their staff members and lay leaders to participate by telecast in Willow Creek’s annual leadership conferences, creating a virtual gathering of tens of thousands. Dozens of churches in Wichita, including Central Christian and other past bastions of conservative activism, are part of the association.

As his stature has grown, Hybels has seemed more willing to irk Christian conservative political leaders — and even some in his own congregation. He set off a furor a few years ago when he invited former President Bill Clinton to speak at one of his conferences. And the Iraq war has brought into sharp relief Hybels’s differences with conservatives like Dobson.

Most conservative Christian leaders have resolutely supported Bush’s foreign policy. Dobson and others have even talked about defending Western civilization from radical Islam as a precondition for protecting family values. But on the eve of the Iraq invasion, Hybels preached a sermon called “Why War?” Laying out three approaches to war — realism, just-war theory and pacifism — he implored members of his congregation to re-examine their own thinking and then try to square it with the Bible. In the process, he left little doubt about where he personally stood. He called himself a pacifist.

Hybels traced the “J curve” of mounting deaths from war through the centuries. “In case you are wondering about this, wonder how God feels about all this,” he said. “It breaks the heart of God.”

At his annual leadership conference this summer, Hybels interviewed former President Jimmy Carter. To some Christian conservatives, it was quite a provocation. Carter, after all, was their first great disappointment, a Southern Baptist who denounced the conservative takeover and an early critic of the Bush administration. Some pastors canceled plans to attend.

“I think that a superpower ought to be the exemplification of a commitment to peace,” Carter told Hybels, who nodded along. “I would like for anyone in the world that’s threatened with conflict to say to themselves immediately: ‘Why don’t we go to Washington? They believe in peace and they will help us get peace.’ ” Carter added: “This is just a simple but important extrapolation from what a human being ought to do, and what a human being ought to do is what Jesus Christ did, who was a champion of peace.”

In a conversation I had with him, Hybels told me he considered politics a path to “heartache and disappointment” for a Christian leader. But he also described the message of his Willow Creek Association to its member churches in terms that would warm a liberal’s heart.

“We have just pounded the drum again and again that, for churches to reach their full redemptive potential, they have to do more than hold services — they have to try to transform their communities,” he said. “If there is racial injustice in your community, you have to speak to that. If there is educational injustice, you have to do something there. If the poor are being neglected by the government or being oppressed in some way, then you have to stand up for the poor.”

In the past, Hybels has scrupulously avoided criticizing conservative Christian political figures like Falwell or Dobson. But in my talk with him, he argued that the leaders of the conservative Christian political movement had lost touch with their base. “The Indians are saying to the chiefs, ‘We are interested in more than your two or three issues,’ ” Hybels said. “We are interested in the poor, in racial reconciliation, in global poverty and AIDS, in the plight of women in the developing world.”

He brought up the Rev. Jim Wallis, the lonely voice of the tiny evangelical left. Wallis has long argued that secular progressives could make common cause with theologically conservative Christians. “What Jim has been talking about is coming to fruition,” Hybels said.

Conservative Christian leaders in Washington acknowledge a “leftward drift” among evangelicals, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and the movement’s chief advocate in Washington. He told me he believed that Hybels and many of his admirers had, in effect, fallen away from orthodox evangelical theology. Perkins compared the phenomenon to the century-old division in American Protestantism between the liberal mainline and the orthodox evangelical churches. “It is almost like another split coming within the evangelicals,” he said.

Wondering how those theological and political debates were unfolding in conservative Wichita, I sought out the Rev. Gene Carlson, another prominent conservative Christian pastor who left his church last year. He spent four decades as the senior pastor of the Westlink Christian Church, expanding it to 7,000 members. He was one of the most important local leaders of the Summer of Mercy abortion protests. He tapped Westlink’s collection plate to help finance its operations and even led a battalion of about 40 clergy members and hundreds of lay people to jail in an act of civil disobedience.

Sitting with his wife in a quiet living room with teddy bears on the bookshelves, Carlson, who is 70, told me he is one member of the movement’s founding generation who has had second thoughts. He said he still considers abortion evil. He called the anti-abortion protests “prophetic,” in the sense of the Old Testament prophets who warned of God’s wrath. But Carlson was blunt about the results. “It didn’t really change abortion,” he said.

“I thought in my enthusiasm,” he told me with a smile, “that somehow we could band together and change things politically and everything will be fine.” But the closing of Dr. Tiller’s clinic was fleeting. Electing Christian politicians never seemed to change much. “When you mix politics and religion,” Carlson said, “you get politics.”

In more recent battles, Carlson has hung back. On the Sunday before the referendum on a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Carlson reminded his congregation that homosexuality was hardly the only form of sex the Bible condemned. Any extramarital sex is a sin, he told his congregation, so they should not point fingers.

“We wouldn’t want to exclude some group because we thought their sin was worse than ours,” Carlson told me with a laugh.

Carlson is a registered Republican, though he now considers himself an independent. He volunteered that he now leans left on some social-welfare issues and the environment. He considers himself among the “green evangelicals” who see a biblical mandate for government action to stop global warming. The Westlink church is another member of Hybels’s Willow Creek Association and a satellite location for telecasts of the annual leadership conference. Carlson said he admired Hybels for “challenging some of the sacred cows that we evangelicals have built.”

“There is this sense that the personal Gospel is what evangelicals believe and the social Gospel is what liberal Christians believe,” Carlson said, “and, you know, there is only one Gospel that has both social and personal dimensions to it.” He once felt lonely among evangelicals for taking that approach, he told me. “Now it is a growing phenomenon,” he said.

“The religious right peaked a long time ago,” he added. “As a historical, sociological phenomenon, it has seen its heyday. Something new is coming.”

These days, Westlink has found less confrontational ways to oppose abortion, mainly by helping to pay for a medical center called Choices. Housed in a cozy-looking white-shingled cottage next to Dr. Tiller’s bunkerlike abortion facility, Choices discourages women from ending pregnancies by offering 3-D ultrasound scans and adoption advice.

Carlson’s protégé and successor, Todd Carter, 42, said: “I don’t believe the problem of abortion will be solved by overturning Roe v. Wade. It won’t. To me, it is a Gospel issue.”

The Rev. Joe Wright, the longtime senior pastor who built Central Christian to 7,000 members, was the third leading pastor in Wichita to step down at the end of last year. He is a tall, heavy man, and he embraced me in a sweaty bear hug the first time we met, at a local chain restaurant.

Wright, who is 64, had been another leader of the Operation Mercy protests. But unlike Carlson, he plunged further into conservative politics, eventually as a host of the radio show “Answering the Call,” with Fox. They spent months together traveling the state and lobbying the Statehouse during the same-sex marriage fight.

Wright retired in good standing with his congregation, but he told me the political battle had taken a toll.

“On Sunday morning when I would mention it, there were people who would hang their heads and say, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ ” he said. “And then, of course, some of them wouldn’t come back.”

Wright said he was worried about theological and political trends among young evangelicals, even in Kansas. “If we had to depend on the young evangelical pastors to get us a marriage amendment here in Kansas it never would have happened,” Wright said.

He went on to say he was dismayed to feel resistance to his political sermons and voter-registration drives from younger associate pastors at his own church, some of whom moved elsewhere. (Some of his parishioners had already told me the same thing, separately.)

“Even in the groups I travel in and grew up in — the preachers who are from the same background I was in, who run in the same circles I ran in, who went to the same schools I did — I don’t find many young evangelical preachers who are willing to stand up and take a stand on the hard issues, because they think they might offend somebody,” he said.

“I think the Gospel is offensive, and I think the cross is offensive,” Wright continued. “I think Jesus loved everybody and I think he loved the Pharisees, but he certainly told them how the cow eats the cabbage.”

Paul Hill is one of the young associate pastors who left Central Christian after philosophical clashes with Wright. He took a band of young members with him when he started his own emergent-style church, the Wheatland Mission. “Even in Wichita, times have changed,” Hill said. “I think people will hear the Gospel better when it is expressed not just verbally but holistically, through acts of hospitality and by bringing people together.

“In the evangelical church in general there is kind of a push back against the Republican party and a feeling of being used by the Republican political machine,” he continued. “There are going to be a lot of evangelicals willing to vote for a Democrat because there are 40 million people without health insurance and a Democrat is going to do something about that.”

With Wright, Carlson and Fox out of the spotlight, new religious leaders are stepping to the fore. When legalized gambling was proposed in the Wichita area this year, the pastor who took the lead in rallying other clergy members to stop the measure was Michael Gardner of the First United Methodist Church, a mainline liberal who supports abortion rights and jousted with Fox over the same-sex marriage amendment on competing church telecasts.

After decades when evangelical megachurches have exploded at the expense of dwindling mainline congregations, Gardner is poaching the other way. Each Sunday night he convenes an informal emergent church worship group of his own, known as Next Wichita. Several dozen people, mostly 20 to 30 years old, show up to break bread, talk Scripture and plan volunteer projects. “People in that age group are much more attracted to participatory theology, very resistant to being told what to do or what to think,” he said.

Patrick Bergquist, a former associate pastor at a local evangelical church who as a child attended Immanuel Baptist, became a regular. “From a theological standpoint, I am an evangelical,” Bergquist, who is 28, explained to me. “But I don’t mean that anyone who is gay is necessarily going to hell, or that anyone who has an abortion is going to hell.” After a life of voting Republican, he said, he recently made a small contribution to the Democratic presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

“Is the religious right dead?” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told me that question was the title of the first chapter of a new book he is writing with Harry Jackson, a socially conservative African-American pastor.

Perkins’s answer is emphatically no — “we are seeing a lot of pastors coming back like never before” — but the 2008 election is the movement’s first big test since the triumph and letdown with President Bush. And so far most Christian conservative leaders do not like what they see. Although all the Republican primary candidates, including Giuliani, spoke at the Family Research Council’s “values voters” meeting last weekend, only the dark horses have consistent conservative records on abortion, gay rights and religion in public life.

Of these, Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister before he became governor of Arkansas, stands out in the polls and in his rhetoric. At last fall’s values-voters meetings, the other candidates focused on establishing their Christian conservative credentials. Huckabee dispensed with that by reminding his audience of his years as a pastor. Then he challenged the crowd to give more money to their churches and talked about education and health care. On the campaign trail, he criticizes chief executives’ pay and says his faith demands environmental regulation. “We shouldn’t allow a child to live under a bridge or in the back seat of a car,” Huckabee said in a recent debate. “We shouldn’t be satisfied that elderly people are being abused or neglected in nursing homes.”

Huckabee told me that he welcomed a broadening of the evangelical political agenda. “You can’t just say ‘respect life’ exclusively in the gestation period,” he said, repeating a campaign theme.

But the leaders of the Christian conservative movement have not rallied to him. Many say he cannot win because he has not raised enough money. Perkins and others have criticized Huckabee for taking too soft an approach to the Middle East. Others worry that his record on taxes will anger allies on the right. And some Christian conservatives take his “gestation period” line as a slight to their movement.

“They finally have the soldier they have been waiting for, and they shouldn’t send me out into the battlefield without supplies,” Huckabee told me in exasperation. He argued that the movement’s leaders would “become irrelevant” if they started putting political viability or low taxes ahead of their principles about abortion and marriage.

“In biblical terms, it is like the salt losing its flavor; it’s sand,” Huckabee said. “Some of them have spent too long in Washington. . . . I think they are going to have a hard time going out into the pews and saying tax policy is what Jesus is about, that he said, ‘Come unto me all you who are overtaxed and I will give you rest.’ ”

Up to this point, though, most conservative Christian leaders are still locked in debate about which front-runner they dislike the least. Dobson’s public statements have traced the arc of their dissatisfaction. Last October, he observed that grass-roots evangelicals would have a hard time voting for Mitt Romney because he is a Mormon. In January, he said he could never vote for Senator John McCain. More recently, Dobson panned Fred Thompson, too, for opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. “He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent ‘want to,’ ” Dobson wrote in an e-mail message to allies. “Not for me, my brothers. Not for me!”

Finally, at the end of last month, Dobson was the foremost among the roughly 50 Christian conservative organizers who declared they would support a third-party candidate if the nomination went to Giuliani, who is their greatest fear. Some even talk of McCain — once anathema to them — as a better bet.

I could see why they were worried. Among the evangelicals of suburban Wichita, I found that Giuliani was easily the most popular of the Republican candidates, even among churchgoers who knew his views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Some trusted him to fight Islamic radicalism; others praised his cleanup of New York.

“There are a few issues we are on different sides of — a lot of it is around abortion — and he is not the most spiritual guy,” said Kent Brummer, a retired Boeing engineer leaving services at Central Christian. “But to me that doesn’t mean that he would not make a good president, if he represents both sides.

“What I liked about George Bush is all of his moral side and all that,” Brummer added. “But somehow he didn’t have the strength to govern the way we hoped he would and that he should have.”

Democrats, meanwhile, sense an opportunity. Now the campaigns of all three Democratic front-runners are actively courting evangelical voters. At a White House event to mark the National Day of Prayer that I attended in the spring, Senator Clinton even walked over to shake hands with Dobson. Visibly surprised, he told her she was in his prayers.

All three Democratic candidates are speaking very personally, in evangelical language, about their own faith. What does Clinton pray about? “It depends upon the time of day,” she said. Edwards says he cannot name his greatest sin: “I sin every single day.” Obama talks about his introduction to “someone named Jesus Christ” and about being “an instrument of God.”

Many evangelicals are not sure what to make of it. “Shouldn’t we like it when someone talks about Christ being the missing ingredient in his life?” David Brody, a commentator for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, asked approvingly in response to Obama’s statements.

Many conservative Christian leaders say they can count on the specter of a second Clinton presidency to fire up their constituents. But the prospect of an Obama-Giuliani race is another matter. “You would have a bunch of people who traditionally vote Republican going over to Obama,” said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of the Christian conservative American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., known for its consumer boycotts over obscenity or gay issues.

In the Wichita churches this summer, Obama was the Democrat who drew the most interest. Several mentioned that he had spoken at Warren’s Saddleback church and said they were intrigued. But just as many people ruled out Obama because they suspected that he was not Christian at all but in fact a crypto-Muslim — a rumor that spread around the Internet earlier this year. “There is just that ill feeling, and part of it is his faith,” Welsh said. “Is his faith anti-Christian? Is he a Muslim? And what about the school where he was raised?”

“Obama sounds too much like Osama,” said Kayla Nickel of Westlink. “When he says his name, I am like, ‘I am not voting for a Muslim!’ ”

Fox, meanwhile, is already preparing to do his part to get Wichita’s conservative faithful to the polls next November. Standing before a few hundred worshipers at the Johnny Western Theater last summer, Fox warned his new congregation not to let go of that old-time religion. “Hell is just as hot as it ever was,” he reminded them. “It just has more people in it.”

Fox told me: “I think the religious community is probably reflective of the rest of the nation — it is very divided right now. This election process is going to reveal a lot about where the religious right and the religious community is. It will show unity or the lack of it.”

But liberals, he said, should not start gloating. “Some might compare the religious right to a snake,” he said. “We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”

David D. Kirkpatrick is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The New York Times.

Friday, October 26

Of the Words of War and the War of Ideas

Review of

The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism
By Norman Podhoretz
230 pages. Doubleday. $24.95.


In his bellicose new book Norman Podhoretz, one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, declares that the current Iraq war is only one front (Iran being another) in what he calls “World War IV,” a “long struggle against Islamofascism,” which like the cold war (the one he counts as “World War III”), “will almost certainly go on for three or four decades.”

Mr. Podhoretz, who last summer called upon President Bush to use military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, writes in these pages of all the “progress” that is being made in neighboring Iraq, embraces the Bush administration’s aggressive policy of pre-emption and asserts that George W. Bush will one day be recognized “as a great president,” an heir not just to Truman but to Lincoln as well.

This book appears at a time when a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that 48 percent of Republicans want a presidential nominee who will take a “different approach” from that of the president (compared with 38 percent who want a “similar approach”), a time when neoconservative ideas have come under attack not only from liberals but also from traditional conservatives and former neoconservative stars like Francis Fukuyama.

Mr. Podhoretz, however, remains an ardent supporter of the Bush doctrine of unilateral action, pre-emptive war and the exportation of democracy to the Middle East. Last summer he was made a senior foreign policy adviser to the Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign, joining other neoconservative Giuliani consultants like Daniel Pipes, a historian who has defended the racial profiling of Muslims, and Peter Berkowitz, a Hoover Institution fellow.

Although Mr. Podhoretz espouses a more Pollyanna-ish view of Iraq than Mr. Giuliani, many of his views on foreign-policy issues will remind readers of stands recently enunciated by Mr. Giuliani: from his contention that the realist school of foreign policy “defines America’s interests too narrowly,” to his declaration that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power, to his support of aggressive (but legal) interrogation and electronic surveillance methods in the war on terror, to his determination to “reform the international system according to our values.”

Mr. Giuliani, whose “moderate” stands on various social issues have been the focus of the Republican primary campaign, tends to speak about such foreign policy issues in vague, abstract terms. Mr. Podhoretz, in contrast, is openly pugnacious and often highly specific in these pages, to the point where the reader wants to ask Mr. Giuliani just how closely he intends to hew to his senior foreign policy adviser’s advice. For instance, when Mr. Giuliani was recently asked if he agreed with Mr. Podhoretz that the time to bomb Iran had already come, Mr. Giuliani replied that, based on the information he currently had: “We are not at that stage at this point. Can we get to that stage? Yes. And is that stage closer than some of the Democrats believe? I believe it is.”

Mr. Podhoretz, for his part, is quoted in a recent Newsweek article saying, “I decided to join Giuliani’s team because his view of the war — what I call World War IV — is very close to my own.”

How good a case does Mr. Podhoretz make for his hard-line views in this volume? Instead of trying to produce a reasoned argument for a forward-leaning foreign policy, he has served up a hectoring, often illogical screed based on cherry-picked facts and blustering assertions (often made without any supporting evidence), a book that furiously hurls accusations of cowardice, anti-Americanism and sheer venality at any and all opponents of the Bush doctrine, be they on the right or the left.

A chapter about conservatives like George F. Will, who have challenged Bush administration policy in Iraq, is titled “defeatism on the right.” Another chapter depicts “realists” (like Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter), who have argued that the invasion of Iraq has destabilized the Middle East, as self-serving appeasers who “were rooting for an American defeat as the only way to save their worldview from winding up on the ash heap of history.”

As for growing antiwar sentiment on the part of the American public — a New York Times/CBS News poll in September 2007 showed that 62 percent of Americans believe the war was a mistake — Mr. Podhoretz blames this development on “the media spin on Iraq,” asserting that the media are motivated by “a virulent hostility to George W. Bush and a correlative wish to see the doctrine that bore his name discredited by an American defeat in Iraq.”

Often the reasoning in this book is downright perverse. For instance Mr. Podhoretz contends that the continuing violence in Iraq is actually “a tribute to the enormous strides that had been made in democratizing and unifying the country under a workable federal system.” He continues: “If the sectarian militias thought that unification was a pipe dream, would they be shedding so much blood in the hope of triggering a large-scale civil war? If the murderous collection of die-hard Sunni Baathists, together with their allies inside the government, agreed that democratization had already failed, would they have been waging so desperate a campaign to defeat it?”

Mr. Podhoretz willfully ignores many of the facts on the ground in Iraq, a situation that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group last year termed “grave and deteriorating.” He is reluctant to concede that people who object to the administration’s Iraq war policy might be doing so because they are troubled by what the study group called the “scope and lethality” of violence there, by the political and military fallout of a continuing insurgency and by deadly fighting between Shiites and Sunnis.

In claiming that Mr. Bush’s strategy of regime change is draining the swamps that breed terrorism, he ignores experts like Michael Scheuer, a former head of the bin Laden tracking unit at the C.I.A., who have argued that the Iraq war, far from making America safer, has served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Mr. Podhoretz also shrugs off the much-criticized decision to disband the Iraqi army (a decision many experts say fatally fueled the insurgency), arguing that whatever mistakes might have been made “amounted to chump change when stacked up against the mistakes that were made in World War II — a war conducted by acknowledged giants like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.”

Mr. Podhoretz is similarly glib when it comes to critics of George W. Bush’s domestic policies (including those on the right who are upset about matters like deficit spending and immigration, and those on the left who are concerned about issues like stem cell research). He writes, “Who today either remembers or cares about Truman’s domestic policies?”

Regarding the question of growing tensions with Iran, Mr. Podhoretz is both dogmatic and illogical. Although he wrote last summer that Iran is “the currently main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11” and “the main sponsor of the terrorism that is Islamofascism’s weapon of choice,” he fails to come to terms with the fact that it was the United States’ invasion of Iraq that dismantled Iran’s greatest foe in the region (against which it had waged an eight-year war in the 1980s) and gave it greater sway than ever in the Middle East.

For that matter, Mr. Podhoretz lumps together Muslims opposed to the United States, a “two-headed beast” of “Islamofascism,” whose objective he says is “to murder as many of us as possible” and destroy “the freedoms we cherish and for which America stands.” Such characterizations not only try to draw parallels between radical Muslims and the Nazis, but also gloss over the many schisms and conflicts within Islam that have pitted Shiites against Sunnis, Iranians against Iraqis, religious fundamentalists against more secular Baathists.

This reluctance to grapple with the enormously complicated particulars of the Middle East, combined with Mr. Podhoretz’s penchant for demagogic generalizations, Manichean language and contempt for people who disagree with him, makes for a shrill, unpersuasive book. It is a book that will likely find a receptive audience only among those dwindling numbers of Americans who already want to stay the course in Iraq and promulgate the policies of George W. Bush for many years and decades to come.

A Catastrophe Foretold


“Increased subprime lending has been associated with higher levels of delinquency, foreclosure and, in some cases, abusive lending practices.” So declared Edward M. Gramlich, a Federal Reserve official.

These days a lot of people are saying things like that about subprime loans — mortgages issued to buyers who don’t meet the normal financial criteria for a home loan. But here’s the thing: Mr. Gramlich said those words in May 2004.

And it wasn’t his first warning. In his last book, Mr. Gramlich, who recently died of cancer, revealed that he tried to get Alan Greenspan to increase oversight of subprime lending as early as 2000, but got nowhere.

So why was nothing done to avert the subprime fiasco?

Before I try to answer that question, there are a few things you should know.

First, the situation for both borrowers and investors looks increasingly dire.

A new report from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee predicts that there will be two million foreclosures on subprime mortgages by the end of next year. That’s two million American families facing the humiliation and financial pain of losing their homes.

At the same time, investors who bought assets backed by subprime loans are continuing to suffer severe losses. Everything suggests that there will be many more stories like that of Merrill Lynch, which has just announced an $8.4 billion write-down because of bad loans — $3 billion more than it had announced just a few weeks earlier.

Second, much if not most of the subprime lending that is now going so catastrophically bad took place after it was clear to many of us that there was a serious housing bubble, and after people like Mr. Gramlich had issued public warnings about the subprime situation. As late as 2003, subprime loans accounted for only 8.5 percent of the value of mortgages issued in this country. In 2005 and 2006, the peak years of the housing bubble, subprime was 20 percent of the total — and the delinquency rates on recent subprime loans are much higher than those on older loans.

So, once again, why was nothing done to head off this disaster? The answer is ideology.

In a paper presented just before his death, Mr. Gramlich wrote that “the subprime market was the Wild West. Over half the mortgage loans were made by independent lenders without any federal supervision.” What he didn’t mention was that this was the way the laissez-faire ideologues ruling Washington — a group that very much included Mr. Greenspan — wanted it. They were and are men who believe that government is always the problem, never the solution, that regulation is always a bad thing.

Unfortunately, assertions that unregulated financial markets would take care of themselves have proved as wrong as claims that deregulation would reduce electricity prices.

As Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, put it in a recent op-ed article in The Boston Globe, the surge of subprime lending was a sort of “natural experiment” testing the theories of those who favor radical deregulation of financial markets. And the lessons, as Mr. Frank said, are clear: “To the extent that the system did work, it is because of prudential regulation and oversight. Where it was absent, the result was tragedy.”

In fact, both borrowers and investors got scammed.

I’ve written before about the way investors in securities backed by subprime loans were assured that they were buying AAA assets, only to suddenly find that what they really owned were junk bonds. This shock has produced a crisis of confidence in financial markets, which poses a serious threat to the economy.

But the greater tragedy is the one facing borrowers who were offered what they were told were good deals, only to find themselves in a debt trap.

In his final paper, Mr. Gramlich stressed the extent to which unregulated lending is prone to the “abusive lending practices” he mentioned in his 2004 warning. The fact is that many borrowers are ill-equipped to make judgments about “exotic” loans, like subprime loans that offer a low initial “teaser” rate that suddenly jumps after two years, and that include prepayment penalties preventing the borrowers from undoing their mistakes.

Yet such loans were primarily offered to those least able to evaluate them. “Why are the most risky loan products sold to the least sophisticated borrowers?” Mr. Gramlich asked. “The question answers itself — the least sophisticated borrowers are probably duped into taking these products.” And “the predictable result was carnage.”

Mr. Frank is now trying to push through legislation that extends moderate regulation to the subprime market. Despite the scale of the disaster, he’s facing an uphill fight: money still talks in Washington, and the mortgage industry is a huge source of campaign finance. But maybe the subprime catastrophe will be enough to remind us why financial regulation was introduced in the first place.

Sunday, October 21

Green Votes

Save the Planet: Vote Smart

People often ask: I want to get greener, what should I do? New light bulbs? A hybrid? A solar roof? Well, all of those things are helpful. But actually, the greenest thing you can do is this: Choose the right leaders. It is so much more important to change your leaders than change your light bulbs.

Why? Because leaders write the rules, set the standards and offer the tax incentives that drive market behavior across a whole city, state or country. Whatever any of us does individually matters a tiny bit. But when leaders change the rules, you get scale change across the whole marketplace. And the energy-climate challenge we face today is a huge scale problem. Without scale, all you have is a green hobby.

Have no illusions, everything George Bush wouldn’t do on energy after 9/11 — his resisting improved mileage for cars and actually trying to weaken air-conditioner standards — swamped any good works you did. Fortunately, the vacuum in the White House is being filled by leaders from below.

Take the New York City taxi story. Two years ago, David Yassky, a City Council member, sat down with one of his backers, Jack Hidary, a technology entrepreneur, to brainstorm about how to make New York City greener — at scale. For starters, they checked with the Taxi and Limousine Commission to see what it would take to replace the old gas-guzzling Crown Victoria yellow cabs, which get around 10 miles a gallon, with better-mileage, low-emission hybrids. Great idea, only it turned out to be illegal, thanks to some old size regulations designed to favor Crown Vics.

Recalled Mr. Hidary: “When they first told me, I said, ‘Are you serious? Illegal?’” So he formed a nonprofit called to help Mr. Yassky lobby the City Council to change the laws to permit hybrid taxis. They also reframed it as a health issue, with the help of Louise Vetter, president of the American Lung Association of the City of New York.

“New York City has among the dirtiest air in the U.S.,” Ms. Vetter said. “When it comes to ozone and particulate matter, New Yorkers are breathing very unhealthy air. Most of it is tailpipe emissions. And in New York City, where asthma rates are among the highest in the nation, the high ozone levels create very serious threats, especially for kids who spend a lot of time outdoors. Converting cabs from yellow to green would be a great gift to the city’s children.”

Matt Daus, who heads the taxi commission, which is independent of the mayor, was initially reluctant, but once he learned of the health and other benefits, he joined forces with Messrs. Yassky and Hidary, and the measure passed the City Council by 50 to 0 on June 30, 2005. Since then, more than 500 taxi drivers have converted to hybrids — mostly Ford Escapes, but also Toyota Highlanders and Priuses, and others.

On May 22, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the greenest mayors in America, decided to push even further, insisting on a new rule, which the taxi commission has to approve, that will not just permit but require all cabs — 13,000 in all — to be hybrids or other low-emission vehicles that get at least 30 miles a gallon, within five years.

“When it comes to health and safety and environmental issues, government should be setting standards,” the mayor said. “What you need are leaders who are willing to push for standards that are in society’s long-term interest.” When the citizens see the progress, Mr. Bloomberg added, “then they start to lead.” And this encourages leaders to seek even higher standards.

I asked Evgeny Freidman, a top New York City fleet operator, how he liked the hybrids: “Absolutely fabulous! We started out with 18, and now we have over 200, mostly Ford Escapes. Now we only put hybrids out there. The drivers are demanding them and the public is demanding them. It has been great economically. With gas prices as they are, the drivers are saving $30 dollars a shift.” He said drivers who were getting 7 to 10 miles a gallon from their Crown Vics were getting 25 to 30 from their hybrids. The cost of shifting to these hybrids, he added, has not been onerous.

Now Mr. Hidary is trying to get law firms and investment banks, which use gas-guzzling Town Cars — 12,000 in the city — to demand hybrid sedans only.

This is how scale change happens. When the Big Apple becomes the Green Apple, and 40 million tourists come through every year and take at least one hybrid cab ride, they’ll go back home and ask their leaders, “Why don’t we have hybrid cabs?”

So if you want to be a green college kid or a green adult, don’t fool yourself: You can change lights. You can change cars. But if you don’t change leaders, your actions are nothing more than an expression of, as Dick Cheney would say, “personal virtue.”

Suicide Is Not Painless

The New York Times
October 21, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
Suicide Is Not Painless

IT was one of those stories lost in the newspaper’s inside pages. Last week a man you’ve never heard of — Charles D. Riechers, 47, the second-highest-ranking procurement officer in the United States Air Force — killed himself by running his car’s engine in his suburban Virginia garage.

Mr. Riechers’s suicide occurred just two weeks after his appearance in a front-page exposé in The Washington Post. The Post reported that the Air Force had asked a defense contractor, Commonwealth Research Institute, to give him a job with no known duties while he waited for official clearance for his new Pentagon assignment. Mr. Riechers, a decorated Air Force officer earlier in his career, told The Post: “I really didn’t do anything for C.R.I. I got a paycheck from them.” The question, of course, was whether the contractor might expect favors in return once he arrived at the Pentagon last January.

Set against the epic corruption that has defined the war in Iraq, Mr. Riechers’s tragic tale is but a passing anecdote, his infraction at most a misdemeanor. The $26,788 he received for two months in a non-job doesn’t rise even to a rounding error in the Iraq-Afghanistan money pit. So far some $6 billion worth of contracts are being investigated for waste and fraud, however slowly, by the Pentagon and the Justice Department. That doesn’t include the unaccounted-for piles of cash, some $9 billion in Iraqi funds, that vanished during L. Paul Bremer’s short but disastrous reign in the Green Zone. Yet Mr. Riechers, not the first suicide connected to the war’s corruption scandals, is a window into the culture of the whole debacle.

Through his story you can see how America has routinely betrayed the very values of democratic governance that it hoped to export to Iraq. Look deeper and you can see how the wholesale corruption of government contracting sabotaged the crucial mission that might have enabled us to secure the country: the rebuilding of the Iraqi infrastructure, from electricity to hospitals. You can also see just why the heretofore press-shy Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater USA, staged a rapid-fire media blitz a week ago, sitting down with Charlie Rose, Lara Logan, Lisa Myers and Wolf Blitzer.

Mr. Prince wasn’t trying to save his employees from legal culpability in the deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis mowed down on Sept. 16 in Baghdad. He knows that the legal loopholes granted contractors by Mr. Bremer back in 2004 amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. He knows that Americans will forget about another 17 Iraqi casualties as soon as Blackwater gets some wrist-slapping punishment.

Instead, Mr. Prince is moving on, salivating over the next payday. As he told The Wall Street Journal last week, Blackwater no longer cares much about its security business; it is expanding into a “full spectrum” defense contractor offering a “one-stop shop” for everything from remotely piloted blimps to armored trucks. The point of his P.R. offensive was to smooth his quest for more billions of Pentagon loot.

Which brings us back to Mr. Riechers. As it happens, he was only about three degrees of separation from Blackwater. His Pentagon job, managing a $30 billion Air Force procurement budget, had been previously held by an officer named Darleen Druyun, who in 2004 was sentenced to nine months in prison for securing jobs for herself, her daughter and her son-in-law at Boeing while favoring the company with billions of dollars of contracts. Ms. Druyun’s Pentagon post remained vacant until Mr. Riechers was appointed. He was brought in to clean up the corruption.

Yet the full story of the corruption during Ms. Druyun’s tenure is even now still unknown. The Bush-appointed Pentagon inspector general delivered a report to Congress full of holes in 2005. Specifically, black holes: dozens of the report’s passages were redacted, as were the names of many White House officials in the report’s e-mail evidence on the Boeing machinations.

The inspector general also assured Congress that neither Donald Rumsfeld nor Paul Wolfowitz knew anything about the crimes. Senators on the Armed Services Committee were incredulous. John Warner, the Virginia Republican, could not believe that the Pentagon’s top two officials had no information about “the most significant defense procurement mismanagement in contemporary history.”

But the inspector general who vouched for their ignorance, Joseph Schmitz, was already heading for the exit when he delivered his redacted report. His new job would be as the chief operating officer of the Prince Group, Blackwater’s parent company.

Much has been made of Erik Prince and his family’s six-digit contributions to Republican candidates and lifelong connections to religious-right power brokers like James Dobson and Gary Bauer. Mr. Prince maintains that these contacts had nothing to do with Blackwater’s growth from tiny start-up to billion-dollar federal contractor in the Bush years. But far more revealing, though far less noticed, is the pedigree of the Washington players on his payroll.

Blackwater’s lobbyist and sometime spokesman, for instance, is Paul Behrends, who first represented the company as a partner in the now-defunct Alexander Strategy Group. That firm, founded by a former Tom DeLay chief of staff, proved ground zero in the Jack Abramoff scandals. Alexander may be no more, but since then, in addition to Blackwater, Mr. Behrends’s clients have includeda company called the First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Company, the builder of the new American embassy in Iraq.

That Vatican-sized complex is the largest American embassy in the world. Now running some $144 million over its $592 million budget and months behind schedule, the project is notorious for its deficient, unsafe construction, some of which has come under criminal investigation. First Kuwaiti has also been accused of engaging in human trafficking to supply the labor force. But the current Bush-appointed State Department inspector general — guess what — has found no evidence of any wrongdoing.

Both that inspector general, Howard Krongard, and First Kuwaiti are now in the cross hairs of Henry Waxman’s House oversight committee. Some of Mr. Krongard’s deputies have accused him of repeatedly halting or impeding investigations in a variety of fraud cases.

Representative Waxman is also trying to overcome State Department stonewalling to investigate corruption in the Iraqi government. In perverse mimicry of his American patrons, Nuri al-Maliki’s office has repeatedly tried to limit the scope of inquiries conducted by Iraq’s own Commission on Public Integrity. The judge in charge of that commission, Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, has now sought asylum in America. Thirty-one of his staff members and a dozen of their relatives have been assassinated, sometimes after being tortured.

The Waxman investigations notwithstanding, the culture of corruption, Iraq war division, remains firmly entrenched. Though some American bribe-takers have been caught — including Gloria Davis, an Army major who committed suicide in Kuwait after admitting her crimes last year — we are asked to believe they are isolated incidents. The higher reaches of the chain of command have been spared, much as they were at Abu Ghraib.

Even a turnover in administrations doesn’t guarantee reform. J. Cofer Black, the longtime C.I.A. hand who is now Blackwater’s vice chairman, has signed on as a Mitt Romney adviser. Hillary Clinton’s Karl Rove, Mark Penn, doubles as the chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the P.R. giant whose subsidiary helped prepare Mr. Prince for his Congressional testimony. Mr. Penn said the Blackwater association was “temporary.”

War profiteering happens even in “good” wars. Arthur Miller made his name in 1947 with “All My Sons,” which ends with the suicide of a corrupt World War II contractor whose defective airplane parts cost 21 pilots their lives. But in the case of Iraq, this corruption has been at the center of the entire mission, from war-waging to nation-building. As the investigative reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele observed in the October Vanity Fair, America has to date “spent twice as much in inflation-adjusted dollars to rebuild Iraq as it did to rebuild Japan — an industrialized country three times Iraq’s size, two of whose cities had been incinerated by atomic bombs.” (And still Iraq lacks reliable electric power.)

The cost cannot be measured only in lost opportunities, lives and money. There will be a long hangover of shame. Its essence was summed up by Col. Ted Westhusing, an Army scholar of military ethics who was an innocent witness to corruption, not a participant, when he died at age 44 of a gunshot wound to the head while working for Gen. David Petraeus training Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in 2005. He was at the time the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.

Colonel Westhusing’s death was ruled a suicide, though some believe he was murdered by contractors fearing a whistle-blower, according to T. Christian Miller, the Los Angeles Times reporter who documents the case in his book “Blood Money.” Either way, the angry four-page letter the officer left behind for General Petraeus and his other commander, Gen. Joseph Fil, is as much an epitaph for America’s engagement in Iraq as a suicide note.

“I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars,” Colonel Westhusing wrote, abbreviating the word mission. “I am sullied.”

Saturday, October 20

Flip Floppers all

Now Mitt Romney — there’s a man who can put the pep into pander. “I am pro-family on every level, from personal to political,” he told the summiteers. (Take that, Rudy.) He reeled off anti-abortion pledges — not just the requisite anti-Roe Supreme Court nominees, but promises to “oppose abortion in military clinics, oppose funding abortion in international aid programs and I will work to ban embryonic cloning.” He was almost as impassioned as he was during his Senate race against Ted Kennedy when he talked about the “dear, close family relative who was very close to me” who died from an illegal abortion and his firm conviction that “we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

When it comes to flip-flopping, this year’s Republicans make John Kerry look like those early martyrs who had their tongues torn out rather than renounce even the most obscure tenet of their faith. Do the values voters believe Mitt won’t flip back again? Should the people who admired Rudy Giuliani’s refusal to sign the idiot no-taxes-no-matterwhat pledge just presume that he was being insincere (pretend-pander) when he promised that he would rule out a tax increase for any purpose whatsoever? Are his fans voting for the Rudy who thought the flat-tax idea was stupid, or the new one who kinda likes it?

And are they voting for the Mitt who refused to sign a no-taxes pledge, or the one who is now bragging about having signed it at every conceivable opportunity? (When this man says “change begins with us,” he means it literally.)

This is a sensitive point, you know. We’ve been burned before. There was this Republican candidate in 2000 who opposed using U.S. soldiers for nation-building and promised he’d never invade a country without an exit strategy ...

Friday, October 19

The Clinton Surprise

Judith Warner, NYT

The shocks just keep on coming:

Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic field with 51 percent of the vote.

She beats Barack Obama by 24 percentage points among black Democrats.

She is projected now to beat Giuliani – or at the very least to be in a statistical dead heat with him in the general election.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. According to the received wisdom of those in-the-know here in Washington, Hillary was supposed to be divisive, unelectable, “radioactive.”

It was the fault of Bill and Monica, and the fact that you never knew when there was going to be another Bill and Monica. It was the fault of Hillary – for not taking the hard line on Bill and Monica the way a woman of her stature and standing was supposed to do. And it was the fault of voters – those people out there who would never, ever elect another Clinton.

Why? Because … everyone said so.

(“I think the one thing we know about Hillary, the one thing we absolutely know, bottom line, [is] she can`t win, right?” is how MSNBC host Tucker Carlson once put it to New Republic editor-at-large Peter Beinart. “She is unelectable.”)

The “we” world of Tucker Carlson knew what they knew about Hillary Clinton — right up until about this week, I think — because they spend an awful lot of time talking to, socializing with and interviewing one another.

What they don’t do all that much is venture outside of a certain set of zip codes to get a feel for the way most people are actually living. They don’t sign up for adjustable rate mortgages, visit emergency rooms to get their primary health care, leave their children in unlicensed day care or lose their jobs because they have to drive their mothers home from the hospital after hip replacement surgery.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters, it turns out, do.

Alongside the newest set of poll results showing Clinton’s surprising levels of popularity among lower- and middle-class women, white moderate women, even black voters, was another story this week, based on a new set of data from the I.R.S.

It showed that America’s most wealthy earn an even greater share of the nation’s income than they did in 2000, at the peak of the tech boom. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the Wall Street Journal reported, earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005 (the latest date at which this data are available), up from the high of 20.8 percent they’d reached in the bull market of 2000. The bottom 50 percent of people earned 12.8 percent of all income, compared with 13 percent in 2000. And the median tax filer’s income fell 2 percent when adjusted for inflation (to about $31,000) between 2000 and 2005.

More and more people are being priced out of a middle class existence. Because of housing prices, because of health care costs, because of tax policy, because of the cost of child care, The Good Life – a life of relative comfort and financial security – is now, in many parts of the country, an upper-middle-class luxury.

Given all this, you would think that Clinton’s big policy announcement this week on improving life for working families would have been big news.

After all, it contained a number of huge new middle class entitlements: paid family leave and sick leave, most notably. There were a number of tried-and-true triggers for outrage from the right wing and the business community like government standards and quality controls for child care. There could have been debate stoked among the many childless workers who now feel parents are getting too much “special treatment” in the workplace (Clinton supports legislation to protect parents and pregnant women from job discrimination). At the very least, someone could have accused Clinton of trying to bring back welfare. (She supports subsidies for low-income parents who wish to stay home to raise their children.) Or someone could have questioned how realistic it really is to pay for all that – to the tune of $1.75 billion per year – simply by cracking down on the “abusive” use of tax shelters, as Clinton proposes to do.

But there was none of this. Clinton’s family policy speech in New Hampshire all but sank like a stone. If it was covered at all, it was often packaged as part of a feature on her attempts to curry favor with female voters. (“Clinton shows femininity,” read a Boston Globe headline.) It was as though the opinion-makers and agenda-setters, waiting with bated breath for Bill to slip up, just one more time, couldn’t see or hear the message to middle-class voters.

(“I do see you and I do hear you,” Clinton said in a speech on “rebuilding the middle class” earlier this month. “You’re not invisible to me.”)

In contemplating the disconnect, as I often have done, between Hillary and her upper-middle-class peers, I find myself thinking of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In Maslow’s theory of human motivation, needs were mapped out in a pyramid form. The broad array of physiological needs was at the bottom, followed by the almost equally wide range of safety needs: things like bodily and financial security, secure physical health and work, and property ownership. Transcendent needs, like truth, justice, wisdom and self-actualization, were in the tiniest triangle up at the top. As their “lower-level” needs were met, Maslow theorized, people moved up the pyramid; they did not – unless the material circumstances of their lives changed dramatically – move back.

The American middle class, it seems to me, is looking to politicians now to satisfy a pretty basic – and urgent – level of need. Yet people in the upper middle class — with their excellent health benefits, schools, salaries, retirement plans, nannies and private afterschool programs — have journeyed so far from that level of need that, it often seems to me, they literally cannot hear what resonates with the middle class. That creates a problematic blind spot for those who write, edit or produce what comes to be known about our politicians and their policies.

Having used that Maslow pyramid analogy, I want to make clear that I do not mean to impute to upper middle class people a “higher” (in the sense of “better”) form of political reasoning. I am merely trying to say that the wealth gap has brought an experience gap that is in turn producing a gap in perception — one that, I predict, will yield a wealth of surprises in this election period.

Hopefully, they’ll be good ones.

Wednesday, October 17

The Other Gender Disparity

Women may be underrepresented in the sciences at the highest academic levels, but through high school, female students perform much better than their male counterparts. Ironically, one of the first journalists to draw attention to this fact is Hoff Sommers, who wrote an article titled The War Against Boys for the Atlantic in May 2000 (subscription required).

Boys are about a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing, and are less likely to go to college. The Department of Education reported recently that 57 percent of college students are female, and that college student bodies will be 60-40 female by 2010.

When boys performed better – about a generation ago – many journalists, scientists, and casual observers argued that boys were naturally more intelligent. And as Meghan noted, people are quick to suggest that brain differences account for women’s under-representation in college science departments. Of course now that the tables have turned, educators talk of cultural or behavioral differences between the sexes rather than genetic predispositions.

Sunday, October 14

The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us

The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.

By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”

Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled “politics.” We turn the page.

There has been scarcely more response to the similarly recurrent story of apparent war crimes committed by our contractors in Iraq. Call me cynical, but when Laura Bush spoke up last week about the human rights atrocities in Burma, it seemed less an act of selfless humanitarianism than another administration maneuver to change the subject from its own abuses.

As Mrs. Bush spoke, two women, both Armenian Christians, were gunned down in Baghdad by contractors underwritten by American taxpayers. On this matter, the White House has been silent. That incident followed the Sept. 16 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqis were killed by security forces from Blackwater USA, which had already been implicated in nearly 200 other shooting incidents since 2005. There has been no accountability. The State Department, Blackwater’s sugar daddy for most of its billion dollars in contracts, won’t even share its investigative findings with the United States military and the Iraqi government, both of which have deemed the killings criminal.

The gunmen who mowed down the two Christian women worked for a Dubai-based company managed by Australians, registered in Singapore and enlisted as a subcontractor by an American contractor headquartered in North Carolina. This is a plot out of “Syriana” by way of “Chinatown.” There will be no trial. We will never find out what happened. A new bill passed by the House to regulate contractor behavior will have little effect, even if it becomes law in its current form.

We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq — and should. Paul Bremer, our post-invasion viceroy and the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts, issued the order that allows contractors to elude Iraqi law, a folly second only to his disbanding of the Iraqi Army. But we must also examine our own responsibility for the hideous acts committed in our name in a war where we have now fought longer than we did in the one that put Verschärfte Vernehmung on the map.

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.

In April 2004, Stars and Stripes first reported that our troops were using makeshift vehicle armor fashioned out of sandbags, yet when a soldier complained to Donald Rumsfeld at a town meeting in Kuwait eight months later, he was successfully pilloried by the right. Proper armor procurement lagged for months more to come. Not until early this year, four years after the war’s first casualties, did a Washington Post investigation finally focus the country’s attention on the shoddy treatment of veterans, many of them victims of inadequate armor, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.

We first learned of the use of contractors as mercenaries when four Blackwater employees were strung up in Falluja in March 2004, just weeks before the first torture photos emerged from Abu Ghraib. We asked few questions. When reports surfaced early this summer that our contractors in Iraq (180,000, of whom some 48,000 are believed to be security personnel) now outnumber our postsurge troop strength, we yawned. Contractor casualties and contractor-inflicted casualties are kept off the books.

It was always the White House’s plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war. Part of this was achieved with the usual Bush-Cheney secretiveness, from the torture memos to the prohibition of photos of military coffins. But the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.

Instead of taxing us for Iraq, the White House bought us off with tax cuts. Instead of mobilizing the needed troops, it kept a draft off the table by quietly purchasing its auxiliary army of contractors to finesse the overstretched military’s holes. With the war’s entire weight falling on a small voluntary force, amounting to less than 1 percent of the population, the rest of us were free to look the other way at whatever went down in Iraq.

We ignored the contractor scandal to our own peril. Ever since Falluja this auxiliary army has been a leading indicator of every element of the war’s failure: not only our inadequate troop strength but also our alienation of Iraqi hearts and minds and our rampant outsourcing to contractors rife with Bush-Cheney cronies and campaign contributors. Contractors remain a bellwether of the war’s progress today. When Blackwater was briefly suspended after the Nisour Square catastrophe, American diplomats were flatly forbidden from leaving the fortified Green Zone. So much for the surge’s great “success” in bringing security to Baghdad.

Last week Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war combat veteran who directs Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sketched for me the apocalypse to come. Should Baghdad implode, our contractors, not having to answer to the military chain of command, can simply “drop their guns and go home.” Vulnerable American troops could be deserted by those “who deliver their bullets and beans.”

This potential scenario is just one example of why it’s in our national self-interest to attend to Iraq policy the White House counts on us to ignore. Our national character is on the line too. The extralegal contractors are both a slap at the sovereignty of the self-governing Iraq we supposedly support and an insult to those in uniform receiving as little as one-sixth the pay. Yet it took mass death in Nisour Square to fix even our fleeting attention on this long-metastasizing cancer in our battle plan.

Similarly, it took until December 2005, two and a half years after “Mission Accomplished,” for Mr. Bush to feel sufficient public pressure to acknowledge the large number of Iraqi casualties in the war. Even now, despite his repeated declaration that “America will not abandon the Iraqi people,” he has yet to address or intervene decisively in the tragedy of four million-plus Iraqi refugees, a disproportionate number of them children. He feels no pressure from the American public to do so, but hey, he pays lip service to Darfur.

Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.