Karl Rove, credited as the architect of President Bush’s successful political strategy of cultivating the evangelical right, used the occasion of his White House resignation to deny circulating reports that he is an unbeliever and spark a war of words with fellow Texan Bill Moyers.
“Karl Rove figured out a long time ago that the way to take an intellectually incurious draft-averse naughty playboy in a flight jacket with chewing tobacco in his back pocket and make him governor of Texas, was to sell him as God’s anointed in a state where preachers and televangelists outnumber even oil derricks and jack rabbits,” Moyers said Aug. 17 on his PBS program “Bill Moyers Journal.”
Moyers went on to say about Rove: “At his press conference this week he asked God to bless the president and the country, even as reports were circulating that he himself had confessed to friends his own agnosticism; he wished he could believe, but he cannot. That kind of intellectual honesty is to be admired, but you have to wonder how all those folks on the Christian right must feel discovering they were used for partisan reasons by a skeptic, a secular manipulator. On his last play of the game all Karl Rove had to offer them was a Hail Mary pass, while telling himself there’s no one there to catch it.”
In a comment on Moyers’ blog, Deal Hudson, director of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture and former editor and publisher of the politically conservative and Catholic Crisis Magazine, said Moyers owed Rove an apology. Hudson said he e-mailed Rove a copy of Moyers’ comments, and Rove sent him the following reply:
“I am a believing Christian who attends his neighboring Episcopal parish church. People have taken out of context a quote in which I express admiration for the deep faith of colleagues that so clearly informs their lives as a statement I am not a believer. I am: just not as good a Christian as some very fine people I have been honored to call friends and colleagues.”
Two days after Moyers’ comment Rove gave a wide-ranging interview on “Fox News Sunday,” during which interviewer Chris Wallace aired a portion of Moyers’ commentary and asked Rove to respond.
“I’m a Christian,” Rove said. “I go to church. I’m an Episcopalian.”
Rove said he thought Moyers might have taken a comment out of context where Rove talked about colleagues at the White House, such as former Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson, who impressed him with “how their faith has informed their lives and made them really better people” and “where I acknowledged my shortcomings in living up to the beliefs of my faith and contrasted it with how these extraordinary people have made their faith a part of their fiber.”
“And somehow or another he goes from taking it from me being an Episcopalian wishing I was a better Christian to somehow making me into a agnostic,” Rove explained. “You know, Mr. Moyers ought to do a little bit better research before he does another drive-by slander.”
Moyers wrote Wallace a letter saying he should have challenged Rove’s statement. Moyers cited several references to Rove’s agnosticism or skepticism–specifically connected to his political expediency and manipulation of religious voters–in recent days.
“Obviously Rove wanted to blow smoke because his version of reality is undermined by his own previous statements and by the reporting and analysis of journalists who have done their homework and don’t take his every word as gospel–no pun intended,” Moyers chided Wallace.
Wallace rejoined with the following on last Sunday’s broadcast: “Well, to save on postage, Bill, here’s my response. If you want to find out about someone’s religious beliefs, a good first step might be to ask him. If you had talked to Rove as I did, you would have found out he reads a devotional every day and the biggest charitable contribution he ever made was to his church. Of course, you never called Rove. That’s reporting 101, but it would have gotten in the way of a tasty story line about a non-believer flimflamming the Christian right. I guess, Bill, reporting is easier when you don’t worry about the facts.”
Hudson also wrote a letter to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler, who has publicly aired differences with Moyers, asking for and apology and correction.
Getler wrote Aug. 24 that he, too, had spoken to Rove.
“In his call to me, Rove said, ‘If someone says he is a believer, why is that not accepted? He (Moyers) has decided he will be the judge and the jury about whether I’m a believer.'”
Moyers documented his commentary with an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News, a paper that Moyers said “knows Rove well” questioning, “What other agnostic could have mobilized hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians behind a political banner?”
“How does the San Antonio Express know?” Rove reportedly complained to the PBS ombudsman. “They don’t. They don’t know me well.”
In an Aug. 13 blog on TheAtlantic.com, Marc Ambinder wrote: “I could be wrong here, but I distinctly recall conversations with Rove friends who’ve told me that his struggles with faith did not lead him to Jesus Christ.”
“Well, he is wrong,” Rove reportedly insisted to Getler.
James Moore wrote on the Huffington Post that Rove “told his friend Bill Israel years ago that he was agnostic and that ‘he wished he could believe, but he cannot.'” Moore wrote in a book with former Dallas Morning News bureau chief Wayne Slater that Rove once told a colleague he had no religious affiliation and was not a Christian.
Getler said Rove called Moore an “incredible left-wing ideologue.” Bill Israel, he said, “was once my teaching assistant. He was no more a close friend of mine than the man in the moon.”
“I attend church in my neighborhood and here in Washington,” Rove complained. “I was married in church, worship in church, tithe to the church. My faith is my business. This is just beyond the pale.”
Reports that Rove could be an atheist have been circulating for months.
Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was asked in an interview with New York magazine in May if anyone in the Bush administration had ever confided in him about being an atheist.
“Well, I don’t talk that much to them–maybe people think I do,” Hitchens replied. “I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, ‘I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.'”
Reports of Rove’s pragmatism and indifference to matters of faith–even while orchestrating outreach to church leaders–go back even further.
In a 2006 book Tempting Faith, former White House staffer David Kuo described President Bush’s faith-based initiative as a shill to entice evangelicals to vote for Republicans while giving them nothing in return.
Asked by an aide about how to roll out what was touted as a centerpiece of the Bush administration only days after he took office without a staff, office or plan, Kuo said Rove answered: “I don’t know, just get me a [expletive] faith-based thing. Got it?”
Kuo described a White House staff that tolerated evangelicals, while viewing them as “nuts” and describing them behind their backs as “ridiculous,” “out of control” and “just plain goofy.”
Even before that, John DiIulio, former director of the administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the first senior White House aide to resign, complained in 2003 to Esquire magazine that everything in the White House was being run by the political arm, which he nicknamed the “Mayberry Machiavellis.”
Dana Milbank, a Washington Post reporter and columnist who wrote a book about his experiences covering the 2000 presidential campaign, told the PBS program “Frontline” that Rove had great success with religious voters, but it was more about organization than conviction.
“He’s no theologian, and [former speechwriter] Mike Gerson really is,” Milbank said. “No, I’d say Karl is the tactician of how you motivate the religious conservatives. But if it were trade unions who loved Bush, he would have organized them in that same way. He was dealing with the landscape as it was.”
“What I’ve found to be true of Karl, contrary to what many people believe, [is that] he’s not an ideologue,” Milbank continued. “He’s certainly not a religious conservative. I think he’s not even that much of an ideological conservative. He’s a loyal-to-George W. Bush conservative, and he’s a partisan in the sense that he’s in to boost the Republican Party rather than a particular philosophy of limited government.”
Amid reports that Rove may have been behind the leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, former ambassador Joseph Wilson said he and Rove attend the same church.
“Now, I’m prepared to think the worst of Karl Rove ever since he told Chris Matthews that my wife was fair game,” Wilson said in 2005 on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
“And that’s tough for me, because Karl and I go to the same church. We go to different services; we go to the same church. I know his wife’s name, because we get a church newsletter. So, why he wouldn’t know my wife’s name? Perhaps he doesn’t read the newsletter.”
The Huffington Post quoted Rove from an off-the-record session in 2005 as saying, “Joe Wilson and I attend the same church, but Joe goes to the wacky mass.”
The documentary “Bush’s Brain” described it as an Episcopal Church.
Talking to the Washington Post, Wilson quoted Plame as saying of Rove, “Perhaps the next time we are taking communion I should introduce myself so he can see that I have a face and a name other than ‘fair game.'”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.