Karl Rove Is An Atheist: More Evidence and Implications

President George W. Bush, Karen Hughe...
President George W. Bush, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove in the conference room aboard Air Force One. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that there is tremendous interest in the possibility that Karl Rove is an atheist. The recent post in which I quoted Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, as saying that Rove "is not a believer" generated great interest. In this post, I'll consider other evidence that confirms Hitchens' statement and discuss the implications of Rove's atheism.

Hitchens on Karl Rove and Bush

We start with Christopher Hitchens. What exactly did he say, and what was the context of his statement? During an interview with New York Magazine, Hitchens was asked whether he thought an openly atheistic candidate would ever be elected in the United States. He answered in the affirmative and was then asked whether anyone in the Bush administration has ever disclosed atheism to him. He replied,

Well, I don’t talk that much to them—maybe people think I do. 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.”

Hitchens' response to the next question was almost as interesting. The question was, "What must Bush make of that?" Hitchens replied,

I think it’s false to say that the president acts as if he believes he has God’s instructions. Compared to Jimmy Carter, he’s nowhere. He’s a Methodist, having joined his wife’s church in the end. He also claims that Jesus got him off the demon drink. He doesn’t believe it. His wife said, “If you don’t stop, I’m leaving and I’m taking the kids.” You can say that you got help from Jesus if you want, but that’s just a polite way of putting it in Texas.

So Rove, and to a lesser degree Bush himself, may not be the believers the American public thinks they are. In Rove's case, it appears that he has been willing to admit his lack of theistic belief to those close to him. In Bush's case, it sounds like the whole born-again thing may be little more than a public relations strategy.

David Kuo's Account of Rove

While Hitchens' statements may be new for the majority of the American people, Rove's atheism may be unsurprising to political insiders. David Kuo, former second-in-command of Bush’s Office on Faith-Based Initiatives, wrote a book detailing how the Bush administration has used Christianity to win votes. In Kuo's Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, he alleges that Bush created his faith-based office to manipulate evangelical Christians.

An excerpt from the book posted by ThinkProgress in October of 2006 (update: link no longer active) states,

Three days later, a Tuesday, Karl Rove summoned [Don] Willett [a former Bush aide from Texas who initially shepherded the program] to his office to announce that the entire faith-based initiative would be rolled out the following Monday. Willett asked just how — without a director, staff, office, or plan — the president could do that. Rove looked at him, took a deep breath, and said, “I don’t know. Just get me a f—ing faith-based thing. Got it?” Willett was shown the door.
Kuo's allegations were also reported by MSNBC (update: link no longer active). According to MSNBC, Kuo "says some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as 'the nuts.'"
“National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person and then were dismissed behind their backs and described as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and just plain ‘goofy,’” Kuo writes.

Implications of Rove's Atheism

Does it matter that Karl Rove is an atheist? Yes and no. In one sense, it should matter greatly to all Americans because the Bush administration has long attempted to equate itself with righteous born-again Christianity. Bush himself is especially fond of speaking about his god and how he believes he is carrying out the will of his god. To find out that Rove is an atheist and that Bush is perhaps not far behind should therefore be of great interest. As Austin Cline notes,

One of the most prominent and defining characteristics of the Bush administration has been its commitment to the promotion of religion — and not just religion generally, but conservative evangelical Christianity in particular.

In another sense, whether it matters will be shaped by who you are. Atheists who despised Rove before are not suddenly going to embrace him now. We might share a lack of theistic belief, but I'm fairly confident that this is all we share. By itself, a lack of belief in gods unites us no more than a lack of belief in Santa Claus.

On the other hand, I would expect this to matter a great deal to Christians, especially those who voted for Bush. I would think that they might feel betrayed, used, and perhaps even humiliated. Such feelings would be understandable. They elected an administration who makes fun of them behind their backs, plays on their fears, makes promises which are not honored, and essentially exploits their willingness to trust someone who claims to be one of them.

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