Following days of spin and commentary, we can confidently declare a new urban legend: George W. Bush was elected by right-wing, science-hating, vengeful Christian zealots - "revved up by rectitude," as one pundit put it - and America is embarked on a hatchet-wielding jihad against heathens, pagans and infidels.
Colorful. But then so is pollution in certain lights. It's also wrong and awfully ignorant coming from the side of the political spectrum that considers itself the more intelligent segment of the American population. Not only did the right wing not elect Bush - only slightly more evangelical Christians (5 percent) voted for Bush this time around than in 2000 - but Bush himself is far to the left of the so-called "moral right."
As former secretary of education William J. Bennett pointed out Monday in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, Bush's election was a slightly-right-of-center mandate, rather than a far-right one. Of nearly 60 million votes for Bush, some 20 million came from evangelical Christians. The other 40 million votes came from others, including increased numbers of Jews, Catholics, blacks and Latinos.
Yet all the chatter in recent days is about those weird Christians and their bizarre "agenda." Always preaching about duty to family, making a fuss about pornography and promiscuity, carrying on about homosexual marriage. What's wrong with those people, anyway?
The media seem suddenly, if belatedly, obsessed, approaching the evangelical Christian voting block as anthropologist Margaret Mead did the Samoans. Chris Matthews suggested on "Hardball" that reporters should be sent out to cover the red states as one might a foreign country. You can imagine the scramble. Among least coveted assignments, embedding with Real Americans would be second only to spending August in Crawford, Texas.
Because I live in South Carolina, I've gotten a few calls myself from television and radio producers seeking insight. I feel like Jane Goodall being summoned from the hinterlands to report on the behavioral habits of the indigenous wildlife.
"Fascinating," I picture them saying as they stroke their chins. "They even go to church on Wednesdays, too? Whatever for?!"
Why, for the beheadings, of course. OK, I'm kidding. It's the snakes.
Just as Samoan women are alleged to have lied to Mead about their freewheeling, premarital sex romps, red staters may be sorely tempted to offer exaggerated tales to curious intellectuals. They're so cute when they're perplexed. Alas, their own interpretations are sufficiently exaggerated without my help, as this typical reader e-mail suggests:
We will just have to adjust to a new world that was created in six days, where women were created from a man's rib and where global warming does not exist according to science advisor Rush Limbaugh. Scientists like myself will just have to be wary of stakes with brush piled underneath, and suppress any sign of intellect while mumbling something about being saved and born again.
The urban myth has taken hold even among scientific minds, it seems. Yet objectively, the myth is holier than Peter's net. Bush, though he identifies himself as an evangelical Christian, isn't nearly as conservative as those on the far right might wish him to be, nor are Christian evangelicals all knuckle-dragging throwbacks. Last time I checked, not a single one had ordered the murder of an infidel. But you knew that.
Despite our near-pathological need to label and categorize, the United States isn't really a far-left and a far-right country, bright red and bright blue. While such demographic labels are convenient for political debate - and indispensable to column writing - the fact is that most Americans dwell in that vast lavender (purple?) area in between.
In that middle, people are complex and hold a variety of views, some liberal, some conservative, depending on the issue. Most don't cleave to an either-or position on even the hot-button issues. Many Americans still support a woman's right to abortion, for instance, but think reasonable limits can be set without condemning women to life terms in the kitchen.
The debate, meanwhile, about whether "moral values" was the compelling force behind Bush's victory seems slightly off point. Exit polls showing "moral values" as the most important issue for voters (22 percent cited it) were refuted subsequently by other polls, leading some to insist that the election wasn't about values after all.
What they mean, probably correctly, is that the election wasn't only about far-right concerns such as same-sex marriage, abortion and stem cell research. But of course it was about moral values - what's right and what's wrong, from war to national character - and the vote took us right of center.
As for Bush's alleged "jihad," only true jihadists have reason to protest. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, Bush fights religious fanaticism while the left apologizes for it. Amen to that.