Senior White House staff members were left in a state of stunned silence Saturday when President Bush, in a rare display of lucidity and erudition, told a gathering of evangelical Christian leaders that Jesus and God were "illusions" and would have no place in future administration policy decisions.
"I gave my life over to Jesus when I quit drinking," said a somber Bush during the closed-door session, "but in the last week I've come to realize that any success I've had has been due in large part to the love and support of my family and friends, good fortune, and my own inner strength for overcoming adversity. And I can no longer in good conscience write off my failures - and there have been many failures - as the will of an omnipotent God. It's time that I take responsibility for them, because they are mine."
Before leaving, Bush added: "Religious faith in a personal god is nothing but a fanciful illusion. Evidence and reason will guide this administration from now on."
Evangelical Christian leaders were apoplectic.
"Evidence and reason!" said an exasperated Jerry Falwell after the meeting. "Evidence and reason! You don't win elections by thinking! You don't lead with your brain! Fear! Fear, superstition and pious devotion to outdated dogma! THAT'S how you make decisions! If there's no evidence for your position, then you fabricate the evidence. And if that doesn't work, you get a couple of photo ops inside a church. I thought he knew that."
According to one senior administration official who insisted on anonymity, James Dobson, the influential founder of Focus on the Family and one of the Bush administration's closest allies until today, stormed out of the Oval Office in a beet-red rage after hearing Bush's speech, shouting "God will gouge your eyes out with flaming swords and roast you over hot coals for all eternity!" before turning back and quietly adding, "But he still loves you!"
The reason for the sudden change in the Bush's spiritual outlook was unclear, though there was some speculation that the recent rash of natural disasters had taken its toll on the small, rational portion of the president's brain.
"Look," said a senior staff member who also wished to remain anonymous. "First you had the tsunami in Asia, then Katrina and Rita, now the major earthquake in Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of people dead. Millions of children are starving to death every year around the world. Violent pedophiles sexually torture their innocent victims while Jesus watches from the pulpit. Thousands of American troops and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis are dead because of his foreign policy incompetence. I mean, what kind of an idiot do you have to be to think that there's still a loving god in control of it all? I think the absurdity of that finally hit the president like a ton of bricks."
Bill O'Reilly of Fox News immediately questioned the validity of the report and suggested it might be the result of a vast conspiracy of atheists, homosexuals, and the ACLU.
"I cannot believe he said those things," said O'Reilly on his popular news show The Factor. "It's obviously a conspiracy led by Phil Donahue and the radical homosexual agenda. Once religious faith takes hold of you, it never lets go. Reason and evidence are no match for superstition and wishful thinking. I cannot imagine the president succumbing to them."
But reports from inside the White House continue to pour out in support of the president's new-found respect for independent thought. One source even claimed to have seen the president reading The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.
"He's gone," said the aide sadly. "Up until a week ago I'd never seen him read anything but Leviticus. Now he's reading Paine, Bertrand Russell, Twain, Flew, anything he can get his hands on. We've lost him."