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Bush’s imperial theology

BJ Strew | Sunday, December 7, 2003

Since President George W. Bush took office, he has availed himself of the Almighty in more than a few speeches. Some find this sincere, even stirring. Others find it disingenuous and politically expedient. Regardless, it is clear that Bush’s overly religious rhetoric bodes ill for America in both the short and long term.Writing for The Nation, the Costa Rican pastor Juan Stam cuts his beef with Bush’s rhetoric into three slices: Manichaeism, Messianism and Manipulation of Prayer. The black-and-white vision of Manichaeism has found expression in many of Bush’s speeches. For example, after Sept. 11, Bush said, “This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.” Few have likely forgotten the “axis of evil.” Then there’s Bush’s perception of his (and America’s) messianic role. Bush had been “called” to run for president; America must “confound the designs of evil men,” because “our calling, as a blessed country, is to make the world better.” Add to this Bush’s many photos of him at prayer, or the ten minutes of isolation from his advisers he asked for, before giving Saddam Hussein the ultimatum.It would of course be naïve to expect in the near future to see religion divested from politics, as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has noted. But religion’s role must be limited. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which promotes the separation of church and state, reminds us that the presidency is a secular job. He is “not to be our pastor or preacher or a prophet, but a person who uses both the Constitution and the secular principles of the country to make decisions.” Bush intertwines religion and politics far too closely.When Bush declared victory in Iraq from the aircraft carrier, he said: “Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope – a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “To the captives, ‘come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘be free.'” In this year’s State of the Union address, President Bush said “Americans should be placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May He guide us now.” With Bush’s foreign policy, he seems to view our country as half exorcist, half evangelist.On his desk, Bush has a picture of former president Theodore Roosevelt – a reminder of a long line of brazenly Christian presidents. Doug Underwood, professor of communications at the University of Washington, said they were both very religious men and were not afraid to mix religion and politics.Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden” in 1899, which suggested that it was the responsibility of white Christians to educate and convert the lower classes. Underwood said that the first person to whom Kipling sent this was Roosevelt and that this strengthens the link between the two presidents’ foreign policies.When asked, “Should we expect our president to use faith to guide him in foreign policy?” on CNN’s program “Market Call,” Deborah Caldwell, senior producer of Beliefnet, a multi-faith religious Web site conceded that many, if not all, presidents are at least in part guided by their faith, but that “what discomforts a lot of people about President Bush is that he seems to be using his faith, in a more public way, to guide his policy and has seemed to use the idea of good and evil” – Manichaeism again – “as a principle on which he bases his decision to attack Iraq.”In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, however uneasily, ended the era of religious warfare, by giving the sovereign the right to determine the official religion of each country in Europe. We’ve come a long way since then: the United States was the first nation to make religious tolerance and state neutrality the national creed. Looking at Bush’s rhetoric, state neutrality seems to him either an alien or simply untoward notion.The Progressive has offered a phrase to characterize Bush’s approach to politics: messianic militarism. “Bush seems to believe he is carrying out God’s will by waging war,” the magazine remarks. Bush is quoted as saying there exists “a human condition that we must worry about in times of war. There is a value system that cannot be compromised – God-given values. These aren’t United States-created values.” What is unsettling is that Bush doesn’t merely yoke religion and politics, but religion and militarism, specifically. A dark irony apparently lost on Bush is that this phenomenon is mirrored precisely in the perverse fundamentalism of Al-Qaeda terrorists.Bush’s imperial theology is a throwback to an unsavory period in world history. He may have expressed regret for using the term “crusade” after Sept. 11, but the echoes of the term persist in both Bush’s words and his actions.

BJ Strew is a junior English major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be contacted at wstrew@nd.eduThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer.