Sep 04 2008
“The first duty of the philosopher in our world today is to fight against fanaticism under whatever guise it may appear.”
Listen to what Marcel is saying here. He is saying that we don’t get to pick which fanaticisms we oppose and which we embrace. He is saying that fanaticism as such must be opposed. Given that every “ism” is a fanaticism” more or less cleverly concealed, are we then to oppose all of them? Must we always be “reasonable”? Or do some things demand a level of commitment from us that cannot be described as anything less than “fanatical”? If so, then on what ground do we base our triage? How to decide which “isms” to oppose and which to champion? Everyone can agree that the fanaticisms of communism and fascism should be opposed wherever they present themselves. Many would say that capitalism (especially of the uncontrolled, freebooter variety) should equally be opposed. But what about those “isms” of which we approve? What about internationalism? Humanism? And what about that most problematical of fanaticisms, idealism? If these fanaticisms are not also to be opposed, then we need to evolve a “truth test” for good vs. bad fanaticisms, a truth test that by the nature of its structure and content would command assent from any rational moral agent. This truth test would require a lot more rigor than “Well, this fanaticism is nice to people and this fanaticism is mean to people.” That’s the truth test of the schoolyard, and is useless.
This subject demands an expanded essay in itself. More: it demands a book. Maybe some day when I hit the lottery I’ll have the free time to write it. 🙂
Sep 04 2008
Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, by Rev. Barry W. Lynn, New York: Harmony, 2007 , 270 pp. hardcover
Barry Lynn is angry. Furious, in fact. And the object of the man’s fury is the politicized, evangelical religious fanaticism that has seized control of America’s moral discourse. As a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Lynn is an unlikely figure to be standing in the front ranks against the tide of militant Christianity that threatens the United States. Unlikely or not, Lynn seems to be hitting the right keys and pressing the right buttons: he has incurred the wrath of right-wingers like Jerry Falwell and Patrick Buchanan, and Lynn has the distinction of having once been described by Pat Robertson as “lower than a child molester.” If one can be known by one’s enemies, then I like the guy already.
Lynn does not waste any time, wading right into the middle of the battle almost from the first page. He takes an almost boyish delight in going toe-to-toe with the Religious Right on some of their favorite obsessions: public education, religious symbols, the church in politics, censorship and sexual politics. Lynn believes that the Religious Right has it all wrong, that their Bible-based worldview is an unacceptable basis for approaching the question of how America should be run. He demands that American politicians stop their pandering attempts to use the Bible to justify their actions and instead put their faith in the document that they are all sworn to defend: the U.S. Constitution. But Lynn is no wide-eyed naïf; he knows the history of his country, and he understand how tenuous the separation of Church and State is, especially now.
“When, in the history of the world, has a union of church and state ever been a good thing?” With these words, Lynn attempts to reason with the fundamentalists, posing a question that they are unwilling to consider and ill equipped to answer. Unlike the Religious Right, Lynn knows the true history of his country, and is able to describe religion’s long struggle to usurp America’s secular system of government. Those Americans who believe that the current spasm of fundamentalism is something new, or even exceptional, will perhaps take comfort from Lynn’s insightful analysis of the history of a fanaticism that has always been embedded in the fabric of American culture, and his explanation of how America has (so far) survived the ill effects of this fanaticism.
Quite simply, there was never a time when some form of struggle between secularism and fanaticism was not taking place. We must remember that the first colonists in New England came to the New World seeking religious freedom because their fanatical brand of religiosity was too radical for the Europe of the time. Mind you, we are talking about a Europe riddled with religious wars, a Europe where witches were burned along side heretics who dared to claim the Earth was not the center of the universe. And yet America’s “Puritan forefathers” were too radical to be tolerated in that environment. If we keep this thought at hand, we have no problem understanding the eruptions of bizarre religiosity that litter American history with almost monotonous regularity.
In the 19th century, “tensions over religion in public school rode so high … that in 1844 a riot erupted after rumors circulated that schools were going to remove Protestant religious exercises.” An organization called the National Reform Association (the Moral Majority of its time) engaged in a protracted campaign to have an amendment to the Constitution declare that America was “a Christian nation,” and propagandized at the local level to write into law the idea that commerce and revelry should be curtailed on “The Lord’s Day” (an idea that continues to enjoy wide support throughout many areas of the U. S. to this day).
Very little changed in the 20th century, except that the Religious Right became more sophisticated and clever as they struggled to infect the Constitution with the virus of religiosity. Lynn reminds us that the seemingly immutable slogans “one nation, under God” and “In God We Trust” are relatively recent innovations, driven by the decision in the 1950s to recruit God “in the battle against juvenile delinquency and communism.” The propaganda campaign to portray secularism as “some amoral, libertine perspective on life” also gained enormous traction in the second half of the 20th century, and not just among those who were obvious fringe cases. One cannot help but think of Joe Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign, making the truly alarming claim in his stump speech that “faith is necessary for good behavior.”
Lynn oscillates between sadness and ill-concealed amusement when he discusses the fact that, in the United States, “secularism is mandated by the government, but religion still pervades the culture with a strong and vibrant voice. In much of Europe, there is no government mandate of secularism, but the cultures are effectively secular.” This is no exaggeration: I have driven through much of Europe, from the Spanish border to Bavaria, and it is only in Italy that one sees even a faint echo of the old religious madness. For the most part, the old churches of Europe, from the grand cathedrals to the most humble village church, are now nothing more than museums. As Lynn observes, the churches of Europe “lack for only one thing: congregants.”
Lynn seems to recognize, at least implicitly, that America’s tribal and atavistic religiosity will never wither away the way it did in Europe. There is something unique about the tightening grip that religion has on America, something toxic and not a little bit mad. Yet even within this historical context, Lynn is forced to admit, “I’ve never seen the situation this bad.” The disease of religious fanaticism has mutated, growing ever more dangerous as it turns the tools of modernity against modernity itself in a struggle to undermine America’s secular foundations.
Lynn has no illusions about the nature and ambitions of America’s new crop of fundamentalists. “I’ve studies the tactics of these groups for more than thirty years. I know what they want. They want to run your life, mine, and everyone else’s as much as they possibly can.” While these Christian zealots always portray themselves as oppressed and marginalized, “members of the clergy walk the halls of Congress … pressing their views and often being warmly received. You see them in the senators’ dining room. I’ve been there myself.” These influential members of the clergy – effectively, lobbyists for the Christian fundamentalist worldview – have admirable persistence and remarkable message discipline. Everything wrong in this country, without exception, can be laid at the feet of the godless and dubious plot by secularists and their lackeys to promulgate the separation of Church and State. Whether it is rampant immorality, plunging SAT scores, the epidemic of unwed motherhood, gay marriage, or the scourge of drugs in our urban ghettoes, all of it is the fault of the separation of Church and State. If only America could go back to those halcyon days when religion was the basis of every aspect of American life, all would be well.
This is a seductive message, perhaps because of its simplicity, perhaps because it appeals to the seemingly universal yearning for a Golden Age that never was. America’s Golden Age was brought to ruin when “that mean old Supreme Court, prodded by an atheist, intervened and threw prayer out” of the public schools. Within this context, an “activist judge” is “simply a judge who writes an opinion the Religious Right doesn’t like.” As a proudly “God-centered” Bush administration loaded the American judicial system with judges who held the “correct views,” the leaders of the fundamentalist movement, never noted for their timidity, shook off the last of their inhibitions and began to speak more openly about their grand vision of what a God-besotted American future would look like. Lynn cleverly allows fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to reveal themselves – and betray themselves – with their own words. They really do make it almost too easy for Lynn to mock them and then dispose of them.
We are dealing, after all, with men who genuinely believe that “God punishes communities that displease him with hurricanes, floods, and meteors; who assert that demons control major U.S. cities and who think Harry Potter books lure children into practicing witchcraft.” As he offers us up a seemingly endless smorgasbord of choice tidbits from the mouthpieces of the Religious Right, Lynn gives us a feel for the deeply strange beliefs of America’s fundamentalists, an archaic, tribal view of the world that would seem more at home being articulated by some shaman crouched around a Neolithic campfire, or by a priest standing atop an Aztec sacrificial pyramid. The fact that this deeply uncivilized way of understanding the world finds millions of adherents in the world’s sole remaining superpower should do more than give us pause – it should scare the hell out of us.
What Lynn gives us along with his analysis of the thinking of the Religious Right is a deep and disturbing sense of how radically opposed to America’s freedoms these people really are. They want to control what all citizens do, and they are perfectly willing to enlist the government, the courts and law-enforcement if that is what it takes to rid themselves of the burden of a freedom that they are unwilling to embrace. Lynn, to his credit, continues to believe that the American people are too smart to stand for this, and that most Americans want a government that is free of religious dicta. Those of us who share his deep concern for the influence of the Religious Right in American life can only hope that he is right. I for one do not share his optimism.
Lynn tells us that “a get-along philosophy … will increasingly prove disastrous” and that we will end up “whistling past the graveyard of our Bill of Rights and religious freedom if we take that road.” Yet, having said this, Lynn continues to preach restraint and an insistence on “sweet reason” as the best approach for dealing with the predations of the fundamentalists. Relating an anecdote about a televised confrontation with a member of the Religious Right, Lynn recalls that the host told him off-camera, “your side isn’t as passionate as his side.” Therein lies an enormous problem, and therein lies the reason that in America today, the Religious Right marches on, rampant though not (yet) completely triumphant. The forces of common sense and reason continue to lose ground to the forces of religious bigotry and intolerance. And in a country where every candidate for public office feels compelled to outdo the others with ever more over-the-top proclamations of personal religiosity, the problem is not going to go away when a new tenant moves into the White House.
While Lynn remains a strong proponent of a rational, even-handed approach, one occasionally gets an exciting sense of the rhetorical power that Lynn must deploy when he is in the pulpit and the spirit moves him. I found myself wishing for more of the sort of fire that Lynn displays when he shouts – and though they are only words on the page, I had no problem imaging him shouting them — “I am weary of their gay bashing. I am weary of their crude attacks on nonbelievers. I am weary of their constant effort to sneak their bogus “creation science” into our schools. I am weary of their meddling in the most intimate areas of our private lives. I am weary of their attempts to politicize houses of worship. I am weary of all that they do.”
Preach on, Reverend.
Aug 23 2008
On 9/11, America was shocked to discover that there was an outside world with many, many people in it who quite simply hated America’s guts – and this discovery scared the hell out of America. If the last several years are an indication of what America’s future holds – and I believe they are – then 9/11 will haunt and infest American cultural life for many years to come. Everything that Americans think, write, do and believe will be refracted through this enormous funhouse lens. This event, which contained so much potential to inspire serious-minded reflection and subtle analysis, instead inspired America to do what it does best: unleash its power.
Michel Foucault wrote of:
A power that presented rules and obligations as personal bonds, a breach of which constituted an offense and called for vengeance; of a power for which disobedience was an act of hostility, the first sign of rebellion .. of a power that had to demonstrate not only why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies … of a power that was recharged in the ritual display of its reality as ‘superpower.’
America’s favorite ritual display is war, something that seems to have an almost addictive power over Americans. America spends as much on war as the rest of the world combined. This is beyond any sane concept of “security”; this is the behavior of a junkie.
I do not describe this behavior as “addiction” lightly. As writer Chris Hedges pointed out (at a college commencement address at which he was shouted down by an auditorium full of fresh-faced, patriotic young Americans), “the seduction of war is so insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true – it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel we belong.” This is why America – a country full of people who are so un-alike in so many ways – embraces this addictive new chapter in its love affair with war, the “Global War on Terror.” Because as soon as that warm, patriotic glow of togetherness starts to dim (as it appears it is now doing with the “Iraq front in the war on terror”), a new battle in this war without end is served up: pure, uncut, expensive as hell but cheap at twice the price, ready to be mainlined by an eager nation.
America does not view its decades-long string of foreign-policy disasters (most recently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) as failures of diplomacy and policy. War replaces diplomacy and defines policy. War is the point: so easy, so unambiguous, so damned glamorous compared to the mundane tedium of building consensus and displaying moral leadership.
But what is this frantic, almost compulsive resort to the military option as the default response really in aid of?
I recently found myself re-reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, and I was struck by how easily one can map Hobbes’ mythical authoritarian/submissive society to America in the 21st century. Hobbes believed that a society’s function was to accrue more and more power, to strive constantly to seize the upper hand, all in aid of defending a passive and cowering populace from a world full of evil enemies. Hobbes argued that humans are always willing to accept submission to a strong and domineering leadership in exchange for protection from evildoers. Protection from fear itself, in effect. The citizens of Leviathan were so riddled with fear and doubt that they surrendered their freedom with breathtaking eagerness. America’s default attitude since 9/11 can best be summed up by Derrida’s wonderful phrase: “manic triumphalism.” However, this is mere posturing, intended to cover a deep core of dread. Underneath all the testosterone-laden, Hoo-Rah bravado, America in the 21st century is the new Leviathan, in which the citizens cower like whipped dogs.
Still, the unabashed willingness with which Americans surrendered their freedoms must give us pause. Because at the end of the day, that is the fundamental question: why did so many Americans toss off the burden of freedom with such eagerness? I would like to propose at least a partial answer. America is a country where 90% of the people describe themselves as “religious” and 46% describe themselves as “evangelical.” Eighty-six percent of Americans believe in miracles; 83% believe in a real, literal Virgin Birth. Over 40% of Americans believe the world will end in an actual battle of Armageddon, and a stunning 45% believe in a real, anthropomorphic Devil. With horns, mind you. To the majority of Americans, the people who live and die within such a belief system, America’s vaunted “freedom” – and, more importantly, the consequences of that freedom – is, quite simply, horrifying. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and “Piss Jesus” and Mapplethorpe’s photos of men with bullwhips jammed up their asses, on and on and on. They look at America’s free society, they look at the things that this free society permits to happen and they hate what they see. They absolutely hate modern America, and they believe that surrendering their freedom is a very small price to pay in order to make it stop. These Americans have more in common with Muslim fundamentalists than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in 21st century America. America will have another Bush some day, because it is what so many Americans want and need.
Aug 16 2008
“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the patterns of their words.”
I no longer call myself an atheist. Oh,don’t get me wrong: I still don’t believe there is a God or gods, but I have decided that the label “a-theist” makes no more sense as a positive self-description that describing oneself as an a-Bunnyist or an a-Santaist or an a-ToothFairyist. It is a negation, is it an “I am not” rather than an “I am”. Defining oneself on the basis of what one is not is quite literally absurd. I am not a scrapbooker, but I do not view “not a scrapbooker” as a self-descriptive label and a basis for solidarity with other “not a scrapbooker” people. One can quickly see how absurd this really is. How sad, how limiting to define oneself in terms of one thing out of the many things one does not believe.
I refuse to make a religion out of my lack of religion. I don’t organize my life or my thinking around my lack of belief. My life and my life’s projects are driven by things that matter. If I have to call myself anything, I could do a lot worse than steal an idea from Kierkegaard and label myself:
Aug 02 2008
Alone among the developed nations of the West, the US still glorifies war and the “warrior.” This serves as an object lesson to the rest of the world about what happens when a nation obtains the means to wage war at will anywhere around the globe without also maturing into the wisdom to abhor the idea of war. I have come to believe that the love and glorification of war is something that a nation outgrows, and the US has a very long way to go before it is mature enough to turn its back on war. Indeed, I doubt that there can ever again be conditions dire enough to pull the US kicking and screaming out of its warlike childhood.
Join me below the fold, won’t you?
Jul 22 2008
I wanted to try and generate some discussion on a subject that will continue to resonate regardless of who wins in November: the pathological coupling between fundamentalism, flag worship, and what can be called, for lack of a better term, “warrior worship.” Join me below the fold, won’t you?
Jul 14 2008
Crossposted at The Crusty Polemicist.
I wish French President Sarkozy all the luck in the world building a “Mediterranean Union” — like the European Union, but encompassing the countries of the Mediterranean basin. His idea has three fundamental problems, things that are differences from the situation that prevailed at the founding of the EU:
1. with the EU, all the founding countries had pretty much come to the conclusion that war was no way to get things done. They were all prepared to turn their backs on making war and get on with the much harder work of making peace. With countries like Syria, Libya, Israel, and Serbia in the Mediterranean Union mix, there are way too many countries that still think war is a great way to solve problems.
Jul 11 2008
Originally posted at The Crusty Polemicist.
1. Clermont on the Potomac
On November 27, 1095, at a religious council held in Clermont, Pope Urban II delivered
what is perhaps the most famous sermon ever composed. He informed the assembled
faithful that he had “come into these parts with a divine admonition for you”. Urban’s
listeners, who probably expected a mundane, workaday bit of preaching, instead found
their faces burning with holy shame as their Pope cried out, “O what a disgrace if such a
despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the
faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious in the name of Christ!” Urban was calling
Christendom to strike out at the “despised and base race” known as the Muslims, and
strike them down in the name of a vengeful and broad-shouldered God. Europe thrilled to
Urban’s depiction of it as the very sword-arm of Christ, and it promptly marched off en
masse to commence the long-lived folly we now call “The Crusades”.
This sort of militant Christian religiosity is viewed nowadays by most developed Western
nations as a quaint though bloody aspect of a long-ago period of de facto religious
insanity in Europe and the Middle East. I say “most” because there is one glaring
exception: the United States, where precisely this sort of militant Christian religiosity is resurgent, rampant, and (as the American President assures us) “on the march”. The American “War President” is totally engaged as a constant, zealous cheerleader for this sense of a unique Christian mission. Mister Bush’s “war on terror” has been and will continue to be a war by a militantly Christian country against a predominantly Muslim part of the world, led by a President who genuinely believes he was called by God to this one great task.
Bush’s militant Christian zeal, and his deployment of the discourse of a distinctly American sermonizing in the service of war, simply confirms the worst suspicions of the rest of the world that America is indeed fighting a “Crusade” against Islam. Any European leader who spoke to his people in the language used by Bush would be sent packing to the sound of gales of laughter, but Europe adopts a condescending attitude towards Bush’s new Crusade at its peril. Bush’s followers may sound like classic religious loonies – indeed, as we shall see, many of them are – but they are also (for the moment) at the steering wheel of the world’s last remaining superpower. As such, they are very dangerous indeed, and it is worth the time to try to decipher the strangely hypnotic cadences that Bush uses to lift up his faithful to fight the great Crusade.
We need to understand that George W. Bush is not a President. He is a preacher. He is only at home when he is delivering a sermon. Outside the familiar ground of the fundamentalist tent, Bush is testy, impatient, insecure, uncomfortable inside his own skin. But when he has worked himself up to the sort of pure, testifying eloquence that evokes a form of religious mania created and purified on dusty American back roads by sun-maddened itinerant preachers, the naked outpouring of almost devotion and affirmation from his congregation is a darkly terrifying thing to see. Bush the preacher knows something that his audience also knows, something that America alone in the world knows: Evil is real. The End Times are coming. The Devil is real, and waits for the unwary at every moonlit country crossroads. And America, alone among all the nations of the Earth, is called by God to accomplish the thing that has never been accomplished in the whole long, sad history of religion: “to rid the world of evil.” We need to explore the history, the structure, and the passion of Mister Bush’s long and continuing sermon, if for no other reason than to conjure ways to blunt its dangerous influence in the world.
2. “God Speaks Through Me”
One can savor the irony of the famously messianic
chest-thumping of the atheist President Lincoln and of the vicious white supremacist
President Wilson, but we must understand that there has always been a strain of
what I have chosen to call “sermonic discourse” in the war rhetoric of American
For instance, in his address to the American Congress at the beginning of 1942, Franklin
Roosevelt stated unequivocally that “victory for us means victory for religion. And they
[the enemy] could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate living
room for both Hitler and God.” Roosevelt ends this amazing and little-known sermon using words that sound all too familiar today: “We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.”
One can easily trot out example after example of this sort of sermonic discourse in the
history of the United States. It is really not surprising, given
that those settlers who first “tamed” the “New World” consisted of small sects (today we
would call them “cults”) composed of people whose religious peculiarities were considered too radical and dangerous to be allowed to remain in Europe
(no small feat, given the general religious madness infesting Europe at the time). But —
and this cannot be emphasized too strongly — all of these sermonizing Presidents (with the
possible exception of Wilson) understood that their rhetoric was rhetoric, which gave
them the saving grace of a sense of proportion and distance. George W. Bush is
another species of President. When Bush preaches, he is completely sincere. This is a
man who delights in telling people that, were it not for the saving power
of Christ, he would be sitting at a bar somewhere in Texas instead of running the world.
As head of the most overtly Fundamentalist administration in memory, Bush is utterly
convinced that “God speaks through me.”
George Bush’s single rhetorical gift consists in conveying this sincerity to large numbers of Americans. He does this, not through a single “call-to-arms” sermon, as Urban did at
Clermont, but rather by refining and amplifying the uniquely American sermonic
discourse, by using the cadences and imagery of the Baptist pulpit so that his every
speech becomes yet another passage in one long sermon, a sermon with the power to
3. “Let he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
One must be wary of conflating sincerity with transparency when unpacking the content
of the Bush sermon. Bush is utterly sincere and utterly obscure in his meaning – unless
you are one of the faithful. It is impossible to ever take a single word of the Bush sermon at face value. All of Bush’s speeches are sermons, and all of his sermons are parables. One can never understand Bush’s power over the faithful unless one learns the “code” he uses to give a wink and a nod to his fellow believers.
All due credit for crafting the ongoing discourse of the Bush sermon must be given to
Michael Gerson, Bush’s one-time chief speechwriter. Gerson, the man who gave us
the unforgettable phrase “Axis of Evil”, is a typical product of the American Midwest. He
is also a theology graduate, and as such is capable of manufacturing the perfect Christian allusion to complement Bush’s often inarticulate passion. But we must never mistake the servant for the master. Bush dictates the content, Bush dictates the underlying message, and Bush is the master of the code. Let us take a look at a few
examples of how the code is deployed.
In one of his annual “State of the Union” messages, Bush spoke of the “wonder-working
powers” of the “goodness and idealism and faith of the American people”. For a non-
American (or even a non-religious American, of which there are still a few), this
would seem like an odd, “quaint” sort of phrase for America’s highest elected
official to use. But a member of the Fundamentalist faithful would immediately recognize
the phrase as coming from the gruesomely-named hymn, “There is Power In The Blood”.
In the next “State of the Union” speech, Bush deployed vivid imagery that
contained words and echoes guaranteed to resonate with Fundamentalists. When
he spoke of his belief that “History has called America and our allies to action”, he knew
that his followers, hearing the potent word “call”, would immediately make the necessary
substitution in their minds and hear “God” instead of “History”. He sent the same
message in a speech to the Association of Religious Broadcasters when he stated that “we
must also remember our calling as a blessed nation to make the world better … and
confound the designs of evil men.” Continuing, Bush claimed that “Freedom is not
America’s gift to the world. It is God’s gift to humanity. Therefore, the nation which
embodies freedom should bear this gift to every human being in the whole world.”
We need to step back and take a long look at this problematic word, “freedom”. Note
how often Bush uses the word “freedom” in his sermon, and how often it seems to stand
out as so “odd,” both in the context in which he uses it and against the realities of the Bush project. I have come to the conclusion that, when speaking of “freedom”, Bush is
employing the time-honored preacher’s tool known as the parable. When you hear a Bush
sermon, do a little thought experiment: every time he says “freedom”, mentally substitute
the word “Christianity.” I have been going back over many of the components of
Bush’s long sermon, and the substitution works so precisely that I am forced to
conclude that this is no accident, that he is sending a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the
faithful. Let us try substituting the word “Christian” in place of “free” and “freedom” and see what happens.
“Christianity is not America’s gift to the world. It is God’s gift to humanity.”
“I believe that God wants everybody to be Christian.”
Here is a longer example. Note that even in this extended passage, the substitution maps
“Christianity is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress here
on Earth. The progress of Christianity is a powerful trend. Yet, we also know that
Christianity, if not defended, can be lost. The success of Christianity is not determined by some dialectic of history. By definition, the success of Christianity rests upon the choices and the courage of Christian peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice.”
See, one can treat this as an entertaining intellectual parlor game – but a game with dark, sad consequences.
For those who naively believed that Bush was not sincere, and that he
would drop the sermonic discourse in his second term, his 2004 inaugural address must
have been a chilling wakeup call. If you have never read a transcript of this address, I invite you to do so. In this short address, he used the code word “freedom” 27 times (and the word “free” an additional 8 times). Many who lacked the ears to hear the parable
embedded in this sermon puzzled over this constant drumbeat of the word “freedom”.
Once one understands what the word “freedom” actually means to Bush and his
followers, the speech is terrifying. Italy’s newspaper La Republica summed it up by
saying, “there is a sense of a man who considers the whole world as his own parish.” I
personally felt a cold chill when Bush proclaimed to American that “we have
a calling from beyond the stars to spread freedom across the world.” In trying to shake
this disturbing invocation from my mind, I joked “well this proves it — he’s getting his
marching orders from alien space invaders from beyond the stars!” None of my friends
laughed. Come to think of it, neither did I.
4. “Like Joan of Arc, You Must Be Brave”
If my suspicion is true, and Bush is sending “coded sermons” to American
Christian Fundamentalists, one would assume that every major denomination would be delighted to discover that one of their own holds the highest post in the
land. In fact, Bush’s relationship with the major denominations is problematic
at best. When I watch how Bush conducts himself in regard to the American religious
establishment, I am reminded of the great lyrics by Lene Lovich: “Like Joan of Arc, you
must be brave, and listen to your heart.” Like Joan, Bush is constantly being picked up and carried forward by voices in his head – voices that he believes come from God Himself. There is no trace of irony or symbolism in his manner when Bush tells another head of state, “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.” Imagine then the impact that this hardwired direct connection to The Almighty has on those religionists who naively believe that Bush is “one of them”.
Amazingly, given his billing as “America’s most religious President”, Bush is the first
president not to have met with the leadership of any of the mainstream religious
organizations. The Rev. Fritz Ritsch, writing in the Washington Post,
complained, “The president apparently believes that he can talk about theology from the
bully pulpit without talking to theologians.” The sense of anger and spite at having been
cut out of their traditional (and very lucrative) role as intermediary between the
Sovereign and his God is palpable among American religious leaders. This was felt
most keenly during the mad charge towards war in Iraq. In the weeks before the war
began, a ranking member of the Council of Methodist Bishops sulked publicly over the
fact that his organization had spent several months in a fruitless attempt to obtain an
interview with Bush, himself a Methodist (at least, on paper). “The President has not
been willing to hear the voice of his own church.” That lovely old Biblical phrase, “stiff-necked”, seems appropriate here. Bush, quite simply, does not need the religious hierarchy to fulfill his mission. He has his God. And he has his People.
If George Bush’s sermon did not resonate with a significant portion of the American
people, his high-bandwidth line to The Lord and his apocalyptic discourse
would be of no more interest to us than the rants of some lunatic wandering the streets of
any major city in the world, proclaiming the reality of Evil and the imminent end of this
tired and dissolute old world. Unfortunately, the Bush sermon does resonate across large
stretches of America, and one is forced to confront the question: why?
First, though by no means most importantly, Bush is just like them. He’s a redeemed
sinner, he has seen the light, he has felt his heart moved and changed by a personal
encounter with Jesus Christ. Like so many Americans, he is convinced that he would
have nothing and would be nothing without his unshakeable faith in The Lord.
This view of the world echoes powerfully in the anachronistic backwater of George
Bush’s America. In contrast to the developed Western world, where religion is
withering away due to lack of interest, more than 90 percent of the American people
believe in a real, personal God. Eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles, with 40
percent of them stating that they had personally experienced or witnessed a miracle. Half
the population of America attends church on a weekly basis, and 53 percent say religion
is a “very important” part of their lives. Amazingly, 43 percent of the American people
believe in the Devil, with horns and a tail. With Bush in the White House, the
nation’s capitol is now the heart of this Christian darkness. A few months ago, I was driving up the highway to give a presentation at a philosophical conference in Washington, DC. As I got closer and closer to Washington, tuning in to a series of fundamentalist rants that showed up and then faded away on my radio dial, I had the eerie sensation – for just a moment — that I was Marlow, coming up the Congo River to the place where Kurtz squatted, waiting.
Bush sermonizes with a finely crafted combination of soothing and inspiring praise
alternating with deep and unequivocal condemnation. America good. Evildoers bad
America battles Pure Evil, so any action America takes in that holy crusade is by
definition Good. Bush hypnotically repeats the same phrases and cadences of love of
Country and love of God like the invocation of a powerful spell:
“We are the most peaceful country on earth.”
“Americans are a resolute people, who have risen to every test of our time. America is a
strong nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without
conquest, and sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.”
“This nation fights reluctantly….We seek peace. We strive for peace. And sometimes
peace must be defended. Adversity has revealed the character of our country, to the
world, and to ourselves.”
These elements of the Bush sermon are delivered with the utter conviction of passages
from Scripture. They are never questioned because they are beyond
question. The sermon tells the American people every sweet-sounding thing they want to
believe about themselves – and they love him for it. His most fervent supporters
often sound like disciples rather than supporters. At any of his rallies (stage-
managed to the nth degree and always packed with an audience of loyalists), one gets the
real sense that these Americans believe they are in the presence of their savior (or
Savior). Bush has been told by God to lead this Crusade to rid the entire world of Evil.
He takes this charge from The Lord very seriously. The American people embrace his
certitude and, infused with their own equal measure of certitude, they line up to march off behind him. Bush tells them that “this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while”, and that’s just fine with his followers. They’ve never felt so alive, so vital, so sure of America’s place in the world, and of their own place in America. The American people understand that, in the words that Urban used at Clermont, “there remains still an important work for you to do”. Bush’s sermonic discourse, which resonates on such a deep level with the American people, echoes Urban’s call so many centuries ago: “Now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago.”