by Andrew Austin
March 18, 2003

We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with His purpose. Yet His purpose is achieved in our duty.... This work continues. This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.
George W. Bush, January 20, 2001

Rutgers University history professor Jackson Lears, in a recent letter to The New York Times, “How a War became a Crusade” (3-11-03), suggests a reason why Bush is so cavalier about the possibility that war in Iraq will have unintended consequences. Bush, according to Lears, “denies the very existence of chance.” “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance,” Lears quotes Bush as saying; rather, events are determined by “the hand of a just and faithful God.”

Bush uttered these words at the fifty-first National Prayer Breakfast, held February 2003 in Washington DC. In his remarks, Bush assured Americans that they can “be confident in the ways of Providence, even when they are far from our understanding,” History, according to Bush, is the unfolding of God’s will. “Behind all of life and all of history, there’s a dedication and purpose.”

In the unfolding of history, God calls on special persons to make history in His righteous name. In a worldview that rests upon providence, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are interpreted by many, including members of the Bush administration, as signs from God that Bush is ordained to lead a crusade against evil. “It is a theme which is beginning to emerge from the Bush administration,” writes Julian Borger in The Guardian (1-28-03). “While most people saw the extraordinary circumstances of the 2000 election as a fluke, Bush and his closest supporters saw it as yet another sign he was chosen to lead. Later, September 11 ‘revealed’ what he was there for.” The President said in the State of the Union address, “this call of history has come to the right country.” And, obviously to the right president.

Members of Bush’s staff believe that God chose their boss to lead the nation through these times. In an editorial published in The Times Union (Albany, NY), on 2-16-03, Deborah Caldwell notes that, after his speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, Bush received a phone call from speechwriter Mike Gerson, who said, “Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I thought—God wanted you there.” Joel Rosenberg, writing for World magazine (10-6-01), quotes Tim Goeglein (deputy director of the White House public liaison) saying, “I think President Bush is God’s man at this hour.”

Bush agrees, seeing his presidency as willed by God. Lears reports that as governor of Texas (just after his second inauguration), he told a friend, “I believe God wants me to run for president.” Caldwell cites a Time magazine article that reported that “Privately, Bush even talked of being chosen by the grace of God.” According to Bush, this calling occurred during a 1999 sermon by Mark Craig, the preacher at Bush’s church in Dallas. Craig spoke of Moses’ reluctance to heed the calling of the Lord. In that sermon, Bush heard God calling him to become the President of the United States.

Other presidents have spiked their speeches with religious references. However, Bush’s religious rhetoric goes beyond using a common language to help citizens identify with executive policy. It is becoming increasingly clear that Bush forms his policies around extremist interpretations of Christian doctrine. A particular understanding of Christian eschatology directs his political decisions. Such beliefs coupled with the conviction that God chose him to fulfill a part of God’s plan represent a frightening political-ideological combination.

One might think that the vast majority of Americans would find Bush’s extremist worldview disturbing. So far, no such majority has spoken up. Part of this has to do with overwhelming media support of this president, which has led the media to gloss over the President’s religious fundamentalism. Moreover, the warmongering of major media outlets aligns them with the Bush Administration. Fearing that diplomacy and global resistance may cheat them out of the thrill and ratings of war, they have been uncritical of President Bush’s fanaticism. However, the media should not absorb all the blame. Bush’s major speeches have been nationally televised, unmediated by pundits, and still there is minimal concern over his apocalyptic rhetoric.

In a New York Times editorial, “God, Satan and the Media” (3-4-03) Nicholas Kristof thinks he knows why Bush’s religious messages have mesmerized so many people and failed to disturb others. According to Kristof, 46 percent of Americans are evangelical or born-again Christians. (According to recent polls, 45 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in 9-11. One wonders how many of these are the same people.)

Kristof’s figures may seem high, but they are typical of public opinion surveys. The most recent Gallup poll puts the number of born-again Christians at 41%. Eighteen percent of Americans describe themselves as religious right. Among born-again Christians, Bush’s popularity stands at 74%. For all others, it is 50%. (Still, few are prepared to protest his policies.) Gallup’s analysis (from their web site): “The fact that this conservative and deeply religious president is a Republican, is directly in line with the overall pattern of religious beliefs in American politics. Most scholars agree that there is a substantial relationship between strong religious faith, particularly within conservative, evangelical Protestant denominations, and identification with the Republican Party.”

It is important to note that not all Protestants, let alone all Christians, consider themselves born-again, identify with the born-again worldview, or locate themselves on the political right. Tens of millions of Christians are moderate, millions more are liberal and even socialist. In addition, not all born-again Christians are right-wingers. Black Americans who identify themselves as born-again are in overwhelming numbers registered Democrats. Nevertheless, while many observers have long recognized that there is a right wing fundamentalist mood sweeping the nation, it is still surprising that so many Americans identify with such extreme religious beliefs.

Any explanation for public support for a war in Iraq must account for the degree and character of religiosity in the United States. This includes Bush’s religious views. “It’s impossible to understand President Bush without acknowledging the centrality of his faith,” writes Kristof. Bush’s war efforts reflect a “messianic vision” in which his administration will “‘remake’ the Middle East.” This vision resonates with so many of Bush’s followers, because the faithful likely agree with the President that he has been chosen by history—that is, by God—to democratize—Christianize?—the Islamic world.

An intense focus on the Middle East is natural for an evangelical Christian. If the Middle East has tremendous significance for all Christians (this is where Jesus was born and crucified), it has extra-special significance for those calling themselves born-again. Jerusalem is the alpha and omega of history—the center of the Christian universe. Reagan tapped into these sentiments when he spoke about Armageddon and the existence of a godless Evil Empire. Now Bush is tapping into these same sentiments.

There is no need to speculate about the degree to which religious sentiment guides US foreign policy. Insiders have revealed that state and war planners, focused on the Middle East, bring their strategies and tactics to the President, and he and members of his administration pray over their vision and translate the text into articles of faith. (I suspect that administration officials have been focusing on Revelations big-time in their daily Bible studies.)

The depth of fundamentalism in the Bush administration is the subject of a book by one of Bush’s key speechwriters, David Frum, the man who coined the phrase “axis of evil.” According to his book, The Right Man, Frum, Bush, and others who worked on the notorious Axis of Evil speech, desired very much to create an enemy the equivalent of Reagan’s Evil Empire. Julian Borger, a journalist for The Guardian, discussed these matters with Frum in an article published January 28, 2003. In the interview, Frum “talks about the disconcerting grip evangelical Christianity has on the White House.”

How did the “axis of evil” line come about? According to Frum (through Borger), during the weeks leading up to Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, Gerson came to Frum with this challenge: “Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?” This was in late December 2001. Frum came up with “axis of hatred.” He felt, according to Borger, that the phrase “described the ominous but ill-defined links between Iraq and terrorism.” Gerson replaced the word “hatred” with “evil” because the latter sounded more “theological.” Frum really liked the phrase. He says, “It was the sort of language President Bush used.”

On Frum’s first day in the White House, one of Bush’s aides chastised his mentor Gerson for missing Bible study. “Attendance at such sessions was ‘if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory either,’” Frum is quoted as saying. That Frum is Jewish, but was nevertheless expected to wade through the New Testament with the President and his advisors, speaks volumes about the extent and degree to which the Bible organizes Bush’s foreign and domestic policies. Frum, who worked with the President for 13 months, says that Bush “believes that the future is in ‘stronger hands than his own.’”

The parallels with conservative politics of the 1980s are quite striking. Grace Halsell, in his Prophecy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War (published in 1986), quotes TV evangelist James Robison: “There’ll be no peace until Jesus comes. Any preaching of peace prior to this return is heresy; it’s against the word of God; it’s Anti-Christ.” Ronald Reagan invited Robison to deliver the opening prayer at the 1984 Republican National Convention. Reagan believed, as early as 1971, that “everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ.” Under Reagan, Jerry Falwell was permitted to attend National Security Council briefings. Armageddonist Hal Lindsey met with Pentagon strategists to discuss nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

That the White House believed that they were on a mission from God helps explain why selling weapons to an enemy nation and working with cocaine traffickers to fund dirty wars in Central America never seemed to trouble Reagan’s conscience. (Why has it not troubled more Americans?)

Holly Sklar, in Reagan, Trilateralism, and the Neoliberals (1986) writes, “For many rollbackers, Armageddon is the pre-ordained preface to the Second Coming and its theocracy of Christian believers. Ronald Reagan is the Believer-in-Chief.” Sklar quotes Governor Reagan’s remarks in 1971:

In the 38th chapter of Ezekiel, it says that the land of Israel will come under attack by the armies of the ungodly nations and it says that Libya will be among them. Do you understand the significance of that? Libya has now gone communist, and that’s a sign that the day of Armageddon isn’t that far off...Everything is falling into place...Ezekiel tells us that Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north...now that Russia has become communist and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly.

Reagan continued to believe these prophecies into his presidency. In 1983, President Reagan told People magazine, “theologians...have said that never...has there ever been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together. There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming and so forth, but never anything like this” (quoted in Sklar, 1986). (Reagan’s Nostradamus-like predictions did not raise much public concern back then. Neither did Nancy’s consultations of astrology charts to determine the direction of Reagan’s foreign policy trouble many people.)

Reagan foreshadowed thing to come. The belief in rapture—the certainty that the end-time is near—has become widespread in the United States. Consider the current rage on the Christian right, the “Left Behind” series. The upcoming book in the series is titled Armageddon. The publisher’s blurb reads, “No one will escape Armageddon and few will live through the battle to see the Glorious Appearing.” These publications are targeting children. The Left Behind industry has a “Kids Series.” A blurb from the publisher: “With over ten million copies sold, Left Behind: The Kids Series is a favorite for all ages. Following a group of teens that were ‘left behind,’ and are determined to stand up for God no matter what the costs, they are tested at every turn.” At the Left Behind web site (http://www.leftbehind.com/), they have a video promotion for Armageddon replete with footage of American troops in Kuwait.

Linking war with Iraq to an eschatological view of history intersects with the problem of ignorance of just war principles among evangelicals. Neither the President nor his supporters concern themselves with the justness of war, nor do they worry much about the consequences of war. Providence, according to Lears, “sanitizes the messy actualities of war and its aftermath. Like the strategists’ faith in smart bombs, faith in Providence frees one from having to consider the role of chance in armed conflict, the least predictable of human affairs. Between divine will and American know-how, we have everything under control.” Providence greatly simplifies things. God has given Winthrop’s “city upon the hill” this war, and Americans should put their trust in the Lord (and Bush).

The intensity of religiosity among Bush supporters also explains the source of the extraordinary passion of contemporary warmongering and the intense antipathy towards those who oppose war. Not only are those who oppose Bush “unpatriotic” and “unAmerican,” but they are also heretical for refusing to accept the mission that God has made for all Americans. Peace activists are thwarting the crusade. They are godless liberals bent on tearing down the nation and this president whom God has chosen for greatness.

How dense is reactionary religious fervor? The country is moving into an era, Lears warns, where the “more humane interpretations of” Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, “are increasingly ignored.” The major faiths are bending towards fundamentalism, where “the ideologues take command, convinced that they are doing God’s will.”

Might this nation, by allowing our public officials to articulate this worldview, lose our moral authority to condemn the religious extremism of those parts of the world Bush says are currently in shadow? The erosion of American prestige around the planet is palpable. According to Caldwell, Bush’s rhetoric troubles European leaders “and it possibly does contribute to a sense in Islamic countries that Bush is on an anti-Islamic ‘crusade.’” Executive director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (based in Washington), Radwan Masmoudi, has stated that “Muslims, all over the world, are very concerned that the war on terrorism is being hijacked by right-wing fundamentalists, and transformed into a war, or at least a conflict, with Islam.”

Many since 9-11 have found more than curious the tone of the President and how much his rhetoric sounds like the rhetoric of those with whom the US is at war. Americans are told that fundamentalist Islam hates them because Americans leave too little room for God. Muslims resent America’s liberal freedoms—freedom of speech, faith, conscience, and, especially, the separation of Church and State. They have attacked America because the United States shows the rest of the world how officially separating religion from politics and letting reason guide decisions makes a better society. Americans are more tolerant, humane, and rational because of these values. Yet, the President of the United States is stating publicly that God, who is behind all of history, is not neutral in human affairs, that God take sides, and that, in fact, God has taken our side, and, furthermore, that the President is carrying out God’s will.

No reason is needed—only faith matters.

Andrew Austin is Assistant Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay where he directs the Law and Justice Studies program.

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