George W. Bush began to take part in a Bible study group in 1985, after two decades of binge drinking. For two years he studied the Scriptures and put his heavy drinking behind him. In that same process, he succeeded in refocusing his life, which had been diffused and confused, into a coherent cosmic vision–or ideology–which corresponded to the mentality of the conservative evangelicals of his country.
When Bush decided to run for office, political strategist Karl Rove helped him make the link with the evangelical sector. While other candidates were discussing polemical themes, Rove advised him that it was much better for him to simply speak about his faith. Bush presented himself as “a man with Jesus in his heart.” When a reporter asked him who his favorite philosopher was, Bush replied: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” That corresponded perfectly to the extreme individualism of fundamentalism, and it constituted what in the metalanguage of evangelical code words is called “personal witness.”
Politically, Bush’s discourse has been very effective, but theologically the results have been more problematic, as evident in particular in three areas.
This ancient heresy divides all of reality in two: Absolute Good and Absolute Evil. The Christian church rejected Manicheism as heretical many centuries ago. But on the day after 9/11, the President first stated the position he would continue to maintain: “This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.” Later Bush defined his enemies as the “axis of evil,” a term that is theologically and morally loaded.
Given that state of sublime innocence in his own country, like Adam and Eve in paradise, Bush can muster only one explanation for the terrorists’ hatred of his nation: “There are people who hate freedom.” In other words, they are so evil that they abhor the good because it is good. (But if the terrorists hate freedom, why have they not attacked Canada, which in some respects is more democratic than the United States? Why is there not the same hatred for Switzerland, Holland or Costa Rica?)
When Bush, then Governor of Texas, decided to seek the presidency, he described his decision in terms evangelicals would understand as a divine mandate: He had been “called,” a phrase that evoked the prophetic commissions of the Hebrew scriptures. He summoned to the governor’s mansion all the leading pastors of the region to carry out a ritual of “laying on of hands,” a practice that corresponds above all to ministerial ordination. He told the pastors that he had been called (obviously, by God) to be the presidential candidate. This language of divine calling has been frequent in his declarations and at a much accelerated rhythm since September 11, 2001.
In his State of the Union address the following year, Bush reaffirmed that “history has called America and our allies to action.” Soon after the 9/11 attacks, speaking to a joint session of Congress, he proudly declared that “the advance of human freedom–the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time–now depends on us.” As he declared in his 2003 State of the Union address, the nation must go forth to “confound the designs of evil men,” because “our calling, as a blessed country, is to make the world better.” “Once again,” Bush announced as war preparation was building up, “this nation and our friends are all that stand between a world at peace and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility…and we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country.”
Bush does not seem to have much hesitation in identifying God with his own project. In a speech in September 2002, Bush cited a Christological text in reference to his war project: “And the light [America] has shone in the darkness [the enemies of America], and the darkness will not overcome it [America shall conquer its enemies].” When he appeared in a flight suit aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, he said to the troops: “And 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! to those who are in darkness, be free!'”
Manipulation of Prayer
True prayer does not pretend to tell God what we want Him to do but rather asks that God tell us what He wishes us to do. We do not pray in order to enlist God in our ranks but to examine ourselves, to change and to do God’s will. Therefore, the confession of sin and repentance are crucial moments in prayer and worship. Prayer has played a role without precedent in the Bush presidency and in the propaganda of the evangelicals who support him. Photos of Bush at prayer are common. Great publicity was given to the fact that during a prime-time news conference shortly before his speech giving the ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, Bush asked his advisers to leave him alone for ten minutes. In evangelical symbolism, that meant that a man of prayer was going to commune with God, somewhat like Moses on Mount Sinai.
It is remarkable how closely Bush’s discourse coincides with that of the false prophets of the Old Testament. While the true prophets proclaimed the sovereignty of Yahweh, the God of justice and love who judges nations and persons, the false prophets served Baal, who could be manipulated by the powerful. Karl Marx concluded that religion is “the opium of the people.” But Marx never knew committed Christians like Camilo Torres of Colombia, Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, Frank Pais of Cuba, Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany or Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States. How paradoxical, and how sad, that the President of the United States, with his heretical manipulation of religious language, insists on proving Karl Marx right.
Translated by Thomas E. Ambrogi. A longer version (available at servicioskoinonia.org/logos) appeared in Signos de Vida.