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George W. Bush's Holy War

How much of the U.S. foreign policy is based on politics — and how much on faith?

Order Michael Lind's "Made in Texas."

Takeaways


Ever since the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee — in which a high school teacher was found guilty of contradicting the bible by teaching Charles Darwin's account of biological evolution — Protestant fundamentalists have been figures of fun to most other Americans.

But with George W. Bush — a devout born-again Christian — now in the White House, the Bible Belt is not funny any more. And it becomes clearer each day that the President's religious beliefs are shaping U.S. foreign policy.

George W. Bush has probably never heard of the defrocked Anglican priest John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).

But Mr. Darby's peculiar version of Christianity has shaped the American South for generations. And now, through conservative Southern Republicans like George W. Bush, it is shaping the Middle East and the world.

Traditional Christians — Orthodox and Catholic, as well as Protestant — believe that following the ministry of Jesus, the Christian church replaced the Jews as the "chosen people." For centuries, Christians tried to convert Jews — and often terrorized those who refused.

Mr. Darby, however, interpreted the Book of Revelation to mean that the Jews as a nation, without being converted to Christianity, had a role to play at the end of the world.

The Jews of the world had to be gathered in Israel, before the Battle of Armageddon could occur. That battle would be followed by the remaking of the earth — and the direct political rule of Jesus over the resurrected saints.

Through the Scofield Reference Bible — named after Cyrus Scofield of the Dallas Theological Seminary — John Darby's eccentric theology has been passed on to generations of white fundamentalists in the American South.

Just one example of many: Darby's Christian Zionism explains why the "Cornerstone Church" in San Antonio, Texas, has given more than $1 million to financially support Jewish settlers in Israel and the occupied territories. Its pastor claims that Jewish colonization of occupied Arab land represents "a fulfillment of biblical prophecy."

However, much more than Christian Zionism goes into the Republican Religious Right's view of U.S. foreign policy. A favorite theme of televangelists — preachers on U.S. TV — consists of identifying the demonic figures in the Book of Revelation with various contemporary persons or institutions.

According to one scenario popular among fundamentalists since the oil crisis in the 1970s, a Middle East dictator with atomic bombs will trigger the events leading to the battle of Armageddon, the end of the world — and the second coming of Jesus Christ.

No wonder, then, that the Religious Right in America is a ripe audience for the Bush Administration's demonization — and disposal — of Saddam Hussein.

In fundamentalist sermons and literature, the many-headed dragon of Revelation is usually identified with an institution — often an alliance or an international organization such as the UN or the EU.

Most Americans, by contrast, think of the former as a diplomatic body — and the latter as a common market. American fundamentalists, however, often view both the UN and the EU as possible front groups for Satan and his fellow demons.

It is hard to escape the notion that much of the UN-bashing emanating from conservative circles in Washington about the organization's questionable "relevance" is but another coded message to the fundamentalist Republican base.

Nominally a Methodist — a moderate Protestant — like his wife, George W. Bush is in fact a rather fervent born-again Christian. He was converted in his late 30s by none other than the Reverend Billy Graham, whose theology does not differ appreciably from that of well-known fundamentalist leaders, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Despite his steady Bible study, it is doubtful that Mr. Bush bases his foreign policy on Biblical prophecy. And it is unlikely that he even knows the details of this peculiar literature.

There is no doubt, however, that Mr. Bush brings to the office of Commander-in-Chief the certitudes of an evangelical Protestant. His rhetoric portrays a rather simple world in which good battles evil.

The sense of charity and humility fostered by most Christian denominations is often missing from Mr. Bush's rhetoric — as it is from that of much of the fundamentalist Right.

Whether this is the intention or not, President Bush's frequent references to "evil" function in practice as a code — meaning one thing to ordinary audiences and another to the Republican Party's politically dominant Southern Protestant base.

Most people assume that Mr. Bush is speaking about mere human evil. But Protestant fundamentalists — and one can only presume Mr. Bush as well, since he is a born-again Christian — believe that Satan and his fallen angels routinely intervene in the history of nations as well as individuals.

Listening to George Bush's references to evil, fundamentalists may assume that he is obliquely referring to the demonic forces which — according to the Reverend Pat Robertson — control front groups for Satan like the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Pat Robertson, Bush’s major ally in the American Religious Right, has speculated about the existence of “a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers”.

What makes all of this a topic of global concern is that this kind of thinking is now paired with the enormous military might of the world's only superpower.

It is troubling how much the President of the United States plays to the Religious Right. And it is equally unsettling to see that he shares much, if not all, of their bizarre ideology influenced by a long-dead Englishman's interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

Against this backdrop, we do well to remember that the modern practice of diplomacy arose in Europe only after the horrors of the wars of religion convinced European statesmen to separate power politics from religious belief.

It is disconcerting to observe that certain parts of the American Religious Right are apparently reverting to the 16th century. They think that political power can only be the instrument of satanic evil or divine justice. The language of national interest in foreign policy is being replaced by the pre-modern language of religious morality.

Needless to say, the purposes of God and the interests of the United States are presumed to be identical. According to President Bush, “We Americans have faith in ourselves — but not in ourselves alone.”

The born-again President has redefined the American political community as a faith community. Woe to those who disagree.
As militant Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages sometimes observed, error has no rights.

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About Michael Lind

Michael Lind is policy director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program and a regular columnist for Salon.

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