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Religion and U.S. Grand Strategy

Why does George W. Bush invoke religious imagery to call America into action?

June 8, 2003

Why does George W. Bush invoke religious imagery to call America into action?

We often hear that Muslim leaders refuse to separate religion and politics. But just how different is the United States in this regard? Just ask Mullah Calvin. But who is Mullah Calvin?

Jean Calvin was the Reformation leader who gave the “Protestant Ethic” its edge — and not just in theology alone. He believed the laws of The City (meaning worldly politics) should conform to the laws of God. As a consequence, he turned Geneva into a religious republic.

Very early on, America too had its own Calvinist religious republic, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Its preacher-rulers like Cotton Mather — "Very tremendous Things will be done to those Enemies of God, who go on still in their trespasses" — really put the sulfur into "fire and brimstone" sermons.

Think of these preachers as America’s very own mullahs. And they are still with us, even now. In times of national crisis, moreover, Puritans still rule.

American ethos is generally considered to be exuberant, optimistic — and "can-do." These qualities shine in normal times like the sunny 1990s.

But September 11 brought forth a very different "crisis-ethos." Like the dark days of American civil war and two world wars, in times of national crisis "fire and brimstone" images emerge.

Americans in crisis-ethos mode display five simultaneous — perhaps even amazing — aspects. Americans become exceptional, millenarian, messianic, manichaean, and apocalyptic. President Bush tells us something about each of these convictions.

American exceptionalism broadly reflects the idea that America was the world’s new Israel, chosen by God. Americans still think of themselves as special and unique in the world.

But in crisis, it is not enough just to be right and true. America must rise to serve as God's Champion. Hear the worlds of President George W. Bush:

"… That is the charge history has given us, and that is the charge we will keep [January, 3 2003].”

“… we are called to defend the safety of our people and the hopes of all mankind [January 28, 2003].”

“… we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. This will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we’ve been called to a unique role in human events [January 29, 2002].”

Mr. Bush refers here to being "called upon" and "the charge we will keep." And there is no doubt who is doing the calling, or the charging — for a "unique" role no less.

Next: Millenarians. They originally focused on Christ's coming reign — and came to look forward to "a time of supernatural peace and abundance here on earth."

Americans are convinced they can make the world a better place — but in crisis they must! Listen to George Bush:

"This call of history has come to the right country. Americans … know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity." [January 28, 2003]

"Will we lead to a freer, more civilized world? This great country will lead the world to safety, security, peace and freedom." [June 6, 2002]

An awaiting millennial landscape — as if Christ's very reign of a thousand years in the Second Coming — is implicit in the President's promise of God's "gift to humanity."

America thus has been the chosen instrument to achieve a more perfect world, and this expectation has also been translated into a Messianic agenda called American Mission. The mission's outcome — to redeem the world — deeply touches Americans:

"This threat is new; America’s duty is familiar. … America’s purpose is more than to follow a process. It is to achieve a result: The end of terrible threats to the civilized world.” [January 28, 2003]

” … History has called our nation into action. History has placed a great challenge before us.” [June 6, 2002]

"Overcoming evil is the noblest cause and the hardest work. And the liberation of millions is the fulfillment of America’s founding promise." [January 28, 2003]

The invocation of "History" stands in for the Almighty, placing a great calling upon America. But here the word "promise" is used to describe the fulfillment of an American task: God's plan for humanity through the agency of the United States.

As the good, America thus must defeat evil. American theology is essentially dualist — like the original Manichaeans, black and white:

"The dictator … has already used … the world's most dangerous weapons … leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or disfigured … torturing children while their parents are made to watch … electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues — and rape." [January 28, 2003]

There is really no issue here save in the lovingly extravagant language bestowed on evil, just so there is no doubt about the nature of the struggle.

In times of crisis moreover, the resolution of crisis takes on frankly apocalyptic overtonesin the religiously infused over- and undertones of the U.S. political debate.

Apocalypse is not simply destruction. It imagines, at the end of destruction, both the defeat of evil and the deliverance of good.

"The mercy of terrible threats … a world of chaos and constant alarm … blackmail, terror and mass murder … ambitions of cruelty and murder had no limit … the ultimate weapons of terror … a day of horror like none we have ever known." [January 28, 2003]

This imagery was employed before the invasion of Iraq, clearly as a sort of "gird our loins" exhortation. But even in victory witness, for example, Bush's May 1, 2003 speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

It was surprising to hear (yet again) how "the enemies of freedom are not idle" — or how the "war on terror is not over."

It was even more unsettling to be reminded of how our enemies would "turn our cities into killing fields," or of the "cold murder of children" — our children.

Evidently, apocalypse continues, even in apparent U.S. victory. What this American president excels at is the delivery of a succinct message to a rapt audience — us. The crisis continues — and the modern Mullah Calvin continues to preach.

The message is straightforward — and captivating: America has again in its history 1) been chosen by God 2) to confront evil, 3) to destroy it in a dramatic apocalypse — "shock and awe" — thus 4) redeeming those evil had enslaved, and 5) ushering in a time of true peace and abundance.

It is significant that even Mr. Bush inserts the message without insisting on evangelical Christian baggage. He quotes Franklin Roosevelt's "prayer for God’s blessing on our mission to 'set free a suffering humanity.'"

He also likes to invoke Abraham Lincoln, who after all once called Americans "the almost chosen people." Mr. Bush also turns to Ronald Reagan, a man who is reported never once to have willingly attended a church service.

Yet, after all, it was Mr. Reagan who called America "the last, best hope of man on Earth."

But Ronald Reagan knew how the Mullah played in Peoria. He knew all about the power of his teaching — in the right time and place, of course.

The secular language of Mullah Calvin lurks even in such unlikely sanctuaries as The Nation.

As when George Packard — Bishop Suffragan of the Armed Services, Healthcare, and Prisons — says, "A truly liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things American liberals want for their own country — liberty and equality ensured by collective action, through government and civil society — should be America's goal for the rest of the world as well."

Not an exalted imperial agenda, but perhaps as clear a statement as any that the "best of all possible worlds" is American, however immediately achieved!

So Mullah Calvin speaks to us all. The Protestant heritage of the United States has become a generalized national belief system.

And without a doubt, Mullah Calvin is the preacher of choice for a national belief system in time of crisis. Moreover, he is now non-sectarian, even non-religious.

If the President emotionally embraces every last theological detail as if it were from God, that preference in no way changes the Mullah's claim among Americans.

We remain, thank you, committed to redeeming the world, somehow, someday. But if the world gathers up its evil and actually forces our hand, well then, we'll just have to speed the whole thing up.

With such exuberant compass do we usher in the new New World — an America for everybody on Earth! Of course, for this we must thank an equally exuberant foe.