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In his speech about the Middle East crisis on June 24 of this year, President Bush concluded by quoting Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set before you life and earth; therefore, choose life.” Given that he was calling_for the first time ever–for a change within the leadership of the Palestinian people, it was odd (to say the least) that he chose a verse from Hebrew scripture to make his point. Was it any accident that many commentators in the Arabic world thought he had already picked sides with this kind of rhetoric?
In that example the president may seem wrongheaded but still religiously orthodox. But in his speech to the nation this year on the anniversary of September 11, he concluded with another verse of scripture, this one from the New Testament: John 1:5, “And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” In John, this reference is to Christ, the long-expected messiah who has now finally arrived to do his unique work on God’s behalf. The president, however, was using this verse to refer to the light of the . and how the darkness of terrorism will not be able to extinguish it. (Bush changed the tense of the verse here, making it future instead of past.) The connection could not have been clearer, given that he was shown by all the cameras as standing in front of a brilliantly illuminated Statue of Liberty.
A long tradition of scriptural figuration exists within American history in which the U.S. is viewed as a kind of new “Israel.” Both the Puritan John Winthrop and the Republican Ronald Reagan spoke of our country as like the biblical “city on a hill,” the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). The implications of this analogy are somewhat troubling to me, but at least the analogy represents a view of national identity based upon the idea of the “people of God” found within scripture. Much more troubling to me, however, is the new and completely unparalleled usage of President George W. Bush, in which the U.S. is described with language the New Testament reserves to Christ alone.
The tragedy here is that George Bush considers himself an evangelical Christian, and yet he and his right wing supporters can apparently no longer recognize blasphemy for what it is. In my view, when the state takes on messianic significance, it ceases to be justly authorized (e.g., Romans 13 describes this kind of state) and becomes essentially demonic (e.g., Revelation 13 describes this kind of state). The only possible response for Christians then becomes one of civil disobedience.
If George Bush was serious about America having a messianic role to play in world affairs, then he and his view must be opposed by every Christian. We are patriots, but patriots first for Christ.
If George Bush didn’t really mean what he seems to have said, then he was intolerably sloppy and has much to learn about responsible speech–from both a Christian and a political perspective.
STEPHEN B. CHAPMAN is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament studies at Duke Divinity School.