In his address to Republican Party delegates and the nation last Thursday, George W. Bush used the words freedom or liberty, in some form, 34 times. Say this for the president: he can hammer home a message. Among these instances was this declaration: “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” These words both lay bare and obscure underlying truths about the administration. Regarding the former, Bush’s linkage of freedom and liberty with divine wishes is indicative of how central a Christian fundamentalist worldview is to his conception of the struggle against Islamic terrorists. At the same time, emphasis on these values masks the reality that the administration is determined to define what counts as freedom and liberty and who will have the privilege to experience it.
An omnipresent consideration for Christian fundamentalists is the “Great Commission” biblical mandate, in the book of Matthew, of “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” The felt responsibility to live out this command, both locally and globally, has become intertwined in the eyes of the Religious Right with support for the principles of political freedom and liberty. In particular, the individualized religious liberty present in the United States (particularly available historically for European-American Protestants, of course) is something that fundamentalists long to extend to other cultures and nations. In the 1980s, fundamentalist preacher and leader Jerry Falwell argued that the dissemination of Christianity could not be carried out if other nations were communist-a perspective which provided a good reason to support a strong U.S. military, conservative foreign policy, and the spreading of individual freedoms. Falwell’s perspective on the 2004 presidential matchup is unequivocal: In the July 1 issue of his email newsletter and on his website, Falwell declared, “For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.” He added, “I believe it is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew, every Reagan Democrat, and everyone in between to get serious about re-electing President Bush.”
The certitude present in Bush’s rhetoric and in the support for Bush by Falwell (and by other Religious Right leaders such as Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer) is emblematic of fundamentalists’ confidence that their understanding of the world provides what religion scholar Bruce Lawrence terms “mandated universalist norms” that cross cultural and historical context and therefore, as the biblical command makes clear, are to be shared with all peoples. Indeed, Harvard professor Harvey Cox argues that “Fundamentalists not only insist on preserving the fundamentals of the faith, but envision a world in which these fundamentals would be more widely accepted and practiced. They want not only to ‘keep the faith,’ but to change the world so the faith can be kept more easily” (emphasis added to Cox’s words). The administration’s unrelenting emphasis on freedom and liberty-which allows them to emphasize values with both religious and political heritages-has functioned as the centerpiece of what theologian R. Scott Appleby has termed the administration’s offering of “a theological version of Manifest Destiny.” This twenty-first century adaptation of manifest destiny differs little from earlier American versions: the goal remains to vanquish any who do not willingly adopt the norms and values of white, religiously conservative Protestants.
Ultimately, whether the president’s public religiosity is a sham, serving merely as a rhetorical cover for the administration’s neo-conservative or corporate agenda is a moot point. All that matters politically is that the public perceives Bush’s religious discourse as genuine. A mid-June Time poll found that 54 percent of likely U.S. voters said they would describe Bush “as a man of strong religious faith” (only 7 percent said the same for John Kerry). To be clear, the perception of Bush is the one that Americans-including many who are not overly religious themselves-tend to interpret in favorable terms, particularly in challenging times. The administration has capitalized upon this public outlook. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush has consistently claimed that the freedom and liberty that he seeks to spread is not partisan or nationalistic in nature but rather God’s universal gospel-so do not challenge the administration. For example, in his address before Congress and a national television audience nine days after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared, “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.” Similarly, in the 2003 State of the Union address, with the conflict in Iraq imminent, he declared, “Americans are a free people, who 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.” Bush’s words last week were nearly identical. These are not requests for divine favor; they are declarations of divine wishes.
From this position, only short theological and rhetorical steps are required to justify U.S. actions. For instance, at a December 2003 press conference, Bush said, “I believe, firmly believe-and you’ve heard me say this a lot, and I say it a lot because I truly believe it-that freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world. That’s what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq.” In essence, the administration has transformed Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” policy to “Either you are with us, or you are against God.” The Bush administration, therefore, has offered a dangerous combination: the president claims to know God’s wishes and presides over a global landscape in which the administration believes that it can act upon such beliefs without compunction. Indeed, the administration’s decision for war in Iraq is wholly congruent with religious fundamentalists’ willingness, in the words of scholar Harold Perkin, to impose “what they take to be God’s will upon other people” because others are viewed as certain to benefit.
To the great misfortune of American democracy and the global public, such a view is indistinguishable from that of the terrorists it is fighting. One is hard pressed to see how the perspective of Osama bin Laden, that he and his followers are delivering God’s wishes for the United States (and others who share western customs and policies), is much different from Bush’s perspective that the United States is delivering God’s wishes to the Taliban or Iraq. Clearly, flying airplanes into buildings in order to kill innocent people is an indefensible immoral activity. So too, some traditional allies told the Bush administration, is an unprovoked pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation. In both instances, the aggression manifested in a form that was available to the leaders. Fundamentalism in the White House is a difference in degree, not kind, from fundamentalism exercised in dark, damp caves. Democracy is always the loser. The will of the public, allies, or the United Nations is meaningless to an American president certain of the will of God
While Christian conservatives and hard-line neo-conservatives may see the developments after September 11 in a positive light (after all, one might say that God and the United States have been given a larger piece of the planet to play with), all Americans should be leery of any government that merges religiosity into political ends. Noble ideals such as freedom and liberty are clearly worth pursuing, but the administration has promoted these concepts with its left hand while using its right hand to treat others-including many U.S. citizens-in an authoritarian, dismissive manner. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is the latest entry in a historical record which shows that beliefs and claims about divine leading are no guarantee that one will exercise power in a consistently liberating, egalitarian manner.
DAVID DOMKE is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington. This essay draws upon his arguments in God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror” and the Echoing Press, published August 2004 by Pluto Press and available in the United States through the University of Michigan Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com