It is now clear that George W. Bush won re-election as President due in substantial part to his ability to build a diverse coalition of religious voters–including white and some black evangelical Protestants, white and Hispanic Catholics, and some Jews. Conventional wisdom holds that these voters supported Bush because of his positions against abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research.
This perspective is only half right.
Just as important in Bush’s success is his approach to foreign policy since the attacks of September 11. Under the mantle of a “war on terrorism,” the president and his administration have converged a religious fundamentalist worldview with a political agenda. It is a modern form of political fundamentalism–that is, the adaptation of a self-proclaimed conservative Christian rectitude, via sophisticated strategic communications, into political policy. This fusion of religion and politics has offered comfort to a nation gripped by anxiety about terrorism and the U.S. position in the world.
The administration’s political fundamentalism is evident in a striking change in White House rhetoric. Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing, favor, and guidance; this president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Put simply, Bush’s language suggests that he speaks not only of God and to God, but also for God. Among modern presidents, only Ronald Reagan has spoken in a similar manner–and he did so far less frequently than has Bush.
Consider this claim by Bush in the third presidential debate: “I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That’s what I believe. And that’s one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march.” The implication is clear: The administration’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the president has consistently asserted that “freedom is on the march,” are divine will.
Notably, a fusion of religion and politics emanates not only from the president, but from several members of the administration. This became clear in systematic analysis of hundreds of public communications by Bush, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld about the “war on terrorism” in the 20 months between September 11, 2001, and the end of major combat in Iraq in spring 2003. This research showed that the administration’s public communications contained four characteristics rooted in religious fundamentalism while offering political capital:
* Simplistic and exclusionary black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape, most notably good vs. evil and security vs. peril
* Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation’s “calling” and “mission” against terrorism
* Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty
* Claims that dissent from the administration is unpatriotic and a threat to the nation and globe
Such rhetorical emphases simultaneously appeal to religiously inclined voters and to broader segments of the population. A conservative religious worldview presented in explicit religious terms rarely works in the highest levels of U.S. politics; just ask Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes. In contrast, a religious worldview strategically crafted in primarily secular language–such as security, freedom, liberty, and patriotism–sells widely among Americans.
The president clearly deserves a chance to offer his vision for a second term. Over the past three years, however, the administration’s religious-cum-political outlook 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.” To the great detriment of American democracy and the global public, this suggestion sounds remarkably similar to that of the terrorists we are fighting.
Further, it is clear that a good number of Americans–including many of religious faith–and billions of global citizens are leery of this president’s fusion of politics and religion. To cite just one example, more than 200 U.S. evangelical leaders in October signed a petition that condemns the administration’s convergence of God and nation in constructing a “theology of war.”
Unfortunately it is likely that the president, who spoke after his re-election about his newly earned “political capital,” is not listening. As a result, we will continue to face this frightening prospect: two leaders of powerful forces, both claiming assuredly that they are performing God’s will, acting so as to annihilate the other.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org