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“Every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”
–Jesus Christ (Mt. 7:26-27)
It’s easy to ridicule and condemn Bush Republicans for their “crazy religious fanaticism” if you do not share their theology. It’s harder to take these Americans seriously on their own terms, but it is more fair and less snobbish to do so. You also have more of a chance to engage the minds of Bush admirers if you treat them with respect and share their biblical perspective. Unfortunately, they are likely to dismiss out-of-hand any criticism of Bush coming from someone who is an atheist, agnostic, new ager, or mushy mainstream Protestant. By definition, such critics are spiritually and intellectually untrustworthy. I don’t fall into any of those categories. I am an evangelical: a Bible-believing Christian who accepts the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Fish, Water into Wine, the Empty Tomb, and the Second Coming.
I became a “born-again Christian” in 1978 while in high school. This was several years after becoming a conservative Republican activist. Conversion changed my life dramatically, but, at first, my politics did not seem to be affected. Imitating the evangelical teachers I listened to at the time, I used the Bible to “prove” divine sanction of conservative policy positions. Christianity and conservatism seemed to be natural allies. But it wasn’t too long before I began having doubts about changing the world through political means and about the Christianness of conservatism. I began thinking that the world could best be changed by converting individuals rather than by electing candidates or passing legislation. And I could see that the materialism and militarism of conservatism were not compatible with pure Christianity. Ironically, I was getting out of politics about the time Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were plunging in. In 1984, I was still in my dispensationalist-flavored anarchist mode and I did not vote to reelect Reagan. Soon after, I discovered William Jennings Bryan, Robert La Follette, the Populist Party, the New Left, and the Green Party. Such moralistic politics were compatible with–although not identical to–my deepest beliefs. At the same time, I’ve never lost my respect for a certain sort of American conservatism or my conviction that electoral politics is not the only way or even the best way to make a difference in life.
The White House has been under the titular leadership of George W. Bush since January 2001. Bush entered office with a reputation as a Bible-believing Christian, an honest man, and an opponent of overseas nation-building, so many conservatives in the Taft-Goldwater-Reagan tradition had some hope for his administration even if he had not been their first choice for president. Unfortunately, the political, ethical, and human consequences of this White House have been catastrophic. In some ways, they have been far more harmful than any tsunami or hurricane. Ironically, most of this harm comes from a faulty spiritual foundation. It is ironic because Bush’s spirituality is seen by many of his admirers as his greatest strength. In fact, it is a major weakness.
Faulty understanding of Scripture is sometimes worse than no knowledge at all. In the words of Henry Wheeler Shaw, “It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.” Used incorrectly, religion can be the last refuge of scoundrels and even well-meaning zealots have been known to do great harm to their neighbors (not to mention to the reputation of God). The example of the Pharisees comes to mind. President Bush and his strongest supporters are confident of their own righteousness as they pray on street corners and invoke the name of God amid even the basest political endeavors. It does not stretch the imagination very far to hear them on Judgment Day saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not serve the corporate sector in your name, and wage war in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But self-deluded claims do not make it so and we can assume that these acts have been committed without any divine sanction. Given the spiritual necessity of bearing good fruit and given Christ’s opposition to greed and war, it is likely that some of these professing Christians will be told, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt. 7:15-23).
George W. Bush has routinely thrown around the word “evil” to describe everything that stands in opposition to his will. By the standards of Jesus Christ’s words recorded in the book of Matthew, a case could be made that Bush himself is an evildoer. The problem with Bush is not that he is too Christian but rather not Christian enough. An historical comparison helps to make this clear. One hundred years ago, William Jennings Bryan was the leader of the national Democratic Party. The year 2008 will mark the centennial of the last of his three campaigns for the White House as the Democratic nominee. Bryan was an interesting blend of liberal ideology and conservative theology. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, Bryan was a populist who promoted democracy above all other American values. As a Christian, he practiced moralistic politics, with biblical references and spiritual emphases. Bryan’s serious embrace of Christianity meant that he was out-of-step with the political and economic elites of his day. This was true both within his own party and also with Republicans of the William McKinley sort. Incidentally, McKinley was also a professing Christian, but he relied on ruthlessly practical advisors and his faith played out in the public sphere in ways very different from that of Bryan. Karl Rove has correctly compared Bush to McKinley and himself to Mark Hanna.
The social and moral “wedge issues” so hotly debated today were largely absent a century ago because there was greater cultural homogeneity. We know that Bryan was a supporter of creationism and an opponent of teaching evolution as fact in public schools. There is no reason to think he would be any different if he were alive today. His position was grounded not only in theology, but also in ideology and social ethics. He was committed to democracy and decentralization so he would likely support the right of parents in local school districts to decide what is taught to their children. As Stephen Jay Gould points out in his perceptive November 1987 article in Natural History, Bryan disliked the survival-of-the-fittest concomitant of Darwinism, which he linked to Nietzsche and militarism. With his populist instincts and near-pacifism, Bryan would probably be pro-life on the abortion issue today. He would likely support traditional marriage and oppose same-sex marriage. Most modern progressives object to these stances but it must be acknowledged that populists tend to hold traditional views on such questions. It was true of most Bryan Democrats, La Follette Republicans, and Debs Socialists a century ago and it remains true today for millions of “otherwise-progressive” working-class and African American Democrats. Secularism, abortion rights, and gay rights are relatively recent additions to the canon of the Left.
In terms of his stance on latter-day cultural issues, his Christian reputation, and the snobbish attitude toward his supporters by academic and journalistic elites, W.J. Bryan bears some resemblance to G.W. Bush. There are some crucial differences, however. Bryan’s campaign speeches were translated into actual policy within reach of the Democratic Party. Under Bush, the Republican Party gives social conservatives promises while it gives economic conservatives action. Rhetoric is not reality, but with no modern-day Bryan in the Democratic Party and with smaller parties having little chance to win, grassroots Republicans have contented themselves with lip service and crumbs from the table. The Religious Right acts as a handmaiden for Wall Street even though the dominant wing of the GOP has never had any intention of fulfilling the “wish list” of conservative Christians (e.g., school prayer, overturning Roe, federal marriage amendment). It is a case of cynical exploitation and it is facilitated by unprincipled religious leaders.
Bryan’s vision of Christian statesmanship was more robust than is Bush’s vision. Following the words of Christ and the writings of Jefferson, Bryan stood squarely against the idolatrous worship of Mammon so predominant during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In practical terms, this meant he opposed materialistic philosophy, monopolistic corporations, and international investment banks. The Rockefellers of his day were political enemies, as they successively sponsored McKinley, W.H. Taft, Hughes, and Harding (business rival J.P. Morgan & Co. had its hand in both parties). The Rockefellers of our era have been closely allied with the House of Bush, from the days of international banker Prescott Bush to our own day with Secretary of State Rice, who is a protégé of Standard Oil heir George Pratt Shultz and a director of Rockefeller-dominated Chevron Oil. It is for good reason that Bush is known as a virtual puppet of Wall Street and the Fortune 500. Again, following the example and thought of Christ and Jefferson, Bryan was an advocate of peace. His preference for nonviolence and his patriotic nationalism largely inoculated him against the jingoistic and messianic appeal of imperialists-cum-internationalists. As a colonel in command of a regiment, Bryan turned against the Spanish-American War while it was still occurring, telling President McKinley to his face that Nebraskans “did not volunteer to attempt to subjugate other peoples, or establish United States sovereignty elsewhere.” As Secretary of State in the Wilson administration, he resigned to protest the machinations that eventually pulled the U.S. into World War I. In contrast, Bush admires lover-of-war Theodore Roosevelt and uses Orwellian “war is peace” language, thereby setting aside not only the Jeffersonian tradition but also the Sermon on the Mount.
It has become increasingly clear that the war in Iraq was built on deceit. Overestimating the threat posed by the Iraqi regime was not a result of “faulty intelligence.” It was a result of “cooked intelligence,” Democratic complicity, and Republican lying. Specifically, Bush, Cheney, and others lied about Saddam Hussein’s link to al-Qaida and about his ability to destroy American cities with WMDs. As a result of disclosures during the past two years, Bush’s reputation for integrity has taken a hit. Even among those who voted to reelect him, he is widely seen as just another dishonest politician. From persisting in his support for free-silver after it proved to be a losing issue to serving grape juice at State Department functions to going to Dayton, Tennessee, to stand up for the “yokels” at the Scopes trial, Bryan was a man with a well-deserved reputation for saying what he believed to be true and for being true to those beliefs, in season and out.
It is interesting to compare the personal demeanor of Bryan and Bush. Despite his status as a congressman, three-time presidential nominee, and highest cabinet officer, Bryan was known even by his opponents as a polite and modest man. Bush, on the other hand, is known for his frat-boy smirk, his arrogant swagger, and his ill-tempered inability to admit any mistake or hear any criticism. Deep in his heart, Bush may be a genuine Christian, but if so he appears to be an immature and worldly Christian hardly worthy of emulation by brothers and sisters in Christ. A tree is known by its fruits. Bush is not a deep thinker, nor is he a hands-on executive. He has delegated great responsibility to three men in his administration: Karl Rove, Richard Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. None of the three are known to be devout Christians and none of the three have deep roots in the conservative movement of Taft, Goldwater, Ashbrook, Reagan, Schlafly, Helms, and Buchanan. In a chronicle of the 1968 presidential election, Congressman Rumsfeld is identified as the only “liberal” in a room of 22 Republicans gathered to help Nixon choose a running mate (Chester, Hodgson, and Page, An American Melodrama, 486). Congressman Cheney was invited to join the elite Council on Foreign Relations, something he did not mention to his unsophisticated constituents back in Wyoming. Rumsfeld and Cheney were top aides in the Ford-Rockefeller administration that was challenged by Governor Reagan in 1976. They have never been “Reagan Republicans” and they have never cared about the issues that motivate those who are. Rove seems to be a practitioner of power with secular concerns and methods having little in common–and much in opposition–to the teachings of the New Testament.
The practical men of the Bush administration heavily rely on the thinking of neoconservatives. Neoconservatism is like a bad penny that keeps showing up at the most inopportune moments or a deadly virus that spreads from host to host. As “New Deal statism” and “Cold War liberalism,” it was the enemy of Senator Robert Taft and his conservative allies (many of whom were old-style liberals in the Bryan-La Follette tradition). In 1964, it undergirded the Johnson-Humphrey ticket as it crushed Senator Barry Goldwater’s anti-establishment campaign. Supporters of Humphrey (D-MN) and Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA) helped to sink the general election campaign of Senator George McGovern (D-SD) partly because his isolationist “Come Home, America” appeal clashed with their imperialism. Hubert H. Humphrey died in 1978, but, strangely enough, he lives again through George W. Bush. Bush’s policies, both domestic and foreign, have a distinctly Humphreyite flavor to them. No domestic issue is too remote from Washington’s reach. No budget is too large. No violent international crusade is too expensive (in dollars or lives). This is “neoconservatism”…although it is as old as Woodrow Wilson and as un-conservative as Leon Trotsky. Neoconservatives who did not migrate to the Republican Party in the 1980s became known as “New Democrats.” The Humphrey tradition is going strong within its original party as demonstrated by the Clintons, Gore, Lieberman, and the Democratic Leadership Council.
During a televised GOP debate in 1999, Governor Bush declared that Christ is his “favorite political philosopher.” Media pundits guffawed, but Bush’s intended audience heard the message and liked it. Politically naive, they took the candidate’s words at face value even though Bush was saying what he knew many Iowa Republicans wanted to hear. President Bush has been guided by those whose thought bears little resemblance to the philosophy of Christ as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Bryan’s biggest contemporary influence when it came to foreign policy was philosopher Leo Tolstoy (an advocate of Christian anarcho-pacifism). For Humphrey, it was political scientists Evron Kirkpatrick and Max Kampelman (incipient neoconservatives). In the case of Bush or his handlers, it might be historian Michael Ledeen, a neoconservative whose influence in Washington far exceeds his national fame. Like Kirkpatrick, Ledeen has been a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (the intellectual voice of Corporate America). He is an expert on, and appears to be an aficionado of, Italian power-politics. Ledeen admires Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli had a cynical, dishonest approach to statecraft. It was realistic but un-Christlike. He championed the virtues of ancient paganism: power, militarism, and fame. He possessed a utilitarian view of religion. For him, Christianity was to be put into service of the state for military might and earthly glory.
Ledeen is scholar of Italian fascism. A line of ideological descent can be traced from the Jacobins of France to the Carbonari of Italy to the League of the Just in France to the Communist League in England to the Bolsheviks of Russia and the Fascists of Italy. They shared a materialistic, elitist, violent, and revolutionary mindset. Ledeen has written, “Change–above all violent change–is the essence of human history” (Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, 3). He apparently sees this as a good thing. This philosophy is the antithesis of Taftian conservatism and the pacifism of Jesus. Following Machiavelli, Ledeen paints a dark picture of human nature but glorifies that ethical and moral darkness. Natural drives for power, wealth, and violence are to be harnessed for good ends–not denounced as evil.
Referring to the United States of America, Ledeen writes,
Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep pace. Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone….They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission. (The War Against the Terror Masters, 212-13)
Ledeen’s philosophy appears to be neither traditionally American nor Christian. It is principally Italian and pagan. This is not conservatism. It is a variety of Jacobinism or “scientific” Socialism. It has little to do with national defense or even the American people per se. Instead, there are forces of history driving our government inexorably forward toward violent global revolution.
Ledeen does not claim to be an orthodox Christian, but it is strange that his intellectual influence is so great within the administration of a man who does. In the Christian tradition, human beings are not pieces on a chessboard or in a Risk game. Individual human lives created by God are more important than abstractions. In the U2 song “Peace on Earth,” after listing some names of those killed through political violence in Ireland, Bono concludes, “Their lives are bigger than any big idea” (All That You Can’t Leave Behind). He does not identify the dead as Catholic or Protestant. It doesn’t matter what “side” they were on. The point is, Individuals are are ultimately more valuable than any abstraction, no matter how noble in theory. When it comes to human conflict, this is the Christian perspective. Jesus tells us that not one sparrow falls to the ground without being noticed by God and that each human is of far more value than a sparrow (Mt. 10:29-31; Lk. 12:6-7). He teaches that the Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath (Mk. 2:23-28). If we wish to follow Christ, we must turn the other cheek and love our enemies (Mt. 5:38-48). When one of Jesus’ disciples cut off the ear of an enemy in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord told him to put away his sword, warned that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and healed the ear (Mt. 26:51-52; Lk. 22:49-51). Paul reinforces the synoptic Gospels by writing that the weapons of our warfare are spiritual not worldly (II Cor. 10:3-4; Eph. 6:10-18).
Individuals have inherent worth because despite their fallen nature and the guilt coming from personal sins they have been created by God in His image, they have free wills, they are eternal souls, and each is unique. As C.S. Lewis has commented in regard to literature, “…[T]he Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world” (Christian Reflections, 10). William Law, a much earlier Anglican, touches on this while addressing the evils of war:
Look now at warring Christendom, what smallest drop of pity towards sinners is to be found in it? Or how could a spirit all hellish more fully contrive and hasten their destruction? It stirs up and kindles every passion of fallen nature that is contrary to the all-humble, all-meek, all-loving, all-forgiving, all-saving Spirit of Christ. It unites, it drives and compels nameless numbers of unconverted sinners to fall, murdering and murdered among flashes of fire with the wrath and swiftness of lightning, into a fire infinitely worse than that in which they died. (Stephen Hobhouse, William Law and Eighteenth Century Quakerism, 338-39)
When Bush listens to Christian thinkers, he turns to men like historian Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition executive director-turned-political consultant and Georgia politician. Reed advised Bush’s 2000 campaign and was a regional chair in 2004. Reed is the kind of Christian whose company receives millions of dollars from gambling interests but claims he did not know the source of the money when it becomes public knowledge. He has recently been revealed as a co-star in the corrupt political constellation of the notorious Jack Abramoff. Rev. Pat Robertson, Reed’s former patron at the Christian Coalition, was quoted by the New York Times as making a surprisingly astute comment: “You know that song about the Rhinestone Cowboy, ‘There’s been a load of compromising on the road to my horizon.’ The Bible says you can’t serve God and Mammon” (Kirkpatrick and Shenon, “Ralph Reed’s Zeal for Lobbying is Shaking His Political Faithful,” New York Times, April 18, 2005, 1).
Abramoff’s partner in the lobbying firm that subcontracted Reed privately referred to the God-fearing people Reed was reaching with his anti-gambling message–in order to preserve it as a monopoly for the tribal-casino client–as “wackos.” This lobbyist is also a former top aide to crooked House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Such cynical manipulation and disparaging remarks are suggestive of the real attitude of many Republican leaders toward conservative Americans who take their Christian faith seriously. From the perspective of the politically powerful, they comprise a religious rabble that is ripe for exploitation. As a lobbyist, Reed discreetly worked to defeat the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act in 2000. As an ambitious politician, Reed now openly supports the Georgia state lottery. As a hireling of the Business Roundtable, Reed worked to ensure Most Favored Nation status for Communist China in 1998, despite that regime’s policy of forced abortion and persecution of Christians who refuse to join state-sponsored churches. Michael Ledeen and Ralph Reed represent two distinct but allied intellectual groupings within the GOP: “conservatives” of the Humphrey-Jackson variety and evangelical Christians of a compromised variety. They are united by a thirst for political power and a subservience to big money.
Indulging in a bit of fantasy, can we imagine more wholesome spiritual and intellectual influences for Bush? The quick answer is: Pick anybody at random on the street and she or he would be a big improvement over the status quo. Being more serious, there’s no point in thinking about Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, or Gabriel Kolko because Bush is a self-proclaimed “conservative Christian” and the trust of his religious admirers can be stretched only so far. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and chronicler of Soviet gulags, is living back home but presumably he’s still available for consultation so let’s consider him for a moment. Solzhenitsyn is no pacifist or anarchist. He is closer to Dostoyevsky than Tolstoy in his political philosophy. If the Bush administration were guided by someone like Solzhenitsyn rather than Ledeen and Reed, it would be more genuinely Christian and truly conservative. Like Bryan, Solzhenitsyn favors moralistic politics and he rejects materialism and atheistic humanism.
In his famous June 1978 commencement address at Harvard, he said some things that would resonate with Bush Republicans–notably his condemnation of terrorists and criticism of the press–but other parts of his speech might serve as a corrective to current public policy. He would likely disapprove of the ongoing coddling of the Chinese Communists for the sake of transnational corporations (“a doomed alliance with Evil”). He would likely disapprove of the neoconservative effort to forcibly remake the world in our own image (“…the [imperial] blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems…”). He would likely disapprove of the corporate subservience of Republican and Democratic leaders: “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling [Communist] party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it.” And in warning against “the abyss of human decadence” and “the revolting invasion of publicity,” he almost could be speaking of Rupert Murdoch, the man behind Fox News, The Weekly Standard, and boatloads of vulgar television programs and pornographic newspaper pages.
Solzhenitysn has labeled the Allied bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima as war crimes and criticized Anglo-American military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. He does not support a “hypocritical double standard” during wartime or a “reckless disregard for the human cost” of war. Solzhenitsyn’s sense of Christian realism precludes faith in messianic crusades fueled by power politics and capitalist economics. Addressing the war policies of Clinton and Blair in 1997, he could just as well be speaking to Bush and Blair today:
… [T]heir plans to establish a ‘final worldwide security’ are ephemeral …Given human nature we ought never to attain such security. It would be futile, at the very least, to march towards this goal armed with hypocrisy and scheming short-term calculations, as practiced by a revolving door of officials and by the powerful financial circles that back them….Only if the creative and active forces of mankind dedicate themselves to finding gradual and effective restraints against the evil facets of human nature to an elevation of our moral consciousness–only then will a faint distant hope exist. To embark upon this path, and to walk it, requires a penitent, pure heart and the wisdom and willingness to place constraints on one’s own side, to limit oneself even before limiting others. (Solzhenitsyn, “The March of the Hypocrites,” Times of London, August 21, 1997)
It is not surprising that the Christian wisdom of Solzhenitsyn is not consulted by George W. Bush. Under the tutelage of top aides Kissinger, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, the détente-minded President Gerald Ford snubbed Solzhenitsyn when he came to the United States in July 1975. The philosophical underpinnings of such men are antithetical to the thought of Solzhenitsyn, J. Budziszewski, and other contemporary Christian intellectuals who place loyalty to the New Testament above transient political power.
Spiritually and intellectually, the current administration is built upon sand. The foolish decision to do so may not bring down the White House in a political sense, but it has led to the hurt and ruin, the bloodshed and death, the prostituting and compromising, of an untold number of others. Considering the opportunities given to President Bush by birth, upbringing, conversion, and circumstance, it is nothing less than a tragedy…not only for him, but for us all.
JEFF TAYLOR is a political scientist in Minnesota. His book Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy has just been released by University of Missouri Press. For more information, see: http://www.popcorn78.blogspot.com.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey Lee Taylor