just finished reading an article by professor Bruce Lincoln
from the University of Chicago about just how President George
W. Bush and his team use God-talk again and again to advance
a political agenda.
That’s not a new observation, but Lincoln makes the argument
that the theology itself is flawed and self-serving, used
to serve nothing other than political ends. With quotes both
from prepared speeches and Bush’s own statements, Lincoln
paints a picture of God-talk used egregiously and inconsistently
enough to make a theologian squirm and a politician cringe.
That said, it doesn’t seem to me this article is likely to
persuade anybody who isn’t already squirming or cringing.
In part that’s because Lincoln’s article appears in a magazine
whose circulation is 32,000 and whose readership is probably
not quite double that.
For another, it’s in a magazine that has the word “Christian”
in the title. That means many people will automatically assume
it’s a right-wing rag, despite its dependably progressive
Worst of all is that Lincoln writes like an academician.
Now, The Christian Century is an important magazine.
I’m happy to count myself among its 32,000 subscribers. And
we need academicians at least in part because it reminds us
that great thinkers are not always great writers.
But I wish Professor Lincoln’s piece would reach a wider audience.
Because what he is trying to say is exactly what those who
disagree with him need to hear.
Paraphrased, it’s this:
Whether we like it or not, President Bush believes that he
has God’s go-ahead and that the United States is on a sacred
mission. The God-talk in President Bush’s prepared speeches
is a manipulative admixture of theological systems skillfully
handcrafted by neo-conservatives who see the usefulness of
religion in swaying the masses. Without a prepared text, President
Bush’s words become a clumsy parody of his staff’s best efforts;
his theologies devolve into a jumbled mess of feel-good slogans
used to justify existing policies.
It isn’t that Lincoln doesn’t come right out and say these
things. He does. But his philosophical analyses—nods at Paul,
Calvin, Manichean dualism, Hegelian dialectic—will only be
of passing interest to that subset of citizens with tenure,
unfinished theology dissertations or collars worn backwards.
It’s not to say that’s bad—I wear a backward collar now and
then—but it isn’t easily accessible. This is not the kind
of piece that would fly in Time.
that’s the shame of it. A piece like this—with a little more
gloss and a lot fewer allusions—is just the kind of thing
that mainstream American readers might find helpful in figuring
out what it is the Bush camp is doing when it talks with missionary
fervor about freedom, about evil and about the United States’
role in world history.
Lincoln’s analysis supports George Orwell’s observation that
“political speech and writing are largely a defense of the
indefensible”—using God-talk as both defensive shield and
Lincoln draws heavily on Bush’s book, A Charge To Keep:
My Journey to the White House (1999). He finds key quotes
in the prepared speeches highlighting the view that God has
a got a serious mission for the United States—and that it
is ours by divine right.
liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, but God’s
gift to humanity . . . ,” President Bush said in his third
State of the Union address. “We do not claim to know all the
ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our
confidence in the loving God behind all life and all of history.”
Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy last November,
he said, “Liberty is both the plan of heaven for humanity
and the best hope for progress here on earth. . . . And as
we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain
the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom.”
If the United States has a godly mission—“the advance of freedom
is the calling of our time”—then the means of advancing this
mission can also be construed as godly. The ends justify the
means because it’s God’s tune and we’re just dancing to it.
Lincoln says, “Preemptive wars, abridgment of civil liberty,
cuts in social service, subsidies to churches and other initiatives
are not just wrapped in the flag; together with the flag they
are swathed in the holy.”
The “holy” is what the neo-conservatives count on for Bush’s
broad and fervent evangelical base.
There are lots of ways of defining “holy,” but in the dualistic
worldview of this administration, “holy” is like a lot of
other concepts: black-and-white. Us and Them. We bring freedom.
They broker in terror. We are godly. They are godless. We
should fear terror. We should never doubt that we will win.
And if that dualism is reflected by his speechwriters, it’s
even more telling in Bush’s unprepared statements. Speaking
just two weeks after 9/11, Bush said:
see things this way: The people who did this act on America,
and who may be planning further acts, are evil people. They
don’t represent an ideology, they don’t represent a legitimate
political group of people. They’re flat evil. That’s all they
can think about, is evil. And as a nation of good folks, we’re
going to hunt them down.”
Apart from its lack of theological consistency or sophistication,
there is not much comfort in thinking like this. And there
is even less comfort in the Bush administration’s easy fluency
with religious terminology. Manufacturing religious fervor
as a means to power has never been a safe—or even scarcely