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Garbling God’s Word

I 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 political orientation.

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.

And 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 weapon.

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.

“The 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:

“I 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 godly—bet.

—Jo Page


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