The Religion of George W. Bush
By David Pulak
Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing, and oppression is staggering.
—Eugene Peterson (from the introduction to the book of Amos in the paraphrased Bible The Message)
After the events of September 11th, Time magazine reported that President Bush spoke of “being chosen by the grace of God to lead at the moment.” Richard Land, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls the president once saying “I believe God wants me to be president.” On numerous occasions Bush has made references to a divine plan for the United States, and that he himself could not have been president if he hadn’t believed in a “divine plan that superceded all human plans.” A financial plan would be more believable, but the question remains – are these statements the ravings of a reality-challenged individual or is George Bush sincere, and mature, in his faith – whose moral certitude is beyond reproach?
I believe that the president is wholeheartedly sincere in his faith, which is Methodist (an offshoot of Evangelical Protestantism) and which he turned to in his early forties to combat an alcohol problem. But mature? I hardly think so. Beyond reproach? He would think so.
After the “shock and awe” phase of Gulf War II, eight thousand American evangelicals were preparing to travel to Iraq and convert the heathen. Yes, it’s true. They were going in to do “spiritual battle” in the same manner that the army had done “physical battle.” Luckily for them, cooler heads in the administration prevailed. The religious language coming out the White House, however, continues unabated. Bush actually used the word “crusade” and has said “evildoers” so many times the word is now effectively meaningless.
The nub of the problem isn’t so much the faith of George Bush, as it is the domestic and foreign policies carried forth in the name of his faith. That faith, which underlies the gutting of domestic social and environmental programs to the delusions of empire in foreign affairs, extends from deeply held beliefs in the American psyche – and specifically, from the Puritans of early America.
The Puritans were varied groups of religious reformers who emerged in the England of the mid sixteenth century. They shared common criticisms of government and society and a common Calvinist theology. Their numbers and influence grew steadily and culminated in the English Civil war of the 1640s and the corrupt government of Oliver Cromwell (a Puritan) in the 1650s, which was largely a military dictatorship. With restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in the 1660s, Puritanism lost much of its influence in England but persisted in the American colonies. The American Puritans however soon cut their ties to the Church of England and created their own separate denominations.
The most notable aspect of Puritanism is the belief in conversion and predestination. Both derive from the doctrines of John Calvin, who held that human beings were utterly depraved and inherently sinful thanks to the original sin of Adam and Eve. Calvin also taught that God would spare a small “elect” group of individuals by giving then inner assurance that they possessed God’s “saving grace.” The experience of conversion, which may come suddenly, was to be born again, in Christ, in the knowledge that one was “saved” from eternal damnation.
The doctrine of Predestination begins to make some sense when framed in the context of the times. This was the era that saw the emergence of modern capitalism and its attendant rise in social and economic inequity, inflation, and unemployment. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century had shattered the unity of Christendom, sparking bloody religious wars and ongoing tensions between Catholics and Protestants. A strange new world in the Americas had been “discovered” and was now been colonized. Such upheaval, not unlike our own time, provoked profound anxiety and the need for intellectual, moral, and spiritual certainty. Predestination ensured that, while one may or may not be “saved”, every individual act was meaningful in God’s grand plan for peace and security.
In Max Weber’s classic The Spirit of Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic, the argument is advanced that if some are chosen and others are not, it becomes obligatory to believe oneself as chosen, any lack of certainty being regarded as insufficient faith. Such certainty could be acknowledged by the performance of “good works” in a ”calling” or profession. Indeed, early clergymen such as John Bunyan and Richard Baxtor preached that the duty and practice of the worldly calling and economic success were genuine signs of redemption. It should be noted though that wealth had to be acquired honorably - not through monopolies, and not in support of a life of idle luxury.
Easy to see were this concept was going. Not only was economic success rationalized, and justified, by religion, the slippery slope into greed and intoxication of power was almost inevitable. Think corporate scandal, market fraud, and the ongoing rewards to Bush’s financial backers. Financial success becomes tantamount to the experience of God in its own right, and with it, the certainty that one’s actions are divinely sanctioned. “You’re either with us or you’re not.”
And for those who live in poverty, this is a sign of one’s spiritual poverty. “Idleness is the Devil’s workshop” was the common phrase, and it still is. Marvin Olarsky, the so-called spiritual guru to George Bush, describes poverty in his Compassionate Conservatism as a spiritual problem. Thus the need for faith based (read Religious Right) social programs.
In Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine with roots in Evangelicalism, Jim Wallis writes:
"The real theological question about George W. Bush was whether he would make a pilgrimage from being essentially a self-help Methodist to a social reform Methodist. God had changed his life in real ways, but would his faith deepen to embrace the social activism of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said poverty was not only a matter of personal choices but also of social oppression and injustice? Would Bush's God of the 12-step program also become the God who required social justice and challenged the status quo of the wealthy and powerful, the God of whom the biblical prophets spoke?"
I’m sorry to report that the short answer is no. After 9/11, George Bush’s theology became messianic, to an extreme trivializing his own Methodist faith, and religious principles in general. It’s too bad, because questions of church and state ought to be properly addressed, and religious groups do raise important issues, but all of this has been obscured by the jingoistic drum rolls of a mission to “rid the world of evil.”
As the theologian Martin Marty put it, “The problem isn’t with Bush’s sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he’s doing God’s will.” Others argue that he is confusing faith with national ideology, and that the relative immaturity of his own faith does not allow him to reflect on his actions.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, President Bush spoke at Ellis Island of how “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…, That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” The last two lines are lifted directly from John’s gospel. In the gospel though, the shining light is the Word of God, and has nothing to do with American values. This is just one example of George Bush’s new religion, where scripture is rewritten to suit the real agenda, and that’s empire, pure and simple.
You have to see it to believe it. The Project for the New American Century bills itself as a “non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle; and that too few political leaders today are making the case for global leadership.” In its statement of principles you will find the names of its authors, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush, and a gallery of lesser rogues and ideologues.
Not only does New American Century advocate a larger, more technological and pre-emptive military, (the Bush Doctrine) but seeks the control of outer space, and cyberspace as well. Yes, the internet (a U.S. military invention by the way). What you are reading now might be considered subversive at some point in the future. Not to worry though, this process of transformation (another religious reference) is going to take some time - ”absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor” This was written in September of 2000. Are these people psychic or what?
So what about democratic principles? The implementation of democracy was ostensibly one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. In the meantime, however, democracy back home might have to be put on ice, for a while. In the December edition of NewsMax, General Tommy Franks states that if a weapon of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical or biological) is used against the United States or one of its allies, the constitution might have to be canceled in favor of a military government. If such weapons are used, Franks is quoted, “... the Western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we’ve seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy.” Franks didn’t mention how a military government would be able to better deter attacks than a democratically elected one. But then again, this might be a part of the “crusade” just now coming to light.
If that isn’t enough to deal with, take a look at where the American military is recruiting for its grand plan. It’s called America’s Army, a top quality video game one can download without charge. Yes, free. The game enables players to enter the virtual American Army, receive training, and go on combat missions eerily reminiscent of events in modern day Iraq and Afghanistan. After your kids have mastered what amounts to expensive killing skills, and the hassle of actual indoctrination, they can join the real army via a convenient web link. The game is rated T for teens.
It’s supreme irony that the birth of George Bush’s own faith, in the struggles and suffering of alcoholism, finds its tragic ending in the infliction of struggle upon his own people, and those unlucky enough to harbor terrorists or other forms of controlled capitalism. Just as the early Puritans advocated for the installation of Oliver Cromwell’s corrupt dictatorship, the latter day version appears committed to a variation of the same. To be sure, Bush’s crisis of faith is coming, as surely is a critical juncture for democracy in his country, and others. The question is which side will prevail? Predestination will not likely save George Bush’s sorry soul in the next election, but by then we may have another “Pearl Harbor.”
David Robert Pulak has a B.A. in Political Science (Brandon University) and an M.A. in Religious Studies (University of Calgary). He is co-owner of http://www.cellnucleus.com, an educational website on cancer research. David is primarily interested in examining globalization through the lens of social ecology, which holds that questions of social and ecological justice are mutually inclusive.