It is slowly dawning on people that to understand George W., one
must understand his religious impulses, which all evidence suggests
are intensely important to him. His views are no different from
that of the typical evangelical who absorbed his faith from the American
Baptist culture. But they merit closer attention when they
are held by an arrogant man with his finger on the button and who
is contemplating total war.
Concerning this arrogance, Richard
Cohen writes that “Bush’s rigidity can come across as smugness.
This has always been his least appealing quality, and it was
on display, or so I was told, at a lunch he had for network anchors
before the State of the Union message. He reportedly came across
as cocky, not so much sure of himself as too sure of himself….
Maybe this single-mindedness of the president’s is the product
of his deep religious belief — the conviction that he has been
chosen for the task of decking Hussein.”
don’t watch television so I hadn’t seen this aspect of Bush on
display — until the other
day when I watched a video feed from MSNBC. Bush was holding
a press conference with economists who
had endorsed his stimulus plan. He took questions after. None of
the questions concerned economics. There was a question on Iraq,
a question on race quotas, and one other I can’t remember. They
were all reasonable. What struck me the most was Bush’s demeanor.
As the questions were being asked, he looked down at the table
and around the room, not at the questioner. He impatiently drummed
his fingers on the table, as if he knew in advance that nothing
could be asked that was really worth asking. His attitude was that
if it needed to be known, he would have already have said it. All
inquiries were just an imposition on him, an insult to his own
sense of certainty. His answers consisted of barking back the stated
position, along with a reminder that the position had already been
stated. There was no attempt to charm, no attempt to inform, no
attempt to hide his disdain.
How does he get away with it? The White House holds all the cards.
All the reporters present were there at the permission of the White
House. Any reporter who wrote to denounce Bush’s stonewalling,
or raise questions about his state of mind, would be quickly barred
from future events. The news organization that published that story
would be punished as well. The press needs access, and so plays
along to prevent reprisal. There’s another element too, namely
that most of these reporters have an ideological admiration for
the executive state. They may disagree with Bush’s politics, but
they adore the power of the office he inhabits.
Bush’s behavior that day probably qualifies as routine, but because
I hadn’t seen Bush in action recently, I found it startling. What
gives a person that sense of certainty, that swagger that no one
but himself ought to be in charge of what is known and what is
not known? Power, certainly. Maybe that explanation is enough.
And yet, Cohen is right to bring Bush’s religious sensibility into
it. There is something recognizably regional and sectarian in his
religious way, a product of a doctrinal sensibility that thrives
in the Southern region of the United States. It is woven into the
culture in myriad way. Bush has adopted it as his own.
In the state of the
union address, Bush said the following: “There
is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness and idealism
and faith of the American people.” His cadence in these lines come
from the hymn by Lewis E. Jones, a revival hymn from 1899 once
sung in the streets to whip up religious frenzy for prohibition
(which Gary North calls the “‘last
hurrah’ in politics for American fundamentalists”).
“There is power, power, wonder working power,” go the words, “In
the precious blood of the Lamb.” The sentiments are classically
revivalist. All Bush did was replace Jesus as the source of the
wonder-working power with the idealism and faith of the American
people. He said this as if everyone should recognize the hymn and
the meaning, though Europeans couldn’t possibly, and few even in
the West and East Coast of the US could have any idea what he was
referencing. It was code designed to liven the hearts of the faithful — the
tribe of evangelicals who constitute his strongest support base.
is by birth a member of the Episcopal Church, but because he
is “born again” as an adult — long past the “age of accountability” of
10–13 years old when a person born into this religion is supposed to
be saved — his religious sense was shaped by a gripping personal
experience and an uncritical embrace of evangelical doctrine. This
holds to the Calvinist idea of the security of the believer (“once
saved, always saved”) but rejects the corollary Calvinist idea
that God has predestined all men to salvation or damnation in favor
of the view that all must make a choice to accept Jesus’s invitation
to salvation. Once the choice is made, salvation is assured.
The faith is classically low church. As for sacraments, there
are only two (called ordinances): Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
They are purely symbolic, social statements by believers designed
purely for purposes of public profession. All grace is imparted
by the choice of Jesus, after which all sins are cleansed and your
permanently valid ticket to Heaven is issued.
The obvious question
presents itself: if one is assured of salvation by one’s personal
choice, and one thereby becomes constitutionally
incapable of committing sins that separate the soul from God, what
reason is there to avoid a fall into complete lawlessness? The
Presbyterian religion has managed to avoid this fate by placing
a strict emphasis on obedience to the law as part of religious
obligation, not for purposes of salvation, but to display deference
to God’s word. It is precisely the mix of the belief in predestination,
combined with the emphasis on strict behavioral controls, that
gave Presbyterians the reputation of being “the frozen chosen.”
The evangelical strain, however, has no stodginess deriving from
a strong emphasis on law and obedience. The culture of the evangelical
religion includes standards for behavior, but they center on pietistic
tropes condemning drinking, cursing, gambling, and other sins of
the flesh. Rather, the emphasis is on the need to make a one-time
choice for good, after which point all struggle is over. In the
case of Jimmy Carter’s brand of the Southern Baptist religion,
this impulse leads to Progressive politics of using the state to
do good works to improve society. For Bush, it works itself out
through the arena of foreign policy.
The common element
here — and here is where evangelicalism dovetails
with Puritanism — is a firm conviction in the purity of the individual
believer who has been saved by choice and then by faith alone.
The spirit, after all, has been saved, so the believer has little
need to police himself on whether he is committing sins of the
spirit (despair, presumption, envy, obstinacy, and the like). The
spiritually penetrating writings of St. John of the Cross or Thomas
Kempis do not resonate at all because, in the words of the hymn
Bush quoted, the believer is permanently “free from the burden
of sin.” Any remaining impieties are bound up with observably bad
behaviors which do not finally impact on the soul. One can “backslide,” but
one cannot lose salvation. To do one’s duty as a Christian means
not to save oneself — to work out one’s salvation in fear and trembling — but
to convince others to assist in crushing the evil that is roaming
freely out there in the world.
this produces is, in the first instance, a notably unreflective
faith. Apart from the initial choice to embrace Jesus, there is
no spiritual struggle at work, no questioning at the heart of prayer,
no self-criticism, no internal moral drama taking place in one’s
life. In fact, to doubt at all is to bring into question not only
one’s salvation but the entire apparatus of religious doctrine,
the core tenet of which is the surety of salvation once it is chosen.
The greatest insult one can deliver to one who holds this view
is to question the likelihood that someone is going to shoot straight
to Heaven when he dies.
Christianity once clearly taught that a king who kills innocents
and squanders the people’s money is endangering his immortal soul.
By raising this prospect, bishops and priests and theologians have
restrained the war-like behavior of princes from the 4th century
on. But what if the prince believes that he is assured of salvation
because of his own choice, regardless of what the church says?
We have here an entirely different constellation of incentives
at work. Might Bush believe there is no eternal price to pay for
killing thousands, even millions, in a good cause, since there
is nothing he could do to endanger his immortal soul?
There is another trait
of the evangelical religion with some bearing on understanding
Bush’s cockiness. It is the belief in direct revelation
from God. Most evangelicals accept this idea without question (polls
suggest 2 out of 3). Before every decision in life, they believe,
one must “pray about it.” Now, praying is a great thing. But what
we have here is not prayer designed to focus the mind and heart
on the things of God. The purpose of the prayer in this case is
to seek guidance from God directly, in whatever form in which it
may be given. God has a will for your life, and it is your job
to discover it through direct, one-on-one communication.
Because God doesn’t actually talk in direct words as he does in
the Bible, one must look for signs or find a feeling of some sort
to discover the messages God is trying send. It is hardly surprising
that many people who pray this way come away with messages from
God that accord remarkably with what they want to do in any case.
The difference is that the evangelical often walks with the conviction
that his own subjective impressions and choices have been blessed
by God Almighty. It’s hard to argue with that.
Now, I say all this not to ridicule anyone’s religious faith.
Of course, it should be clear that these views depart substantially
from orthodox Christian doctrine. It is enough of a refutation
to note that the combination of important doctrines here (that
a person is implacably saved for all eternity from the moment of
choosing, combined with the necessity of direct revelation from
God) have never been believed by Christians in any part of the
world until they became the core of revivalist doctrine in 19th century
America. To this day, it is utterly unknown in Europe, which is
one reason Europeans find Bush so alarming.
Socially, there is no great harm to these teachings. They have
produced good people and good, productive communities. It can be
a beautiful faith, but, nonetheless, it is a faith unbound from
tradition, unleashed from scholarship, and thoroughly tied to individual
experience. That is why it begins to matter when a person who holds
these views has his finger on the button, a person who believes
that he was personally transformed by a born-again experience,
a person who is obviously transfixed by the personal power he possesses.
This combination can be dangerous. We may soon find out just how
dangerous. Free from the burden of sin, and hearing messages from
God, George W. Bush may use his power not to work wonders, but
to bring about great harm.