Pontifex Whatimus?

Complaining about a lack of respect accorded Mr. Dubya a few weeks ago in Atlanta, the National Review referred to our president as the "pontifex maximus of the American civil religion."

Not being familiar with pontifices, maximal or otherwise, I looked it up. "The pontifex was not simply a priest. He had both political and religious authority." Apparently, when a monarchy is abolished, the sacral powers previously vested in the king can be transferred. When this happens, you get pontifex maximus.

Observing presidents of my lifetime, like LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton or the Bushes, I am somewhat reluctant to crown any prez as pontifex.

Can it be that National Review, that pungent Petri dish of modern neoconservative perspectives, yearns for something more satisfying than a simple rejection of conservatism, tradition, religion and ethics? That behind unending declarative statements of what is, was, and will be for the betterment of the rest of us poor stupid SOB’s, the Review’s editorial board has begun to doubt their omniscience?

Seeking more faith, and more works, perhaps they really do hope to find their pontifex in George W. Bush. But naming Bush as home-grown ayatollah of what’s good for us is a day late and a dollar short. Today even faithful Christian conservatives are turning against him, and he lost the bulk of the gun toting, Bill of Rights defending, and fiscal responsibility crowd early last year. The military crowd may leave him high and dry as well, as they check the gaps between the oath they swore and the constabulary colonialism they have been enforcing. Terror, shmerror — we are as safe from real terrorists as we ever were (or were not), but now we have the additional burden of contending with the state’s bad medicine.

Nervous neoconservatives really do need to invoke the "American civil religion."

A civil religion could solidify the body politic like a magnet orders flakes of iron, a possibility Rousseau boldly postulated in The Social Contract. Neoconservatives, with all the courage of a fantasizing J. Alfred Prufrock, seem to think Rousseau was on to something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

State worshippers every one, neoconservatives seek clean slate reconstruction of whole societies, rejecting the past and any future dependent upon it, just as Rousseau did. And they seem to like the idea of an American body politic goose-stepping with Bush at the cranium. With all due respect to Seinfeld, there is a little something wrong with that.

The idea of a civil religion is not new. It’s been with America since the beginning. "Civil religion is the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. — energized by faith outlooks — represents a national force."

But we find, "Civil religion also relates to nationalism — a passionate adoration of the state, its governing authority and civil order. Civil religion adds to that the idea that the governing authority and civil order are sanctified in some way with spiritual or religious significance."

No surprises here. Bush as pontifex is a lot like bin Laden as pan-Arab caliph. How quaint. Makes me want to go looking for matches, an old rag and a half empty bottle of vodka, and something state-like to throw it at.

Perhaps understanding George W. Bush as pontifex maximus, and civil religion as adoration of a strong central governing authority makes sense. It explains the "God picked me to be President" thing, and why Mr. Bush doesn’t need to read anything written on paper, preferring instead to get guidance — on blowing the budget, conducting military invasions, public prevarication, and spending billions of our hard earned money to encourage people to stop taking steroids and get married instead — directly from some higher power. Dick Cheney, perhaps.

It also helps explain all the Lincoln and Churchill iconolatry that goes on in the private sitting rooms of the nanny-cons. I am now able to better appreciate the J. Alfreds in Washington, whispering and wondering if they’ll have the strength to force the moment to its crisis, or press the universe into a ball. Decisions, more decisions, plans and possibilities.

Life’s getting tougher for neoconservatives. Every day, more Americans reject the George W. Bush brand of "conservatism." This of course is dangerous and threatening to the neoconservatives he has appointed to power. I suggest they pray to their gods, idols and pontifices while they still can.