Bush the Christian

Few Americans look beyond the headlines on the war in Iraq, but a lot of believers nonetheless have confidence that George Bush is doing the right thing there. After all, they say, "he’s such a good Christian."

The notion that Christian faith preserves us from error does run deep among some believers, and clearly Karl Rove expects them to be part of the 20 million evangelical votes he thinks George Bush needs to win in November. But their well-intentioned confidence overlooks the sober common sense of the church as it has been expressed over many centuries. John Henry Cardinal Newman put it as simply as anyone: "Being a great theologian doesn’t make you more holy. It only makes you more guilty when you sin."

Well, how could "such a good Christian" make such profound mistakes about a central issue like war? A lifetime would not be enough to address that question adequately. Our culture, our history, and our civilization are full of Christian symbols, assumptions, and vocabulary. It should not come as a surprise that they should be borrowed, or even blatantly hijacked, to suit political agendas that, on inspection, are in decided and deadly opposition to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace.

With that in mind, here is a thumbnail lexicon of a few of the temptations — and outright errors — that have hounded "good Christians" as they have confronted the political realm during the past two thousand years. These are not partisan party platforms, however. Indeed, the modern left has embraced the secular versions of many of these tendencies much more than what is left of traditional conservatism has. And it is unlikely that George Bush has become a professed adherent to any of them — or that he has even heard of them, for that matter. Indeed, few that embrace them do so consciously. Instead, they swim in the waters of ideology uncritically, often finding themselves quite comfortable there, without doing the hard and humbling homework that the saints have admonished us all to pursue for centuries. After all, "the devil quotes Scripture" too.

So how can a solid "conservative Christian" stray so far from the principles of the Founding Fathers, of conservatism, and of Christianity itself? Here, in brief, are a few elements of such a collapse.

The first ingredient of the ideological temptation is the uniquely modern Leviathan state. Thomas Hobbes constantly quoted Scripture 400 years ago as he made the State a divine "person" that is permitted to do everything, without limit of law or nature, that individuals are not permitted to do. This handy concept was seized upon by advocates of the "Divine Right of Kings" — modern, secular kings who rejected any limits on their power, while mouthing religious pleasantries. It is this kind of tyrant that our Founding Fathers rebelled against. The Leviathan rejects natural law’s limits on power, and embraces power-lust not as a vice but as a necessity: after all, God and the Leviathan work together. So the state, not God, gives freedom, as the U.S. government claims to be doing in Iraq, and the state is empowered to dictate to its own citizens how much freedom they will be allowed to have, instead of vice-versa.

Next we have the gnostic temptation, a powerful notion originating in a Christian heresy that developed in the eleventh century and is still alive and well in its secular, revolutionary forms today. Gnostic "Christians" claimed to be the recipients of a direct communication from God — some even called it a "heavenly letter" — that gave them divine authority to reject and to destroy all traditional earthly authority. Their mass attraction lay specifically in how devout they were, although the normal history of gnostic movements over the next five hundred years often ended in debauchery, and invariably culminated in violence. When President Bush tells Amish farmers that "God speaks through me," he is explaining how such a direct heavenly mandate allows him to sidestep the Constitution, his campaign promises, and international law: he has the seal of approval of God Himself. And when he says that "God told me" to invade Iraq, he puts the Christian imprimatur on the violent aggression that violates the venerable and long-standing Christian theory of Just War. (In the fourteenth century, when gnostic violence wracked Europe, Saint Catherine of Siena went to great lengths to explain how difficult it is for the Christian to discern whether it is God who is speaking to you, or whether the devil is impersonating God. That difficulty has not abated in the years since).

Another classic temptation is the dualism of the Manichee, which allows one to demonize the enemy as pure evil. This perversion of reality allows the representative of the "good" power to do anything, since anything he does cannot be "evil," which is always somewhere "over there," in the camp of the enemy. Thus supporters of Bush’s invasion of Iraq like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma can overlook Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kims, and Mao to paint Saddam Hussein as "the worst tyrant since Hitler" (Hitler is modernity’s only permissible reference to absolute evil, of course). This assertion authorizes an attack on any person or country or community that is merely suspect of harboring ill will against the "good," because, of course, they are part of "the axis of evil." No longer does the invader have to wait for an outright "causus belli," as Christian Just War theory and traditional civilized norms of action require.

The Manichee enjoys power without limits. The enemy represents absolute evil; hence we are absolute good. President Bush, divinely inspired and confronting absolute evil, thus does not have to admit any mistakes, because he doesn’t make any. With no apologies, he attacks his critics, domestic and foreign, as being "with the terrorists" — there is no middle ground. The dualist Manichee is by definition moral and everyone who opposes him is immoral, a theme that is echoed by the president’s most strident supporters — and which conveniently dispenses with any need for logical argument, since it is a newly-discovered “self-evident truth,” although it is often intermingled with patriotism, war fever, resolute leadership, and the like. So we get "The End of Evil," war on "The Axis of Evil," and the insipid "Deliver us From Evil," as though politicians could actually replace God the Father.

Another temptation easily embraced by the sentimentally uncritical Christian is utopianism. Of course, orthodox Christians recognize that salvation comes in the next life, but many have tried to compromise with modern secular ideology and its promise of an earthly paradise. Most prominently, such ideologues transform "democracy" from an aspect of a political tradition that takes different forms in various historical instances into an empty but useful abstraction, a symbol which they can elevate to the status of an idol — perfect and unerring. Hence Bush actually bragged to Tim Russert that Ahmed Chalabi, the notorious liar and con man, assured him in the Oval Office that Iraqi democracy would reject the fervent faith of the vast majority of Iraqis and would somehow conform to secular western standards. Bush was passionate in expressing his faith in this secular symbol, on the basis of the testimony of a confirmed power-hungry criminal and conniver. Sentimental fervor and ideology had crowded out even the common-sense prudence and caution that are landmarks of the American political tradition.

The progressive compulsion is another almost irresistible temptation. Christians know that hope is a theological virtue, but politicians have to be secularly optimistic. With the promise of "progress" — that "we are better than our forbearers, and we will bring you a better future, if you just give us the power to make it so" — comes the companion notion of a higher consciousness of the leadership elite (remember the feminists and "consciousness-raising"?). The progressivist assumption, for instance, allowed Marx to empower the Communist Party as the "vanguard of the proletariat" and above the law. Of course, that designation also relieves the leader of any responsibility to respect any limits on his power, since "9-11 changed everything," as progress and history inexorably march on.

Another important ingredient is the lust for power — the superbia vitae of I John 2:16. It is the highest passion in fallen man, for it aims at the replacement of God and His power and law with that of the man who wields earthly power. While many politicians of the left often condemn greed, few politicians will condemn the lust for power, even though it is much more dangerous. If the Christian ruler does not recognize this powerful temptation, he will be sadly susceptible to the voice of the devil masquerading as God and urging him to violence and destruction in the name of a divine mandate.

Another ingredient is the apocalyptic temptation that looms so large in today’s Christian discourse. Some Christian fundamentalists, known as "dispensationalists," believe that they can read the biblical signs of the Last Days and virtually demand that God the Father bring on the end of the world to fulfill their vision. In fact, they want to help it along, in spite of Christ’s warning in Mark 13:32 that "only the Father knows" the day and the hour of the end of the world. Nonetheless, these "Christians" know, and the prospect of a Middle Eastern conflagration moves forward their ultimate goal, to reign with Christ during the thousand years of His earthly rule when He comes again. (Elliott Abrams, director of Middle East policy for Bush’s National Security Council, actually gave a briefing to evangelical preachers at the White House, reassuring them that their vision of Armageddon harmonized perfectly with Bush’s Middle East policy). While it is hardly "optimistic," apocalyptic language nonetheless identifies the believer with the future, which is good, although, like Marx, he recognizes that, in the immediate future, in view of Armageddon, things will get a lot worse before they get any better.

Nor can we ignore the ideological construct known as the "second reality." In denying the foundations of a free society — Jefferson’s self-evident truths — the ideologue constructs a "second reality," a dream-world that conforms to his own wishful thinking, rather than to the normal, everyday life that surrounds us all. How to explain it? Why, "9-11 changed everything," including, for the convinced Christian ideologue, the normal requirements of natural law and America’s constitutional limits on power. Even George Will, a supporter of the war, admits that the president’s vision of the Middle East is "surreal." Unfortunately Solzhenitsyn, a profound critic of the ideological mentality, foresaw the inevitable outcome: "Falsehood always brings violence in its wake."

Another ideological temptation that beckons the Christian who loses his anchor in reality is Jacobinism. This term first described the savage followers of Robespierre in the French Revolution, whose revolutionaries pursued the total destruction of the "pure evil" of the ancient rgime that they thoroughly hated. Since Saddam and the "insurgents" — including, it appears, millions of Iraqis — are "terrorists," our occupation can render tens of thousands of civilian casualties that are so unimportant that U.S. government forces in Iraq don’t bother to count them. "The chick got in the way," as one sniper put it as he killed an innocent woman during the invasion. The Jacobin has carte blanche to use whatever violence he might choose, even if he considers himself a "Christian" serving the Prince of Peace. No compromise, just total destruction; since the enemy is pure evil, the individual is relieved of any responsibility to use moral judgments to guide his actions. As Dostoevsky put it (in the mind of a madman, by the way), "everything is permitted."

There are other powerful intellectual, social, and even religious traditions that can compel the believing Christian to wander from the path of righteousness, all the while snug in the belief that it’s God, and not the devil, who is leading him there. Obviously, no one could hold in their entirety all of the tenets so briefly outlined here. Rather, they have become so familiar in our sentimental times of "feeling" and "self-esteem" that they are hardly noticeable. They are not hard to swallow. In fact, one hardly feels them as they go down. It is only in times of profound crisis — like our own times — that we are moved to rediscover them and to examine them anew. Otherwise, we too might sit befuddled and wonder, "… but he’s such a good Christian!"