Bush's Religious Language

By Stam, Juan | The Nation, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Bush's Religious Language


Stam, Juan, The Nation


George W. Bush began to take part in a Bible study group in 1985, after two decades of binge drinking. For two years he studied the Scriptures and put his heavy drinking behind him. In that same process, he succeeded in refocusing his life, which had been diffused and confused, into a coherent cosmic vision--or ideology--which corresponded to the mentality of the conservative evangelicals of his country.

When Bush decided to run for office, political strategist Karl Rove helped him make the link with the evangelical sector. While other candidates were discussing polemical themes, Rove advised him that it was much better for him to simply speak about his faith. Bush presented himself as "a man with Jesus in his heart." When a reporter asked him who his favorite philosopher was, Bush replied: "Christ, because he changed my heart." That corresponded perfectly to the extreme individualism of fundamentalism, and it constituted what in the metalanguage of evangelical code words is called "personal witness."

Politically, Bush's discourse has been very effective, but theologically the results have been more problematic, as evident in particular in three areas.

Manicheism This ancient heresy divides all of reality in two: Absolute Good and Absolute Evil. The Christian church rejected Manicheism as heretical many centuries ago. But on the day after 9/11, the President first stated the position he would continue to maintain: "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail." Later Bush defined his enemies as the "axis of evil," a term that is theologically and morally loaded.

Given that state of sublime innocence in his own country, like Adam and Eve in paradise, Bush can muster only one explanation for the terrorists' hatred of his nation: "There are people who hate freedom." In other words, they are so evil that they abhor the good because it is good. (But if the terrorists hate freedom, why have they not attacked Canada, which in some respects is more democratic than the United States? Why is there not the same hatred for Switzerland, Holland or Costa Rica?)

Messianism When Bush, then Governor of Texas, decided to seek the presidency, he described his decision in terms evangelicals would understand as a divine mandate: He had been "called," a phrase that evoked the prophetic commissions of the Hebrew scriptures. He summoned to the governor's mansion all the leading pastors of the region to carry out a ritual of "laying on of hands," a practice that corresponds above all to ministerial ordination. He told the pastors that he had been called (obviously, by God) to be the presidential candidate. This language of divine calling has been frequent in his declarations and at a much accelerated rhythm since September 11, 2001.

In his State of the Union address the following year, Bush reaffirmed that "history has called America and our allies to action." Soon after the 9/11 attacks, speaking to a joint session of Congress, he proudly declared that "the advance of human freedom--the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time--now depends on us.

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