The Jesus Factor

Just watched PBS’ doco on Bush and his faith, The Jesus Factor, which screened tonight on SBS.

Liberal evangelical activist, Jim Wallis’ has an interesting analysis of the trajectory of Bush’s faith:

When I met the president and began talking with him, and listening to what he was saying, I felt that he was sort of a self-help Methodist — meaning, someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life. Solved some drinking issues and some family issues, and changed him. Gave him purpose. That’s part of Methodism. Always has been. Kind of a 12-step God — you know, changing my life….

Then Sept. 11 came. I think his role changed dramatically, his notion of himself and his place in history, and he became commander in chief of the war on terrorism. The self-help Methodist became now almost a messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this.

This raises some deep and unsettling theological questions, I think, whether there’s a confusion now in the role of church and nation — the body of Christ, the Christian community, what its role is versus the role of the nation.

Wallis is prepared to admit that “calling” and doing “God’s work” is the task of any committed Christian but it is the divisive certainty of Bush’s mission that disturbs him:

But when one believes that you’ve been appointed by God for a particular mission in history, you have to be very careful about that, how you speak about that. Where is the self-reflection in that? Where is the humility in that? Are we asking whether we are being accountable to God’s intentions and purposes? Or are we asking for God’s blessing on our activities? They’re very different things.

I think when we are so sure that God is on our side, and that those who are not with us are against us, or even with the terrorists, that’s taking another step. I believe God is in our world, in our history, in our lives, in our choices. To ask what God’s calling is for me is a fair question, a necessary question, for any Christian. That’s not a problem.

But when we place God on our side of things, that we are now ridding the world of evil — that’s very dangerous, that one nation has this role to rid the world of [evil]. What about the evil we have committed, that we are complicit in? The richest nation in this global economic system, in which 2 billion of God’s children are poor [and] live on less than $2 a day?

Well, there are things to look at ourselves here, if we’re presiding over that global economy. Does this language allow us to look at ourselves, or does it give us a kind of certainty, and a sanction, and even a sense of divine righteousness for our political position? Are we blinded to things that we’re otherwise not willing to look at?

Richard Land the director of the Southern Baptist Convention points out that Bush’s public religiosity and sense of mission is part of an ongoing mainstream religious tradition In American politics:

George W. Bush is standing squarely in the middle of American history and American tradition, and believing in American exceptionalism. Does that mean that America is God’s chosen people? No. No. Does it mean that we believe that an angel still rides in this storm, as they did at the founding? Yes. Yes.

I believe that. I believe that the United States of America has a divinely given responsibility to hold up the flame of freedom, and whenever possible, to advance it. I don’t make any apology for that. That’s part of who I am as an American. Just exactly what does the left think that John F. Kennedy was talking about, when he said, “We’re going to let tyrants of the world beware. We’re willing to go anywhere, bear any price, assume any burden, defend [against] any foe, support any friend, in defense of liberty?”…

But I can’t imagine that there would be a president of the United States in my lifetime — and I was born during the Truman administration — that would not have given some religious context to the events of 9/11. We have to understand that America is a very religious nation. I know this disturbs and perplexes the New York Times, but it is a fact. When the Pew Trust does a study, for instance, they find that [for] somewhere between 65 percent and 70 percent of Americans, religion is very important in their lives. You compare that with Canada where it’s 28 percent, and Great Britain, where it’s 17 percent.

And Doug Wead, a Bush family friend and evangelical political consultant, makes a fascinating comment about the real and the calculated in Bush’s religiosity:

There’s no question that the president’s faith is real, that it’s authentic, that it’s genuine, and there’s no question that it’s calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they’re Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian….

Gandhi once said, “He who says that religion and politics don’t mix understands neither one.” I would say that I don’t know when he’s sincere and when he’s calculated, and a reporter for FRONTLINE doesn’t know. George Bush doesn’t know when he’s operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith, or when it’s calculated, and there must be gray areas in between. I think he operates instinctively.

For example, in the Iowa debate, when he said Jesus was his favorite philosopher, it’s very questionable whether that helped him. It didn’t help him, especially in Iowa, especially not by very much. … It happened too late, and it was too shocking to have a great impact on the Iowa caucus. It may have a cumulative effect today. It may be remembered by evangelicals along with other things, and may make them more likely to embrace him in 200[4].

The religious war

Very explicit quote from an LA Times Article posted by Brian Flemming on his blog “slumdance”. The Times registration wont let me track the original.

“George sees this as a religious war,” one family member told us. “He doesn’t have a PC view of this war. His view is that they are trying to kill the Christians. And we the Christians will strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.” Critics charge that the president is blindly engaged in a crusade, propelled by a belief in Armageddon that will end in a geopolitical disaster. One has compared his faith to the fundamentalists of Islam. Another calls it downright “frightening.”

Flemming also posts a fascinating two columns of direct quotes contrasting Bush and Co’s Christian rhetoric with descriptions of Abu Ghraib.

The Gospel According to Dubya

Another great analysis of GWB and the rhetoric of apocalypse, The Gospel According to Dubya, from the fantastic website, KtB – Killing the Buddha. KtB describes itself this way: “a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the “spirituality” section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God.”

In the Book of Luke, Christ comes off, in his lust for Armageddon, as somewhere between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove. “I have come to light a fire on the earth,” he announces. “How I wish the blaze were ignited! … Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? I assure you, the contrary is true: I have come for division.” (12, 49-51)

In these moments, it becomes much easier to see how George W. Bush might view his policy of pre-emptive war as a fulfillment of his savior’s wishes — particularly a holy war against what both he and Christ call “the evildoers.” There is, in both figures, an eschatological hunger. Judgment Day becomes a revenge fantasy.

This is not to suggest that President Bush was eager for the apocalyptic specter of 9/11. But it is quite clear that the events of that day roused in him a sense of mission that had been conspicuously absent during his first eight months in office. He immediately declared a “War on Terror” — an all-encompassing battle between the forces of good and evil — which the press was only too happy to ratify. This artificially constructed “war” (it is more like a series of police actions) has kept his administration afloat by distracting the public from his domestic record. But Bush is not just making political hay; he’s bringing to fruition a moral struggle Christ foretold.

“The son of man will dispatch his angels to collection from his kingdom all who draw others to apostasy, and all evildoers,” Christ says, adding in a most unlamb-like manner, “The angels will hurl them into the fiery furnace where they will wail and grind their teeth.” (Matthew 13-41) It should be noted that while Bush does not have angels at his disposal, he does brag the largest standing army and arsenal in the history of mankind.

The domestic and international outrage his war-mongering has provoked doesn’t bother Bush a bit. Just the opposite, it reifies his connection to Christ: “Blessed shall you be when men hate you, when they ostracize and insult you and proscribe your name as evil.” (Luke, 6-22)

Bush, religious rhetoric and the press

From NYU J-School’s great new site/blog The Revealer which covers the press and religion

David Domke, University of Washington professor and author of the just-released book, God Willing?: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press, documents President Bush’s effective linking of religious terminology with political goals. While the tally of Bush’s good n’ evil rhetoric isn’t exactly shocking, Domke’s criticism of the press hits home: Just two of 326 editorials written about Bush’s speeches challenged the religiously derived notion of good vs. evil; none questioned his statements about God’s will. “‘In a time of crisis, the certainty conveyed by what I call “political fundamentalism” put forward by the administration silenced the Democrats and had great appeal to the press. And yet with so many around the globe expressing a different view, the press failed its readers by uncritically echoing these fundamentalist messages.'”

More on the same from Domke’s newswire release.

Domke examined the response of news media, by dissecting TV and newspaper reports on the administration and its policies related to the “war on terrorism.” This included every terror-related news story in the New York Times and Washington Post during the three weeks after Sept. 11, and several hundred newspaper articles and network television stories.

The coverage, Domke found, gave uncritical voice to four key fundamentalist messages from the administration:

1) Simplistic, black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape.

2) Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation’s “calling” and “mission” against terrorism.

3) Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.

4) Claims that dissent from the administration was unpatriotic and a threat to the nation.

“These messages were rooted in a religiously conservative worldview,” Domke said, “yet they were often framed by both the administration and the news media to emphasize a sense of nationalism.

“That made the fundamentalist approach attractive, or at least palatable, to the press and public,” Domke added, “in a period when Americans were trying to understand what had happened and why.”

It was not until nearly two years after 9/11 that the administration relinquished its full-court religious press, Domke said, and the news media began to question their role in helping the administration to control public discourse.

“All of this came at great cost to democracy and the public,” he said, “both of which were roundly ignored by the administration as it pursued a religiously grounded vision of America in the 21st century.”