April 14, 2004

Religion and Bush

Remember the part of the President's press brief last night when he said:

"Because I've seen freedom work right here in our own country. I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world.

And as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."

I knew then, that the following day, certain press outlets would say this type of thing:

"Drawing later on a line he often slips into his campaign speeches, he reminded a global audience that "freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."

With those words, Mr. Bush drove home the singlemindedness that has become the hallmark of his presidency, his greatest strength in the eyes of his admirers and a dangerous, never-change-course stubbornness in the eyes of his detractors. He could have simply talked Tuesday evening about the crimes of Saddam Hussein or the fear that chaos in Iraq would breed terror in one of the most volatile corners of the world.

But he did far more, reaching for the kind of language about America's moral mission in the world that seemed drawn from the era of Teddy Roosevelt, whose speeches he keeps on the coffee table of his ranch in Texas. He described an America chosen by God to spread freedom. He never used the word "crusade," which touched off a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world when he uttered it soon after Sept. 11, 2001. But he described one." [Emphasis mine]

This kind of analysis has disturbed me for a good while now.


Because intellectual elites, on both sides of the pond, often attempt to portray Bush (or, often, Wolfowitz) as messianic personages.

Bush, in particular, is often described as being consumed by some kind of religious fervor (any recent traveler to Europe will have seen myriad magazine covers fronting an image of Bush--mega-cross behind him in some church--with the photograph chosen at the very moment Bush's facial contortions best approximate the Spanish Inquisitioner look.

The intent of such portrayals is pretty clear. It's based on a gross relativism that attempts to portray George Bush as a theocratic barbarian on par with Osama bin Laden--ie., they're both zealots, they both need reining in, when will secularist, rational actors (read: John Kerry) please come onto the stage and save the world from apocalypse?

But parsing Bush's speeches and comments for religious themes and saying (like David Sanger did today in the NYT), that he called for a "crusade" ignores a rich tradition of American Presidents using religious imagery in their speeches.

And it's not just Jimmy Carter and/or Woodrow Wilson.

Check out, for instance, JFK's inaugural address:

"And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."

Here's LBJ's "We Shall Overcome" speech:

"Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says in Latin: "God has favored our undertaking." God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will.

But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight."

Or FDR in the "Four Freedoms" speech:

"This nation has placed its destiny in the hands, heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory."

Were these speeches, by some of the titans and greatest leaders of the Democratic party ever to occupy the Presidency, constitutive of "crusades" too?

Or does hapless Georgie the evangelical have a monopoly on all the radical religiosity in the air?

Next thing we'll hear is that he's pursuing a Crawford caliphate--spanning from the Rio Grande to Northeast Harbor--where non-born-agains needn't apply for residency.

And if any infidels dare stalk the sacred Texan ranch-land--off to Mecca and Medina he'll go--guns-a-blazing.

Posted by Gregory at April 14, 2004 11:35 AM
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