George W. Bush and the gospel of freedom and liberty
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23, declared the day's events to be the opening salvo in a cosmic struggle...
Special to The Times
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush quoted Psalm 23, declared the day's events to be the opening salvo in a cosmic struggle against evil, and vowed that the nation would "go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."
Nine days later, before Congress and an estimated television audience of 82 million Americans — the largest ever for a political event — the president issued these powerful words: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."
These statements, and many similar ones since, have spurred a heated public debate about this president's religious beliefs and language: standard and appropriate for a president, or unusual and dangerous?
The former, say many administration supporters and officials, who consistently have claimed that Bush's mixture of religion and politics is nothing new in the presidency. For example, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things, told The Washington Post last September, "There is nothing that Bush has said about divine purpose that Abraham Lincoln did not say. This is as American as apple pie."
Similarly, Michael Gerson, Bush's primary speechwriter during his first term, told a group of journalists in December that the president's outlook is "not new" and "I don't believe that any of this is a departure from American history."
Some evidence supports their case. Only one presidential inaugural address, George Washington's second, makes no reference to a divine presence. Similarly, Bush's common emphasis on freedom and liberty trumpets principles so firmly planted in American national identity that they are enshrined in more than 500 literal symbols, according to Brandeis University historian David Hackett Fischer. In emphasizing a higher power along with freedom and liberty, Bush is, as his supporters contend, emphasizing ideas that are as mainstream as one will find in U.S. presidential rhetoric.
That is not the whole story, however.
For while Bush's emphasis on God, freedom and liberty are not uncommon for the presidency, the manner in which he strategically uses these ideas for political advantage is unusual for his office, perhaps even unprecedented. Consider this: In his recent second-term inaugural address, Bush mentioned a higher power seven times and used the words freedom or liberty, in some form, 49 times. Even if such beliefs are genuine (and I don't doubt that they are), such a heavy presidential emphasis is strongly suggestive that there is a strategy behind the words — a wholly reasonable interpretation given this administration's long and documented history of political calculus.
For example, the White House in early February made official what had been a fait accompli in its first term by naming top political strategist Karl Rove deputy chief of staff, giving him control over policies related to national security, domestic policy, economic policy and homeland security — i.e., almost everything.
It was Rove who drove out policy heavyweight and University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio after less than a year as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Following his departure, DiIulio characterized the administration as "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis" for their strategy-always-trumps-policy approach.
To be clear, though, an obsession with political tactics begins at the top in this White House. Recently released recordings by friend Doug Wead show Bush in the late 1990s as he contemplated a run for the presidency — with a foremost concern about how to woo evangelicals while not turning away the broader public.
Which is where freedom and liberty come in. These noble principles have broad appeal in America — after all, who doesn't support the ideas of freedom and liberty? — while at the same time occupying a sacrosanct position in the worldview of many Christian conservatives. In the eyes of evangelicals and fundamentalists, the desire to live out the "Great Commission" of Christ, in the book of Matthew, to "go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" has become intertwined with support for the principles of political freedom and liberty. In particular, the individualized religious liberty present in the United States (particularly available historically for European-American Protestants) is something that religious conservatives long to extend to other cultures and nations.
In the 1980s, fundamentalist preacher and leader Jerry Falwell argued that the dissemination of Christianity could not be carried out if other nations were communist — a perspective that provided a good reason to support Ronald Reagan's combination of a strong U.S. military, conservative foreign policy and the spreading of individual freedoms. In that era, Falwell told his flock they could "vote for the Reagan of their choice."
Falwell echoed this perspective in 2004, saying in the July 1 issue of his e-mail newsletter and on his Web site, "For conservative people of faith, voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable."
The certitude in the support for Bush by Falwell (and by many other religious-right leaders, including James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer) is emblematic of Christian conservatives' confidence that their vision of the world is the vision of the world — entirely true and without flaw. Such an outlook inevitably fosters a conception of their beliefs as providing what religion scholar Bruce Lawrence terms "mandated universalist norms" that cross cultural contexts and therefore, as the biblical command makes clear, are to be shared with all nations.
At the center of these norms for religious conservatives are U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty. After Sept. 11, these values gained a heightened resonance among all Americans — and the ever-strategic Bush administration capitalized with a gospel of freedom, liberty and God.
It is a message embraced by religious conservatives. Consider the perspective of Richard Land, president of the ethics and religious liberty arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's predominant religious fundamentalist organization with 16 million members, more than 42,000 churches and considerable political influence.
Land, a graduate of Princeton and Oxford and an adviser to the White House on the intersection of religion and politics, said in a 2003 interview: "The president believes America has a purpose in the world, and that purpose is to fan the flame and light the candle of freedom. I believe that he believes — as do I and many evangelicals — that we have a responsibility to help people experience the freedom that is their God-given right."
Such beliefs, and the presidential rhetoric that encourages and sustains them, translate into real political capital. In the late 1980s, according to the Pew Research Center, white evangelical Protestants were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in political party self-identification. In 2004, white evangelicals were more likely to self-identify with Republicans than Democrats, 54 to 21 percent — and in the election Bush received nearly 80 percent of this group's vote. This pro-GOP and pro-Bush outlook particularly matters because when the citizenry is sliced by race and religion, white evangelicals represent the largest voting bloc at more than one-fourth of the electorate.
Machiavellian? Perhaps. Mayberry-ian? No.
An emphasis on freedom, liberty and God may represent the holy trinity of political strategy in America. It's also disingenuous for this president. Most especially, it obscures the underlying truth that the Bush administration is determined to define what counts as freedom and liberty and who will have the privilege to experience it. Consider two points:
First, it is only a short step from talking about God, freedom and liberty to suggesting that that the U.S. government is doing God's work. For example, in a press conference in 2003 shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured, Bush declared that "justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift" — freedom and liberty — "from the Almighty to the people of Iraq." And in the final presidential debate last October, Bush said, "I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That's what I believe. And that's part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty."
Claims that the U.S. government and military are doing God's work may appeal to many Americans, but it frightens those who might run afoul of administration wishes-cum-demands. This is particularly so when one considers how declarations of God's will have been used by European-Americans in past eras as rationale for subjugating those who are racially and religiously different, most notably Native Americans, Africans, Chinese and African Americans.
Indeed, religion scholar R. Scott Appleby in 2003 declared that the administration's omnipresent emphasis on freedom and liberty functions as the centerpiece for "a theological version of Manifest Destiny." If so, one must note the risk of repeating today what previous versions of Manifest Destiny did in the past: unduly emphasizing the norms and values of white, religiously conservative Protestants at the expense of those who will not or cannot conform.
This concern, in part, prompted more than 200 U.S. seminary and religious leaders last October to sign a petition condemning what they called a "theology of war" in the administration's convergence of God and nation in the campaign against terrorism.
Second, the president's proclamations about freedom and liberty are contradicted by several administration policies that go far in restricting the actual liberty of Americans. One of these is the president's support for a constitutional amendment to deny homosexuals a freedom that all heterosexuals enjoy — the right to enter into a state-sanctioned marriage. Another is the administration's detaining of U.S. citizens designated as "enemy combatants" in the campaign against terrorism for unlimited time without an opportunity to face one's accusers. And yet another is the administration's efforts to control citizens' medical decisions — from stem-cell research to Terri Schiavo. The president and administration have yet to articulate how their lofty rhetoric about freedom and liberty meets these contradictory realities.
More than three years ago, on Sept. 20, 2001, the president spoke to a nation desperate for his leadership. Among his words were these: "I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them."
Indeed. We ask the same of you, Mr. President.
David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of "God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the 'War on Terror,' and the Echoing Press" (Pluto Press, 2004).