American presidents beginning with George Washington have included religious language in their public addresses. Claims of the United States as a divinely chosen nation and requests for God to bless U.S. decisions and actions have been commonplace. Scholars have labeled such discourse “civil religion,” in which political leaders emphasize religious symbols and transcendent principles to engender a sense of unity and shared national identity.
George W. Bush is doing something altogether different.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the president and his administration have converged a religious fundamentalist worldview with a political agenda — a distinctly partisan one, wrapped in the mantle of national interest but crafted by and for only those who share their outlook. It is a modern form of political fundamentalism — that is, the adaptation of a self-proclaimed conservative Christian rectitude, by way of strategic language choices and communication approaches designed for a mass-media culture, into political policy.
Motivated by this ideology, the Bush administration has sought to control public discourse and to engender a climate of nationalism in which the public views presidential support as a patriotic duty and Congress (and the United Nations) is compelled to rubber-stamp administration policies.
The goal is a national mood of spiritual superiority under the guise of a just sovereignty. The ultimate irony is that in combating the Islamic extremists responsible for Sept. 11, the administration has crafted, pursued and engendered its own brand of political fundamentalism — one that, while clearly tailored to a modern democracy, nonetheless functions ideologically in a manner similar to the version offered by the terrorists.
All of this has a facade of merely politics as usual. It is not. Unfortunately, as too often occurs with matters of religion, the mainstream news media have missed the story almost entirely, and thus so has much of the U.S. public.
Bush is the most publicly religious president since at least Woodrow Wilson. Ronald Reagan had great appeal to religious conservatives, but he was far less outspoken about religion — a point noted in a June eulogy of the late president by Ron Reagan, who said his father did not “(wear) his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage,” a comment many interpreted as a critique of the current president. Indeed, Bush speaks often about his “born-again” faith and regularly references a divine power in public statements, a practice that religion scholar Martin E. Marty has termed “God talk.”
That the president — any president — is a person of religious faith is generally viewed by the U.S. public in favorable terms, the better to be grounded when facing momentous decisions. I share this view because I know how central the Christian faith is to my life and to many others I know and respect. Invocations of a higher power, when emphasizing inclusive and transcendent principles, seem to me to be legitimate and adroit rhetoric for a leader of 290 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom believe in God in some form. What is deeply troubling about Bush’s religiosity, however, is that he consistently evinces a certainty that he knows God’s will — and he then acts upon this certainty in ways that affect billions of humans.
For example, in his address before Congress and a national television audience nine days after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared: “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.” Similarly, in the 2003 State of the Union address, with the conflict in Iraq imminent, he declared: “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” These are not requests for divine favor; they are declarations of divine wishes.
From this position, only short theological and rhetorical steps are required to justify U.S. actions. For instance, at a December 2003 news conference, Bush said: “I believe, firmly believe — and you’ve heard me say this a lot, and I say it a lot because I truly believe it — that freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world. That’s what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq.”
Further, this view of divinely ordained policy infuses the public discourse of several administration leaders, irrespective of their particular religious outlook. I systematically examined hundreds of administration public communications — by the president, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld — about the “war on terrorism” in the 20 months between Sept. 11, 2001, and the end of “major combat” in Iraq in spring 2003. This research showed that the administration’s public communications contained four characteristics simultaneously rooted in religious fundamentalism while offering political capital:
• Simplistic, black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape, most notably good vs. evil and security vs. peril.
• Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation’s “calling” and “mission” against terrorism.
• Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.
• Claims that dissent from the administration is unpatriotic and a threat to the nation and globe.
In combination, these characteristics have transformed Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” policy to “Either you are with us, or you are against God.” To the great misfortune of American democracy and the global public, such a view looks, sounds and feels remarkably similar to that of the terrorists it is fighting.
Indeed, one is hard-pressed to see how the perspective of Osama bin Laden, that he and his followers are delivering God’s wishes for the United States (and others who share Western customs and policies), is much different from the perspective of George W. Bush, that the United States is delivering God’s wishes to the Taliban or Iraq. Clearly, flying airplanes into buildings in order to kill innocent people is an indefensible, immoral activity. So, too, some traditional allies told the Bush administration, is an unprovoked pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation. In both instances, the aggression manifested in a form that was available to the leaders. Fundamentalism in the White House is a difference in degree, not kind, from fundamentalism exercised in dark, damp caves. Democracy is always the loser.
The ascendancy of the administration’s political fundamentalism after Sept. 11 was facilitated by mainstream U.S. news coverage, which substantially echoed the administration’s views. That became apparent when I analyzed how 20 leading and geographically diverse newspapers and the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC covered each of Bush’s national addresses (15 in 20 months, a remarkable pace) and the administration’s push for key “war on terrorism” policies and goals in 2001 and 2002, including passage of the USA Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and congressional and U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq.
This analysis revealed that news media consistently amplified the words and ideas of the president and other administration leaders. They did that by echoing throughout their coverage similar claims made by multiple administration members, thereby having the administration’s perspectives establish the terms of public discourse. For example, only two of more than 300 editorials that I analyzed in response to the president’s national addresses criticized the administration’s description of the campaign against terrorism as an epic struggle of good vs. evil. None questioned his explicit declarations of God’s will. With so many around the globe expressing a different view during these 20 months, by echoing these fundamentalist messages within these editorials, the press failed its readers.
To be clear, the U.S. news media did not emphasize the administration’s messages to the same extent as the White House did during this time. Such an equation would imply that the commercial, independent news media merely served as mouthpieces, and that is not the case. Disagreement with the administration sometimes appeared in news stories–either as a presentation of different factual information or of divergent observations by other sources — and in newspaper editorials. Coverage also included occasional strong criticisms of government policy, in particular in regard to the administration’s diplomatic difficulties in early 2003.
The chief failure of members of the mainstream media, though, is that they did not adequately cover the deeply religious motivations to the administration’s actions and, as a result, too rarely questioned the administration’s religious-cum-political discourses. Once these fundamentalist discourses became consistently amplified — but not analyzed — in leading media outlets, the administration gained the rhetorical high ground, and that went far in determining policy decisions.
While Christian conservatives and hard-line neo-conservatives may see the developments after Sept. 11 in a positive light (after all, one might say that God and the United States have been given a larger piece of the planet with which to work), all Americans should be leery of any government that merges religiosity into political ends. Noble ideals such as freedom and liberty are clearly worth pursuing, but the administration promoted those concepts with its left hand while using its right hand to treat others — including many U.S. citizens — in an authoritarian, dismissive manner. Unfortunately, the Bush administration appears to be the latest entry in a historical record that shows that beliefs and claims about divine leading are no guarantee that one will exercise power in a consistently liberating, egalitarian manner.
David Domke, a former journalist, is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on the relationships among political leaders, news coverage and public opinion in the United States. He is the author of “God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the ‘War on Terror,’ and the Echoing Press” (Pluto Press, 2004).