In his address to Republican Party delegates and the nation Sept. 2, George W. Bush used the words freedom or liberty, in some form, 34 times. This is a remarkable number, even for a president known for his ability to hammer home a message.
Among these instances was this declaration: “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that, given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”
One is tempted to view the president’s linkage of a divine power with U.S. goals as an example of “civil religion.” Scholars have used this term to refer to American political leaders’ long tradition – dating to George Washington – of emphasizing religious symbols and transcendent principles to engender a sense of unity and shared national identity. Such a view would be mistaken. 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, via strategic communications designed for a mass media culture, into political policy.
I find this particularly inexcusable because I know the positive effects that religious faith can have. Indeed, the Christian faith is central to my life and to many others I know and respect. What is most troubling is that under Bush the presidential posture toward a higher power has shifted from that of a petitioner to a prophet. Rather than seeing himself as a seeker of the will of God, Bush speaks as if he knows it. And he then acts upon this certainty in ways that affect billions of humans.
Further, a 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.
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, 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.
David Domke earned his doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 1996 and is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.