Why do so many Americans dismiss the evidence that the occupation of Iraq has gone disastrously wrong? Because the US has a long tradition of putting faith before facts. Jonathan Raban on George Bush’s debt to the Puritans.
In the secular, liberal, top-left-hand corner of the US where I live, the prevailing mood was one not far short of despair as incredulity mounted that the daily avalanche of bad news from Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Samarra, Najaf, Nasiriyah, Kufa, Ramadi, Baquba and elsewhere was apparently failing to make any significant dent in Bush’s poll numbers, or expose his claim that freedom and democracy are on the march in Iraq as a blithe and cynical fiction. What would it take? people asked: How many more American and Iraqi deaths? When would it sink in that the occupation of Iraq is a bloody catastrophe? Why was the electorate so unmoved by the abundant empirical evidence that the administration’s policy in the Middle East wantonly endangers America as it endangers the wider world? Kerry’s performance in the first presidential debate brought a much-needed lift of spirits to this neck of the woods, but the Democratic candidate is up against something more formidable than the person of George Bush: he has to deal with the unquiet spirit of American puritanism and its long and complicated legacy.
Last Monday, on the school run, I caught an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition with the grieving family of a sergeant in the Oregon National Guard who was killed in Iraq on September 13. Here’s what Sergeant Ben Isenberg’s dad said: “This war is not about Iraqis and Americans, or oil: this is a spiritual war. The people who don’t understand that just need to dig into their Bible and read about it. It’s predicted, it’s predestined. Benjamin understood that the president is a very devouted [sic] Christian. Ben understood that the calling was to go because the president had the knowledge, and understood what was going on, and it’s far deeper than we as people can ever really know. We don’t get the information that the president gets.”
• stop ignoring America’s dismal human rights record
• stop his support for human rights violations (e.g. America’s use and promotion of the death penalty and America’s use of torture
• stop violating – and fighting against – international law,
• to stop supporting cults and extremist groups such as the Unification Church and the Scientology organization, and to
• stop claiming the alleged support of God as an excuse for furthering his own agenda
In context it’s clear that by “information” he wasn’t talking about the stuff that passes from the CIA to the White House. This information comes from the guy whom Bush likes to call his “higher Father”. As the president said in the closing lines of his acceptance speech at the Republican convention last month, “We have a calling from beyond the stars …” – a claim that in some societies might lead to a visit from the men in white coats, but in America, among the faithful, is met with rapturous applause.
Every Bush speech is richly encrypted with covert Biblical allusions and other secret handshakes with his fundamentalist listeners, but one need not be a fundamentalist to warm to this sort of religiose rhetoric, for it is every bit as much of an “American” thing as it is a “Christian” one. Rationalist liberals, tone-deaf to its appeal, make a serious mistake in their assumption that facts-on-the-ground, in Iraq or in the domestic US, can readily explode what the Bush administration has managed to project as a matter not of reason but of faith.
Faith, as Mark Twain’s apocryphal schoolboy said, “is believing what you know ain’t so”. Faith always contradicts the visible evidence, like the putrefying body or the fossil in the rock – obstacles put in our way to test the mettle of our belief and reveal the inadequacy of our merely sublunar knowledge. Ben Isenberg’s father was certain of this: “It’s far deeper than we as people can ever really know.”
No culture in the world has elevated “faith”, in and of itself, with or without specific religious beliefs, to the status it enjoys in the United States. Faith – in God, or the future, or the seemingly impossible, which is the core of the American Dream – is a moral good in its own right. In no other culture is the word “dream” so cemented into everyday political language, for in America dreams are not idle, they are items of faith, visions that transcend the depressing available evidence and portend the glorious future as if it were indeed “predicted . . . predestined”, as Isenberg’s father saw the war on Iraq.
When Americans tell their own history at the grade-school, storybook level, they conveniently forget the earliest and most successful colony of tobacco-aristocrats in Virginia (a bunch of degenerate smokers) and instead trace themselves back to the zealous theocrats in tall black hats who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and whose first harvest is celebrated in the all-American orgy of Thanksgiving. The names of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, which put into the James River in 1607, have little resonance now, but everyone knows about the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower and its Pilgrim Fathers because the Puritans, who have never gone out of date, left behind a peculiarly American philosophy of the miraculous power of faith and hard labour, along with a dangerously uplifting vision of America’s rightful place in the world. In a sermon of 1651, Peter Bulkeley laid out the essential rhetorical frame of Bush’s foreign policy: “We are as a city set upon a hill, in the open view of all the earth, the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God … Let us study so to walk that this may be our excellency and dignity among the nations of the world among which we live; that they may be constrained to say of us, only this people is wise, a holy and blessed people … We are the seed that the Lord hath blessed.” The sting in that exclusive only has been lately felt by almost every foreign ambassador to the UN who’s had to listen to Bush or Powell lecturing the assembly on America’s historic moral exceptionalism.
It was axiomatic to Puritan belief that the city on the hill had been raised in a land previously inhabited by devils whose spirits still walked abroad, conspiring against the holy, wise, and blessed citizens. At the time of the Salem witch trials in 1693, Cotton Mather struck exactly the same note as Bush strikes when he speaks of al-Qaida.
“The devil is now making one attempt more upon us; an attempt more difficult, more surprising, more snarled with unintelligible circumstances than any we have hitherto encountered; an attempt so critical, that if we get well through, we shall soon enjoy halcyon days, with all the vultures of hell trodden under our feet.” A “horrible plot” had been detected, “which if it were not seasonably uncovered would probably blow up and pull down all the churches in the country.” More than 21 witches “have confessed that they have signed unto a book, which the devil showed them, and engaged in his hellish design of bewitching and ruining our land.”
While the Virginia colony brought 18th-century rationalism to America, and supplied four of its first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), the New England puritans of Massachusetts gave Americans an intensely dramatic and emotional sense of their peculiar predicament. They were an exception among nations, uniquely favoured by Providence. They alone enjoyed the liberty to walk with God according to their own lights. They were a people of faith beleaguered on all sides by wicked spirits. Cleaving to their faith, they must distrust “imperfect reason” (Mather’s phrase) as a means of discerning the mystery of creation and the visible world around them. Not least, the Puritan plain style (Mather warned writers of “muses no better than harlots” and of prose “stuck with as many jewels as the gown of a Russian ambassador”), which owed much to the teaching of Peter Ramus, the French philosopher and rhetorician, made these ideas accessible to the least educated, and gave them the unvarnished vigour that they still have today. The remarkable survival of this 17th-century worldview in 21st-century America has as much to do with style as with theological substance: people who would now find Jefferson or Madison hard going could easily thrill to the words of Mather, John Winthrop, the rollicking hellfire poet Michael Wigglesworth, or the poet of domestic sublimity Anne Bradstreet.
The Puritans live! And the shrewd men of the Bush administration have expertly hotwired the president to the galvanic energy-source of Puritan tradition. It’s as if America, since 9/11, has been reconstituted as a colonial New England village: walled-in behind a stockade to keep out Indians (who were seen as in thrall to the devil); centred on its meeting house in whose elevated pulpit stands Bush, the plain-spun preacher, a figure of nearly totalitarian authority in the community of saints. The brave young men of the village are out in the wilderness, doing the Lord’s work, fighting wicked spirits who would otherwise be inside the stockade, burning down Main Street and the meeting house. That, at least, is how the presidential handlers have tried to paint things, and, given the continuing power of the American Puritan tradition, it’s not very surprising that a likely electoral majority have gratefully accepted the picture at its face value: that the proportions are all wrong (the world’s remaining superpower simply won’t fit into the space of a pious, beleaguered village) doesn’t matter, for the administration has successfully tapped into a toxic national mythos.
Faith rules. After a faltering start to his presidency, Bush found his role in the aftermath of the attacks of September 2001 as America’s pastor-in-chief. His inarticulacy without a script was an earnest of his humility and sincerity, his dogmatic certitude a measure of his godly inspiration. “His way of preaching was very plain,” as Mather wrote of John Eliot of Roxbury, Massachusetts, “He did not starve [the people] with empty and windy Speculations.” Confronted a couple of weeks ago with the CIA’s grim forecast of mounting unrest and possible civil war in Iraq, Bush airily said, “they were just guessing”. The president doesn’t guess. As he intimates to his congregation on every possible occasion, his intelligence is leaked to him by He Who Holds the Stars in His Right Hand.
To doubt is to succumb to temptation by the wicked spirits. In the New Testament, empiricism gets a bad press in the person of poor Thomas Didymus, and Christ’s rebuke: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” That the facts on the ground in Iraq are in clear contradiction of all Bush’s claims about the flowering of liberty and democracy there is merely one of those tests of faith to which all true believers are subject. Of course we can’t see it, but that makes the miracle only more marvellous, its very invisibility an inspiring moral challenge for the faithful.
In last Thursday’s debate with Kerry at the University of Miami, Bush appeared petulant and bemused (especially in the reaction shots that were shown by the networks in defiance of the rules agreed by the Commission on Presidential Debates) to find himself there at all. There’s no space in the meeting house for two rival pulpits, and Pastor Bush, for the first time since his election, if that’s the right term for what happened in 2000, had to endure standing on an equal footing with an upstart congregant who was the spitting image of Doubting Thomas. There was a note of wounded incredulity in Bush’s voice when he said of Kerry that “He changes positions on something as fundamental as what you believe in your core, in your heart of hearts, is right in Iraq.” O faithless Kerry! – apostate! – unbeliever! In Bush’s Puritan theology, to change one’s mind in the face of overwhelming evidence is tantamount to denying the very God who rules your “heart of hearts”. How can my belief be wrong if He placed it there?
Yet debates – even ones as stilted as those agreed between the campaigns this year – are rational exercises with an inbuilt bias favouring reason over faith. Unsurprisingly, the rationalist on Thursday beat the preacher at the rationalist’s own game, and in my own political neighbourhood there was hardly less elation that evening than if the Seattle Mariners had carried off the World Series. But a debate is a very different thing from an election, and if Kerry did manage to win on November 2, it would be a surprising triumph of cold reason over hot religious mythology.
No more classic American sentiment has ever been put into a foreigner’s mouth than when the New York lyricist Joe Darion made Don Quixote sing, in Man of La Mancha, “To dream the impossible dream,/ To fight the unbeatable foe,/ To bear with unbearable sorrow,/ To run where the brave dare not go.” Only an entrenched belief in one’s own exceptionalism and a wonder-working Providence could justify such otherwise self-evidently futile activities. With Bush, we’re now dreaming an impossible dream and fighting an unbeatable foe, and tens of millions of Americans – enough, quite probably, to give Bush a second term – believe that is the right, because it’s the American thing to do.
Tony Blair has lately given the impression that he’s been channelling the same source (Almighty God and/or Karl Rove) who inspires the rhetoric of Bush, but in Britain there is no rich mulch of popular national tradition in which Blair’s words can take root. The historic connection between the Labour party of Keir Hardie’s time and the Methodist church is something altogether different from the great folk memory of the embattled God-fearing city on the hill that stirs deep in the American imagination. When Bush plays the faith card, he summons powerful ancient ghosts. When Blair tries to bring off the same trick, he merely calls attention to his conscience, his private religious beliefs, awakening no echoes in the land of mild, secularised Anglicanism where to speak of one’s own intimacy with God’s purpose is to place oneself in the embarrassing company of the man in the ragged overcoat, haranguing a non-existent audience from a soapbox at Speakers Corner – which, come to think of it, is a convenient short stroll from the Blair family’s new quarters in Connaught Square.