Listen for It: Bush Easing America Into Theocracy

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If you have listened closely to any of George W. Bush’s
national addresses during his tenure in the White House, you
probably know how the president feels about mixing religion
and politics: he digs it.
Since Bush entered office, and particularly since the
attacks of September 11, religion has had a new prominence
in the political arena, especially noticeable in the president’s
use of religious language. Indeed, Bush has made what theologian
Martin E. Marty has termed “God talk” a cornerstone
of his discourse—most evident in his oft-repeated claim that
“freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty
God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” Such language
has triggered a heated public debate over the nature of
the president’s religious discourse. Some argue that Bush’s
rhetoric exceeds that of past presidents while others side with
Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal
First Things, who claims that Bush’s frequent references
to a divine being are “as American as apple pie.”
If Bush is serving only “apple pie,” he is serving considerably
more of it than did his predecessors. Analysis of presidents’
inaugural and State of the Union addresses since
Franklin Roosevelt entered office in 1933 reveals that Bush
has referenced God far more frequently than have other modern
presidents. Bush’s average of 5.8 references to God per
address is rivaled only by Ronald Reagan—like Bush, a
favorite of the Religious Right —who averaged 5.3 references
per address. Other modern presidents known for their
religiosity referenced God far less frequently than did Bush:
Dwight Eisenhower averaged 2.7 references per address,
Lyndon Johnson averaged 1.5, and self-proclaimed
“born again” Christian Jimmy
Carter had only two references total in his
four major addresses while in office.
Explicit references to God are only half
of Bush’s political/religious rhetorical arsenal.
Bush also packs his speeches with subtler
religious references. In his January 2003
State of the Union address, for instance,
Bush recalled a Christian hymn by referring
to the “wonder-working power” of the
American people. Similarly, in his second
inaugural address, Bush said we could all
feel proud when “the unjust encounter justice, and the captives
are set free”—an allusion to the Bible’s book of Isaiah
(among other passages). Such references are a regular part of
the president’s addresses. Even the term “evil,” which
marked much of Bush’s rhetoric following September 11,
calls to mind a Manichaean struggle between God and Satan.
B u s h ’s decision to saturate his public discourse with religious
rhetoric is important because modern presidents—far
more than those who preceded Roosevelt—are able to circulate
their messages widely through mass media and have significant
power to shape political policy. In such an environment,
presidents are well-positioned to insert religious ideology into
political decision-making, thereby threatening Thomas Jeff e rs
o n ’s vision of “awall of separation between church and state.”
For his part, Bush has never thought too highly of Jefferson’s
notion. Within days of taking office in 2001, the president
spoke with reporters not of a wall of separation, but of an
“important bridge between church and state.” In truth, the
relationship between religion and politics has throughout
American history generally resembled a bridge rather than a
wall. For example, in 1954 the Knights of Columbus, a
Catholic fraternal org a n i z ation,
successfully lobbied
Congress and President
Eisenhower to have the
words “under God” inserted
into the Pledge of Allegiance
as a means of distinguishing
Americans from “Godless
communists.” And, to this
day, several states have constitutions
that bar from public
o ffice those who refuse to
profess a belief in the existence
of a divine being.
Bush, however, has taken
this common American practice
of mixing religion and
politics to heights previously
unseen in the modern presidency.
It would be comforting
to think that the president’s
elevated use of religious
language was mere
political posturing, ultimately
of little consequence in terms of determining policy. Unfortunately,
this is not case.
Bolstered by religious conservatives’ ascendancy in the
political sphere, Bush has moved God to the center of his language
and his political decision-making. The Bush administ
r a t i o n ’s pursuit of “faith-based” initiatives, the rise of a
voucher systemthat provides government funds to pay for stud
e n t s ’ tuition at religious schools, the push for a constitutional
amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the Manifest-
Destiny-like invasion and occupation of Iraq all smack of religious
motivations finding their way into governmental policy.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of all of this is that the
president is unabashed in admitting that his religious beliefs
shape his policies.Bushmade this clear during
the final presidential debate of the 2004 campaign,
saying: “I believe that God wants
everybody to be free. T h a t ’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 A l m i g h t y.”
This statement alone should be enough to
raise the hackles of citizens interested in preserving
some semblance of American separation
of church and state. Although Bush’s
fondness for sermonizing may be due in part
to his underlying worldview, it is also a strategy
aimed at pleasing the substantial voting block of religious
conservatives—a strategy that appears to have paid off for the
president during his narrow reelection last November. Ultimately,
it matters little whether Bush is a “true believer,” a
callous strategist, or some combination of the two. The outcome
of this conflation of religion and politics is what matters,
and the outcome is clear. When our president bases policy
decisions as much upon divine guidance as upon the will
of the electorate, only one conclusion can be drawn: we are
living in a theocracy. Pundits’ frequent bickering about the
risks of theocracy in the Middle East creates an unfortunate
irony: dead-set on promoting a particular vision of democracy
abroad, we are sliding toward theocracy at home.
It is a dangerous situation, one with which all of us,
regardless of our individual political and religious beliefs,
should be concerned. Confusing the abstract realm of the
metaphysical with the concrete goals of the state leads to a
place where political leaders’ untoward acts are easily
excused because they are thought to serve a higher purpose.
In the current political climate, this is a place that America
can ill afford to go.

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