Divine dictates?

February 06, 2005|By David Domke

IN HIS STATE of the Union address, President Bush used the words freedom and liberty, in some form, 34 times. Two weeks ago, in his second-term inaugural address, it was 49 times. Say this for the president: He can hammer home a message.

Among these instances was this declaration in the State of the Union: "We live in the country where the biggest dreams are born. The abolition of slavery was only a dream - until it was fulfilled. The liberation of Europe from fascism was only a dream - until it was achieved. The fall of imperial communism was only a dream - until, one day, it was accomplished. Our generation has dreams of its own, and we also go forward with confidence. The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable - yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom."

Freedom. Liberty. God. These themes, so consistently emphasized in Mr. Bush's public communications over the past four years, both lay bare and obscure underlying truths about his administration.

The president's linkage of freedom and liberty with divine wishes is indicative of how central an evangelical worldview is to his conception of the United States' role in the post-9/11 world. At the same time, emphasis on these values masks the reality that the administration is determined to define what counts as freedom and liberty and who will have the privilege of experiencing it. Let's consider each of these points.

An omnipresent consideration for evangelicals is the "Great Commission" biblical mandate, in the book of Matthew, to "go and make disciples of all the nations." The felt responsibility to live out this command, both locally and globally, has become intertwined in the eyes of many Christian conservatives 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, a conservative foreign policy and the spreading of individual freedoms.

In that era, Mr. Falwell told his flock that they could "vote for the Reagan of their choice." Mr. Falwell echoed this perspective last year, 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 present in Mr. Bush's rhetoric and in the support for Mr. Bush by Mr. Falwell (and by other religious-right leaders, such as James Dobson, the Rev. Pat Robertson and Gary L. Bauer) is emblematic of fundamentalists' confidence that their understanding of the world provides what religion scholar Bruce Lawrence terms "mandated universalist norms" to be spread across cultural and geopolitical contexts.

For Mr. Bush and the religious right, those norms first and foremost are U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty. Since 9/11, Mr. Bush has consistently claimed that the freedom and liberty he seeks to spread are God's will for the world. He reaffirmed this outlook in his addresses the past two weeks as he begins his second term.

The claim that the U.S. government is doing God's work may appeal to many Americans, but it frightens many 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 American Indians, Chinese and African-Americans.

Indeed, scholar R. Scott Appleby declared in 2003 that the administration's omnipresent emphasis on freedom and liberty functions as the centerpiece for "a theological version of Manifest Destiny." Unfortunately, this new version of Manifest Destiny differs little from the original: Any who do not willingly adopt the supposedly universal norms and values of Protestant conservatives are vanquished. The result, by implication in the president's rhetoric, is that the administration has transformed Mr. Bush's policy of "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" to "Either you are with us, or you are against God."

Such a view is indistinguishable from that of the terrorists we are fighting. 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 Mr. Bush's perspective that the United States is delivering God's wishes to the Taliban or the Iraqis.

Clearly, flying airplanes into buildings in order to kill innocent people is an indefensible immoral activity. So too, some charge, is an unprovoked pre-emptive invasion of another nation. In both instances, the aggression manifested in a form that was available to the leaders. And that isn't freedom and liberty, no matter how many times you use the words or link them to God.

David Domke, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the "War on Terror," and the Echoing Press.

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