Bush's Holy War

Dear God, deliver us from self-righteousness.

Once again, this nation and our friends are all that stand between a world at peace, and a world of chaos and constant alarm. Once again, we are called to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this responsibility.

—George W. Bush, 1/28/03

AFTER HALF a State of the Union speech about domestic policy in which he prattled on about privatizing social security, ending the marriage penalty, the scourge of malpractice lawsuits, and discoursing on how hydrogen and oxygen make water, George W. Bush finally got to the point: We are going to war against that evil prick Saddam Hussein because it is God's will.

As commentators noted after 9/11, Bush has found his sense of mission. A year and a half later, it is undiminished. Indeed, as any viewer could see, it vitalizes him. Saving the world trumps everything: No other agenda, no other good intention, no other purpose to life can live in the vacuum created by such righteous purpose.

And we cannot help but listen. So notable in this ritualized speech, traditionally laced with applause lines, was a stretch in the House Chamber when you could hear a proverbial pin drop, truly miraculous in a room full of politicians with the cameras on. This is the president of the United States speaking. He is talking about life and death. This is the silence of America listening in its temple to a call to war.

IF THERE WAS EVER a notion by our founders and our courts that church and state should be separated, it has died in the rhetoric of George W. Bush. He describes a Manichean world of black and white, good and evil, us and everyone else. America is solitary and exceptional: We have friends, yes, but the world outside our borders is populated with doubters, second-guessers, and unbelievers. We will accept their help if they are willing, yet "the course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others," Bush announced, to great applause. America is alone in its responsibility to mankind, its faith in Providence, and in its destiny.

It's manifest destiny, one might add. To use Rudyard Kipling's phrase about imperial responsibility, it is America's duty to take up "the white man's burden" of bringing freedom to the world. We are called to do God's work on Earth in a global war against evil. The Biblical weapons of mass destruction—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—are riding over the hill. God's lone gunman is here to stop them.

America was explored and settled by Christian millennialists—people who believed God put a continent here just for them. Here was the New World ("new" despite already being inhabited and civilized), a ripe and ready homestead for His kingdom on earth. They argued about the outcome. Some believed that their good works would be rewarded on Judgment Day by entrance into heaven; others believed they were building the New Jerusalem right here on earth, preparing it for the day God and the righteous would move in. For many, America is that home. Not just the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons. It is part of the myth we weave when we talk about our place in the world. It is not enough to be big or powerful or rich or right. It is our task to transform the world according to a divinely inspired plan.

That plan lay largely dormant for years but was rediscovered like the Dead Sea scrolls after 9/11. Oh yes, this is what America is all about. In our Godless secular-no-prayers-in-schoolsism, we had almost forgotten.

YES, THERE IS EVIL in the world. Undoubtedly, Saddam Hussein is a bad man. George W. Bush has made a case for taking him out by positioning Iraq's leader as a singular obstacle to America's mission. In doing so, he has also painted everyone else with a more-complicated view of the world as an appeaser of evil. In watching the State of the Union address, Americans were in effect being asked a simple question: Do you believe? The righteous applauded. The freethinkers had to wonder: Is it possible that being for peace is an unrighteous act? Is it true that seeing America as one piece of the global puzzle—rather than as God's hand—is unpatriotic?

Bush's speech swept all agendas before it with its consequence and call to action. Poor Gary Locke, responding for the Democrats. He never had a chance. Looking geeky and delivering his rebuttal like a tinny infomercial for the Me-Too-O-Matic, one felt sorry for a man steamrollered by history and an American myth more powerful than his immigrant grandfather's story. That American Dream is so antique. It's not enough for people to come here to remake themselves—they must help remake the world they came from.

It's also now clear why the Democrats chose Locke to speak: Someone serious and sincere had to read the words before becoming road-kill to American righteousness.

Presumably he'll be rewarded in the political afterlife.


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