Political Fundamentalism And The Bush Administration

The Bush administration brought a political fundamentalism into the mainstream of American politics in the aftermath of September 11. The president and his team did so by strategically choosing language and communication approaches that were structurally grounded in a conservative Christian outlook, but primarily political in manifest content. …

While Christian conservatives and hard-line neo-conservatives may see the developments after September 11 in a positive light (after all, one might say that God and the United States have been given a larger piece of the planet to play with), all Americans should be leery of any government that merges religiosity into political ends.

Noble ideals such as freedom and liberty are clearly worth pursuing, but the administration promoted these concepts with its left hand while using its right hand to treat others ­ including many U.S. citizens ­ in an authoritarian, dismissive manner. Further, the president?s consistent rhetoric about the ?war on terrorism? being a divinely ordained undertaking forced political opponents and the public into an undue position: they were either with the Bush administration or against God.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration appears to be the latest entry in an American historical record which shows that beliefs and claims about divine leading are no guarantee that one will exercise power in a consistently liberating, egalitarian manner. With a more global view, social scientist Ernest Becker observed:

“Many religionists have lamented the great toll that the Hitlers and the Stalins have taken in order to give their followers the equivalent of religious expiation and immortality; it seemed that when man lost the frank religious dimension of experience, he became even more desperate and wild; when he tried to make the earth alone a pure paradise, he had to become more demonic and devilish.

But when one looks at the toll of scapegoats that religious integrations have taken, one can [see]?that religious mystifications have so far been as dangerous as any other.”

Ultimately, whatever their underlying beliefs may be, what political leaders do is what matters most. In turn, the actions of American leaders take on particular magnitude because the global hegemony of the United States is unrivaled at the moment. How the power and wealth of the world?s sole superpower are to be exercised is the defining question of the times.

The answer from the Bush administration is that it intends to focus its might and a good chunk of the nation?s resources in a campaign against terrorism, both at home and abroad. The president?s 2004 State of the Union address re-affirmed his message that this is God?s cause: in closing his discussion of U.S. overseas actions, Bush declared that ?America is a nation with a mission,? adding a few lines later, ?America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling.?

Such certainty about God?s will, avowed implicitly and explicitly countless times since September 11, leaves little room for doubt ­ or democracy.

The ultimate irony (some would say hypocrisy) of the administration?s leadership is that its political fundamentalism looks, sounds and feels remarkably similar to that of the terrorists it is fighting. Both see the world through a binary lens of good vs. evil, in which complex understandings of the ?enemy? are rejected as inconceivable. Both are obsessed with time, in a couple of ways.

First, one?s temporal actions are thought to be directly related to one?s eternal relationship with a supreme being. Second, sustenance is derived from the belief that providence is on their side in this struggle. Both also assert that they offer universal norms of human relationships and behavior that are divinely decreed for all peoples. In each case, others are perceived to have perverted, or chosen against, these mores.

Finally, both worldviews demand unflinching support and exact a sizable cost from those who dissent. The comparisons do not hold through all matters, of course, but the similarities are real. One is hard pressed to see how claims made by Osama bin Laden, that he and his followers are delivering God?s wishes for the United States (and others who share western customs and policies), are much different from claims made by 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.

The governmental leaders of the world?s sole superpower failed Americans and the world?s citizens in the aftermath of September 11.

At a minimum, during the 20 months analysed here there should have been some willingness by the administration to consider differing conceptions of the global and political landscape; there should have been greater transparency and openness by the administration in its development of policies; there should have been more of the humility toward other nations that Bush, when running for the presidency, said would emanate from his White House; and there should have been a substantive assessment of whether or not a pre-emptive foreign policy was morally appropriate.

None of this would have interfered with American security, and the benefits for democracy, both in the United States and globally, would have been enormous. Each of these, however, would have required the president and administration to acknowledge that they might be wrong, that they perhaps did not have all the answers or could not do it alone, and that they might not have a direct pipeline to God. For an administration with a fundamentalist worldview, asking for help or being open to criticism is anathema.

Once the door is opened to questions or doubt, the battle is perceived to have been lost. Better to die on the hill of certainty, without considering alternatives, than to countenance a more complex understanding of faith, politics or human relations.

Indeed, whether an administration with a worldview rooted in religious fundamentalism can engage in reasoned, open and public deliberation is doubtful. Requesting the support of others is easily accomplished, because the authority of the administration is safely maintained. Altogether different is treating others as co-equals, because this approach comes dangerously close to suggesting that the administration?s leadership and perspectives are insufficient.

For a fundamentalist administration, any criticisms, questioning or disagreements from other political leaders are likely to be perceived as a substantial affront, an attempt to impugn the administration?s religious-cum-political vision. Such an outlook starts at the top in the Bush administration, which is headed by a president whose communications show a resistance to nuance, a certainty of the rightness of his perspectives, a belief that the administration is on a divine mission, and an expectation that his decisions should not be publicly challenged or crossed. This is a perilous combination.

Excerpted from God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror” and the Echoing Press by David Domke.

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