February 25, 2003


Seeing God as `a kind of mascot': Biblical imagery nothing new for U.S. presidents But Bush critics say he's gone to far with `good vs. evil' (BRUCE NOLAN, 2/24/03, Toronto Star)
Does President George W. Bush believe an American war against Iraq is divinely ordained?

It's a provocative question, raised in part by a series of presidential speeches in which Bush, more than any other recent president, has been using explicit religious imagery to define America and to frame his administration's goals.

The images include Bush's vision of the United States as a "blessed" nation, his belief that it is a participant in a providential plan and his confrontation with what he has called "the forces of darkness" in Al Qaeda and Iraq.

"The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain," he told Congress three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

Adopting an image many Christians recognized as a paraphrase of the opening of the Gospel of St. John, he said this in an Ellis Island address on the anniversary of Sept. 11: "This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind .... That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it."

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, he said: "As our nation moves troops and builds alliances to make our world safer, we must also remember our calling as a blessed country is to make this world better.

"Should an attack on Iraq become necessary, he told the National Religious Broadcasters this month, "American troops will act ... in the highest moral traditions of our country."

To some religious leaders, including Bush's fellow evangelicals, such language and the world view it represents are well within the tradition of presidential rhetoric and completely recognizable to millions of Americans.

"There's a history to the use of this kind of language, and I think the American people expect this of their president and respect it," says the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice-president of the National Association of Evangelicals. "I think people ought not get too excited about it."

But other religious leaders are disturbed, including the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal faith group formed to counter the conservative Christian Coalition.

Gaddy suggests that the president has come to "a growing sense of awareness that he is, in fact, a divinely chosen leader for this particular moment in history," a conviction that may cloud his judgment and yield disastrous consequences.

If Bush does see America's confrontations with Al Qaeda and Iraq in theological terms of light vs. darkness, the danger is that it both oversimplifies the political conversation and drives the stakes through the roof, says Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University.

"It suggests we're in a drama like Lord Of The Rings or a children's story in which the forces of good are battling the forces of evil. And the only end of that story can be the victory of one side and the annihilation of the other."

Is Mr. Gaddy suggesting that God is neutral between America and Saddam Hussein? Is Ms Pagels suggesting that both al Qaeda and America can win? Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2003 2:45 PM

Obviously, Mr. Gaddy isn't up on his Bismarck: "God has a special providence for drunks, fools and the United States of America."

Posted by: TimF at February 25, 2003 3:12 PM


I am an atheist, so I don't have much of a dog in this fight, but doesn't it strike you as a bit, well, odd when a Rev takes issue with "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

For theists, I thought that was supposed to be the point.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 25, 2003 8:57 PM


God may not intervene but if He doesn't prefer one to the other He does seem unworthy of obedience.

Posted by: oj at February 25, 2003 9:43 PM

I think it's important to remember that during WWI, both the English and the Germans felt god was on their side.

So that those who believe in god, should resist becoming entrapped by chauvinistic views, but rather meditate on what the true nature of god might be.

(Not that this is at all easy, granted...)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 26, 2003 3:03 AM


I must have misstated my point. A clergyman criticized Pres. Bush for asserting that God is not neutral between good and evil.

So, even as an atheist
, I find that clergyman's position very odd, to the point of being self defeating.

And, again, even as an atheist, I can't remember Pres. Bush ever implying that God would intervene on our side.

I find the President's invocations of good and evil to be entirely on the mark, and his references to God never get within shouting distance of jingoism.


Jeff G.

Posted by: at February 26, 2003 7:50 AM


But in WWI there was no divide between good and evil, it was all stupid.

Posted by: oj at February 26, 2003 8:10 AM


No, I got it, I was agreeing with you (just this once). :)

Posted by: oj at February 26, 2003 8:11 AM

Um, not good enough, Orrin. There was relative good and relative evil.

It may have been stupid and pointless and immoral (as D.H. Lawrence was fond of pointing out), but at the time, there were pressures leading towards an outbreak of war (along with the "reasons" for its continuation); and ministers and priests on both sides were for the most part quite certain of the justice of their respective causes and were calling for god's help in their respective churches. Which is only natural, as we have seen in the American Civil War, as well (but which essentially means that appeals to god are not enough; viz., religious Southerners who upheld slavery; once again, there is relative good and relative evil).

(One might also wonder if the appeal to god during wartime has, at least in part, been responsible for the general secularization of Christian (or formerly so) Europe.)

The same call to god is happening today, though as Jeff says, Bush's appeal to god isn't jingoistic (even if for some, every such appeal must necessarily be so); though I'm sure that the more sophisticated would likely find Bush's and Blair's appeals to do what is "right" entirely laughable and absurd (or hypocritical and appallingly gauche---in a way, it's similar to those who attacked Britain's legitimacy in fighting the Nazis because of Britain's role as a colonizer, though Britain did have the "advantage" of fighting a clear aggressor, not that that prevented some from finding reasons to "come to an agreement" with Germany).

Interestingly, or perhaps perfectly understandably, it is precisely members of the Western clergy who see their moral imperative as resisting war. This may be viewed as evidence of the progress of the west, or the superiority of the truly religious (though one may wish to contrast this, for a variety of reasons, with not a few examples of Islamic clergy). In other words, he or she, who is able to genuinely criticize (but what about despise?) oneself or one's culture is truly enlightened(?)...

Still, in the face of a real threat (which is the essential question), how truly moral can such a position be?

Unless, of course, turning the other cheek is the ultimate moral stance.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 26, 2003 9:27 AM


I hate the French as much as anyone (and believe von Moltke's vision of Anglo-Germanic alliance made sense), but it's not clear that they were the evil party in WWI.

Posted by: oj at February 26, 2003 11:32 AM

Also, Bush's insistence that God is on our side could not be more jingoistic, it's just none of us doubt it, nor, I'd argue, should we.

Posted by: oj at February 26, 2003 11:34 AM

All of this just begs the big, fat, naked question lying on the table: how do we know when the appeal to god is "right"? Like the proverbial broken clock with it's hands stuck on 12:00, which is right twice a day, how do you know when it is right, without resorting to a working clock to tell you so? If you can determine right from wrong as well by flipping a coin as in consulting someone who claims to know god's will, exactly what value is there in the appeal to god?

That other clock that you would use to calibrate the "god" clock wouldn't happen to have the word "reason" printed on it, would it? We can't get our gods mixed up now, can we?

Posted by: Robert D at February 26, 2003 1:05 PM


Which clock?

Posted by: oj at February 26, 2003 3:57 PM

The clock that you consult to determine whether George Bush's God clock (time to go to war) or Jimmy Carter's God clock (forever stuck on not time to go to war) is correct.

I totally agree with GWB on Iraq, but it has nothing to do with any appeal to God. Bush's position on the war have persuasive authority based on their reasonableness. Carter's position lacks persuasive authority because of it's unreasonableness. Both appeal to God, so the appeal to God is not a factor in making this decision.

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 1:31 PM