15 November 2004
Evangelicals and the Sentimental Affinities of George W. Bush
By Omri Elisha
I don’t have a television. I don’t follow the blogs. I have an almost Churchillian aversion to statistical polls. In short, I won’t even try to make sense of the recent cacophony of election explanations. I can’t say, like Garry Wills, that we’ve reached the end of the Enlightenment, nor will I argue that voters today increasingly gravitate around political constructs as hopelessly vague as “moral values.”
My knowledge of how conservative evangelicals think and act is more modest in scope, but also more intimate. I’m not an evangelical, but I study them as an ethnographer. I listen to the desires, fears, and ambitions of white, conservative evangelicals in the so-called red state of Tennessee. I’ve come to know the evangelicals who are the focus of my research very well, and I’ve learned to anticipate their sentiments the way that one anticipates the reactions of a close friend. If nothing else, I can speculate on a particular structure of feeling that made many American evangelicals rally their support and their blessings behind the President because, rather than despite, the fact that his life before September 11, 2001, seemed to contain so little that would have prepared him for what was to come.
In the months prior to the election, there were countless articles, documentaries, and TV and radio segments on Bush’s evangelical faith. But nothing crystallized for me the nature of Bush’s symbolic significance among his evangelical base as compellingly as a short, pre-election email letter from Laura Bush. The email was sent out on October 26 to the newsletter subscribers ofCrosswalk, a fiercely conservative, “Christ-centered, for-profit corporation” that provides daily devotionals, news digests, and numerous other Internet resources for Christians, and is one of the most popular Christian sites on the web. The “Message” from Laura Bush included a picture of her smiling face, and began “Dear Friend, We’ve watched as President Bush has led this country through the most historic struggle of our generation…” A few lines later, Laura Bush recounts the following, which she repeated at rallies on the campaign trail:
In Ohio, I visited with a woman who summed up our success this way. She said, “President Bush was born for such a time as this. He never wavers when it comes to doing the right thing. It makes me feel so secure to know that our leader has such a love for our country.”
I don’t know which part of that statement jumps out at you, but I do know which part resonated the most with popular evangelical sensibilities. Six words: “for such a time as this.”
This is not empty rhetoric. It is a straightforward reference to the Bible — the Book of Esther,chapter 4, verse 14, to be precise — and it is among the most evocative and meaningful catchphrases in the language of evangelicalism.
The Old Testament Book of Esther is familiar to most of us as the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim (full disclosure: Although I was raised Jewish, I can’t say I would have recognized that scripture quotation before I started hanging out with evangelicals). It is the story of Esther, a Jewish woman who becomes Queen of Persia. A villainous royal official named Haman decides that all the Jews in the kingdom should be killed. Esther wants to intervene but she can’t, since, as she tells her uncle Mordecai, she can’t approach the king without being summoned by him. If she does so, she, too, will be killed. Mordecai says:
If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
Esther commits herself to three days of fasting and prayer, after which she approaches the king and — long story short — undermines the plans of Haman (cue the groggers) and saves the Jewish people from destruction.
The Esther story, and that passage in particular, is read by evangelicals as a sign of the individual’s role in God’s sovereign designs for human history. They see it not as a story of heroism, but of instrumentalism; Esther is a vehicle, a tool. Mordecai’s statement (“Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this”) sounds like grandeur, but for evangelicals it is read as a radical call to self-abnegation. Esther’s virtue is her willingness to make a sacrifice. Her demonstration of piety through fasting and prayer is likewise seen as the ultimate recognition that in times of crisis it is God who must be in charge. The reluctant queen releases her body from its carnal impulses of self-preservation, and becomes the paragon of faithful obedience that fate conspired her to be.
I hear a lot of people complain that George W. Bush thinks he is the new messiah, or at least some kind of prophet for the modern age, determined either to bring about an American theocracy or global Armageddon. As evangelicals like to say, “that’s between him and his God.” What I say, though, is this: As far his image in evangelical eyes is concerned, Dubya ain’t Jesus — he’s Esther.
In Farenheit 9/11, Michael Moore wonders what Bush might have been thinking while he sat in the classroom looking bewildered for those seven minutes after learning that a second plane struck the Twin Towers. In light of political and business links between the Bush family and its Saudi bedfellows, Moore speculates that Bush must have been thinking “Hmm, which one of my friends screwed me?” Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Sadly, that question is already beside the point.
What remains significant is how conservative evangelicals read that moment, and every presidential moment since then. If we come at this from a perspective that they might take, it follows that evangelicals did not see a bewildered politician, a man in over his head, stymied by his own inexperience and geo-political entanglements. Rather they saw the reluctant Queen Esther struggling to come to terms with the abrupt realization that she is implicated in a drama much larger than herself.
At that moment, Bush, like Esther, represented the evangelical’s greatest ambition and anxiety — that one day he/she will be called upon to surrender him/herself to an irreversible state of being where personal faith and historical destiny become one and the same. The higher the stakes, the tougher the personal challenge. Consequently, the firmer the resolve to follow through — regardless of obstacles or substantive realities — the greater the faithfulness.
Bush’s Esther-appeal extends beyond the evangelical population. Millions of Americans perceive the drama of Bush’s post-9/11 leadership transformation – a drama that has not been lost on the mass media — as a mirror of the national story of post-9/11 recovery, revenge, and revival. If we need to understand why Bush was re-elected in spite of everything — the attacks on civil liberties, the devastating truths behind WMDs and Abu Ghraib— we need to accept that at least on a certain level Americans are seduced by emotional drama. Yes, it is a highly moralistic nation that we live in, but it is also one whose mass culture relies heavily on its ability to dramatize itself, to tell its own story in the form of public people who bend or break like characters on a soap opera. Our national celebrities are not just people, they are allegories of us.
On September 11 we all watched the towers fall, and those who see the world through particular kinds of dramaturgical lenses — biblical, cosmic, or nationalistic — also saw what they believe to be the birth of an unwitting commander. This may be why so many Bush supporters seem to care less about his past indiscretions: his substance abuse, questionable service record, and spotty corporate career, for example. All of that happened before. I don’t just mean before he was “born again” — this is about a lot more than washing sins away. I mean before the whisper in his ear that told him “America is under attack,” and before everyone else saw it happen.
Three years later, people who support Bush are still waiting to see how the drama will play itself out. Even those disappointed with his presidency want to know what happens next, how the story will be resolved. As for evangelicals, they are clearly deeply invested in the Bush drama for a host of theological and political reasons. But Bush’s appeal to evangelicals is tied to a particular structure of feeling, one that expresses itself through scriptural allegories that evoke notions of obedience, sacrifice, and piety, and affections of sentimental affinity, barely distinguishable from that which makes evangelicals feel spiritually connected to that ancient Persian queen, the one who knew when “such a time” had come.
Except, only one person died as a result of Esther’s resolve, and that was Haman, the advisor who whispered in the king’s ear.
Omri Elisha, an anthropologist, is a member of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University.