25 January 2005

Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms. Yesterday, Bush counted 49. A critical analysis of the the fundamental meaning of Bush’s word.

By David Domke

In his second-term inaugural address on Thursday, George W. Bush used the words freedom or liberty, in some form, 49 times. Say this for the president: He can hammer home a message.

Among these instances was this declaration: “We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner ‘Freedom Now’ — they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”

Freedom. Liberty. God. Bush’s emphases on these, so consistently highlighted in his public communications over the past four years, both lay bare and obscure underlying truths about the administration. Regarding the former, 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 world, particularly in the struggle against terrorism. 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 to experience it. Let’s consider each of these points.

An omnipresent consideration for evangelicals is the “Great Commission” biblical mandate, in the book ofMatthew, to “go therefore 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 which provided a good reason to support Ronald Reagan’s combination of a strong U.S. military, conservative foreign policy, and the spreading of individual freedoms. In that era, Falwell famously told his flock that they could “vote for the Reagan of their choice.”

Falwell’s perspective on the 2004 presidential matchup was similarly unequivocal: In the July 1 issue of his email newsletter and on his website, Falwell declared, “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.” He added, “I believe it is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew, every Reagan Democrat, and everyone in between to get serious about re-electing President Bush.”

The certitude present in Bush’s rhetoric and in the support for Bush by Falwell (and by other Religious Right leaders such asJames DobsonPat Robertson, and Gary 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 historical contexts. For Bush and the Religious Right, those norms first and foremost are U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty. Since September 11, 2001, these values have gained a special resonance among Americans — and the administration, both because of genuine ideological as well as strategic reasons, has capitalized. Since the attacks, Bush has consistently claimed that the freedom and liberty he seeks to spread is God’s will for the world. Consider a few examples. 

• In his address before Congress and a national television audience nine days after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared, “The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.”

• In the 2003 State of the Union address, with the conflict in Iraq imminent, Bush declared, “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

• And in his address at theRepublican Party Convention in September 2004, Bush made this claim: “I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century. I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their liberty. I believe that given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man. I believe all these things because freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”

Bush’s words Thursday offered a variation on this theme, with God now the “Author of Liberty.” Some might wonder if all of these words should be attributed to Michael Gerson, a graduate of evangelical Wheaton College who served as Bush’s primary speechwriter in his first term. The words are Bush’s. Bob Woodward, in his book about the administration’s push toward Iraq,Plan of Attack, includes this quote from Bush: “I say that freedom is not America’s gift to the world. Freedom is God’s gift to everybody in the world. I believe that. As a matter of fact, I was the person that wrote the line, or said it. I didn’t write it, I just said it in a speech. And it became part of the jargon. And I believe that. And I believe we have a duty to free people. I would hope we wouldn’t have to do it militarily, but we have a duty.”

The claim that the U.S. government is doing God’s work may appeal to many Americans, but it frightens those 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 Native Americans, Africans, Chinese, and African Americans. 

Indeed, scholar R. Scott Appleby in 2003 declared that the administration’s omnipresent emphasis on freedom and liberty functions as the centerpiece for “a theological version of Manifest Destiny.” Unfortunately, this twenty-first century adaptation of Manifest Destiny differs little from earlier American versions: The goal remains to vanquish any who do not willingly adopt the supposedly universal norms and values of Protestant conservatives. The result, by implication in the president’s rhetoric, is that the administration has transformed Bush’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” policy into “Either you are with us, or you are against God.”

To the great misfortune of American democracy and the global public, such a view is indistinguishable from that of the terrorists it is 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 Bush’s perspective 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 charge, is an unprovoked pre-emptive invasion of another nation, the cost in casualties of which has been paid by U.S. military personnel sent to fight on the basis of erroneous intelligence, and by Iraqi civilians — 1,382 (with 10,372 wounded) and 15,365 (with no reliable estimate of Iraqi civilian wounded), respectively, according to conservative estimates at this writing.

In both instances, the aggression manifested in a form that was available to the leaders. Fundamentalism in the White House is different in degree, not kind, from fundamentalism exercised in dark, damp caves. Democracy is always the loser.

David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the “War on Terror,” and the Echoing Press. His last essay for The Revealer was “President or Prophet?