21 December 2005

The ongoing revelations of the Bush administration’s domestic spying don’t make for a religion story, but the disclosures do echo theological concerns. At issue is omniscience, the government’s power to know whatever it wants about whomever it wants. Bush expanded that power and defends doing so. So far, so political. The theology comes in the mainstream liberal response.

At first glance, it seems to be outrage. But look again. Here’s Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter on “Hardball”: “The critics of the president in this case are not trying to weaken national security. It’s not that we’re eavesdropping, it’s how we’re eavesdropping…”

Embedded in this statement is the acceptance of omniscience as a legitimate aim of government. The only remaining argument is over the social contract that shapes the government’s acquisition of information. But since we’re talking about potential omniscience here, a better term than social contract might be “covenant.” Biblical language is necessary to describe potentially biblical power. And since Bush’s critics have been so cowed by the need to fight “the enemy” — an abstract figure, rarely named — that they accept the implicit premises of the covenant of omniscience, if not the precise terms, isn’t Bush correct to respond out of the whirlwind? “Where were you when I defended the nation?”

That’s the theological trap mainstream liberals have walked into. The only way out is to re-think the theology; or better yet, to scrap it all together and accept a government that isn’t all-knowing.

–Jeff Sharlet