Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Is Bush a fanatic?

An article in The Revealer got me thinking about the question of Bush's relationship to religion.

Many of my friends and colleagues often blithely refer to Bush as a religious fanatic. Are they right? I'm not sure, but I'm uncomfortable with using this kind of rhetoric irresponsibly. My hesitation is in part personal: many Americans take people who look like me to be fanatics on first glance. But religious apparel doesn't make one a fanatic; all it means is that one belongs to a religious community. And that goes for Muslim women who wear Hijab and Jews who wear Kippa was well.

To be sure, there's an uncomfortable amount of "God" in Bush's public speeches, and a lingering suspicion amongst many of us that his uncanny confidence, especially in military matters, derives from the irrational mindset of an over-enthusiastic religious convert. William Saletan was dead-on today in his analysis of Bush's press conference yesterday -- Bush seems to be logically incapable of self-criticism: "If a mistake was made, it wasn't by me, because I don't make mistakes."

But this tendency, infuriating though it may be, doesn't prove that Bush's personal experience of religion directly affects his policy decisions. The problems in Bush's use of religion have to be evaluated by a) his actual policies, and b) his use of religious rhetoric in his public addresses.

On the matter of policy, there is one clear place where Bush has shown signs of inappropriate influence by religion, and that is the gay marriage issue. What makes it worse is that no one has recognized marriage to be a properly religious issue; most media pundits describe it as a "values" question. (In India, where there are separate marriage laws for different religious communities, the connection between marriage and religion is much more obvious. I believe that connection is present here in the U.S. too, somewhat buried.)

The reason so many conservatives (and even many moderates) find gay marriage so unthinkable is that marriage is the one institution in everyday life that is still charged (or sacralized) by a core of often unconscious religious feeling. The religious beliefs and feelings are by no means "wrong," but the application is: particular religious values cannot be used to deny basic civil rights to other members of our society.

On other domestic policy issues, however, Bush has not been the fundamentalist monster many of us feared. While the Supreme Court remains moderate, his personal beliefs may not matter anyways -- they are actually more powerful than he is when it comes to interpreting and enforcing the U.S. Constitution. (This could change if one of the pro-choice judges retires in Bush's second term [yes, that is a prediction] and a pro-life judge replaces her/him.)

On the matter of Bush's public rhetoric. Here is an earlier Saletan piece, from a year ago (after the break-up of the Space Shuttle Columbia), which speaks directly to the question of the way Bush invokes "God." Much of the time it's in the relatively benign "deist" tradition of Cold War religiosity, no different from phrases like "In God We Trust," which are on all of our currency.

But Bush has crossed the line, and he sometimes continues to cross it, into a more assertive kind of religious rhetoric. Here is Saletan:

Look back at Bush's speeches after Sept. 11 and you'll see him wrestling with these two ideas of God. On the day of the attacks he spoke of a God who watches over us in a passive sense: "I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve. … I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us." But nine days later, Bush invoked a God who would "watch over the United States" in an active sense: "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."

[...]Bush was right on Sept. 11 and wrong on Sept. 20. The outcome of war is never certain. In the skies over Baghdad, as in the skies over Texas, God's non-neutrality is a guide, not a promise. If Iraq insists on building weapons of mass destruction, we must fight not because God will protect us, but because He won't.

Exactly. When Bush invokes an active God, a God who belongs to some people (as in, Christians and Jews) and not to others (Muslims, anyone else), he crosses the line.

So what about his line in yesterday's speech on Iraq? ("I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world.") It seems to pass the Saletan test in the sense that here God is neutral and universal. But it fails on another score, which is that again Bush is talking about a God whose function in the world is to guarantee our political rights. And when religious rhetoric impinge upon our concept of the political in an active way, perhaps we are in dangerous waters after all.