Crossposted at The Crusty Polemicist
As promised in the first essay in this series, "The New Leviathan", I want to look at aspect's of Bush's "sermonic discourse," and how it resonated so deeply with so many Americans. Join me below the fold, won't you?
- Clermont on the Potomac
On November 27, 1095, at a religious council held in Clermont, Pope Urban II delivered
what is perhaps the most famous sermon ever composed. He informed the assembled
faithful that he had "come into these parts with a divine admonition for you". Urban’s
listeners, who probably expected a mundane, workaday bit of preaching, instead found
their faces burning with holy shame as their Pope cried out, "O what a disgrace if such a
despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the
faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious in the name of Christ!" Urban was calling
Christendom to strike out at the "despised and base race" known as the Muslims, and
strike them down in the name of a vengeful and broad-shouldered God. Europe thrilled to
Urban’s depiction of it as the very sword-arm of Christ, and it promptly marched off en
masse to commence the long-lived folly we now call "The Crusades".
This sort of militant Christian religiosity is viewed nowadays by most developed Western
nations as a quaint though bloody aspect of a long-ago period of de facto religious
insanity in Europe and the Middle East. I say "most" because there is one glaring
exception: the United States, where precisely this sort of militant Christian religiosity is
resurgent, rampant, and (as the American President assures us) "on the march". The American "War President" is totally engaged as a constant, zealous cheerleader for this sense of a unique Christian mission. Mister Bush’s "war on terror" has been and will continue to be a war by a militantly Christian country against a predominantly Muslim part of the world, led by a President who genuinely believes he was called by God to this one great task.
Bush’s militant Christian zeal, and his deployment of the discourse of a distinctly American sermonizing in the service of war, simply confirms the worst suspicions of the rest of the world that America is indeed fighting a "Crusade" against Islam. Any European leader who spoke to his people in the language used by Bush would be sent packing to the sound of gales of laughter, but Europe adopts a condescending attitude towards Bush’s new Crusade at its peril. Bush’s followers may sound like classic religious loonies – indeed, as we shall see, many of them are – but they are also (for the moment) at the steering wheel of the world’s last remaining superpower. As such, they are very dangerous indeed, and it is worth the time to try to decipher the strangely hypnotic cadences that Bush uses to lift up his faithful to fight the great Crusade.
We need to understand that George W. Bush is not a President. He
is a preacher. He is only at home when he is delivering a sermon. Outside the familiar
ground of the fundamentalist tent, Bush is testy, impatient, insecure, uncomfortable inside his own
skin. But when he has worked himself up to the sort of pure, testifying eloquence that
evokes a form of religious mania created and purified on dusty American back roads
by sun-maddened itinerant preachers, the naked outpouring of almost
devotion and affirmation from his congregation is a darkly terrifying thing to see. Bush
the preacher knows something that his audience also knows, something that America
alone in the world knows: Evil is real. The End Times are coming. The Devil is real, and
waits for the unwary at every moonlit country crossroads. And America, alone among all the nations of the Earth, is called by God to accomplish the thing that has never been
accomplished in the whole long, sad history of religion: "to rid the world of evil."
We need to explore the history, the structure, and the passion of Mister Bush’s long and
continuing sermon, if for no other reason than to conjure ways to blunt its dangerous
influence in the world.
- "God Speaks Through Me"
One can savor the irony of the famously messianic
chest-thumping of the atheist President Lincoln and of the vicious white supremacist
President Wilson, but we must understand that there has always been a strain of
what I have chosen to call "sermonic discourse" in the war rhetoric of American
For instance, in his address to the American Congress at the beginning of 1942, Franklin
Roosevelt stated unequivocally that "victory for us means victory for religion. And they
[the enemy] could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate living
room for both Hitler and God." Roosevelt ends this amazing and little-known sermon using words that sound all too familiar today: "We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills."
One can easily trot out example after example of this sort of sermonic discourse in the
history of the United States. It is really not surprising, given
that those settlers who first "tamed" the "New World" consisted of small sects (today we
would call them "cults") composed of people whose religious peculiarities were considered too radical and dangerous to be allowed to remain in Europe
(no small feat, given the general religious madness infesting Europe at the time). But --
and this cannot be emphasized too strongly -- all of these sermonizing Presidents (with the
possible exception of Wilson) understood that their rhetoric was rhetoric, which gave
them the saving grace of a sense of proportion and distance. George W. Bush is
another species of President. When Bush preaches, he is completely sincere. This is a
man who delights in telling people that, were it not for the saving power
of Christ, he would be sitting at a bar somewhere in Texas instead of running the world.
As head of the most overtly Fundamentalist administration in memory, Bush is utterly
convinced that "God speaks through me."
George Bush’s single rhetorical gift consists in conveying this sincerity to large numbers of Americans. He does this, not through a single "call-to-arms" sermon, as Urban did at
Clermont, but rather by refining and amplifying the uniquely American sermonic
discourse, by using the cadences and imagery of the Baptist pulpit so that his every
speech becomes yet another passage in one long sermon, a sermon with the power to
- "Let he who has ears to hear, let him hear!"
One must be wary of conflating sincerity with transparency when unpacking the content
of the Bush sermon. Bush is utterly sincere and utterly obscure in his meaning – unless
you are one of the faithful. It is impossible to ever take a single word of the Bush sermon
at face value. All of Bush’s speeches are sermons, and all of his
sermons are parables. One can never understand Bush’s power over the faithful unless
one learns the "code" he uses to give a wink and a nod to his fellow believers.
All due credit for crafting the ongoing discourse of the Bush sermon must be given to
Michael Gerson, Bush’s one-time chief speechwriter. Gerson, the man who gave us
the unforgettable phrase "Axis of Evil", is a typical product of the American Midwest. He
is also a theology graduate, and as such is capable of manufacturing
the perfect Christian allusion to complement Bush’s often inarticulate passion. But
we must never mistake the servant for the master. Bush dictates the content, Bush dictates
the underlying message, and Bush is the master of the code. Let us take a look at a few
examples of how the code is deployed.
In one of his annual "State of the Union" messages, Bush spoke of the "wonder-working
powers" of the "goodness and idealism and faith of the American people". For a non-
American (or even a non-religious American, of which there are still a few), this
would seem like an odd, "quaint" sort of phrase for America’s highest elected
official to use. But a member of the Fundamentalist faithful would immediately recognize
the phrase as coming from the gruesomely-named hymn, "There is Power In The Blood".
In the next "State of the Union" speech, Bush deployed vivid imagery that
contained words and echoes guaranteed to resonate with Fundamentalists. When
he spoke of his belief that "History has called America and our allies to action", he knew
that his followers, hearing the potent word "call", would immediately make the necessary
substitution in their minds and hear "God" instead of "History". He sent the same
message in a speech to the Association of Religious Broadcasters when he stated that "we
must also remember our calling as a blessed nation to make the world better ... and
confound the designs of evil men." Continuing, Bush claimed that "Freedom is not
America’s gift to the world. It is God’s gift to humanity. Therefore, the nation which
embodies freedom should bear this gift to every human being in the whole world."
We need to step back and take a long look at this problematic word, "freedom". Note
how often Bush uses the word "freedom" in his sermon, and how often it seems to stand
out as so "odd," both in the context in which he uses it and against the realities of the Bush
project. I have come to the conclusion that, when speaking of "freedom", Bush is
employing the time-honored preacher’s tool known as the parable. When you hear a Bush
sermon, do a little thought experiment: every time he says "freedom", mentally substitute
the word "Christianity." I have been going back over many of the components of
Bush’s long sermon, and the substitution works so precisely that I am forced to
conclude that this is no accident, that he is sending a nudge-nudge wink-wink to the
faithful. Let us try substituting the word "Christian" in place of "free" and "freedom" and
see what happens.
"Christianity is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity."
"I believe that God wants everybody to be Christian."
Here is a longer example. Note that even in this extended passage, the substitution maps
"Christianity is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope for progress here
on Earth. The progress of Christianity is a powerful trend. Yet, we also know that
Christianity, if not defended, can be lost. The success of Christianity is not determined by
some dialectic of history. By definition, the success of Christianity rests upon the choices
and the courage of Christian peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice."
See, one can treat this as an entertaining intellectual parlor game – but a game with dark, sad consequences.
For those who naively believed that Bush was not sincere, and that he
would drop the sermonic discourse in his second term, his 2004 inaugural address must
have been a chilling wakeup call. If you have never read a transcript of this address, I invite you to do so. In this short address, he used the code word "freedom" 27 times (and the word "free" an additional 8 times). Many who lacked the ears to hear the parable
embedded in this sermon puzzled over this constant drumbeat of the word "freedom".
Once one understands what the word "freedom" actually means to Bush and his
followers, the speech is terrifying. Italy’s newspaper La Republica summed it up by
saying, "there is a sense of a man who considers the whole world as his own parish." I
personally felt a cold chill when Bush proclaimed to American that "we have
a calling from beyond the stars to spread freedom across the world." In trying to shake
this disturbing invocation from my mind, I joked "well this proves it -- he’s getting his
marching orders from alien space invaders from beyond the stars!" None of my friends
laughed. Come to think of it, neither did I.
- "Like Joan of Arc, You Must Be Brave"
If my suspicion is true, and Bush is sending "coded sermons" to American
Christian Fundamentalists, one would assume that every major denomination would be delighted to discover that one of their own holds the highest post in the
land. In fact, Bush’s relationship with the major denominations is problematic
at best. When I watch how Bush conducts himself in regard to the American religious
establishment, I am reminded of the great lyrics by Lene Lovich: "Like Joan of Arc, you
must be brave, and listen to your heart." Like Joan, Bush is constantly being picked up and carried forward by voices in his head – voices that he believes come from God Himself. There is no trace of irony or symbolism in his manner when Bush tells another head of state, "God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did." Imagine then the impact that this hardwired direct connection to The Almighty has on those religionists who naively believe that Bush is "one of them".
Amazingly, given his billing as "America’s most religious President", Bush is the first
president not to have met with the leadership of any of the mainstream religious
organizations. The Rev. Fritz Ritsch, writing in the Washington Post,
complained, "The president apparently believes that he can talk about theology from the
bully pulpit without talking to theologians." The sense of anger and spite at having been
cut out of their traditional (and very lucrative) role as intermediary between the
Sovereign and his God is palpable among American religious leaders. This was felt
most keenly during the mad charge towards war in Iraq. In the weeks before the war
began, a ranking member of the Council of Methodist Bishops sulked publicly over the
fact that his organization had spent several months in a fruitless attempt to obtain an
interview with Bush, himself a Methodist (at least, on paper). "The President has not
been willing to hear the voice of his own church." That lovely old Biblical phrase, "stiff-
necked", seems appropriate here. Bush, quite simply, does not need the religious hierarchy to fulfill his mission. He has his God. And he has his People.
If George Bush’s sermon did not resonate with a significant portion of the American
people, his high-bandwidth line to The Lord and his apocalyptic discourse
would be of no more interest to us than the rants of some lunatic wandering the streets of
any major city in the world, proclaiming the reality of Evil and the imminent end of this
tired and dissolute old world. Unfortunately, the Bush sermon does resonate across large
stretches of America, and one is forced to confront the question: why?
First, though by no means most importantly, Bush is just like them. He’s a redeemed
sinner, he has seen the light, he has felt his heart moved and changed by a personal
encounter with Jesus Christ. Like so many Americans, he is convinced that he would
have nothing and would be nothing without his unshakeable faith in The Lord.
This view of the world echoes powerfully in the anachronistic backwater of George
Bush’s America. In contrast to the developed Western world, where religion is
withering away due to lack of interest, more than 90 percent of the American people
believe in a real, personal God. Eighty percent of Americans believe in miracles, with 40
percent of them stating that they had personally experienced or witnessed a miracle. Half
the population of America attends church on a weekly basis, and 53 percent say religion
is a "very important" part of their lives. Amazingly, 43 percent of the American people
believe in the Devil, with horns and a tail. With Bush in the White House, the
nation’s capitol is now the heart of this Christian darkness. A few months ago, I was driving up the highway to give a presentation at a philosophical conference in Washington, DC. As I got closer and closer to Washington, tuning in to a series of fundamentalist rants that showed up and then faded away on my radio dial, I had the eerie sensation – for just a moment -- that I was Marlow, coming up the Congo River to the place where Kurtz squatted, waiting.
Bush sermonizes with a finely crafted combination of soothing and inspiring praise
alternating with deep and unequivocal condemnation. America good. Evildoers bad
America battles Pure Evil, so any action America takes in that holy crusade is by
definition Good. Bush hypnotically repeats the same phrases and cadences of love of
Country and love of God like the invocation of a powerful spell:
"We are the most peaceful country on earth."
"Americans are a resolute people, who have risen to every test of our time. America is a
strong nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without
conquest, and sacrifice for the liberty of strangers."
"This nation fights reluctantly....We seek peace. We strive for peace. And sometimes
peace must be defended. Adversity has revealed the character of our country, to the
world, and to ourselves."
These elements of the Bush sermon are delivered with the utter conviction of passages
from Scripture. They are never questioned because they are beyond
question. The sermon tells the American people every sweet-sounding thing they want to
believe about themselves – and they love him for it. His most fervent supporters
often sound like disciples rather than supporters. At any of his rallies (stage-
managed to the nth degree and always packed with an audience of loyalists), one gets the
real sense that these Americans believe they are in the presence of their savior (or
Savior). Bush has been told by God to lead this Crusade to rid the entire world of Evil.
He takes this charge from The Lord very seriously. The American people embrace his
certitude and, infused with their own equal measure of certitude, they line up to march off
behind him. Bush tells them that "this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a
while", and that’s just fine with his followers. They’ve never felt so alive, so vital, so sure
of America’s place in the world, and of their own place in America. The American
people understand that, in the words that Urban used at Clermont, "there remains still an
important work for you to do". Bush’s sermonic discourse, which resonates on such a deep level with the American people, echoes Urban’s call so many centuries ago: "Now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago."