Wednesday, October 20, 2004

How George Bush Used the Force 

Courtesy of William Gibson, a useful complement (and partial corrective) to Ron Suskind's "Without a Doubt" from Sunday's NYT Magazine. Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer is happy to concede Suskind's central premise -- that Mr. Bush's is a "faith-based" presidency -- but argues, intriguingly, that the "faith" in question is by no means fundamentalist Christianity:
Believing, it seems, is more important to the President than the substance of his belief. Jesus Christ’s particular teachings -- well, those are good, too. But what really matters is that if you believe you can do something, you can.

What Suskind misses, and what Bush’s more orthodox Christian supporters seem to dodge, is that this is not Christian doctrine by any definition. It is, in fact, a key element of the broad, heterodox movement known as New Age religion.

A common aspect of many New Age schools of thought (though not all) is a gentle disdain for perceived reality. That's different from the fundamentalist aversion to worldliness; rather, this approach views the "real world" as that which is within the mind or heart or spirit of the believer. That idea is often dismissed as a modern bastardization of psychology, but many New Agers argue that their beliefs are actually ancient; and, despite the fact that the superficial characteristics are often of a recent vintage, there’s some truth to that assertion. New Age religions are, literally, reactionary, responses to what’s been called the disenchantment of the world. Another word for that process is the Enlightenment, with its claims of empirical accuracy. New Age movements attempt to revive -- or create anew --pre-Enlightenment ideas about magic, alchemy, ghosts, and whatever else practitioners can glean from a record for the most part expunged by institutional Christianity . . . .

Suskind and other Bush detractors (and make no mistake, Suskind’s story is a hit piece -- a smart, informative hit piece, but a hit piece all the same) document Bush’s tautological thinking, but they fall short of taking it seriously. That’s a point Mark McKinnon, one of Bush’s media advisors, tries to hammer home in brutal fashion when he tells Suskind, “ ‘When you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what [Bush supporters] don’t like? They don’t like you!’”

Beyond the schoolyard shoving aspects of this declaration, there’s some insight. Suskind reads McKinnon's comment as an attack on snobbery; in fact, it’s an angry defense of positive thinking, of creating one’s own reality. Bush believers long for absolutes, but they don't care about empirical definitions. They're not literalists, in the sense that they don't cling to language. In fact, they don't trust language, which is why they read clunky, soulless translations of scripture, when they read it at all. The Community Bible Study approach to biblical education through which Bush found his faith is not based on intense reading, but on personal meditations built around a sentence or two. Bush himself doesn't study the Bible; he samples phrases and invokes them like spells . . . .

I happen to like the idea that faith is a path away from easy certainty, but I know it’s just that -- an idea. Wallis’ idea, and that of one strain of Christianity. It's not an idea shared by many New Age religions. Such beliefs emphasize that certainty is easy, if you'll just give up the illusion of reality, since certainty is as close to you as your own heart. One need not investigate with the tools of rationalism, but rather, simply -- the simplicity of it all is key -- feel.

Bush feels. The press, so far, does not. In grappling with Bush’s presidency, it has expanded its range, developed a more nuanced understanding of traditional Christian fundamentalism, recognized liberal evangelicalism, and acknowledged the limitations of Enlightenment thinking. But it still can’t account for the kind of magic that says, If you believe you can do something -- become president despite losing the popular vote, launch a war without evidence, and maybe, if you REALLY believe, get re-elected anyway -- you can.
Somehow we knew that when they finally figured out who had ruined everything, it would turn out to be George Lucas.

UPDATE: Another take, by Ayelish McGarvey in The American Prospect:
Ironically for a man who once famously named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher during a campaign debate, it is remarkably difficult to pinpoint a single instance wherein Christian teaching has won out over partisan politics in the Bush White House. Though Bush easily weaves Christian language and themes into his political communication, empty religious jargon is no substitute for a bedrock faith. Even little children in Sunday school know that Jesus taught his disciples to live according to his commandments, not simply to talk about them a lot. In Bush’s case, faith without works is not just dead faith -- it’s evangelical agitprop

Richard Land directs the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and a group that enjoys a close relationship with the Bush administration. In an interview for Frontline earlier this year, Land denounced the scriptural cherry-picking on the part of contemporary American Christians. “It's only been in the last half-century when you've had the rise of groups [in] modern Christendom who believe in what I call ‘Dalmatian theology,’” he explained. “The Bible's inspired in spots, and … [t]hey think they can reject large chunks of Christian Scripture and biblical revelation that they don't agree with … .”

But while Land’s censure was probably intended for liberals, so, too, does it apply to the president. For George W. Bush does not live or govern under the complete authority of the Bible -- just the parts that work to his political advantage. And evangelical leaders like Land who blindly bless the Bush White House don’t just muddy the division of church and state; worse, they completely violate Scripture.

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