Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush's Theology of Empire
Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The
moment a person (or government or religion or organization) is convinced
that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything
goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing, and
oppression is staggering. —Eugene Peterson (from the introduction to
the book of Amos in the Bible paraphrase The Message)
"The military victory in Iraq seems to have confirmed a new world
order," Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government,
wrote recently in The Washington Post. "Not since Rome has one
nation loomed so large above the others. Indeed, the word 'empire' has
come out of the closet."
The use of the word "empire" in relation to American power in the
world was once controversial, often restricted to left-wing critiques of
U.S. hegemony. But now, on op-ed pages and in the nation's political
discourse, the concepts of empire, and even the phrase "Pax Americana,"
are increasingly referred to in unapologetic ways.
William Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard,
admits the aspiration to empire. "If people want to say we're an
imperial power, fine," Kristol wrote. Kristol is chair of the Project
for the New American Century, a group of conservative political figures
that began in 1997 to chart a much more aggressive American foreign
policy. The Project's papers lay out the vision of an "American peace"
based on "unquestioned U.S. military pre-eminence." These imperial
visionaries write, "America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and
extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible."
It is imperative, in their view, for the United States to "accept
responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an
international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our
principles." That, indeed, is empire.
There is nothing secret about all this; on the contrary, the views
and plans of these powerful men have been quite open. These are Far
Right American political leaders and commentators who ascended to
governing power and, after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, have been
emboldened to carry out their agenda.
In the run-up to the war with Iraq, Kristol told me that Europe was
now unfit to lead because it was "corrupted by secularism," as was the
developing world, which was "corrupted by poverty." Only the United
States could provide the "moral framework" to govern a new world order,
according to Kristol, who recently and candidly wrote, "Well, what is
wrong with dominance, in the service of sound principles and high
ideals?" Whose ideals? The American right wing's definition of "American
Bush Adds God
To this aggressive extension of American power in the world,
President George W. Bush adds God—and that changes the picture
dramatically. It's one thing for a nation to assert its raw dominance in
the world; it's quite another to suggest, as this president does, that
the success of American military and foreign policy is connected to a
religiously inspired "mission," and even that his presidency may be a
divine appointment for a time such as this.
Many of the president's critics make the mistake of charging that his
faith is insincere at best, a hypocrisy at worst, and mostly a political
cover for his right-wing agenda. I don't doubt that George W. Bush's
faith is sincere and deeply held. The real question is the content and
meaning of that faith and how it impacts his administration's domestic
and foreign policies.
George Bush reports a life-changing conversion around the age of 40
from being a nominal Christian to a born-again believer—a personal
transformation that ended his drinking problems, solidified his family
life, and gave him a sense of direction. He changed his denominational
affiliation from his parents' Episcopal faith to his wife's Methodism.
Bush's personal faith helped prompt his interest in promoting his
"compassionate conservatism" and the faith-based initiative as part of
his new administration.
The real theological question about George W. Bush was whether he
would make a pilgrimage from being essentially a self-help Methodist to
a social reform Methodist. God had changed his life in real ways, but
would his faith deepen to embrace the social activism of John Wesley,
the founder of Methodism, who said poverty was not only a matter of
personal choices but also of social oppression and injustice? Would
Bush's God of the 12-step program also become the God who required
social justice and challenged the status quo of the wealthy and
powerful, the God of whom the biblical prophets spoke?
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's compassionate conservatism and
faith-based initiative rapidly gave way to his newfound vocation as the
commander-in-chief of the "war against terrorism." Close friends say
that after 9/11 Bush found "his mission in life." The self-help
Methodist slowly became a messianic Calvinist promoting America's
mission to "rid the world of evil." The Bush theology was undergoing a
In an October 2000 presidential debate, candidate Bush warned against
an over-active American foreign policy and the negative reception it
would receive around the world. Bush cautioned restraint. "If we are an
arrogant nation, they will resent us," he said. "If we're a humble
nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."
The president has come a long way since then. His administration has
launched a new doctrine of pre-emptive war, has fought two wars (in
Afghanistan and Iraq), and now issues regular demands and threats
against other potential enemies. After Sept. 11, nations around the
world responded to America's pain—even the French newspaper Le Monde
carried the headline "We are all Americans now." But the new pre-emptive
and—most critically—unilateral foreign policy America now pursues has
squandered much of that international support.
The Bush policy has become one of potentially endless wars abroad and
a domestic agenda that mostly consists of tax cuts, primarily for the
rich. "Bush promised us a foreign policy of humility and a domestic
policy of compassion," Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine. "He has
given us a foreign policy of arrogance and a domestic policy that is
cynical, myopic, and cruel." What happened?
A Mission and an Appointment
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum says of the president, "War had
made him…a crusader after all." At the outset of the war in Iraq, George
Bush entreated, "God bless our troops." In his State of the Union
speech, he vowed that America would lead the war against terrorism
"because this call of history has come to the right country." Bush's
autobiography is titled A Charge to Keep, which is a quote from
his favorite hymn.
In Frum's book The Right Man, he recounts a conversation
between the president and his top speechwriter, Mike Gerson, a graduate
of evangelical Wheaton College. After Bush's speech to Congress
following the Sept. 11 attacks, Frum writes that Gerson called up his
boss and said, "Mr. President, when I saw you on television, I
thought—God wanted you there." According to Frum, the president replied,
"He wants us all here, Gerson."
Bush has made numerous references to his belief that he could not be
president if he did not believe in a "divine plan that supersedes all
human plans." As he gained political power, Bush has increasingly seen
his presidency as part of that divine plan. Richard Land, of the
Southern Baptist Convention, recalls Bush once saying, "I believe God
wants me to be president." After Sept. 11, Michael Duffy wrote in
Time magazine, the president spoke of "being chosen by the grace of
God to lead at that moment."
Every Christian hopes to find a vocation and calling that is faithful
to Christ. But a president who believes that the nation is fulfilling a
God-given righteous mission and that he serves with a divine appointment
can become quite theologically unsettling. Theologian Martin Marty
voices the concern of many when he says, "The problem isn't with Bush's
sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he's doing God's will."
As Christianity Today put it, "Some worry that Bush is confusing
genuine faith with national ideology." The president's faith, wrote
Klein, "does not give him pause or force him to reflect. It is a source
of comfort and strength but not of wisdom."
The Bush theology deserves to be examined on biblical grounds. Is it
really Christian, or merely American? Does it take a global view of
God's world or just assert American nationalism in the latest update of
"manifest destiny"? How does the rest of the world—and, more important,
the rest of the church worldwide—view America's imperial ambitions?
Getting the Words Wrong
President Bush uses religious language more than any president in
U.S. history, and some of his key speechwriters come right out of the
evangelical community. Sometimes he draws on biblical language, other
times old gospel hymns that cause deep resonance among the faithful in
his own electoral base. The problem is that the quotes from the Bible
and hymnals are too often either taken out of context or, worse yet,
employed in ways quite different from their original meaning. For
example, in the 2003 State of the Union, the president evoked an easily
recognized and quite famous line from an old gospel hymn. Speaking of
America's deepest problems, Bush said, "The need is great. Yet there's
power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of
the American people." But that's not what the song is about. The hymn
says there is "power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the
Lamb" (emphasis added). The hymn is about the power of Christ in
salvation, not the power of "the American people," or any people, or any
country. Bush's citation was a complete misuse.
On the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President
Bush said at Ellis Island, "This ideal of America is the hope of all
mankind…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the
darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it." Those last two
sentences are straight out of John's gospel. But in the gospel the light
shining in the darkness is the Word of God, and the light is the light
of Christ. It's not about America and its values. Even his favorite
hymn, "A Charge to Keep," speaks of that charge as "a God to
glorify"—not to "do everything we can to protect the American homeland,"
as Bush has named our charge to keep.
Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again—confusing nation,
church, and God. The resulting theology is more American civil religion
than Christian faith.
The Problem of Evil
Since Sept. 11, President Bush has turned the White House "bully
pulpit" into a pulpit indeed, replete with "calls" and "missions" and
"charges to keep" regarding America's role in the world. George Bush is
convinced that we are engaged in a moral battle between good and evil,
and that those who are not with us are on the wrong side in that divine
But who is "we," and does no evil reside with "us"? The problem of
evil is a classic one in Christian theology. Indeed, anyone who cannot
see the real face of evil in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is
suffering from a bad case of postmodern relativism. To fail to speak of
evil in the world today is to engage in bad theology. But to speak of
"they" being evil and "we" being good, to say that evil is all out there
and that in the warfare between good and evil others are either with us
or against us—that is also bad theology. Unfortunately, it has become
the Bush theology.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House carefully scripted the
religious service in which the president declared war on terrorism from
the pulpit of the National Cathedral. The president declared to the
nation, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these
attacks and rid the world of evil." With most every member of the
Cabinet and the Congress present, along with the nation's religious
leaders, it became a televised national liturgy affirming the divine
character of the nation's new war against terrorism, ending triumphantly
with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." War against evil would confer
moral legitimacy on the nation's foreign policy and even on a contested
What is most missing in the Bush theology is acknowledgement of the
truth of this passage from the gospel of Matthew: "Why do you see the
speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your
eye,' while the log is in your eye? You hypocrite, first take the log
out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out
of your neighbor's eye." A simplistic "we are right and they are wrong"
theology rules out self-reflection and correction. It also covers over
the crimes America has committed, which lead to widespread global
resentment against us.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that every nation, political
system, and politician falls short of God's justice, because we are all
sinners. He specifically argued that even Adolf Hitler—to whom Saddam
Hussein was often compared by Bush—did not embody absolute evil any more
than the Allies represented absolute good. Niebuhr's sense of ambiguity
and irony in history does not preclude action but counsels the
recognition of limitations and prescribes both humility and
And what of Bush's tendency to go it alone, even against the
expressed will of much of the world? A foreign government leader said to
me at the beginning of the Iraq war, "The world is waiting to see if
America will listen to the rest of us, or if we will all just have to
listen to America." American unilateralism is not just bad political
policy, it is bad theology as well. C.S. Lewis wrote that he supported
democracy not because people were good, but rather because they often
were not. Democracy provides a system of checks and balances against any
human beings getting too much power. If that is true of nations, it must
also be true of international relations. The vital questions of
diplomacy, intervention, war, and peace are, in this theological view,
best left to the collective judgment of many nations, not just
one—especially not the richest and most powerful one.
In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of
evil—they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political
power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams. The
confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people
of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience. But God has not
given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much
less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national
interests. To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation,
as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some
might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy.
It's easy to demonize the enemy and claim that we are on the side of
God and good. But repentance is better. As the Christian Science
Monitor put it, paraphrasing Alexander Solzhenitzyn. "The gospel,
some evangelicals are quick to point out, teaches that the line
separating good and evil runs not between nations, but inside every
A Better Way
The much-touted Religious Right is now a declining political factor
in American life. The New York Times' Bill Keller recently
observed, "Bombastic evangelical power brokers like Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson have aged into irrelevance, and now exist mainly as
ludicrous foils." The real theological problem in America today is no
longer the Religious Right but the nationalist religion of the Bush
administration—one that confuses the identity of the nation with the
church, and God's purposes with the mission of American empire.
America's foreign policy is more than pre-emptive, it is
theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously
messianic; not just arrogant, but bordering on the idolatrous and
blasphemous. George Bush's personal faith has prompted a profound
self-confidence in his "mission" to fight the "axis of evil," his "call"
to be commander-in-chief in the war against terrorism, and his
definition of America's "responsibility" to "defend the…hopes of all
mankind." This is a dangerous mix of bad foreign policy and bad
But the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is, rather, good
theology. It is not always wrong to invoke the name of God and the
claims of religion in the public life of a nation, as some secularists
say. Where would we be without the prophetic moral leadership of Martin
Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Oscar Romero?
In our own American history, religion has been lifted up for public
life in two very different ways. One invokes the name of God and faith
in order to hold us accountable to God's intentions—to call us to
justice, compassion, humility, repentance, and reconciliation. Abraham
Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin King perhaps best exemplify that
way. Lincoln regularly used the language of scripture, but in a way that
called both sides in the Civil War to contrition and repentance.
Jefferson said famously, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that
God is just."
The other way invokes God's blessing on our activities, agendas, and
purposes. Many presidents and political leaders have used the language
of religion like this, and George W. Bush is falling prey to that same
Christians should always live uneasily with empire, which constantly
threatens to become idolatrous and substitute secular purposes for
God's. As we reflect on our response to the American empire and what it
stands for, a reflection on the early church and empire is instructive.
The book of Revelation, while written in apocalyptic language and
imagery, is seen by most biblical expositors as a commentary on the
Roman Empire, its domination of the world, and its persecution of the
church. In Revelation 13, a "beast" and its power is described. Eugene
Peterson's The Message puts it in vivid language: "The whole
earth was agog, gaping at the Beast. They worshiped the Dragon who gave
the Beast authority, and they worshiped the Beast, exclaiming: 'There's
never been anything like the Beast! No one would dare to go to war with
the Beast!' It held absolute sway over all tribes and peoples, tongues,
and races." But the vision of John of Patmos also foresaw the defeat of
the Beast. In Revelation 19, a white horse, with a rider whose "name is
called The Word of God" and "King of kings and Lord of lords," captures
the beast and its false prophet.
As with the early church, our response to an empire holding "absolute
sway," against which "no one would dare to go to war," is the ancient
confession of "Jesus is Lord." And to live in the promise that empires
do not last, that the Word of God will ultimately survive the Pax
Americana as it did the Pax Romana.
In the meantime, American Christians will have to make some difficult
choices. Will we stand in solidarity with the worldwide church, the
international body of Christ—or with our own American government? It's
not a surprise to note that the global church does not generally support
the foreign policy goals of the Bush administration—whether in Iraq, the
Middle East, or the wider "war on terrorism." Only from inside some of
our U.S. churches does one find religious voices consonant with the
visions of American empire.
Once there was Rome; now there is a new Rome. Once there were
barbarians; now there are many barbarians who are the Saddams of this
world. And then there were the Christians who were loyal not to Rome,
but to the kingdom of God. To whom will the Christians be loyal today?
Putting God Back in Politics
As the Democratic candidates for president attend religious services
for the holidays, their celebrations may be tempered by an uncomfortable
fact: churchgoing Americans tend to vote Republican.
An overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves to be
religious. Yet according to the Pew Research Center for the People and
the Press, people who attend church more than once a week vote
Republican by 63 percent to 37 percent; people who seldom or never
attend vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38 percent.
This disparity should concern Democrats — if not as a matter of faith
then as a matter of politics. More important, it should concern anyone
who cares about the role of religion in public life. By failing to
engage Republicans in this debate, the Democrats impoverish us all.
President Bush and the Republicans clearly have an advantage with
people of faith as an election year approaches. Republicans are more
comfortable talking about religious values and issues, and they are
quick to promise that their faith will affect their policies (even if,
like their Democratic counterparts, they don't always follow through on
their campaign promises).
President Bush is as public and expressive about his faith as any
recent occupant of the White House. Among his first acts as president
was to establish the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,
which helps religious and community groups get federal financing for
some of their work. Although the "faith-based initiative" has turned out
to be more symbolic than substantial, symbolism matters — in religion as
well as politics.
The Democratic candidates, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with the
subject of religion. (The exception is Joseph Lieberman, though even he
seems less comfortable now than he was in 2000.) They stumble over
themselves to assure voters that while they may be people of faith, they
won't allow their religious beliefs to affect their political views.
For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for
political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be
if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?
Howard Dean, the leading challenger to President Bush, illustrates
the Democrats' problem. Dr. Dean recently said he left his church in
Vermont over a dispute about a bike path, and explained that his faith
does not inform his politics. He has also said the presidential race
should stay away from the issues of "guns, God and gays" and focus on
jobs, health care and foreign policy.
By framing the issue in this way — declining to discuss overtly
"religious" topics — Dr. Dean allows Republicans to define the terms of
the debate. The "religious issues" in this election will be reduced to
the Ten Commandments in public courthouses, marriage amendments, prayer
in schools and, of course, abortion.
These issues are important. But faith informs policy in other areas
as well. What about the biblical imperatives for social justice, the God
who lifts up the poor, the Jesus who said, "blessed are the
How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the Bush
administration's failure to support poor working families should be
named as a religious failure. Neglect of the environment is a religious
issue. Fighting pre-emptive and unilateral wars based on false claims is
a religious issue (a fact not changed by the capture of Saddam Hussein).
Such issues could pose problems for the Bush administration among
religious and nonreligious people alike — if someone were to define them
in moral terms. The failure of the Democrats to do so is not just a
political miscalculation. It shows they do not appreciate the
contributions of religion to American life.
The United States has a long history of religious faith supporting
and literally driving progressive causes and movements. From the
abolition of slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights, religion has
led the way for social change.
The separation of church and state does not require banishing moral
and religious values from the public square. America's social fabric
depends on such values and vision to shape our politics — a dependence
the founders recognized.
It is indeed possible (and necessary) to express one's faith and
convictions about public policy while still respecting the pluralism of
American democracy. Rather than suggesting that we not talk about "God,"
Democrats should be arguing — on moral and even religious grounds — that
all Americans should have economic security, health care and educational
opportunity, and that true faith results in a compassionate concern for
those on the margins.
Democrats should be saying that a just foreign and military policy
will not only work better, but also be more consistent with both our
democratic and spiritual values. And they must offer a moral alternative
to a national security policy based primarily on fear, and say what most
Americans intuitively know: that defeating terrorism is both practically
and spiritually connected to the deeper work of addressing global
poverty and resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair
Many of these policy choices can be informed and shaped by the faith
of candidates and citizens — without transgressing the important
boundaries of church and state.
God is always personal, but never private. The Democrats are wrong to
restrict religion to the private sphere — just as the Republicans are
wrong to define it solely in terms of individual moral choices and
sexual ethics. Allowing the right to decide what is a religious issue
would be both a moral and political tragedy.
Not everyone in America has the same religious values, of course. And
many moral lessons are open to interpretation. But by withdrawing into
secularism, the Democrats deprive Americans of an important debate.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian, is editor of Sojourners
magazine and the convener of Call to Renewal, a national network
of churches working to overcome poverty.
Reprinted with permission from Sojourners.
(800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net.