Wednesday, October 13, 2004

God help us

Last night's fascinating Frontline show on Bush and Kerry put me in mind of a stunning story in the New York Times that came out just days after Sept. 11. On Sept. 22, 2001, Frank Bruni reported in a "White House Memo" that the terrorist acts had "wholly transformed" Bush's "sense of himself and his presidency."

One of the president's close acquaintances outside the White House said Mr. Bush clearly feels he has encountered his reason for being, a conviction informed and shaped by the president's own strain of Christianity.

"I think, in his frame, this is what God has asked him to do," the acquaintance said. "It offers him enormous clarity."

. . .

People who have visited the White House in recent days said there was a changed, charged atmosphere there. One of them, Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to Mr. Bush's presidential campaign, said that the president obviously feels that the business at hand "is the country's destiny--and his destiny."

Others who are close to the president said there was a discernible spiritual dimension to his thinking. A senior administration official recalled Mr. Bush's response on Thursday when one of the religious leaders said that Mr. Bush's leadership was part of God's plan.

"I accept the responsibility," the president said.

In his Frontline interview, Dallas News reporter Wayne Slater puts it like this:

In George Bush's world, he believes--as many evangelicals do--that we are engaged in a great drama, and this drama is one in which good is battling evil.

This war gave him a fundamental opportunity to live out something that is very real inside him theologically, and that is "They are the enemy." When he uses the word, "evildoers," he does so in way that resonates beyond rhetoric. It is theological. It is fundamental. It is black-and-white.
He does not give a second thought about the idea that they might have a point of view that ought to be considered. The radicals are the radicals. They are evil. They are the force, in effect, of Satan on Earth. He believes this.
So when he engaged in this conversation with the American people on how to deal in the early hours and the early days of 9/11, he was absolutely in his own element, because he knew he had to ultimately trust God, the fundamental force. He's said so since then--that you ask God what to do in these cases; not that you're following exactly what God says, but you believe that God will lead you. George Bush believed in this moment that he was God's man at a moment of crisis in a battle between good and evil on Earth.

The Revealer points out just how seriously Bush's "prophetic" understanding of his role differs from the way other presidents have engaged with their religious faith:
The key difference is this: Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing and guidance; this president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Most fundamentally, Bush's language suggests that he speaks not only of God and to God, but also for God.

UPDATE and antidote: "Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger."

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