George W. Bush: Hypocrite or Fanatic?

Joseph M. Knippenberg

October 1, 2004

When I read what his opponents have to say, I can’t tell whether George W. Bush is a hypocrite or a fanatic. Here’s John Kerry, in a speech to the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans a few weeks ago:

Four years ago, George Bush came to office calling himself a “compassionate conservative.” Well, in the story of the Good Samaritan we are told of two men who pass by or cross to the other side of the street when they come upon a robbed and beaten man. They felt compassion, but there were no deeds… It is clear: For four years, George W. Bush may have talked about compassion, but he’s walked right by. He’s seen people in need, but he’s crossed over to the other side of the street.

Back in July, Kerry offered a standard trope to the national convention of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: citing the Book of James to the effect that faith without works is dead, he asked, “Where are the deeds? For the last four years all we have heard is empty words.” If George W. Bush were genuinely a man of faith, his administration’s domestic policy would have looked different, much more like the vast array of programs his challenger has proposed.

But wait, there’s more. According to a recent New Yorker profile, Al Gore, a Southern Baptist who should know a fundamentalist when he sees one, says that George W. Bush’s faith is

a particular kind of religiosity. It’s the American version of the same fundamentalist impulse that we see in Saudi Arabia, in Kashmir, in religions around the world: Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim. They all have certain features in common. In a world of disconcerting change, when large and complex forces threaten familiar and comfortable guideposts, the natural impulse is to grab hold of the tree trunk that seems to have the deepest roots and hold on for dear life and never question the possibility that it’s not going to be the source of your salvation. And the deepest roots are in philosophical and religious traditions that go way back. You don’t hear much from then about the Sermon on the Mount, you don’t hear much about the teachings of Jesus on giving to the poor, or the beatitudes. It’s the vengeance, the brimstone.

And Gore, who introduces himself to audiences by joking “I used to be the next President of the United States,” is hardly alone in including George W. Bush among our enemies in the global war on terror. Bill Clinton asserts that all religious conservatives are absolutely certain about their righteousness and dehumanize their opponents. His Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, argues that terrorism is merely a tactic adopted by some of “those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority… and that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life.” Indeed, he continues, “terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.” To be sure, John Kerry hasn’t gone quite this far, though he has promised to “believe in science,” unlike his opponent, whose uncertain grasp of logos apparently goes beyond speech all the way to reason.

How could anyone vote for George W. Bush? He’s a hypocrite. And a fanatic. Or a fanatical hypocrite. Or a hypocritical fanatic.

Let me begin by offering the Anybody But Bush crowd a piece of advice. The charges tend to cancel one another out. The problem with fanatics is precisely that they are true believers, not hypocrites. Their deeds track their speeches all too closely. But the problem with hypocrites is that they don’t believe what they say. Their deeds belie their speeches. So perhaps the Democrats ought to choose one line of attack and stick with it.

If, however, they follow their standard-bearer and opt for nuance, they have to argue that George W. Bush is fanatical in some areas (abortion, stem cell research, and all this talk about evil in foreign affairs) and hypocritical in others (above all domestic policy, where his compassionate talk hasn’t led to a sufficiently major expansion of the welfare state). But this potentially runs afoul of another storyline: all of a sudden, Bush is complicated, almost Clintonian or Kerryesque, rather than simple and stupid, like Republicans and conservative Christians are supposed to be.

So I say again: pick one. And I will pick it apart.

Let’s start with the allegations of fanaticism. Al Gore’s statement on the subject leads in a number of different directions. First, there’s the claim that all “fundamentalisms” are cut from the same cloth, reactions against the “disconcerting change” associated with modernity. Perhaps. But how would he explain the difference between parents who home school their children and those who encourage them to become suicide bombers, between the Amish and the Taliban? Second, there’s the implication that we should embrace the change rather than seek the “tree trunk that seems to have the deepest roots.” One could argue—without being a fanatic, I might add, unless all conservatives are by definition fanatics—that time-honored truths or persistent social practices represent the accumulated wisdom of the human species. Roots might reveal something essential about the human condition. Third, there’s a stunning non sequitur: “You don’t hear very much from them about the Sermon on the Mount,… about the teachings of Jesus on giving to the poor… It’s the vengeance, the brimstone.” This statement makes a couple of things clear. First of all, Gore isn’t really talking about anything other than Christian fundamentalism. No one else could be expected to dwell on the teachings of Jesus. Second, Gore apparently hasn’t actually been listening to what George W. Bush says. I haven’t found anything in his speeches about brimstone. I have found repeated references to the “universal call” to “love your neighbor as you want to be loved.” Those who actually pay attention to Bush’s statements, like Terry Eastland, publisher of The Weekly Standard, and Paul Kengor, author of God and George W. Bush, insist on the centrality of love in the President’s religion.

Indeed, if you stop and listen to what the President says, then much of Senator Kerry’s rhetoric sounds strangely familiar.

I recognize… that amidst the great prosperity of America, amongst our great wealth, there are pockets of despair in this country, and we’ve got to do something about it. We must address despair so America is hopeful for every single person. (Knights of Columbus, Dallas, August 3, 2004)

In spite of the fact that we’ve got large bankrolls and wealth, beyond imagination for many people in the world, in our own society there’s darkness and loneliness and addiction and wonder… whether their life is worth anything. (Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Conference, Los Angeles, March 3, 2004)

[I]n this land of plenty, there are people who hurt, people who wonder whether or not the American experience, what they call the American Dream, is meant for them. (Remarks to Urban Leaders, Washington, D.C., July 16, 2003)

Can you say “two Americas”?

Where Bush and Kerry part company is not so much in the description as in the prescription. While the President is willing to embrace a very expansive government agenda—beginning from the proposition that “government has a role to help people have the tools so that they can help themselves” (Urban League, Detroit, July 23, 2004)—he nevertheless insists that there are limits to what it can accomplish:

a government can hand out money… but what it can’t do is put hope in people’s hearts or a sense of purpose in people’s lives. That happens when people who have been called to love a neighbor interface [!!] with a neighbor in need. (Urban League, Pittsburgh, July 28, 2003)

Government has an active role in enabling all citizens to take advantage of the “opportunity society,” pursuing “policies that empower individuals and help communities, that lift up free enterprise and respect and honor the family” (Urban League, Detroit, July 23, 2004). But for Bush, the energy, the empowerment, and the hope come not from government, but ultimately from the loving embrace of one’s neighbors, who “carry God’s love to people in need” (Urban League, Pittsburgh, July 28, 2003). “Government,” Bush has said, “is law and justice; government isn’t love” (Remarks in a Conversation on Compassion, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 21, 2004). Government is “the mighty check writer,” and that’s all. By contrast, “love is powerful. Love is soul-changing. Love doesn’t happen because of government; love happens because of the inspiration of something greater than government” (Faith-Based and Community Leaders, New Orleans, LA., January 15, 2004). The “higher power that is bigger than [our] problems” is emphatically not government (Remarks at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Youth Education Center, Dallas, Texas, October 29, 2003). Miracles, Bush insists, are possible, but they are not brought about by government.

In a nutshell, Bush’s vision encompasses limited government and unlimited love. The limits may not be as strict as those favored by libertarians or the most extreme free market conservatives, but he agrees that the goal is a society of dignified individuals helping themselves and one another, as independent as possible of government.

The contrast with John Kerry is instructive. In Kerry’s speech before the African Methodist Episcopal convention, he pays tribute to the efforts of faith-based organizations and promises continued support for them “in a way that supports our Constitution and civil rights laws and values the role of faith in inspiring countless acts of justice and mercy across our land” (AME Convention, Indianapolis, July 6, 2004). But he gets carried away by his own grandiloquence and self-importance in another passage in the speech:

Several months ago, President Clinton quoted the prophet Isaiah in support of my candidacy. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying… Whom shall I send. And who will go for us. And I said, ’Here I am. Send me.’” President Clinton paid me the compliment of telling that audience whenever there was a call to service in war or in peace, I have always answered that call.

Today I say, when we look at the problems of this present age, we must all answer, “Send me.” With one clear voice, we must all say: Send me to fight for good paying jobs that let American families actually get ahead—an America where the middle class is doing better, not getting squeezed. Send me to make it clear that health care is a right, not a privilege in America… Send me to fight for a good education for our children with funding that truly leaves no child behind. Send me to alleviate poverty and hopelessness wherever they exist in America.

While it is clear that the “me” is to some degree collective—we should all say “send me”—it functions rhetorically to place the focus on the speaker, the leading “me.” And there’s a lot of fighting in this speech; someone—dare we call them “evil-doers”?—is actually depriving the needy of good paying jobs and good education, not to mention denying the so-called right to health care. A fight with an enemy is not conducted by loving individuals or a loving community, but by a government, led by someone who is reporting for duty. While there is talk about individual and communal responsibility, the default position is always another government program. The language is that of class warfare, not the opportunity society.

President Bush repeatedly claims that he is interested in what works and observes that standard-issue government programs fail as often, if not more often, than they succeed. He argues that empowerment begins with love, but concedes that “spiritual guidance and love can only go so far” (Remarks to Urban Leaders, Washington, D.C., July 16, 2003). You still need job training, for example, and government-sponsored homeownership programs. Senator Kerry seems to think that government can provide hope, that the prospects for government intervention are virtually unlimited. This is a genuine disagreement, partly theological, but mostly practical and pragmatic. President Bush begins from the premise that the “war on poverty” has been a failure; Senator Kerry argues that it hasn’t been prosecuted with sufficient vigor. President Bush looks to faith-based and community initiatives for a new beginning and a different paradigm. Senator Kerry would reinvigorate the welfare state. Reasonable people can disagree here. What we have, in part, is the argument over the efficacy and limits of state action prosecuted oftentimes by secular intellectuals on the pages of The Public Interest since its founding in 1965.

But I don’t want altogether to overlook the President’s simple theological point: hope comes from love, which comes from God. The Senator would seem to disagree, perhaps without altogether realizing the theological import of his disagreement. (After all, he affirms, and I believe, that he is a man of faith.) President Bush’s hope and confidence come from his trust in God. Senator Kerry’s confidence in government seems to come from his trust in government; the role of faith in God is largely private. We have here a contrast between a well-articulated theology of limited government and an implicit and undeveloped theology of limited religion, a confidence in God and a confidence in human effort and efficacy. John Kerry, as he affirmed in his nomination acceptance speech, believes in science.

The President’s domestic policy is neither fanatical nor hypocritical.

Ah, but what about his foreign policy? New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently described the President’s faith as “an apocalyptic worldview,” “a Manichaean scheme of blacks and whites to be acted out in a perpetual war against evil.” Ever since Bush spoke about “the axis of evil” and misspoke about a crusade, his critics have been worrying darkly about his “real agenda” in the Middle East. Are the President’s policies drawn from the memos written by the Project for a New American Century (i.e., by Jewish neo-conservatives—or is it redundant to say that?) or from the Book of Revelation?

The oft-cited touchstone for presidential moralism is Abraham Lincoln, cited approvingly by John Kerry in his convention acceptance speech: “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.” This is the very same Lincoln who affirmed that “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” In other words, humility and adherence to moral absolutes are perfectly consistent with one another, unless, of course, one has drunk deeply of the well of vulgar or sophisticated moral relativism, the former practiced by many college freshmen, the latter by many of their professors. But I suspect that only the most hardened apologists for terrorism could quarrel with this two year old Bushism:

Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. (USMA Commencement Address, June 1, 2002)

Of course, one could argue that rightly identifying the bad guys doesn’t simply make us the good guys. In his more thoughtful moments, the President humbly reflects on his fallenness and fallibility. How could a self-identified “lowly sinner” come to regard himself as, in effect, “Captain America” (to borrow a phrase from some theologian-critics of the President)? He may seem here to approach the overweening and self-righteousness with which they tax him.

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Bush was bolder still, speaking of “our responsibility to history,” namely, “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Perhaps he can be forgiven for misspeaking in the heat of the moment, but such a task is, strictly speaking, superhuman, better left for an omnipotent deity than for a limited government. He was closer to the mark in his prayer service remarks at the National Cathedral (September 14, 2001), where he declared that in “every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom,” which suggests that the struggle against evil is, so to speak, coeval with the existence of humanity.

I would argue, however, that Bush’s mistake here, such as it is, brings him closer to his secularist/progressive critics who, if they trust in anything, trust in the power of humanity. They may prefer the United Nations to the United States as the vehicle for the vanquishing of evil, but they ultimately cannot brook any limits on the human power for good without giving themselves over to despair. Indeed, the hopeful, almost infinite prospect of the future is the veritable stock in trade of the visionary progressive leader (think Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the future”).

Furthermore, it is difficult for successful American politicians of any stripe to speak subtly and publicly about the moral ambiguity of our country, however problematical they think our adherence to the highest standards is. We the people like to be flattered, not scolded, though we are perhaps willing to accept the latter on occasion, but only from the pulpit.

So in the end I would defend George W. Bush from the charge of (religious) fanaticism by contending that he is guilty of the lesser charge of American exceptionalism. In his public statements, he’s not religious enough or inconsistently religious, in other words. But that strikes me as the price he has to pay for attempting to lead the American people. I remain hopeful, however, that in his heart of hearts he is the humble “lowly sinner” he says he is, that he takes seriously his professions that “the plan of the Creator is very different from our own” and that we cannot “assert a special claim on His favor.” So long as his public professions of pride are strategic, I am willing to countenance and even embrace them.

George W. Bush’s religion is genuinely and deeply a part of who he is. It informs everything he does. But he is acutely aware that he is the President of a religiously pluralistic country in which there is not and cannot be a state church. Hence he pays respect to people of all religions and no religion. All can be good people and good citizens. He spoke warmly of the faith of people in mosques long before September 11th. He has celebrated Hanukkah in the White House. His moral language has a religious source, but it is expressed in terms that ought to be acceptable to secular folks. It is the language of natural law (to neo-Thomists), common grace (to neo-Calvinists), or public reason (to Rawlsians). Fanatic? No. Hypocrite? No. Fallible and human? But of course!

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.