Time For Bush to Admit He is Not the Messiah?

John Zvesper

October 1, 2004

Is it time for President Bush to remind everyone that he is not a theocrat, and that, on the contrary, his kind of religious and political convictions are the best foundation for political moderation? This question occurs to me as I watch Europeans’ response to the presidential race. European commentators, heeding the polls, have now generally got past the stage at which they assumed that even Americans cannot be so utterly stupid as to re-elect Bush, and they are thinking more about why they themselves find his re-election so undesirable. It is partly to do with the fact that they do not accept Bush’s revolutionary approach to Islamic fascism; like many Americans, they believe Bush’s cure is worse than the disease: bring back September 10th. But it also goes back to well before September 2001. When Bush first became president, many Europeans anticipated he would be dangerous, because of his overt Christianity. Again, this feeling was and is shared by many Americans. If Bush is able to reassure some of these Americans (realistically, not — for example — Al Gore) that their doubts about him on this score are unfounded, he might be able to gain some of their votes on November 2nd.

No European country is as dedicated to radical secularism as France is, and most European countries — France no exception — contain evangelical Christians. But "contain" is a good word here: they are in their place, certainly not too prominent in public life — ideally, still down on the farm, as in Stella Gibbons’ hilarious portrait of the Starkadder family, in Cold Comfort Farm. Le Figaro’s Washington correspondent recently wrote that the Bush campaign is pursuing a strategy of stimulating evangelical Christians to vote in larger numbers, while Democrats are trying to gain centrist votes. One assumption here is that evangelicals — at least those who might vote for Bush — are not politically moderate. To elect a born-again Christian as head of state is un-European. Perhaps just about acceptable in the case of Jimmy Carter, who had, and was not afraid to publicize, serious doubts about America’s moral condition and its role in world politics. But much less acceptable in the case of George Bush, who is no Jimmy Carter.

What frightens Europeans, in a word, is "neo-messianism": America seeing itself as the world’s savior. An article in yesterday’s Le Monde explains this fear, and why America needs Europe’s experience to moderate its messianic temptations:

Europe has known two messianisms, Marxism and nazism, both devoid of the principle of self-limitation that is the mark of true Christianity. These two messianisms brought the world to the brink of chaos. The United States hasn’t gone that far, but when in a press conference Bush declares that he is going "to change the world," he brings back to Europeans some bad memories.

Le Monde contrasts Bush’s Republican messianism to Woodrow Wilson’s more acceptable Democratic version. In this view, Wilson favored what postwar Europe has come to embrace: multilateralism — which means (as Kofi Annan has helpfully clarified) every country must limit itself by deferring to the might of established voting procedures in such international bodies as the United Nations, even when this means abandoning what is right. For Wilson,

America’s mission had an intrinsic limit: America was not God! Thus the importance of multilateralism, leading to the creation of the League of Nations. But the messianism of the Bush administration no longer includes this principle of self-limitation… The Messiah is no longer a limiting horizon, but becomes Uncle Sam himself.

So the European perception and fear (shared by many Americans — some conservatives as well as many liberals) are that Bush is not a good Christian, that in fact he blasphemes, because he thinks Americans not only enjoy a providential geopolitical situation (everyone admits that!) but also carry in their persons and in their country a divine right and duty to impose their political system on the world at large. Jim Wallis, the American liberal evangelical Christian who criticizes Bush on this ground, has appeared in several broadcasts in Europe in recent weeks; I heard him on BBC radio in September, and saw him translated into French and German in a long Europe-wide satellite television program in prime time recently. The accusation is that Bush’s use of Biblical language shows that he thinks he gets his policies directly from Holy Scripture. This morning Britain’s Guardian warns that America "hangs on the threshold of becoming a one-party state ruled by a clique of radical religious reactionaries."

The speech that is most often singled out to prove Bush’s blasphemy is his "Remarks to the Nation" at Ellis Island, in the presence of the Statue of "Liberty Enlightening the World" (as she was named by her French donors) on September 11th, 2002. As he had twelve months previously, Bush, on this day of remembrance, spoke movingly and appropriately, using words to comfort Americans in their grief, to encourage their resolution, and to remind them of their guiding purposes. The offending passage is in his concluding words:

Tomorrow is September the 12th. A milestone is passed, and a mission goes on. Be confident. Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

Critics mistake this as an attempt to turn some beautiful words from St. John, in which Jesus says he is the light of the world, into a thesis that America is now that light, the new messiah. But this eloquent little speech (well worth reading) says nothing of the sort. Bush’s metaphor quite clearly means not that America is the light, but that the light is the hope of mankind for "human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace," which he hopes will continue to guide (i.e. limit) America ("our prayer tonight is that God will see us through, and keep us worthy"). This cause of "human liberty" comes from "a Creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality." The "light" comes from no particular country or people, but from the "Creator" — the "God of life." America is not being particularly Christian when it defends freedom: it respects "the faith of Islam, even as we fight those whose actions defile that faith."

In short, this speech is no more blasphemous than the theological language of the Declaration of Independence, to which it alludes and on which it is based. And to paraphrase Patrick Henry: if the Declaration of Independence be blasphemy, make the most of it!

The limiting "horizons" that Europeans (and some Americans) miss in Bush’s politics are there for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. The cause of liberty is not the cause of any particular religion, nor is it on a par with fascism and Marxism: "There is a line in our time, and in every time, between the defenders of human liberty and those who seek to master the minds and souls of others."

Bush might do well to remind us of the limited (albeit important) purposes of America in the world, and of his view that moderation is a virtue. After all, to see dangers in Bush’s enthusiasm for liberty that are identical to the dangers of an enthusiasm for Marxism or fascism is obtuse. To say (as Bush said at Ellis Island) that "We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history’s latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power" is not to ignore the historical evidence of the danger of fanaticism.

In fact, it is precisely an unprincipled "multilateralism," in contrast to principled democratic stands, that is more likely to lead to immoderation in politics. Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out (in his Nobel Lecture in 1972) that the unprecedented political cruelties of the twentieth century, based on fascist and Marxist orthodoxies, were nurtured by "the notion that there are no fixed universal human concepts called good and justice, that they are fluid, changing, and that therefore one must always do what will benefit one’s party." Political partisanship is more moderate when it is based on just principles. If there is no good reason to act, there is no good reason to be restrained. Politics can be more moderate when it is guided by the standard of natural human equality, than when it is guided merely by convention or multilateral consensus.

Emphasizing Bush’s principled political moderation should not alienate conservative evangelical Christians, and might reassure significant numbers of those who have been frightened into seeing Bush as a theocrat akin to the enemies he is fighting.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.