The headline is somewhat incomplete, because while the piece provides some important insight into the nature of Bush's political-religious nexus, it also has significant information about how these beliefs were transmitted through the media and became implanted in the public perception of world events.
- That the president -- any president -- is a person of religious faith is generally viewed by the U.S. public in favorable terms, the better to be grounded when facing momentous decisions. I share this view because I know how central the Christian faith is to my life and to many others I know and respect. Invocations of a higher power, when emphasizing inclusive and transcendent principles, seem to me to be legitimate and adroit rhetoric for a leader of 290 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom believe in God in some form. What is deeply troubling about Bush's religiosity, however, is that he consistently evinces a certainty that he knows God's will -- and he then acts upon this certainty in ways that affect billions of humans.
For example, in his address before Congress and a national television audience nine days after the terrorist attacks, Bush declared: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." Similarly, in the 2003 State of the Union address, with the conflict in Iraq imminent, he declared: "Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity." These are not requests for divine favor; they are declarations of divine wishes.
From this position, only short theological and rhetorical steps are required to justify U.S. actions. For instance, at a December 2003 news conference, Bush said: "I believe, firmly believe -- and you've heard me say this a lot, and I say it a lot because I truly believe it -- that freedom is the Almighty God's gift to every person, every man and woman who lives in this world. That's what I believe. And the arrest of Saddam Hussein changed the equation in Iraq. Justice was being delivered to a man who defied that gift from the Almighty to the people of Iraq."
Further, this view of divinely ordained policy infuses the public discourse of several administration leaders, irrespective of their particular religious outlook. I systematically examined hundreds of administration public communications -- by the president, John Ashcroft, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld -- about the "war on terrorism" in the 20 months between Sept. 11, 2001, and the end of "major combat" in Iraq in spring 2003. This research showed that the administration's public communications contained four characteristics simultaneously rooted in religious fundamentalism while offering political capital:
-- Simplistic, black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape, most notably good vs. evil and security vs. peril.
-- Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation's "calling" and "mission" against terrorism.
-- Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.
-- Claims that dissent from the administration is unpatriotic and a threat to the nation and globe.
In combination, these characteristics have transformed Bush's "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" policy to "Either you are with us, or you are against God." To the great misfortune of American democracy and the global public, such a view looks, sounds and feels remarkably similar to that of the terrorists it is fighting.
Domke is not necessarily the first to cover this territory. The role of Bush's religious beliefs in determining the direction of his policy has also been well covered in Mark Crispin Miller's new book, Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order, which confronts the problem through a largely psychological analysis combined with politics. Another outstanding study along these lines (this time from a psychiatric point of view) is Robert Jay Lifton's Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World. [For a condensed version of Lifton's thesis, see his article in The Nation.]
What distinguishes Domke's work here is his analysis of how these beliefs were transmitted through the media:
- The ascendancy of the administration's political fundamentalism after Sept. 11 was facilitated by mainstream U.S. news coverage, which substantially echoed the administration's views. That became apparent when I analyzed how 20 leading and geographically diverse newspapers and the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC covered each of Bush's national addresses (15 in 20 months, a remarkable pace) and the administration's push for key "war on terrorism" policies and goals in 2001 and 2002, including passage of the USA Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and congressional and U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq.
This analysis revealed that news media consistently amplified the words and ideas of the president and other administration leaders. They did that by echoing throughout their coverage similar claims made by multiple administration members, thereby having the administration's perspectives establish the terms of public discourse. For example, only two of more than 300 editorials that I analyzed in response to the president's national addresses criticized the administration's description of the campaign against terrorism as an epic struggle of good vs. evil. None questioned his explicit declarations of God's will. With so many around the globe expressing a different view during these 20 months, by echoing these fundamentalist messages within these editorials, the press failed its readers.
To be clear, the U.S. news media did not emphasize the administration's messages to the same extent as the White House did during this time. Such an equation would imply that the commercial, independent news media merely served as mouthpieces, and that is not the case. Disagreement with the administration sometimes appeared in news stories -- either as a presentation of different factual information or of divergent observations by other sources -- and in newspaper editorials. Coverage also included occasional strong criticisms of government policy, in particular in regard to the administration's diplomatic difficulties in early 2003.
The chief failure of members of the mainstream media, though, is that they did not adequately cover the deeply religious motivations to the administration's actions and, as a result, too rarely questioned the administration's religious-cum-political discourses. Once these fundamentalist discourses became consistently amplified -- but not analyzed -- in leading media outlets, the administration gained the rhetorical high ground, and that went far in determining policy decisions.
Sometimes, the road to hell is paved with smug self-certainty.