The Gospel According to Dubya
During the 2000 election season, George W. Bush was asked several times to name the political philosopher who had most influenced him. He invariably cited Jesus Christ, most famously in a debate against his Democratic opponent Al Gore.
It was certainly the right answer if his intention was to mobilize the religious right. But it also seemed quite genuine. It is part of Bush’s personal mythology, one he has been happy to submit for public viewing, that he is a born-again Christian. Like the Prodigal Son spoken of in the Book of Luke, he “squandered his money on dissolute living” for most of his first four decades (this is putting it politely) before finding the path of Christ.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his devotion. Indeed, based on his own interviews, Jesus seems to have replaced his own father as his chief source of spiritual and political guidance.
He has created an administration that is more overtly religious than any other in U.S. history, both in its rhetoric and policy. This has been clear from his very first act as president — he cut off all federal funding to any family planning group that did not teach abstinence — to his recent support of an amendment banning gay marriage. Pundits tend to dismiss these stances as the handiwork of Karl Rove. But this is, I think, missing the point. George W. Bush is a true believer. His worldview is not based on polls or pundits or (God forbid) the Constitution. It is based on the teachings of the New Testament. His policies are not merely an appeal to his base. They are, to a larger extent than anyone cares to admit, manifestations of his personal belief in Christ.
For those in the secular humanist camp — who adhere to that quaint notion known as “separation of church and state” — the Bush Presidency has been, to put it mildly, a trying time. It has been even worse for those Christians who adhere to the credo known as liberation theology, the belief that Jesus of Nazareth represented the gospel of love as a revolutionary force. If he was, as we are generally led to believe, a pacifistic rabbi who ministered to the poor and the sick, how is it that Bush can pursue policies that sop the rich and keep us in a perpetual state of war?
The answer, believe it or not, is right in the Good Book. The Gospels reveal a profoundly divided messianic figure. In effect, there are two Christs: the do-gooder who urges us to disperse our wealth and forgive our enemies, and the enraged prophet who speaks joyfully of the coming doom, demands absolute loyalty, and expresses open contempt for the poor.
George W. Bush has led this nation, in essence, by indulging in the righteous pleasures of the latter, while invoking the gentle, feel-good tropes of the former. Christ is not only his central inspiration, in other words, but his chief enabler.
Who Would Jesus Bomb?
All this is, of course, terribly impolite to point out, given Christ’s unique spiritual status — i.e. the Son of God. Most exegetical efforts go to great lengths to present his teachings as unified and consistent. The very construction of the Gospels manages, by sheer repetition, to reinforce the sense that his life and philosophy were a cohesive whole. Why else do we need four versions of the same basic story?
That story, in turn, portrays Christ most centrally as the ultimate victim, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” as John describes him. And, for the most part, what he has to say is gentle. In contrast to the traditional Judaic concept of a messiah, Christ has no interest in overthrowing Israel’s Roman oppressors. He preaches non-violence instead. “Blessed are they who show mercy; mercy shall be theirs,” he says. “Blessed too the peacemakers; they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5, 7-9)
“You have heard the commandment, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ What I say to you is: offer no resistance to injury. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other … My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors…” (Matthew 5, 38-39)
Christ comes off as the ultimate peacenik, the kind of guy who, if he were running for President, would say things like, “I’m a uniter, not a divider.”
The problem is, he can’t really seem to stay on message.
“Do not suppose that my mission on earth is to spread peace,” he proclaims in Matthew. “My mission is to spread not peace, but division.” (10-34)
In other passages, he relishes the idea that he and his followers will be despised for their radical beliefs. “When you hear about war and threats of war, do not yield to panic… nation will rise against nation, one kingdom against another… because of my name, you will be hated by all nations.” (Mark 13-7)
It gets worse.
In the Book of Luke, Christ comes off, in his lust for Armageddon, as somewhere between Dick Cheney and Dr. Strangelove. “I have come to light a fire on the earth,” he announces. “How I wish the blaze were ignited! … Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? I assure you, the contrary is true: I have come for division.” (12, 49-51)
In these moments, it becomes much easier to see how George W. Bush might view his policy of pre-emptive war as a fulfillment of his savior’s wishes — particularly a holy war against what both he and Christ call “the evildoers.” There is, in both figures, an eschatological hunger. Judgment Day becomes a revenge fantasy.
This is not to suggest that President Bush was eager for the apocalyptic specter of 9/11. But it is quite clear that the events of that day roused in him a sense of mission that had been conspicuously absent during his first eight months in office. He immediately declared a “War on Terror” — an all-encompassing battle between the forces of good and evil — which the press was only too happy to ratify. This artificially constructed “war” (it is more like a series of police actions) has kept his administration afloat by distracting the public from his domestic record. But Bush is not just making political hay; he’s bringing to fruition a moral struggle Christ foretold.
“The son of man will dispatch his angels to collection from his kingdom all who draw others to apostasy, and all evildoers,” Christ says, adding in a most unlamb-like manner, “The angels will hurl them into the fiery furnace where they will wail and grind their teeth.” (Matthew 13-41) It should be noted that while Bush does not have angels at his disposal, he does brag the largest standing army and arsenal in the history of mankind.
The domestic and international outrage his war-mongering has provoked doesn’t bother Bush a bit. Just the opposite, it reifies his connection to Christ: “Blessed shall you be when men hate you, when they ostracize and insult you and proscribe your name as evil.” (Luke, 6-22)
Supply Side Christ
Throughout the New Testament, Christ is adamant in his opposition to wealth and power. Everyone knows the old saws: The meek shall inherit the earth. It is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle. The latter, in fact, is repeated in all four Gospels.
In Luke, Jesus announces, “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor … Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours.” (4-18, 6-20) In Matthew, he says, “Do not lay up for yourself an earthly treasure. Stop worrying over questions like, ‘What are we to eat, or what are we to drink, or what are we to wear? The unbelievers are always running after these things.” (6, 19-24)
Most famously, when he enters the temple precincts in Jerusalem, he overturns the moneychangers’ tables and drives out all those who engage in commercial dealings. The guy is a regular Noam Chomsky.
Again, there’s just one problem: he routinely contradicts himself.
In all four of the Gospels, Jesus sets out the Parable of the Seed, whose moral sounds like something Gordon Gekko might second: “To the man who has, more will be given until he grows rich; the man who has not, will lose what little he has.”
The Parable of the Silver Pieces, in Matthew, offers the same bald avarice. Before departing on a trip, a rich man gives his three servants a portion of silver coins, each according to his abilities. The two more able servants invest the money and return a profit to their master. Both are rewarded with better jobs. The third, apparently unaware that economic stimulus is next to godliness, merely saves his money. The master chides him and has him thrown “into the darkness outside.”
Commentators have argued that the true message of this parable is that one shouldn’t squander divine gifts. But I have to wonder what President Bush thinks. Might it provide him some moral rationale for his tax cuts, which provide the top one percent an average break of nearly $60,000 per year — more than many whole families earn? If Christ is a supply-sider, heck, shouldn’t I be one?
Of all his parables, the strangest and most disturbing is that of the Wily Manager, which we encounter in Luke (Chapter 16). It seems a rich man’s manager has dissipated his property. Is his solution to confess and work off his debt?
Nope. Here’s what he does instead:
“So he called in each of his master’s debtors, and said to the first: ‘How much do you owe my master?’ The man replied, ‘A hundred jars of oil.’ The manager said, ‘Take your invoice, sit down quickly, make it fifty.’ Then he said to a second, ‘How much to do you owe?’ The answer came, ‘A hundred measures of wheat,’ and the manager said, ‘Take your invoice and make it eighty.'”
In other words, he pulls an Enron. “The owner then gave his devious employee credit for being enterprising! Why? Because the worldly take more initiative than the other-worldly when comes to dealing with their own kind… What I say to you is this: make friends for yourselves through your use of this world’s goods, so that when they fail you, a lasting reception will be yours.” (16, 1-9)
The point of this parable is supposed to be that you cannot serve God and money at the same time. But, to be honest, I’m not sure the connection is entirely clear. To an MBA like Bush, the story must sound an awful lot like a defense of corporate malfeasance. There is little argument, anyway, that Bush has played the owner during his term: dispensing praise and favors to the devious for being, uh, enterprising.
More troubling still is the Anointing at Bethany, a story repeated throughout the Gospels. Christ arrives in Bethany and is welcomed into a follower’s home. A woman arrives with some precious oil and begins to anoint his feet. The disciples (the Book of John names Judas in particular) object. They argue that Christ, who has just urged them to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor, should follow suit.
Confronted with his hypocrisy, Christ declares, “The poor you will always have with you but you will not always have me.”
Now, on some level I don’t blame the guy. He’s exhausted from his duties. He knows he’s facing a gruesome and blameless death. He wants a little pampering. But he’s using the same reasoning as the harried CEO who buys himself a Porsche. If the Messiah can declare himself free of his duty to the poor, what is to stop a mere mortal from the same course?
The veiled message here is one that Bush, and the Republicans in general, have been pushing for years: the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. There is nothing that can be done to help them. They will always be poor.
And, by implication, the rich deserve to be rich. They are special. They deserve their indulgences. John Calvin would have called them the Elect, but the word that comes to my mind is entitlement. (If you are looking for a practical example, see: George W. Bush, his life.) It is a deterministic view, and profoundly anti-American, if you take the statement “and opportunity for all” at face value.
No one who examines the fiscal policies of the Bush Administration can argue against its contempt for the poor. They can spruce up their policies how ever they like — Why not? The press doesn’t document them with any vigor – but the numbers don’t lie: wealth has been steadily flowing away from the poor and toward the rich. Their greed is no longer what shocks, as much as the electorate’s moral complacence. For that, Jesus himself provides a precedent.
Christ: The Mean Remix
Bush’s invocation of Christ during the 2000 campaign served a second, crucial role: it made him seem like a nice guy. He was going to be like Jesus. He was going to heal the nation of the division caused by, well, mostly by Bill Clinton’s Godless reign.
But Bush is not really a nice guy. For all the fraternal back-slapping he displays in public, he is nothing short of vicious to his opponents. (You can ask John McCain about this.) And his vice-president isn’t such a nice guy either. (You can ask Patrick Leahy about this.)
Christ is famous for being a nice guy; or, to put it more broadly, a tolerant guy. He forgives sinners. In John, he rescues an adulteress who is about to be stoned to death by challenging her antagonists to, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” He comforts those who have been cast out of society, and breaks from the bigotry of his brethren by reaching out to lepers and Samaritans alike. “If you want to avoid judgment,” he preaches, “stop passing judgment.” (Matthew 7-1)
But here’s the thing: Christ isn’t always such a nice guy, especially to his enemies. “How can you utter anything good, you brood of vipers, when you are so evil?” he asks of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew, 7-34). Not so nice. Likewise, he obsesses over loyalty. He makes a great lesson of the disciples who betray him, not only Judas, but Peter. He tells them, repeatedly, “He who is not with me is against me.”
In short, Christ displays the kind of moral antagonism that has become the hallmark of the Bush Administration.
Christ, though, was a prophet. He was faced with an entrenched religious establishment: the Pharisees and Sadducees. It is fair to ask what establishment Bush opposes. He is, after all, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. His party controls both houses of Congress and (as the 2000 election demonstrated) the Supreme Court.
The superficial response would be the liberals who represent, to him, failed policies and moral laxity. But my sense is that Bush’s real enemy is the modern, secular state. He simply mistrusts the idea of government as a force for economic good in people’s lives. He would prefer to turn these duties over to the private sector.
If Bush ever considers the 1.3 million American children living in poverty (and I’m not sure he does) his thinking seems to extend no further than the miracle of the fishes and loaves. This is what Jesus bestows unto the poor: miracles, or faith-based charity, not programs intended to empower them. Christ appeared, after all, because saving people is ultimately the job of God, not man.
It is in matters of personal morality, however, that Bush favors government intrusion — and here the Gospels provide very little concrete guidance. Rather, Christ sets out a basic principle: his moral code takes precedence over all else. The most striking example is his frequent assertion that “whoever divorces commits adultery,” an edict that flies in the face of Mosaic Law, which decreed a writ of divorce.
Bush has assumed the same reactionary posture when it comes to issues such as abortion or prayer in school. He could care less about Roe v. Wade, or any other secular law that contradicts his moral code. Even an issue such as stem cell research, which most Americans view as a matter of science, is, to him, a question of faith.
Remember, for the true Christian, the teachings of Jesus are not a personal code of conduct, but a universal prerequisite to salvation. In a sense, he is required to inflict his beliefs on the rest of us. And this is what’s scariest about the New Testament: it offers an object lesson in moral surety. Christ may suffer over his fate, but he never suffers a moment of self-examination. Nor, he suggests, should his followers.
His life has become an inspiration to those who have made a career out of self-righteous bullying, not just Bible-thumping politicians, but the various false prophets of cable news and talk radio, whose lust for damnation finds a waiting home in the heart of the angry.
The Evil Doers Shall Rise to Be Damned
It is hardly breaking news that men would commit sins in the name of Christ. That’s old hat by now. Our present concern is that the conscience of this country is being dragged backwards, toward a worldview that is fundamentally feudal.
At the recent Republican National Convention, conservatives made a great show of their faith, but an even greater show of what might be called the Sorrows of 9/11. Time and again, we were told that we live in a different world than before, that the righteous (that is, Americans) are under attack, and that the only way to protect ourselves from the infidels was to put our faith in the stewardship of George W. Bush.
I understand that the events of 9/11 scared our citizens; that we need to protect ourselves, and oppose terrorism. These are, frankly, truisms. What Bush has done is to use 9/11 to mobilize our worst impulses. This was most vividly illustrated in the response of the convention crowd. At any mention of the war in Iraq, they began to boom, U.S.A.! U.S.A.! But the war in Iraq, any war, is not an occasion for celebration. It is an occasion for profound sorrow, an abject failure of humanity.
The public fear instilled by 9/11 (along with the endless terror alerts) has allowed Bush to ignore the most noble of Christ’s teachings, the pleas for mercy and tolerance, and to indulge instead in prophetic grievance. In opposing Islamic fundamentalism, Bush has relied on his own brand of fundamentalism. He has rendered the moral chaos of the world in black and white.
Many find this comforting. It spares us from having to consider why terrorists target us, and how our policies might actually foment hatred. It allows us to believe that affixing a bumper sticker to an SUV is an act of patriotism, or to feel that we are we are receiving the Good News by watching Christ’s life reduced to a slow-motion snuff film.
Essentially, it spares us from taking any responsibility for the world we live in. We can freely disavow any blame for the poor. We can experience our rage above all other feelings, without recognizing that it is this same mindset — taken to a lethal extreme — that leads impoverished Arab teenagers to strap bombs onto their bodies and climb onto crowded buses.
A Christian like George W. Bush would translate what I just said thusly: “The author is a terrorist. Arrest him.”
But I’m going to leave the final word to Jesus himself, in the hopes that we may awaken the better angels of our nature in this moment of historical peril.
Sluggish indeed is this people’s heart; they have scarcely heard with their ears, they have firmly closed their eyes. (Matthew, 13-15)