Bush, God, and Moral Values
By Edwy Plenel
Friday 12 November 2004
George W. Bush's electoral victory was decreed. In a speech at least, or rather a sermon: in Washington National Cathedral, September 14, 2001, where all the United States' political elite was assembled, communing under the shock of the previous Tuesday's attacks, the evangelical pastor Billy Graham concluded his homily with these astonishing words: "This day - September 11 - could be remembered as a day of victory if the American people came closer to God."
September 11 - a day of victory then, victory over divisions, derelictions, and weaknesses, the victory of America over itself, God's victory above all, insisted this charismatic preacher, universal televangelist, and religious star (cf. SÃ©bastien Fath, Billy Graham, pape protestant? [Billy Graham, Protestant Pope?], Albin Michel, 2002, 22 Euros): "Now we have a choice: either to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation; or to chose to become stronger through these troubles and to rebuild a solid foundation. (...)This foundation is our confidence in God. (...)We also know that God will give wisdom, courage, and strength to the President and his entourage."
Since that time we have come to know the two ingredients of that victory: fear and values. We have seen fear at work, instrumentalized and manipulated politically through the "war" against terrorism, through the image of this Bin Laden figure brought out of his hiding place at an appointed time to become the self-realizing prophecy of a Messianic America, departed on an armed Crusade against the forces of Evil. The president's principal advisor, the slick Karl Rove, figured out how to add in the ideological refrain of "moral values", a currency which includes rejection of abortion rights, repudiation of homosexual marriage, defense of prayer in school, and assertion of the freedom to own weapons. An ultraconservative Republican, Karl Rove comes from precisely this Christian Right, this Christian Coalition for which Graham and so many others have prepared the White House advent, now realized in the Bush Jr. presidency.
All given over to our European rationality, we only had eyes for the other side of this presidency, the Neo-Conservative intellectuals, who sometimes came from the Democratic left and were close to our debates on totalitarianism, who installed their booted and helmeted universalism, this dream that is not without reminders of our own colonial illusions, this belief that human rights and democratic institutions may not only be imposed by cannon fire, but especially that it can lastingly win the trust of the subject and conquered people who are supposed to be its beneficiaries. Focusing there, we had underestimated the differently powerful dynamism of this Christian populism, which, in thirty years, has found a way to nest right in the heart of American identity contradictions.
One Speech that Recalls Another
For Billy Graham and his like incarnate this American "civil religion", this philo-clerical secularism that Tocqueville already remarked, which combines universalism and providence, exceptionalism and Christianity, politics and prophecy, thus defining a Messianism of power in which the ideals of freedom overlap with the values of faith. Now, in a democratic context, this is truly a matter of potential contradiction, pregnant with threats to individuals and their rights. The "values" thus promoted, a faith established in residence within American politics, are in no way neutral, unifying, or unanimous. Setting out a discourse of repentance and contrition, they project private convictions into public space, replacing democratic uncertainty with religious certitude, imposing individual beliefs instead of and in place of collective principles guaranteeing individual rights. The force of arms, the submission of women, the sanctification of marriage, distrust of the foreign, etc.: those values shake the democratic ideal since that ideal is, above all, a defense of individual freedoms.
In 1996, as he received the United States' Congress' gold medal, Billy Graham said this: "Now, while we are facing a new millennium, I believe that America has been traveling down the wrong path for a long time. We must change direction, turn aside, and go backwards. We must repent and consecrate our lives to God and to the principles which have made this nation glorious..." Of course, it's only a resonance, but this speech reminds us [French] of another one, on the day after a defeat that was also a trauma:
"Since the victory [in 1918], the spirit of enjoyment has gotten the better of the spirit of sacrifice. We have asserted more than we've served. We wanted to spare ourselves effort; today we encounter the misfortune of that." We know what followed for Philippe PÃ©tain and his "Work, Family, Homeland."
What will it be for George Bush?