Thursday, December 21, 2006

Islam Is the New Communism (Rhetorically Speaking)

There are two subjects that fascinated in me in college (and continue to draw my attention away from saving the world and torturing the Rooster): religion and the Cold War. So much did I love these subjects, so passionately did I pursue them, that I wrote my thesis on how Presidents used religious rhetoric to support their invasive foreign policies during the Cold War. I didn’t write my thesis nor study these speeches in a vacuum, either. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a certain president of ours chooses to pepper his speeches with biblical references. Presidents have been using religious rhetoric since the dawn of the country, but I focused on the particular brand created by the Cold War Presidents because it heralded a marked shift in content and presaged today’s political climate.

Annie and I were talking earlier about the sudden focus on Barak Obama’s “real” religion and how Islam is the new Communism. Think of the McCarthy hearings now: “Are you or have you ever been a member of Islam? Do you know or associate with anyone who ascribes to the Muslim faith?” The Debbie Schlussel piece on her website inspired a diatribe that is too vitriolic to translate into blog appropriate language. Let me just say, she is the worst kind of ideologue: intellectually and ethically dishonest. Media Matters responded to the heart of her claim (that Obama is secretly Muslim), but not to the question of whether his religion matters in the first place. Even if he were Muslim, would it matter? Didn’t we settle this issue with JFK? All I know is that I keep flashing back to the Cold War and it’s giving me whiplash.

A Brief History of Religious Rhetoric and its Appropriation by the Bush Administration:

At the conception of the Cold War, Truman constructed a myth centered around a battle between good and evil. In that context, he invoked faith to support his aggressive actions against the godless Communists. To the extent that he incorporated Scripture into his arguments, it was to remind the American people to have faith that God would bring peace. Immediately following the South Korean attack on North Korea, Truman invoked God’s wrath: “Let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Nevertheless, the focus of his narrative was on a Christian moral code grounded in the example of the Sermon on the Mount. By the close of Truman’s term, this cold war ideation became an entrenched element of the American lexicon. In this milieu, Eisenhower integrated Scripture into his speeches to recall the religious foundations of the United States and the theocentrism of its rights doctrine. His logic transformed the cold war into a holy crusade, in which America defended God's politics. Whereas Truman and Eisenhower's conceptualization of the conflict abstractly incorporated biblical rhetoric, Johnson directly used Scripture to explain our presence in Vietnam. The reality of Johnson’s foreign policy resulted in an intensification of hostilities in Vietnam and an ever-increasing number of casualties returning home from abroad, but his language rarely vacillated from Jesus’ message of peace.

These Cold War Presidents used religious rhetoric to justify military armament and engagement. They quoted Scripture to defend sending troops abroad and bringing them home. They quoted Scripture both to increase and decrease nuclear armament and to argue for both war and peace. They defined the Cold War as a moral crusade, wherein intervention became a religious obligation. Each Cold War president capitalized on Faith: faith that the United States would prevail and faith that God would bring peace. They argued that America was superior because of its religious freedom and that communism would fail because of its godlessness. They exhorted the American people to strengthen their faith in God, thereby strengthening their faith in America and its foreign policy.

Predominantly, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson quoted from the New Testament, with the exception of Isaiah (and, once, Amos). While Truman referenced Exodus 20, he never directly quoted from that chapter of the Old Testament. To the extent that religious rhetoric was for the purpose of harvesting support and creating consensus, this exclusion is understandable. The majority of this country is Christian and has been exposed to the New Testament more often than the Hebrew Bible; this text would then resonate more with them than the Old Testament. The New Testament is also associated with a peaceful and loving God, while the Deuteronomic God is portrayed as vengeful and angry. Since Cold War presidents were arguing for the expediency of war couched in the rhetoric of Christian charity, they located their proof texts with the loving God.

At the beginning of my thesis, I posed the question: Has the Bush administration, in putting God on staff, radically departed from past uses of religious language? My answer, after this investigation, is more complicated then yes or no. Bush, in incorporating religious rhetoric into his foreign policy speeches, has both feet firmly planted in a presidential rhetorical tradition. Many presidents before Bush explicitly used God and Scripture to justify war. They did so without breaching the separation of Church and State (although some toed the line). They argued that Christian morals are an essential element of a just government and, as such, should be considered when making important domestic and foreign policy decisions. These presidents quote the Bible, openly endorse prayer, and use the Bible as a source or inspiration for their policy. These presidents indulged in religious rhetoric for the purpose of creating an American consensus and ensuring the rights of American citizens. Why, if Bush is firmly embedded in this rhetorical tradition, is there an uproar about his language?

Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson used religious rhetoric to unite the country against an external evil. Bush uses it to divide the country against itself (Republicans are moral and good, Democrats—and liberal judges—are immoral and bad). The Bush administration has polarized this country along religious lines. When Bush speaks about religion and God, he is talking about Christianity and Jesus. Bush’s religious rhetoric is alienating, outside the purview of a civil religion that was created to bring together a diverse nation. Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson spoke of American morality, American religion, American faith. America had access to their language, it resonated with them as Americans—the chosen, elite, missionaries of democracy—united in Faith in America. No longer. Now faith has other implications. It is no longer an abstraction of religion, but directly correlates to Christianity and support for the Christian right. I distinguish between Bush’s religious rhetoric and that of the Cold War presidents because he uses the agenda of the Christian right as the basis of policy decisions. He confuses president as rhetor with president as individual. He has forgotten that he is more than a Christian man, he is the president of a diverse nation.

The war on terrorism, like the Cold War, is boundless, endless, and ill-defined. What does it mean when a political party owns morality? Owns religion? The language is the same, but its use has shifted. Now, religious rhetoric is used to divide the country against itself. Rhetoric has lost the veneer of creating consensus and has been stripped to justification alone, a pale and unconvincing echo of the Cold War.


Liberal Jew said...


This is a very interesting argument. But I must disagree with you regarding the status of “War.” The Cold War was not a traditional war. As I am sure you the definition of war demands a declaration and continued hostilities between two or more “consenting” parties. Your comparison between the Cold War and the current war on an idea - the “War on Terror” - I believe is flawed.

The War on Terror may never be won, just like the war on drugs, poverty or any of the other “War-on-fill-in-the-noun-here” that have been declared from behind the podium of the President. The War on Terror is much more like the War on Drugs or Poverty than the Cold War for all the same reasons you point out in your post. This war must look at both supply and demand aspects of the driving forces behind the terrorists. There is no solitary state actor; there are no infrastructures currently in popular use to combat terrorists. Just as there is no real way to “fight” drug addicts, there is no real way to fight terror. You can kill as many terrorists as you like, cutting some of the supply but only increasing its street value and increasing demand.

I do agree completely with your analysis of Islam as the New Black(list). Obama, a truly African American Christian, has written about his name as a source of pleasure for asshats like Schlussel in the new addition of the introduction of his first book. While I try to let those who disagree with me have a soap box on which to stand, Schlussel needs to be cut-off. Religious litmus tests are dangerous. We are lucky in the US to have such a strong separation between religion and state. (Yes right wingers it doesn’t say separation anywhere but that little Establishment Clause seems to help my case)

I would like to hear your response. Take care.

AngryMinnesotan said...

It's incredible how self-defeating you Jimmy Carter-leftists are. The Russians/Communists never drove airplanes into our skyscrapers. Anyone who thinks this war we are fighting is imaginary need a reality check.