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
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
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.
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.