By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When George W. Bush found Jesus in the mid-’80s as part of a struggle with alcoholism, he was most electrified by the story of Paul’s conversion en route to Damascus, as told in the Book of Acts. Formerly a persecutor of Christians, Paul had a vision and became a prosecutor for Christianity. As pointed out by essayist and novelist Michael Ventura, American Christian fundamentalism is based largely on Paul’s epistles and the books of Revelation and John, from which the president quoted in his address to the nation on the evening of September 11, 2001 (“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it”). John offers a harsher, more unforgiving portrait of Jesus than is found in the other Gospels. While in the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus turns the other cheek and says on the Mount, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” it’s in the Book of John that Jesus suggests that anyone who doesn’t believe in him is doomed. Most conspicuous about the letters of Paul that so affected Bush is that, in them, Jesus and his actual teachings barely appear at all. Almost exclusively Paul writes of how the soul’s deliverance or damnation resides purely with acceptance of the Resurrection. “Paul constantly insists on his own righteousness,” Ventura explains, “and constantly questions the righteousness of anyone who disagrees with him, as well as twisting the earlier scriptures to suit his views.”
Whether it’s Christian or Islamic, an uncompromising religious vision can’t recognize the legitimacy of democracy without betraying itself. Democracy insists on a pluralism that entertains the possibility that one’s religious beliefs might be wrong and another’s might be right, and that all religious beliefs may be varying degrees of wrong or right — what traditionalists despise as “relativism.” Almost by definition, democracy is at least a little bit blasphemous. It’s a breach of rigorous spiritual discipline, and its mechanisms are among the human works of the modern age, which itself is viewed by fundamentalism as an abomination. Doubt is a critical component of both democracy and its leadership. In the eyes of democracy, doubt is not just moral but necessary; the psychology of democracy must allow for doubt about the rightness of any given political position, because otherwise the position can never be questioned. The Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular are monuments to the right to doubt, and to the right of one person to doubt the rightness of 200 million. In contrast, the psychology of theocracy not only denies doubt but views it as a cancer on the congregation, prideful temerity in the face of divine righteousness as it’s communicated by God to the leaders of the state.
Nothing about Bush or his presidency makes sense without taking into account the theocratic psyche. Only once you consider the possibility that his administration means to “repeal the Enlightenment,” in the words of Greil Marcus, do Bush’s presidency and his conception of power, their ends and their means, become comprehensible. Doubt is personally abhorrent to Bush; otherwise he couldn’t have assumed the presidency in the manner he did, with decisions and policies that from the first dismissed out of hand the controversy that surrounded his very election. This isn’t to suggest that his presidency is invalid, or to dispute the constitutional and legal process that produced it. It is to try and explain how on the second day of his presidency — in what was his first major act as president — in such draconian fashion he could cut off money to any federally funded family-planning clinic that merely advised women that the option of abortion exists. This was more than just a message to the president’s evangelical constituency that he was undeterred by what happened in Florida in November and December 2000. It was more than just a message to the rest of the country of the president’s contempt for it (which in part accounts for so many people’s intensity of feeling about him). It was, from the second day of the Bush presidency, a frontal assault on doubt.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that a first-class mind could entertain two conflicting ideas at the same time. In the same way, the first-class leader psychologically manages resolve and doubt at the same time. In American history the best example is Lincoln, whose resolve was informed by his doubt and vice versa during the country’s greatest crisis; forged by both doubt and resolve, he evolved into a visionary for the ages. Bush has based his view of leadership on his sense that God has chosen him for this moment. To doubt himself is to doubt God. For all the Bush administration’s efforts four months ago to distance itself from the evangelical Army general who is its deputy undersecretary of defense, William Boykin’s conviction that ours is “an army of God, in the house of God,” and that George Bush is in the White House “because God put him there,” is in no way at odds with either the president’s conduct of the office or the convictions of the president’s bedrock followers.
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