This is a true story. A 14-year-old boy I know had set his heart on a particular tennis racket, and he and his mother – wife of a senior political appointee in the Bush administration – set out on an expedition a few days ago to buy it. But the mother, on seeing it in the shop, said: “No. We’re not getting it. It’s French.” That is how ridiculous the secular triumphalism of the Bush administration has become. I also know of a French restaurant here in Washington that is now in danger of going out of business because so many are boycotting it, to say nothing of organised campaigns not to buy French wine or cheese.
I deliberately use the words “secular triumphalism” because I believe that is what is gripping the Bush administration and its followers – not the muscular Christianity that is being depicted. Much has been made of George Bush’s early-morning reading of the writings of Oswald Chambers, a Scottish evangelist who ministered to Anzac troops in the First World War. Chambers himself died in 1917, but his wife later compiled his writings, laying out his philosophy of Christianity, into short, daily devotional readings. These, we are told, are what Bush reads when he first gets up. They are short; the reading for last Tuesday, based on Acts 26:19, took me exactly a minute to read carefully.
Bush loves to bring in biblical allusions when he is exhorting people to support an invasion of Iraq (“the terrorists hate the fact that . . . we can worship Almighty God the way we see fit”); the references are likely also to be the work of Michael Gerson, his influential chief speechwriter who went to Wheaton College in Illinois, known as the “evangelical Harvard”. You can extrapolate from these references and see that Bush understands the forthcoming war as one that will pit the forces of good against evil, God v Satan. Americans believe themselves to be a more Christian nation than any other. A nation where 84 per cent of the people are churchgoers is the statistic sometimes quoted. Forty per cent of these are what, in Europe, would be seen as unconventionally evangelical.
Certainly at least twice as many Americans as Europeans go to church, but I do not believe this makes America a more Christian nation. Americans have eagerly quoted polls that show Europeans resent Bush’s biblical references. In fact, what is clear is that Europeans, steeped in their faith much longer than Americans, deeply resent Bush invoking God as America’s policeman of the world – with Bush and Rumsfeld and co chosen by God to have absolute infallibility in all judgements. Bush’s continual linking of God with American triumphalism, in fact, becomes not a matter of Christian faith – but of blind, secular nationalism.
Not that Bush, for one second, would agree with this. In 1984, his close friend Don Evans (now commerce secretary) persuaded Bush to join a Bible-reading group in Austin, Texas; he went, gave up his heavy drinking two years later and became a stalwart of his wife Laura’s Methodist church (not for him the Anglican Episcopalianism of the Bush family). In 1987, when his father’s campaign for the presidency was gearing up, Dubbya became the linkman between Bush I’s campaign and the so-called Christian right: he has always since been comfortable with the far-right zealots of the Bible belt. Quoting the Bible now comes almost as naturally to him as it came to Bill Clinton. Bush was born again at 40, which (as someone said) now makes him almost 17.
A Presbyterian minister, Reverend Fritz Ritsch, has written: “Ironically, our triumphalism may have fuelled America’s secularism. With God on our side, there didn’t seem to be much need for self-examination and humility.” He went on: “It is clear that a sectarian Christian view of history, a dualism that views war as a kind of redemptive purgatory, is having at least some influence on the administration’s rhetoric.” To question American purity, Ritsch says, “would undermine the sectarian theology of ‘good v evil’ inherent in present US policy”. Such triumphalism, he says, could prove “apocalyptic in its implications”.
The continual, official invocations of God and their inextricable linking to flag-waving nationalism is what leads to the silliness over that French tennis racket. The troubling aspect is that the mother who refused to buy it is otherwise perfectly rational; yet she has been caught up in the argument that America has God, and its national manifest destiny, on its side.
In the early post-11 September days, Bush called for a “crusade” against al-Qaeda: this has very disturbing implications for the relationship between Christianity and Islam. The war plans have been condemned by all the main churches. They know that whether the invasion of Iraq is speedy and apparently successful or not, the implications of Bush’s religious invocations are full of foreboding.