The administration of George W. Bush, with its faith-based mission, is seen by many as a radical departure from the main- stream of American politics. But in fact it is no more than a continuation, in a mildly extreme form, of what has gone before. Bush has changed the typeface, but not the layout, on the front page of the American Dream to continue remaking the world in his country’s self-aggrandized image.
This hit me recently when I reread “Nancy: The Autobiography of America’s First Lady,” written by Nancy Reagan and published in 1981.
There we find a person whose vision for the United States almost entirely matches that of the neoconservatives who have manipulated the nation since 2000. She writes of her strong desire to ban all abortions and to compel pupils to pray in public schools. She is proud of the fact that her husband, as governor of California, executed criminals. She calls it “immoral,” a telling word in this context, that the United States lost the war in Vietnam.
Nancy Reagan and her husband regarded the presidency as a crucible of spirituality (which even included oddball matters astrological). They were by no means the first tenants of the White House to see the highest office in this light. It has been the blind faith of Americans in God as a deity who bestows His blessings primarily on them that has, more than anything, led the country into a gross misunderstanding of world affairs.
By seeing God as the First American Ideologist, the Reagans (and the Bushes) were, and are, in step with a tradition that goes back to the beginnings of permanent settlement in the 17th century.
William Penn, who founded the Province of Pennsylvania as a “Holy Experiment” in the late 17th century, wrote: “If we are not governed by God, then we will be ruled by tyrants.” He was incapable of realizing that many of the world’s tyrants have been and are joyously governed by God.
Despite the principle of the separation of church and state that was a foundation stone of the new republic at the end of the 18th century, American leaders have ever since been prone to gaze up before looking in front of them; and this has been the cause of much stumbling brutality inflicted on others to this day.
It was George Washington, the first president, who set the tone for the job when he inserted the words “so help me God” into his oath of office in 1789. Later, in his farewell address in 1796, he told Americans that they should “regard religion and morality as indispensable supports to political prosperity.” This could be straight from the ramblings of George W. Bush.
Writing in 1775, John Adams, a future president, stated that “a patriot must be a religious man.” This was seconded nearly a century later by Abraham Lincoln, considered by most Americans to be their best president in history. In his first inaugural address, in March 1861, he pointed out what was necessary for every American to possess: “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land . . . .”
This is the crux. It is not sufficient for Americans merely to believe in God Himself; they must have faith in His unique beneficence toward their nation and its citizens’ desires, both personal and collective.
Divine political will
When, in a speech in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson called the U.S. “the only idealistic nation in the world,” he was equating its national interests with Christian tenets. Such a country naturally saw itself as being God’s most-favored nation. (This makes American criticism of a country like Iran for being a theocracy a sheer hypocrisy.)
In more recent years, presidents have constantly invoked divine will for their own political goals or those they perceive to be the nation’s. Even when direct religious patter is lacking, the statements below display the argot of faith that has come to underpin the basis of American foreign policy since the end of World War II. George W. Bush is not an exception: He is a continuation of an earlier pattern embedded as an ideology into the presidential conscience. A few examples:
“We’ve always reached for a new spirit and aimed at a higher goal.” — Ronald Reagan
“Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit.” — Jimmy Carter
“As we are a nation of God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God.” — Gerald Ford
“We have moral obligations to help the countries of the world, and if we do not, they will rightly rise up and strike us down.” — Lyndon Johnson.
But to return to President Reagan. His vision was messianic, a fitting and traditional icon for a nation that sees itself engaged continually in a struggle against the forces of the Devil.
“We can preserve for our children this,” he said in a speech about his country as early as October 1964, “the last best hope of man on Earth, or sentence them to take the first step into 1,000 years of darkness.”
It isn’t only in Hollywood that the world is divided into Good and Evil, Light and Dark. Washington, too, has been guided throughout U.S. history by the Scriptwriters of the Apocalypse.
We ask ourselves of the Bush years of faith-based aggression and the crusade for profit: How did it happen? How did America come to be dominated by people whose profound belief in their own God has blinded them to world realities and the diplomacy of reconciliation?
The answer lies in the above statements and thousands of similar ones made by U.S. presidents and the people who surround them. The U.S., despite legal proscriptions to the contrary, is continually reinventing itself as the sole voice of God on Earth. Such a nation is bound to equate its narrow fortunes with human destiny.
The destiny of the United States, however, is bound up with that of all other countries, ethnic groups, individuals of influence and masses of ordinary people around the world. Until Americans come to see the world as it is, they will remain obliged, it would seem, to create at least one Devil before them; and having slain one, they will fitfully create another, as if to prove to themselves that God has chosen Them as His defenders. Their role in the world will be defined on the basis of a continuum of Devils.
The words of Nancy Reagan reverberate in the American air. Those sentiments that resounded with an insipid self-righteousness when she penned them in 1981 in her autobiography now come back with a bitter irony to her compatriots, hopelessly snared by a vicious trap of their own making that they had set for others in Iraq:
“I believe it wrong — immoral — that our government asked these young men (American soldiers in Vietnam) to fight and die for their country without letting them win. This should never be allowed to happen again.”