The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

Follow the line of thought of evangelicals in this country, and this is what you get: God wanted George W. Bush in office. In these trying times, the Supreme Being of the universe chose this simple man from Texas to lead the country through its most difficult hour.

Now let’s complete the logic: if God wanted George W. Bush to lead the United States, then God must have known about 11 September. That means, that in order for Bush to be God’s man, then the terrorist strikes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were just a part of God’s will.

If that doesn’t disgust you, then allow me to pour on some more outrage.

Of all the horrible images of that day, there’s one that I cannot successfully erase: the spectacle of those trapped in the top floors of the World Trade Center with no chance of escape. Even getting to the roof would not have saved anyone, since the smoke from the fires raging below made it impossible for helicopters to attempt a rescue. So these poor, wretched people were left with a deep, heart-wrenching choice: Do I leap to my death, or wait to be crushed? We know that some made that impossible choice to jump to their doom, including in at least one instance, a shared choice made with another person (a friend? co-worker? stranger?). What savage barbarity would force such an existential choice on hapless people?

In the language of the evangelicals, it must have been God. Sure, Jerry Falwell trotted out the usual suspects (feminists and homosexuals), but as the months have passed since that day, the White House has stoked the fears and anxieties of countless Americans with the specter of another terrorist attack, and have shored up Bush’s image as a decisive leader at the right time and place. For the conservative core of the Republican party -- the evangelicals -- this has meant portraying Bush as a decisive man of God, an anointed of the Lord who with his faith will protect America. It’s a language that even Bush succumbs to, such as his startling admission that “there’s a higher Father that I appeal to,” and his statement to then-Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas “God told me to strike al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did.”

The problem with all of this lies with the implications of these statements. Presidents usually invoke God, mom and apple pie in order to justify their policies, but Bush’s pseudo-apotheosis is quite different from anything we’ve seen before. If God is directing Bush’s foreign policy decisions, then surely God must have set all of the events over the past three years as a test of faith. First, he campaigned against Gore, then helped disenfranchise thousands of blacks from voting in Florida and let the Supreme Court do his will. Then after a nine month lull, God helped nineteen people hijack four planes and kill three thousand people. But it wasn’t carnage for the sake of carnage, you see, it was so that God could win glory for himself by having Bush step up to the plate. Like Abraham, God was testing Bush’s mettle, except in this case, God didn’t bother to stay Abraham’s hand, but let him slay his own son.

If you’re uncomfortable at this point, it gets even better. After striking al Qaeda, God’s next target was to use the vast military might of the United States to hit an aging, brutal dictator (striking people dead isn’t as gratifying as getting a lot of other people killed in the process.) Bush the Anointed then sets out to make America safe by toppling a toothless regime, with at least 10,000 civilians sent to the afterlife against their will as part of the deal. The evangelicals further see this as divine approval, and because God can never be wrong, neither can his chosen one, Bush. This explains why conservative Christians have no problem when the reality of Iraq hits them in the face. Since these inconvenient facts go against their beliefs, they must be instruments of the devil; thus liberals, the U.N. and the entire population of Western Europe are ignorant fools duped by the anti-Christ for even questioning the divine wisdom imparted to Bush by his heavenly father.

In linguistics, there’s the concept of diglossia, where two versions of the same language exist side by side. For the evangelicals, we have dual realities. They know in their hearts that life is often full of ambiguities and little white lies, but they also believe in the world of black and white where there no shades of gray. So they can exist personally in the world full of hierarchies and choices, but publicly exist where they claim that Bush is right as rain and nothing can change their minds. They loathe prevarication (“flip-flopping”) but in their private lives, they vacillate about any number of things. To leave the big decisions as one way or the other, however, they can pretend that their world strictly adheres to right and wrong. And with Bush, they can validate their feelings and claim that God is on their side. In other words, the language of evangelical Christianity leaves no room for error, no space to manuever when faced with a moral dilemma because to do so is the question the will of God, itself a supreme error.

This is why Bush has enjoyed his free pass when it comes to terrorism and Iraq. The hapless media notwithstanding, evangelicals believe that Bush’s (unelected) tenure as president is divine intervention, so his decisions regarding the war on terror (billed as a struggle between good and evil) cannot be openly questioned. If God is behind Bush, then you need to be behind Bush as well, otherwise you’re on the side of evil. Thus stories of torture and abuse are written off as nothing more than liberal atrocity propaganda; bad news from Baghdad is just the “liberal” media’s attempt to discredit the divine mission of democracy-building and supporting Kerry is tantamount to supporting al Qaeda.

The central problem with this theology is that it is an extremely radical one. As we’ve seen, the people killed on 11 September were just fulfilling God’s plans for George W. Bush. Equally, because of his moral steadfastness, a thousand-plus American military deaths aren’t as important as the struggle against good and evil, so there’s no need to view coffins arriving back home for their final resting place. And since the world is starkly delineated between those with us and those against us, Bush can count on the support of his conservative Christian base to vote for him on election day. Given the language of their world view, the evangelicals have only one choice: none.

Is this, therefore, the world that we, the non-evangelicals, want to live in? More importantly, is this the vision of God to which we want to ascribe? Are we more inclined to live in a political system where the head of state believes he is talking to God, or do we prefer a more temporal approach? While evangelicals have little use for concepts like nuance and context, it’s an irony that they despise Muslim fundamentalists from running their countries, but actively seek Christian fundamentalists to elected office in this nation. At this rate, it’s less a clash of civilizations than a clash of fundamentalist ideologies.

Fundamentalism ultimately denies life, and finds death a compelling manner to speak of the glory of God; after all, no radical fundamentalist ever blew himself up in the name of secular humanism. Likewise, American evangelical fundamentalists find death as a minor detail in the broader struggle between good and evil, which is why the tragedy of people leaping to their death takes second place to the miracle of Bush being the right man in the right place at the right time.

Apparently, there’s more at stake in this election that we might have realized.