Published: 08 October 2005
The internet was buzzing yesterday. Huge numbers of people rushed to have their say on reports that George Bush had invaded Iraq because he was told to by God - whom, we learned, calls the president of the world's only superpower, rather informally, by his first name.
Some bloggers reacted with derisive horror; the man hearing the voices is, after all, the chap with his finger on the nuclear button. Others offered supportive disbelief; the Bush "quotes" had been disclosed by Palestinian politicians reporting private discussions with the President over the future of the Palestinian state. It was, said Bush's defenders, in the Palestinians interests to make out that the President had said: "And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.' And by God I'm gonna do it."
The White House was swift to deny that the President had said any such thing, though officials did not offer the mitigating explanation - helpfully offered by one website contributor - that the confusion was to be explained by Bush's apparent dyslexia: he had mixed up the voice of his God with that of his dog.
In one sense, however, it doesn't matter what he actually said. What is alarming enough is that it is the kind of thing he would say. Every line of it is entirely consonant with George Bush's religious worldview.
When President Bush first met Vladimir Putin the first thing they talked about was not the failure of communism or the triumph of the market. Rather they spoke about God. Bush later invited the visiting president of Macedonia - a fellow Methodist - into his study, where the two men knelt in prayer. Their mutual Christian faith was also a bonding factor for Bush and Tony Blair, though the Prime Minister exploded with irritation when Jeremy Paxman asked if they too had prayed together.
George Bush Jr was brought up an Episcopalian - the US version of Anglicanism - and though he became a Methodist when he married, his faith has adopted the heavy evangelical accent of the Bible Belt home state of Texas. The President reads his Bible every morning. He worships at the services led by military chaplains at his country retreat in Camp David, or at impromptu services on the presidential plane or wherever he and his entourage find themselves. He prays on the phone with a minister in Texas. Cabinet meetings often begin with a prayer. "I pray all the time," he once told Fox News. Polls say that the majority of US voters approve.
But George Bush's faith does not simply inspire and motivate him. It affects his decisions on individual policies, as with his ruling that US researchers will get no funding if they create new human embryos from which to harvest stem cells. And he has channelled billions of government dollars to faith-based welfare programmes.
Few people would suggest that the war on Saddam Hussein was religiously motivated. Indeed, plans for it had been made by Bush's neocon advisers long before he came to power. But it was clear from the outset that George Bush's Book of Revelation view of the world as a cosmic battleground between good and evil coloured his approach to his "war on terror".
It is a mindset which is spectacularly ignorant of - or recklessly indifferent to - other views. From the outset he characterised his fightback as a "crusade" clearly unaware that in the Muslim world few have forgotten that when the Crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099 they went on an orgy of butchery in which 70,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in a holocaust that lasted three days. The evangelists of the Christian Right who are Bush's support base made matters worse with febrile condemnations of Islam, saying things like its founder, Mohammed, was "a demon-possessed paedophile" and a "terrorist".
General William Boykin, whom Bush appointed to lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden, went round announcing that God had spoken to him too, saying of one Muslim opponent: "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." In public prayer meetings he repeatedly described America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as "a Christian Holy Crusade against Islam", a religion he suggested was aligned with Satan. When critics called for the man to be sacked Mr Bush promoted him to be deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence and put him in charge of transferring the Guantanamo "stress and duress" methods of interrogation to a prison in Iraq of which few people knew the name at the time. It was Abu Ghraib.
That is not all. Leaked minutes reveal that Bush's White House has been holding secret meetings with Christian fundamentalists who believe that the Second Coming of Christ can happen only after Israel's re-emergence as a nation, which is why support for Israel is at the very top of the Christian Right's agenda. They also believe that the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt for a third time before the Messiah can return. That will mean knocking down the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's holiest shrine after Mecca and Medina. So conflict with Muslims is both necessary and desirable. One of the leaders of these End-time Christians claims he is given telephone briefings by the White House at least once a week.
This is not a fringe activity. There are estimated to be as many as eight million pre-millennial Christian fundamentalists in America for whom Armageddon is always just around the corner. The White House can deny all it likes that Mr Bush said the words at the centre of the current controversy. But there can be no doubt that the President's religious thinking has shaped the world we now find ourselves in.
Nor is there any doubt how dangerous it is. It allows him to dwell happily with insufficient real knowledge about those he has branded as the enemy. It creates in him a delusional sense that he and his nation have been chosen by God for special responsibilities and special favours - fostering the perilous perception that his norms are absolute norms, his form of government automatically superior to all others, and his spiritual tradition the only really true religion.
And, most dangerously, it allows him to classify "the other" as evil. Demonising our opponents is the psychological equivalent of declaring war. We cut off the possibility of dialogue. In the process we absolve ourselves of any obligation to treat them as human beings. And we let ourselves off the hook of having to ask what part our own actions may, even in a small way, have contributed to the problem. There is plenty about that in the Bible. Perhaps it would be a good idea for God to whisper in Mr Bush's ear to tell him where to look.