Is God an American Voter?

Conservative Pundits Question Bush's Religious Appeals

By Jefferson Morley

Los Angeles Times

October 26, 2004

"George Bush did what God wanted him to do," one U.S. voter told a reporter. "Who cares what the rest of the world thinks?"

That kind of religious fervor among President Bush's supporters, reported yesterday by the Sydney Morning Herald, is provoking a broad and deep backlash in the international online media. Even in news sites that supported President Bush's invasion of Iraq, pundits assert that the president's religiosity is a menace.

With Bush consistently invoking religious themes, Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry overtly discussing his faith last Sunday in an appeal for votes at an African-American church in Florida and the Vatican releasing a guide to Catholic political thought, the subject of faith and U.S. politics is rapidly moving to the fore of the intense international coverage of the U.S. presidential race.

In Central America, the Honduran daily El Heraldo (in Spanish) recaps the candidates' religious views for readers. A Spanish TV documentary (in Spanish) traces 50 years of evangelical efforts to influence the White House.

The coverage is driven partly by recognition of a seemingly ironic American reality. As El Diario (in Spanish), a daily newspaper in Juarez, Mexico, reminds its readers this week, "the United States has secular laws and the most religious population of any industrialized country."

But commentary is also driven by fear of a political movement -- and a president -- who seems to claim divine inspiration.

Correspondents for El Correo (in Spanish) in Bilbao, Spain, and the Guardian in London attended Bush rallies in New Jersey and came away "shaken" by Bush's religious appeal.

"People said 'amen' when he spoke," one Norwegian correspondent said. "It was chilling to see who are his followers."

Uneasiness with Bush's evangelical Protestantism seems to lie at the heart of Bush's well-documented unpopularity abroad.

"What deeply alarms many non-Americans," writes Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis, "is the prospect of a second Bush term dominated by a coalition of evangelical Christians, Christian 'Rapturists,' American partisans of Israel's PM Ariel Sharon, and rural voters from the Deep South who reject evolution and think French is the native language of Satan."

This complaint is not new. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who likens contemporary America to pre-Nazi Germany, tells Red Voltaire, a leftist Spanish-language Web site, that Bush's religiosity makes him want to start drinking again.

It is hardly surprising that Jean Daniel, a veteran centrist French journalist, told a Spanish audience that "no nation can try to by itself incarnate the good, the virtue and the humanity. Let us leave to God that pretension."

But when Rupert Murdoch's conservative organs start echoing variations on this theme, there may be something new afoot.

In the Australian, the flagship of Murdoch's global media empire, conservative U.S. journalist Scott McConnell writes this week that Bush's presidency combines "two strands of Jewish and Christian extremism"—pro-Israel neoconservatism and the Christian Right. McConnell calls for Bush's defeat.

In the Times of London, another Murdoch paper, conservative British-born pundit Andrew Sullivan laments that Americans' "deepest and most mysterious beliefs are being dragged more and more into the public square."

"It is one thing to have religious rhetoric and language in public. That is the American way. It is another to base political appeals on religious grounds -- whether crudely or subtly. It is one of the saddest ironies of our time that as America tries to calm the fires of theocracy abroad, it should be stoking milder versions of the same at home," Sullivan writes.

British historian Adam Nicolson goes further describing Bush's world view and his religious supporters as "wicked."

In a piece for London's reliably conservative Daily Telegraph, Nicolson noted that Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo opportunity in May 2003 was accompanied by a less-noted but perhaps more important reference to the prophet Isaiah: "To the captives, come out, and to those in darkness, be free," the president said.

"It seems a straightforward remark, almost a statement of the obvious," says Nicolson, author of a history of the King James Bible. "But to anyone familiar with the Bible, those few words ring far larger bells" because they come from a biblical passage (Isaiah 49.9) with a much more sweeping message:

"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me, to preach good tidings unto the meek, he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God: for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation."

Nicolson says that Bush, in laying claim "to the robe of righteousness," was articulating a "vision of establishing the Christian God's dominion on earth" via war.

The implications for Iraq are disturbing, he says.

"To those who see war as an occasional and necessary evil, the developing situation in Iraq is a disaster. Violence is feeding violence. The Abu Ghraib pictures, the rounding up and detaining of thousands of civilians and the cockpit-shot film of an American pilot firing missiles into the streets of Fallujah: all of that has fuelled and will fuel decades of future rage and resentment," he writes.

"But for any Christian who is driven by an apocalyptic and millennial vision, these events are exactly what should be happening. Terrible and desperate violence, blood and grief are all, for them, mileposts on the road to God's dominion," Nicolson says.

In this view, Bush's refusal to admit any mistakes in Iraq reflects not arrogance nor evasiveness but divinely inspired confidence that all is going according to His plan. For the formerly pro-Bush press, it's a scary thought.