Of God, and Man, in the Oval Office
By Fritz Ritsch
Sunday, March 2, 2003; Page B03
The National Council of Churches (NCC), together with a number of peace
organizations, recently ran an ad on CNN and Fox in which a bishop of
the United Methodist Church, to which President Bush belongs,
criticized the Bush administration's relentless war rhetoric. Going to
war with Iraq "violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ,"
said the bishop.
It may confound people that some mainline Protestant churches continue
to resist the president's call to arms. After all, it is couched in
theological language: The term "axis of evil" was coined to give the
war on terrorism a religious edge; President Bush speaks of giving the
people of Iraq not democracy, but freedom, harkening back to both the
biblical Exodus and the Civil War. "Freedom and fear, justice and
cruelty, have always been at war," he assured us after Sept. 11, "and
we know that God is not neutral between them." If God is not neutral,
and the choices are so straightforward — almost the literal embodiment
of a spiritual battle — it seems perverse for mainline religious
leaders to withhold support for war against Iraq.
NCC leaders were frustrated that the president had rebuffed their
requests to meet with him to discuss their views. The president
apparently believes that he can talk about theology from the bully
pulpit without talking to theologians. Which begs the question: When
did the president become theologian in chief?
The president used the words of a hymn, "There's Power in the Blood,"
to strengthen the religious rhetoric of his State of the Union speech.
He spoke of the "power, wonder-working power," of "the goodness and
idealism and faith of the American people." The original words of the
hymn refer to the "wonder-working power" of "the precious blood of the
lamb" — Jesus Christ. The unspoken but apparently deliberate parallel
between Americans and Jesus is disturbing, to say the least . The
implication is that Americans are generous — like Jesus. And that we
are innocent victims — like the lamb of God. In his February speech to
religious broadcasters, Bush again expounded upon America's virtues and
implied purity, concluding, "We are a compassionate country, and we are
generous toward our fellow citizens. And we are a courageous country,
ready when necessary to defend the peace." In both speeches, he used
American virtues to segue into the reason that we must confront the
"evil" before us.
The hymn continues, "Would you over evil a victory win?" The road to
that victory is paved with American good intentions, the president
suggests. These American virtues will almost supernaturally imbue our
military ventures with righteousness — and with victory.
Many parishioners at my small, inside-the-Beltway church, by contrast,
do not view themselves or the nation in such a saintly light. American
righteousness is by no means a sure thing to them. Nor do they view the
larger geopolitical and spiritual issues as so starkly black and white.
"When [Americans] invoke God to be a policeman, I find it
inappropriate," said Bill Dodge. A victory over Saddam Hussein is not
necessarily proof of our unvarnished virtue, either on the world stage,
or before God, many of them say. It doesn't even look like a victory
against terrorism. And Bush's increasingly religious justification for
war with Iraq is disturbing, even frightening, to many. "It bothers me
that he wraps himself in a cloak of Christianity," said Lois Elieff.
"It's not my idea of Christianity." To them, Bush's use of religious
language sounds shallow and far more self-justifying than that of other
recent political leaders — including Bush's father.
The most striking characteristic of the younger Bush's use of religion
is its relentless triumphalism. American triumphalism is nothing new,
of course. Many of the earliest Christian settlers were religious
zealots who viewed America as the New Zion, the Promised Land. Today's
Americans, whether overtly religious or not, are their spiritual heirs.
In my experience, secular Americans are as likely as religious
Americans to believe that we are the rightful beneficiaries of some
kind of manifest destiny.
But some on the religious right have built a theology around this hope.
Many of them believe that America will be at its best if its government
submits to their understanding of God's work on Earth. What they have
longed for is a Davidic ruler — a political leader like the Bible's
David, who will unite their secular vision of the nation with their
spiritual aspirations. All indications are that they believe they have
found their David in Bush — and that the president believes it, too.
Bush's religious supporters are his greatest cheerleaders. Rather than
his spiritual guides, they are his faithful disciples. He is the leader
of the America they think God has ordained. Contrary to popular
opinion, the religion that this group espouses is Triumphalism, not
Christianity. Theirs is a zealous form of nationalism, baptized with
Christian language. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was
martyred by the Nazis, foresaw the rise of a similar view in his
country, which he labeled "joyous secularism." Joyous secularists, said
Bonhoeffer, are Christians who view the role of government as helping
God to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. He viewed this as human
arrogance and a denial of God's sovereignty; but joyous secularism has
an appeal that crosses religious boundaries, and now has added force in
the United States because it has found its political messiah.
In the aftermath of 9/11, people came to church in droves, looking for
larger meaning, and then they left again, frustrated. That's a problem
churches need to address, not least because our failure to give them
what they were looking for may have lent potency to presidential
theology. When people were searching for meaning, the president was
able to frame that meaning. In a nation of the blind, the one-eyed man
is king. In a secular society, a president who can confidently quote
scripture is that man.
The president confidently (dare I say "religiously"?) asserts a
worldview that most Christian denominations reject outright as heresy:
the myth of redemptive violence, which posits a war between good and
evil, with God on the side of good and Satan on the side of evil and
the battle lines pretty clearly drawn.
War is essential in this line of thinking. For God to win, evil needs
to be defined and destroyed by God's faithful followers, thus proving
their faithfulness. Christians have held this view to be heretical
since at least the third century. It is the bread-and-butter theology
of fundamentalists, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian.
In contrast, the Judeo-Christian worldview is that of redemption.
Redemption starts from the assumption that all of humanity is flawed
and must approach God with humility. No good person is totally good,
and no evil person is irredeemable. God's purpose is to redeem all
people. Good and evil, while critical, become secondary to redemption.
While most Christian denominations do not reject war altogether,
diplomacy becomes integral to our understanding of the practical
application of redemption. War becomes the bluntest of blunt
instruments because it can never be fully justified. If I can't claim
to be completely good, and no one is so evil as to be irredeemable,
what right do I have to kill?
Despite our secularism, the United States has rarely been so publicly
and politically "Christian" as it is today. Or perhaps it is because of
our secularism. We can no longer tell good theology from bad. We
mainline denominations need to take our share of the blame: For decades
we took it for granted that Christianity and citizenship were
inextricably linked, that American power was the natural outgrowth of
American righteousness. For too long we, too, preached American
triumphalism. We did not remind people of the overarching guidance God
gives all people in search of redemption: the necessity of the examined
life. Ironically, our triumphalism may have fueled America's
secularism. With God on our side, there didn't seem to be much need for
self-examination and humility.
It is clear now that a sectarian Christian view of history, a dualism
that views war as a kind of redemptive purgative, is having at least
some influence on the administration's rhetoric. It is characterized by
a stark refusal to acknowledge accountability, because to suggest
accountability is to question American purity, which would undermine
the secular theology of "good versus evil" inherent in present U.S.
The dominance of the religious right in political affairs makes it
appear that a Christian worldview dominates American politics. But if,
as I believe, this worldview is really American triumphalism,
Christianity has taken a backseat to joyous secularism. Within
Christianity and Judaism in this country there are denominations and
branches with the philosophical and institutional power and authority
to challenge that triumphalism, but bold stands such as the NCC's are
still the exception.
With the political emergence of joyous secularism, the churches are
challenged to preach an alternative message: grace, hope and redemption
— the truth of Biblical faith. This is both our pastoral and our
political responsibility. In a nuclear age, American triumphalism is
not only spiritually bereft, it is, quite possibly, apocalyptic in its
The Rev. Fritz Ritsch is pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian Church.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company