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. policy.

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 implications.

The Rev. Fritz Ritsch is pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian Church.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company