by Theodore Plantinga
It was five days before the US presidential election of 2004, and I was in my car with my attention mainly on the road and only slightly on the radio. On came a lively song: "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." At once I thought of George W. Bush: could this be a campaign ad? It was not -- just a song. Moreover, I was in Canada listening to a Canadian station. Yet I was struck by how quickly the song set me thinking of President Bush. It seemed to fit him, for it reflected two sides of his popular appeal that some people regard as connected. For me, however, there is an uneasy tension between praising the Lord and reloading one's gun.
I teach in a Christian institution in which the need for Christian uniqueness is stressed. To justify our existence outside the secular mainstream in university-level scholarship, we try to offer a distinctively Christian approach to this, that and the other thing. Of course politics is one of our favorite topics: it, too, is in need of Christian emphases and uniqueness. And so it does not escape our attention that George W. Bush is an overtly Christian president. Indeed, not since the days of Jimmy Carter has there been a US president who is so open about his religious commitments and affiliations. This is all to the good, and so I had a relatively favorable impression of "Governor Bush," as we all called him back in the days when he presented himself as a candidate for president in the year 2000. The name "Governor Bush" fit him well at that time, and it continued to seem apt during his early months in the White House, when it appeared that he was pursuing mainly a domestic agenda. In this regard he reminded me of Bill Clinton and his early months in office: at first Mr. Clinton seemed more the nation's governor than its president.
One of the things I particularly appreciated about "Governor Bush" was his eagerness to open up legal space for "faith-based initiatives," which was his term for various programs of action for the betterment of the community that have some degree of church involvement or religious connection. Of course programs of this sort are usually avoided by Democrats and self-styled political liberals, for a great many of them are very reluctant to bring faith into the public arena.
Now, when Mr. Bush took office and began to fulfill his promise regarding faith-based initiatives, he ran into some roadblocks he had not anticipated. As a result, what he actually achieved in this area was not quite what we had hoped for. Nevertheless, the positive attitude toward public action that is "faith-based" certainly remains part of President Bush's political vision and legacy, and so it is worth mentioning once again, late in the year 2004, when so many people are disappointed in his foreign policy.
The George W. Bush who took office in early 2001 came across to us as an isolationist. He did not have his father's long record of international involvement; indeed, he looked to be a throwback to those American politicians who are determined to keep the USA from getting involved in foreign situations and "adventures." I would have preferred him to be more of an internationalist. But then came 9/11, and everything changed. Suddenly Governor Bush morphed into President Bush, and he found a new calling, namely, to root out and destroy terrorism wherever it raised its ugly head on planet Earth. It was by doing so that he would protect the US "homeland" (a term that suddenly became popular) from any additional attack.
There are some who maintain that what really happened after 9/11 is that President Bush's administration was hijacked by a band of ideologues and misguided visionaries who seized upon the terrorist attacks as an opportunity to carry out certain plans that they had been cherishing in their minds for some time and had even been discussing in certain publications. I believe there is some truth to the suggestion that there was a significant change of direction in the Bush administration after 9/11, ostensibly in response to the challenge it represented. But I do not believe that the term "hijacked" is appropriate here. In a deep sense, President Bush remains an isolationist even after 9/11. His deeply-rooted reluctance to make use of international structures and organizations in dealing with the challenges faced by the USA remains in place. Uniting the peace-loving peoples of the world against terrorism does not seem to be high on his agenda. And so, although he now finds himself engaged in military operations on foreign soil and takes a deep interest in various matters on the other side of the globe and has even gotten involved in the formerly scorned task of nation-building (it appears that his administration is not immune from "mission-creep"), the isolationist flavor continues to pervade his approach. In view of his Texas roots, one is almost tempted to call him a Lone Ranger, but he would surely point to his steadfast ally Tony Blair (no mere Tonto), who pulls a reluctant Great Britain along with him as he follows the George W. Bush strategy against terrorism.
President Bush found that he had wind in his sails once he embarked on a new role in the White House. He seemed to like the fact that people were speaking of him as a "wartime president." Part of the task of a president who leads the nation in a time of war is to take a firm stand by making it clear to one and all that there will be no compromise or giving in -- the war effort will be pursued to its very end. But another side of the job is to reach out and form alliances that have the potential to strengthen the nation's military position, which is what Winston Churchill did so brilliantly in the early years of the second world war. He bolstered morale in Great Britain while at the same time working to involve the USA in the great crusade against fascism, realizing that it was only with American participation that victory over Hitler and his allies could be guaranteed.
It seems to me that President Bush succeeded on the first count (taking a firm stand), but not on the second (rallying the nations). Since I propose to give credit where it is due, I must affirm at the outset that he has demonstrated great resolve in striking a stern posture of untiring opposition to anything that falls under his definition of terrorism.
In terminology familiar to the Calvinistic circles in which I have long moved, we might say that the antithetical side of President Bush has been on public display for some years now. And for many Calvinists, speaking and acting in an antithetical manner is a virtue. After all, the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (see Genesis 3:15) is the key to the great struggle here on earth, the struggle we call history, the struggle that will not end until one of the two antagonists is trampled underfoot and destroyed. The Christian is to heed the great appeal to choose the side of Christ, for to fail to do so is to side with Satan. And so there are ultimately only two camps. President Bush does not leave much room for neutrality in the struggle against terrorism.
The antithetical emphasis on the part of President Bush has certainly made him popular among many Calvinists, who have been wondering of late whether we are still sufficiently antithetical ourselves. Many of us find the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" in our hymnbook, but do we still sing it boldly? The content of much of the preaching in ostensibly Calvinist churches would almost lead one to suppose that it is time to revise the words of this venerable hymn so that it begins with "Onward Christian Peaceniks"! It is especially around such times as Remembrance Day (November 11 in Canada) that we feel the tension between being a Christian soldier and being a Christian peacenik.
And so there are times when we cannot help but wonder whether that antithetical business should still be part of our lexicon. After all, did not our Lord himself instruct Peter to put away his sword when Peter proposed to take up arms in defense of his master in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26 and Luke 22)? Did not our Lord insist that his kingship was not of this world, that it was a spiritual kingship (see John 18)? Are we not supposed to win others with love and a spirit of gentleness? If so, what place is there in the Christian life for an antithetical posture or a tough-guy stance that signals that we are spoiling for battle?
Complicating any inclination that some of us might yet have to take an antithetical stance is the growing tide of alarm in the Western world about Islamic radicalism, which many like to call "fundamentalism." The latter term used to refer to doctrinal rectitude and confidence and sure-footedness, but of late it has come to be associated more and more with the willingness to engage in extreme tactics and behavior in pursuit of one's aims, including recourse to the sword and even self-immolating violence. It is as though we are being given a timely lesson in what it means to be thoroughly antithetical.
Of course the secular world concludes that such religious militancy is to be completely avoided; indeed, there are many who regard it as the chief evil of our age. Hence it should not surprise us to find that many Calvinists are afraid of looking antithetical or adopting a posture that someone might characterize as "fundamentalist."
Now, it appears that President Bush is willing to depart from the widespread consensus when it comes to the risk of looking like an antithetical fundamentalist who poses a threat to public safety. I suspect that in choosing to run this risk, he is following certain promptings of his own inner nature. There are some who depict him mainly as a puppet in the hands of political masters, but I do not hold this view. I believe he acts out of conviction. But I would add that his set of convictions -- indeed, his understanding of what goes on in the world -- seems to have changed after 9/11.
Yet he is also a shrewd politician who must have realized, going into the 2004 election season, that he would not be able to prevail through his rhetoric and eloquence. His lackluster performance in the three debates with his Democratic challenger would have reinforced the realization that his appeal to many voters is not rooted in his way with words -- or lack thereof. And so, when he presented himself to the US public for a second term in office, he relied heavily on television advertising. He understood that if he was to make the desired impression, he would have to strike a pose, as it were. Late in the campaign he did indeed attack his opponent with some regularity, but for much of the year 2004 he simply created the impression that he was standing on guard and maintaining his antithetical opposition to anything and everything that might smack of terrorism or an armed assault on the United States and its persons and property. The Canadian national anthem contains stirring words about "standing on guard," but what Canada actually does in this regard looks like slouching when compared with the pose struck by President Bush. It appears that his people liked what they saw: they voted him in for another term.
In using the term "pose," I do not mean to be unfair to President Bush or question his motives. Therefore I am quite willing to admit that his antithetical stance was not a matter of mere appearance or image -- there was more to it. Indeed, it was the substance of much of his policy as reflected in his first term. But when it came to how the election campaign could best be fought, he seemed to realize that the posture was all-important, for people are more taken with images than with lengthy recitals of great deeds and policy initiatives. Campaign leaflets get handed out freely and get dropped in wastebaskets just as freely: to grab the attention of the voters, it is necessary to make things simple. In short, President Bush was well aware that he needed to look tough, resolute, and even hostile. And the posture he struck had its intended effect, for he did got reelected -- and with many more votes than he garnered in the year 2000. In the process, however, he frightened a great many people abroad or, at the very least, made them feel uneasy.
Throughout history, many Christians who are antithetically minded have had a somewhat similar effect on others. They have felt called by God himself to live in a degree of isolation from what many have called "the world" (see I John). The Anabaptists also lived in relative isolation, but then on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount. I think it can be said that the Anabaptists have done their level best to look and act peaceable. But some other "separatist" Christians have emphasized Bible passages outside the Sermon on the Mount and have adopted a posture of generalized hostility and negativity to much of the world around them. Did they thereby win hearts and minds for the Gospel? I rather doubt it. But they stuck to their post, relying heavily on the military metaphors that are to be found in Scripture. The term "jihad" did not form part of their Christian vocabulary, but when they came upon it in discussions of Islam, they sensed at once what it meant. Some may have been attracted to the term "crusade," which was also used by President Bush shortly after 9/11, before certain of his aides persuaded him that it was a term to be avoided, since it inflamed Muslims and reminded them of unhappy times many centuries earlier.
The opposition to George W. Bush outside the USA -- here I am thinking especially of Canada, which is where I live -- does not simply flow from this or that difference in emphasis when it comes to political philosophy. Americans do not like to hear it, but the truth is that President Bush frightens people in quite a number of countries that ought to be good friends of the United States. A hundred years before his tenure in office, Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House. One of his famous sayings was: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." Well, the stick carried about by the US president has gotten a whole lot bigger since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. That stick alone is enough to terrify a great many people and countries, regardless of who is in the White House. But when the massive military firepower concentrated in the US president's "big stick" is combined with a posture and attitude of generalized hostility -- even if President Bush means in his heart to be a great deal more nuanced and really does regard Canada and France and Germany as allies -- the inevitable result is that a great many people are frightened.
I would love to see a more subtle approach adopted by the present US administration. Precisely because the USA holds so many of the cards militarily and economically, its "body language," as communicated through its president, has an enormous effect on people in many countries outside its borders.
We sometimes say of a dog: "Its bark is worse than its bite." It's a cute expression, and we sometimes apply it to human beings and leaders as well. Undoubtedly some of the backers of President Bush would apply it to him. And I would dearly love to believe it. But the record is that he has launched invasions of two countries in his first term alone, and has also shown himself to be a free spender when it comes to building up military forces and making ready for war. Therefore the hostility in the George W. Bush posture which I have been discussing here cannot be dismissed as an essentially harmless "bark": I would argue that we have already felt the bite. There is good reason to be uneasy.
So what comes next for President Bush, who is about to embark on a second term as the leader of the free world? My own expectation is that we will have a somewhat stagnant situation for the next four years. President Bush may indeed report that he has already accomplished a lot, for he has certainly changed the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. But with the enormous deficits he ran up -- after starting with very handsome surpluses inherited from the Clinton administration -- I don't believe he will be in a position to bankroll much more in the way of military adventures. And the deficits will also make it very difficult for him to launch domestic initiatives. I expect that even tax cuts will become problematic, despite the Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And so many will feel that they are again waiting. Just as they waited -- sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently -- for the election of 2004, believing it would bring about a change in the political climate in Washington, they will now have to wait for another presidential election in 2008, when George W. Bush will not be eligible to run for president again.
It's a bit like living with a bad neighbor. Let's say that you have such a neighbor, and he scares you. He keeps dangerous dogs on the place -- a Pit Bull and a Rottweiler. He claims to have his dogs under good control, but you are sometimes afraid to set foot outside the house. You wish he would pack up and move away, but he shows no signs of doing so anytime soon. But he has hinted that in the year 2009 he will finally retire and move to Texas, taking his dogs with him. And so you count the months, and you have something to look forward to. [END]
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