[Editors' Note: This commentary first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Native Americas Journal (Volume 20, Number 1), the independent policy quarterly of hemispheric indigenous issues published by the First Nations Development Institute of Fredericksburg, Va.]
Religion, and specifically Southern Protestant fundamentalism, is the dominant cultural reality in the Bush White House and in the process which has led to war. Although George W. Bush is nominally a Methodist, he has pandered shamelessly to the religious right and many of his views are consistent with those of Protestant fundamentalist extremists. He has confirmed such views more than once, and is on record stating his belief that non-Christians can never go to heaven. This is a statement with enormous implications that he is not president to all Americans but to a minority, albeit a sizeable minority. The religious culture he comes from is even more narrow than that, defining only born-again Christians as true to the faith and therefore eligible for admission to heaven.
Mr. Bush is steeped in the culture of West Texas, a culture with many of the characteristics of the Old South. It is tinged with a history of racism, has a strong anti-environmentalist ethos, wallows in crony capitalism, exalts in jingoistic militarism, and has an anti-public education and anti-welfare bias. The president has discovered that it is not productive to embrace all these ideologies publicly, but he has set into motion an agenda which makes the radical religious right as happy as it has been in generations.
It is not difficult to understand how the Old South came to be the way it is. In the 19th century, America was alone among industrialized nations to tolerate slavery. In the South, slave labor not only drove agricultural profits prior to the industrial revolution in agriculture, it also set the tone of the culture. People who depend on beatings and other forms of torture to keep their laborers in line and who casually rape and abuse the women they "own" have good reason to sleep with a gun under their pillow for fear that their "property" might rise from their hovels and kill them in their sleep. It helps to explain America's love affair with firearms. Although slavery was outlawed in 1863, significant elements of the culture which spawned it are thriving.
The South is the most militaristic area of the country and a higher percentage of its population is in the military than any other population in the country. The U.S. has never entered a war that the South didn't like, including the War of 1812, the Mexican War, numerous Indian wars, their part of the Civil War, the preemptive Philippines War, and so forth. Southern white Protestant males are the most violent population in America and possess the highest murder rate. Despite intense religiosity and lots of rhetoric around "family values," that population also has the highest divorce rate in the country.
Mr. Bush began his "walk," the embrace of fundamentalism, as he turned 40 and resolved to stop drinking. Instead of turning to Alcoholics Anonymous, he joined Community Bible Study (CBS) and became an ardent member of this bible study group. Although he has made fundamentalist conservatism a cornerstone of his political life, he appears to be a genuine convert and he seems determined to use the lessons of his faith to transform American society and drive the destiny of the world. These are grandiose and dangerous impulses which utilize ideas of good and evil to support dismissal of anyone who disagrees as either ignorant of the difference or willfully in favor of evil.
The isolationism of George W. Bush is not driven by a Henry Kissinger-like Machiavellianism but is inspired by writings of somewhat obscure religious philosophers such as Oswald Chambers (whose books Mr. Bush reads for inspiration) and the spiritual descendants of such men as Jonathan Edwards. All of this adds up to a remarkable but unavoidable conclusion: the President of the United States is living an ideology that has its roots in the Great Awakening of the18th century.
If all this information is reliable, it could explain a lot. The Awakening launched a discussion about individual salvation which tends to explain fundamentalism's hostility toward federal programs intended to help poor people because it urges that the individual must take responsibility for their own well being. Indeed, there is some resistance here to the idea that society should try to solve society's problems, unless those problems are cast in terms of recruiting the irreligious to the fold. The idea of "compassionate conservatism" is linked to faith-based initiatives in ways that are not transparent to people who are not involved in the conversations of the religious right.
More alarming, perhaps, are the implications of the mix of religion and war. President Bush is clever enough to avoid using the language of religion too loudly in the rhetoric of war (he had to back off shortly after 9/11 when he used the word "crusade" to describe the war he was planning), but he has had trouble finding an alternative explanation for the attack on Iraq. At first he said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but he and all his men couldn't put together credible proof of that, so the explanation shifted to an accusation that Saddam was involved with al Qaeda, an accusation which was also never proven.
But proof wasn't necessary, because George W. Bush believes Saddam and the Iraqi regime is evil and that's enough to lead a religious man to initiate a faith-based war which leaders of most of the Christian denominations believe has failed the requirements of Just Warfare, and which is difficult, at best, to defend under international law.
Just what else he believes, the world seems destined to discover.
John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.