Friday, April 30, 2004

George W. Bush and the Jesus Factor
How Alarmed Should We Be?

On the day that George W. Bush was sworn into his second term as governor of Texas, friend and adviser Dr. Richard Land  recalls Bush making an unexpected pronouncement.

"The day he was inaugurated there were several of us who met with him at the governor's mansion," says Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "And among the things he said to us was, 'I believe that God wants me to be president.'"

So begins the Introduction to the PBS Frontline special, The Jesus Factor.  (Also see news/reviews 1 2 3 4 5

I did not see the show, because it wasn't on the PBS broadcast that I get.  I did hear the interviews  on the NPR show, Fresh Air.  The key point during the Fresh Air interview has to do with what we can infer from Mr. Bush's frequent references to his evangelical ethos. 

This is controversial, unavoidably, since people can infer almost anything they want.  For example, the above quote: "I believe that God wants me to be president.", could be interpreted in a variety of ways.  One of the persons interviewed on Fresh Air, Dr. Land, stated that the comment is perfectly natural in an evangelical mindset.  Often, persons of such faith feel that they have gotten a calling to perform some particular duty.  Taken in context, Land argues, the statement is merely a reflection of Bush's perfectly understandable feeling that he has such a calling.  Dr. Land implied that Bush's statement is not at all pathological.  He did not find it to be alarming at all.  Since he was there, we must consider his interpretation seriously.  On the other hand, he was not an objective observer.

An article on www.news-journalonline.com phrases the question of interpretation:

Some viewers of this thought-provoking "Frontline" documentary might find that pronouncement startlingly off-putting while others doubtless will take extreme comfort in it. And then there are those who may see it as a savvy political move, given the choir Bush was preaching to.

Could it be a savvy political move?  Not all Christians would agree.  On the Interfaith Alliance website, we see a copy of a quote from their president, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy.  The quote also appears on the PBS news release  about the show:

"If we turn religion into a tool for advancing political strategy, we treat it as anything other than a sacred part of life from which we draw values and strength," says Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of The Interfaith Alliance. "Any time that religion has identified itself with a particular political movement or a particular government, religion has been harmed by that."

Are there some who might take comfort in Bush's pronouncement?  I actually could not find mush in the Blogosphere about it, although 1) the show is just now on the air, and 2) I have learned that the weblog search engines tend to run a day or more behind.  (editorial note: That is because people don't ping after posting.  Use Ping-O-Matic  please!)  Many of the posts in the 'sphere are neutral, simply mentioning the show, sometimes urging people to watch it.  (1  2  3  4  5 6)

I will assume that some people are comforted by Bush's religious stance.  This is supported by a survey  done by the PEW Research Center:

Relatively few Americans express concern about the use of religious rhetoric by political leaders. In fact, nearly twice as many say there has been too little reference to religious faith and prayer by politicians (41%) than say there has been too much (21%). President Bush receives particularly positive ratings in this regard. Most (62%) say the president mentions his religious faith the right amount ­ with only a minority saying he does this too much (14%) or too little (11%).

This same sentiment carries over to religion's influence on the president's policymaking as well. Overall, six-in-ten Americans say the president relies a great deal (20%) or a fair amount (40%) on his own religious beliefs in making policy decisions. Roughly three-quarters of those who believe this say the influence of religion on the president's policy decisions is appropriate. Just 22% of those who see Bush influenced a great deal by his religion say it is inappropriate.

Are there people who find Bush's statement to be startlingly off-putting?  Some.  Blogleft author Raymond McInnis has amassed a great deal of information  regarding the influence of religion on Bush's policies.  The writing is obviously anti-Bush, but he makes some good points.  The Longbow Papers author, Joseph Bosco, states:

[The Jesus Factor] ...examines the extraordinary, and really quite frightening, influence that the far-right Christian fundamentalist movement has on the man who is the president of the United States of America, the most ethnically, culturally, religiously diverse nation on Earth...Below is the Title and Credits page, which in one glance should scare the bejesus out of you if you believe it is imperative that the separation of church and state remain one of the primary pillars of our beloved republic, as did the Founding Fathers, who enshrined its importance by making it the first words of the first clause of the first sentence that is the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Loren Franklin writes  on the Portland Independent Media Center that Bush is a "Socialized Psychopath."  Linda McQuaig writes with some conviction that Bush's religiosity may not be genuine:

But the notion that Bush is motivated by deep religious convictions is being pushed with such vigour these days by his supporters that one senses an orchestrated campaign — perhaps to prevent worldwide skepticism about the motives for the Iraq invasion from spreading to the U.S.

Some Americans may worry about an evangelical crusader controlling the world's biggest nuclear arsenal, but religion — even the fundamentalist variety — is generally considered a good thing in the U.S. Certainly, focusing on religion helps keep attention away from other more contentious motives for invading Iraq, such as oil or world domination.

So the media have been hyping Bush's alleged spirituality (including a Newsweek cover story on "Bush and God"), even as the president snubbed pleas for peace from world religious leaders and last week tested a 21,000-pound bomb in preparation for unloading it on people in Iraq. (Blessed are the bombed children.)

Of course, it's possible that Bush is deeply religious, whatever than means.

More likely, Bush is simply an empty vessel, a hollow shell, a person of weak character and limited life experience who is therefore highly susceptible to the control of a small, determined group of ideological hard-liners bent on asserting U.S. power more forcefully in the world.

While I would no go that far, the points these authors establish lead to an interesting idea.  While I do not agree that Bush has Antisocial Personality Disorder  (the format term for a sociopath), I do suspect that he has some significant Narcissistic traits.  The statement, "I believe that God wants me to be president" would be interpreted in another context as being indicative of either mania or Narcissism.  It would be difficult to assemble a case arguing that Bush has Bipolar Disorder.  But making a case for Narcissism is not difficult. 

Why should we case what his personality style is?  After all, we don't care about his sexual orientation, or whether or not he likes to eat barbecued ribs.  The reason we care is that certain personality styles can be dangerous.  One of the core features of narcissism is a strong sense of entitlement.  A narcissistic person, by definition, believes that he (75% are male) is special  in some way.  This is not necessarily pathological.  One would argue that everyone  is special is some way.  The pathology comes from a particular cognitive linkage between the notion that one is special, and that one deserves special treatment or has special privileges.  This takes many forms.  Some are obvious; others are subtle. 

We all have seen persons of deep religious faith, who are in fact special because of their faith.  The thing is, a psychologically healthy religious person is not boastful about it.  He or she does not think that being religious entitles them to some kind of special status:

Proverbs 25:6-7  Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

Colossians 2:16-19 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.  Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.  He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Distinguishing between false humility and true humility is difficult.  I am hopeful that The Jesus Factor might enlighten us.  There will be a webcast available from pbs.org in a few days.