Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Bush and Invocations of God

I'm more than ready to criticize the Bush administration for being dogmatic, overconfident, and arrogant in waging the "war on terror."  But the anti-Bush arguments in the "Petitioner or Prophet?" op-ed that Michael P. posted seem pretty nit-picking to me.  Let's set aside how much one can glean from the number of references to God in State of the Union addresses; let's focus on the nature of the references.  Professor Domke and Mr. Coe characterize Bush's references as "declarations of divine wishes," reflecting a "certainty about God's will [that] is troubling" -- while other other presidents' references have been simply more innocuous "requests for divine guidance."

First, what is the divine will that the writers think it's troubling for Bush to assert?  It's "that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation," and that this "is God's gift to humanity."  Ah, right.  Bush arrogantly brushes aside the powerful counterargument that God is against freedom and doesn't want all persons to have it.  And that counterargument is found -- where exactly?

Second, what's the big difference between Bush's statements and those of FDR and JFK that the writers approve?  FDR treats freedom as just as bedrock and unassailable a value as Bush does.  (Plus, I'll eat my hat if Bush hasn't also essentially "requested divine guidance" at various times in his speeches.)  If anything, one could argue that Bush's phrasing is facially more humble, at least than JFK's was.  Bush says that freedom comes from God, not from America.  Kennedy spoke of freedom, and America's unique commitment to it ("the burden and glory"), and then enlisted God in aid of that specially American endeavor, without asking first whether God was in favor of it.

Saying (as Bush does) that a political value comes from God, not from you or your own nation, can reflect or produce arrogance (since the value is of divine origin, there are no limits to what can be done to pursue it).  But it might also reflect or produce humility (we're not the source of all goodness; since the origin of that value is higher than any of us, it stands in judgment of our own actions as well).  I don't think that one can tell which of these two is at work in a particular case just by looking at the words.  And thus I don't think it's per se troubling to invoke "God's will" as the source of a political value.  Dr. King and other civil rights leaders didn't say "We strive for freedom, and hope that God will guide us."  They said "Freedom is God's will"; and their appeal, far from being "troubling," was deeper and more powerful for it.

To reiterate:  There's a strong (even airtight?) case that the administration has been pervasively arrogant in prosecuting the war on terror.  But:

(1) I doubt that all or even most of that arrogance comes from religious certainty (does anyone think Dick Cheney's or Donald Rumsfeld's overconfidence about policing Iraq came from spending hours on their knees before God?); and

(2) The case for arrogance should be made on the basis of the administration's actions, not merely its invocation of God in support.  Perhaps Professor Domke makes the fact-based case in his book; but the op-ed seems to me to reflect an excessive focus on interpreting the minutiae of rhetoric.

Tom B.


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