Democratic Underground

In Heaven as it is on Earth? George W. Bush's Troubling Theocracy

August 17, 2004
By Jeremy Yunt

Putting aside the facts that we never found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (the purported reason for attacking that country) and that Osama Bin Laden is still on the loose, the capture of Saddam Hussein and the supposed recovery of the American economy seem to indicate a streak of good luck for George W. Bush. If you asked him about these recent events you would, of course, get quite a different interpretation.

For just as Bush seems to believe that material success is somehow tied to one's status as a member of God's elect (the thesis German sociologist Max Weber exposed in 1905 in his work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), he also believes that his own policies are guided by the Almighty Himself. Bush's political maneuvers are pure Divine Providence.

If you don't believe this, then just ask televangelist Pat Robertson, one of Bush's chief supporters, and apparently his self-appointed link to God: "I really believe I'm hearing from the Lord that it's going to be a blowout election in 2004. ... The Lord has just blessed him [Bush]. ... It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad; God picks him up because he's a man of prayer, and God's blessing him."

The problem with such a prediction - especially coming from a man like Robertson - is that as a self-proclaimed Christian, Bush's allegiance to the privileged among us just doesn't seem to square with his blatant disregard for those Jesus referred to as "the least among us" - the hundreds of thousands in America in dire need of adequate health care, nutrition, employment, and a perhaps even a warm place to sleep tonight.

Bush's selective reading of the Bible has turned his eye from perhaps Jesus' most potent socioeconomic indictment: The rich will have an easier time getting through the eye of a needle than they will in entering heaven. With his typically rich use of metaphor, Jesus distills for us here an archetypal truth resonating from the earliest times of written history. Greed - the uncontrollable, and often unconscious, fixation on owning and controlling more resources than one can immediately use - is injurious to one's spiritual life.

Greed has clear psychological and physical consequences for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder: economic anxiety, inadequate access to health care and education, and/or a life of toilsome and mind-numbing labor. But as strange as it may sound, those perpetrating these conditions from their favored economic or political position suffer, as well. And one day in the not-so-distant future, what we now refer to somewhat humorously as "affluenza" - the inability to distinguish between true need and insatiable desire - will receive its rightful standing as a bonafide psychological disease.

Basically a dysfunctional relationship with money and the power that accompanies it, the symptoms of affluenza are many and varied: a false sense of entitlement; self-aggrandizement; alienation from, and/or a feeling of superiority over those with less capital or land; an inability to tolerate adverse physical conditions or delayed gratification; an obsessive need to control one's immediate environment; and an indefinable feeling of emptiness no matter how much money is gained or spent. The root of such a disease might be denial and narrow-sightedness, but its inevitable result is an unfounded sense of pride and self-righteousness.

Nowhere does this seem to manifest itself more than in the political and economic agendas of George W. Bush.

His simplistic melding of politics and religion in the service of an elect corporate finance scheme allows him to think that when the rich get richer and the poor poorer, this brightened economic turn is simply a result of God's Will shining down on the deserving. Bush has turned the Gospel on its head. And the right wing radicals funding his mission - whether found on the New York stock floor, sitting on his Cabinet, or rallying from the pulpit - couldn't be happier. It's Social Darwinism at its finest: The fittest surely will survive; that is, as long as Dubya is watching over their interests.

One of the main problems with Bush's quasi-religious ideology is that its logic is circular. When he (and anyone he's anointed with some degree of political and economic stature) stacks up the cards so those who are already on top come out the winners, it should be no surprise when the cards hit the table. Need I say anything more than Enron and Halliburton (of which VP Dick Cheney was CEO) to make this point any clearer? Well, yes, perhaps I should.

It should be no secret by now that one of George W. Bush's central political missions is to make himself and his corporate sponsors money. . . and lots of it. So in assembling his Cabinet after taking the office of the Presidency, he left no business out in the cold - regardless of any glaring conflicts of interest.

Because these Cabinet appointments are supposed to be impartial representatives of the American public's interests (this is a democracy, isn't it), it's worth naming a few of these people and how their personal corporate histories fit into Bush's program of unchecked economic ascendancy:

  • Ann Veneman (Agricultural Secretary), who served on the board of directors of Calgene, the first company to bring a genetically-altered food (the Flavr Savr tomato) to the supermarket;

  • Spencer Abraham (Energy Secretary), a one-term Michigan senator who was the number-one recipient of campaign contributions from the automotive industry, receiving over $700,000 in contributions from GM, Ford, Lear Corporation, and DaimlerChrysler;

  • Tommy Thompson (Health and Human Services Secretary), who as governor of Wisconsin was heavily funded by Philip Morris, Merck, Abbott Laboratories, and Amtrak (a major recipient of taxpayer subsidies);

  • Gale Norton (Interior Secretary), an attorney who represented Delta Petroleum in court, lobbied for NL Industries in lawsuits over child exposure to lead paint, and who served as the National Chairwoman of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates - a group funded by, among others, Ford and oil giant BP Amoco;

  • Condoleeza Rice (National Security Advisor), who sat on Chevron's board and had an oil tanker named after her.

If these appointments don't raise your eyebrows just a little and bring images to mind of the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop, then I don't know what will.

It has always been the fundamental premise of conservatism that the free-market system - marked by increased competition, the logic of supply and demand, and aggressive individualism - is the most hallowed "law" to ever bless our great nation. Why, then, one should ask, does the Bush administration subscribe to a blatant and highly unmitigated corporate welfare system - the exact thing it finds reprehensible on the individual level?

We're suppose to believe that unemployed members of society are social pariahs when they receive a check every month for a few hundred dollars to help them with life's necessities (and, sure there's welfare fraud), but then turn the other way when billions of taxpayer dollars are given to large private corporations and billed as "economic stimulus."

The agriculture sector is one glaring example of this, receiving $35 billion in 2002 for crop subsidies, export subsidies, subsidized insurance, and various research programs. According to the Cato Institute, "Congress and the Bush administration have agreed to a new farm subsidy bill that will cost taxpayers $190 billion during the next decade, despite heavy criticism from analysts across the political spectrum."

Besides costing each American taxpayer considerable amounts of hard-earned money each year, this agricultural policy also causes immense human suffering. Before such subsidies, farmers in underdeveloped nations could compete with American farmers and export their goods just to eke out a meager existence. Now, in gruesome testament to the immorality of Bush's corporate-sponsored agricultural policy, suicide rates among failing farmers in underdeveloped nations is rising at a staggering rate. No matter how Bush twists the logic, it seems the pernicious heart of capitalism cannot be silenced for long.

With such rampant corporate socialism taking place, conservatives still want us to believe that government should exercise the most extreme fiscal efficiency possible. This is what Bush built his campaign on in the 2000 election. And now, less than four years later? We have gone from a record federal surplus under the Clinton administration to a record federal deficit under the Bush administration - and I was no fan of Clinton, either.

While prison construction forges ahead full-speed, corporate CEOs reap pay over 100 times that of their employees, and the military budget seems to have no limit in sight, the average citizen sits back and wonders why they are working harder, relaxing less, and seeing diminishing returns on their hard-earned money. This siphoning of wealth from the middle and lower tiers of society - while simultaneously scapegoating the underclass as an economic drain - is a trademark of conservatism. It's also absolutely counter to the central tenets of the religion George Bush claims to follow.

It's important to remember that the very events leading up to the inception of Christianity were determined by questions and confrontations surrounding religious tradition and political economy. While attacking the material excesses and overly-legalistic tendencies of his own Jewish religious tradition, Jesus disavowed several other specific groups: the Roman Empire (the hoarders and squanderers of peasant wealth), usurers and tax collectors (who extracted wealth from the peasantry for the upper classes and themselves), and the money-changers (who sought to profit from their neighbors without actually producing anything of value to society).

In all these cases, Jesus seems to make one point very clear: There is a spiritual imperative in our seemingly mundane, secular economic relationships. In other words, our material relations with others - and the values we hold that determine them - either foster life, love, material well-being, and equitability, or they deny and destroy them.

Of course, such a message does not sit well with the likes of George Bush. For obvious material reasons, he prefers an otherwordly escapist theology, with its emphasis on personal "virtue" and apocalyptic salvation from the cursed earth to another pure heavenly realm. It's a less complicated and messy worldview for sure, and it certainly lessens the burden of having to actually care for the environment and the less fortunate in society - except, perhaps, for a quick Thanksgiving day meal serving at the local homeless shelter, or a trip to one of our lovely national parks. And what great photo ops those make!

The problem with having a leader who subscribes to an escapist theology is that it has serious consequences for those of us who actually believe that religion has vital implications for the world and our lives in it. Let's go back to the early 1980s for an indispensable example of what I mean.

When Ronald Reagan took office for his first term as President, he chose a man named James Watt as his Interior Secretary - the person responsible for overseeing the stewardship of our national parks, wildernesses, other publicly-owned lands, and the general health of America's environment. Watt was an adherent of "dominion theology," a fundamentalist biblical interpretation which believes the earth is here for humans to subdue and use for whatever purposes it sees fit; that is, as long as such subduing doesn't adversely affect the subduer and his or her immediate desires.

Upon taking his new post, Watt immediately began his crusade to gut environmental laws that had been in place for decades - laws which had firm scientific proof for their effectiveness in protecting our waters, air, human health, and wildlife. The outpouring of protest was swift and formidable. In 1981, not long after taking his post, Watt responded: "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns."

Wow! How do you respond to that sort of logic? If Jesus is coming soon, then why not continue to drive that gas-guzzling SUV? Why not loosen environmental regulations on polluting companies and allow more cancers and birth defects? Fortunately, the pressure was turned up so high that Watt had no choice but to resign his post.

But here we are in the next millennium with mounting scientific evidence as to how humans are altering the environment, and thus our own health, for the worse. And here we are again with a President that couldn't seem to care less. Though he hasn't come right out and reiterated Reagan's conviction that if you've seen one tree you've seen 'em all, he may as well have with the environmental policies he's rushing into law.

From pulling out of the decades-old Kyoto Treaty on global warming, to trying to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, to passing anti-environmental laws with misnomers like the "Clear Skies Initiative" and "Healthy Forests Initiative," President Bush is a true-blue proponent of dominion theology. And, again, his corporate sponsors couldn't be more happy about it.

No matter how you look at it, Bush's theocratic ideology is elementary and parochial, his vision of the future is improvident and life-denying, and the immediate effects of his economic and environmental policies are anxiety-producing. Like a schoolyard bully hiding his insidious intentions behind a boyish grin, Bush wields his political, religious, and economic power like a billy-club to keep people in a state of constant fear. And worse, mass protests around the world against his policies and highly focused opinions of dissent seem to fall on deaf ears - regardless of how large they are (the protests, that is).

In the midst of a degrading environment and billions of people around the globe struggling economically, Bush's egocentric theology threatens the very existence of life on earth. An imminent plan to resuscitate nuclear power - an economic and environmental nightmare put to rest for very, very good reasons - is simply one example of this.

Whereas Native Americans used to make decisions for their tribes by considering the possible effects of those decisions on the next seven generations, with Bush we're lucky if he thinks beyond the next quarterly report of his stock portfolio. Which brings up an interesting question: How can someone like Bush be anti-abortion and assert the sanctity of life for a fetus, yet knowingly create environmental policies that are pushing humanity and unborn generations toward a future with a bleak horizon? Mortal life, it seems, is but a dress rehearsal for a better one beyond the grave.

This sort of fundamentalism is finding widespread favor across the globe because it is able to lay down a simple path of deliverance to an ultimate goal: if one acts this way and believes these things, then one will prevail. If not... well, we all know where that path leads. In such a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, religion is reduced to two simplistic, ego-centered focuses: relentless moralizing and an obsession with a personal, supra-cosmic salvation.

Unfortunately, one of the first casualties of this theology is the ability for one to make connections between personal religious views and the way these views can support systemic economic, sociopolitical, and environmental oppression. From the religious perspective, it is possible to say that our very neglect of the concrete suffering right in front of us - in this time - will bring suffering beyond, or above, time. In fact, with a proper reading of the world's religious traditions we find this teaching almost universally. Take the Buddhist concept of karma. What we do in this life in relationship with others does, in fact, affect our being, our soul, in the next - however we may conceive of that realm or state of mind.

The point all religions attempt to make is that we are not isolated, separate individuals, for we all share in a common destiny. The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich put it this way: "The reunion with the eternal from which we come, from which we are separated, and to which we shall return, is promised to everything that is. We are saved not as individuals, but in unity with all others and with the universe."

Can you imagine how such a universal, and earth-loving, understanding of salvation might radically alter our relationship with each other and our world? I certainly can, but only if we reclaim the true meaning of salvation, which comes from the Latin word salvus: healed or made whole. Salvation is a concept embracing both the temporal and the nontemporal, the personal and the social. If it does not come in this life, it does not come at all.

For many people, religion is a force for positive change against the sorts of economic and political injustices perpetrated by the Bush administration. Many people pray, fast, gather in churches to worship, volunteer their time to help the less fortunate, the environment, or animals, and ultimately work towards embodying the teachings of their religion's founder - be it the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed, or Confucius.

For these people there is a conscious recognition that one person's efforts can matter not only to his or herself, but to the world as a whole - to the living and to the unborn. Their religious acts are based on a belief that in becoming a moral person one is actualizing the very best, most essential part of their human nature. For them, the moral act is not practiced for hopes of gaining a reward; being moral is the reward itself.

For the sake of this beautiful world, it's time we reinterpret and redefine the very nature of religion. Its time we rediscover its potential for promoting real well-being for all people and for our planet. Let's give George a ride back to Texas later this year. I'll gladly donate the plane ticket.

Jeremy Yunt is a scholar and screenwriter with a Master's in Ethics and Depth Psychology. Among others, his writing appears in Philosophy Now (UK), The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, the Mill Valley Literary Review, and the Santa Barbara News-Press. He can be reached at jyunt@verizon.net.

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