Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Is Bush influenced by 'end times' theology?

ASK THIS | August 09, 2006

All anyone can know about Bush’s religiosity is the pattern and implications of his statements, writes Prof. Ira Chernus of the University of Colorado. ‘What he “really believes” is something we can never know.’

By Ira Chernus

Q. Joel C. Rosenberg, who writes Christian apocalyptic fiction, was invited to meet with aides in the White House. How highly placed were these aides and do they have any real influence on U.S. foreign policy, especially Middle East policy?

Q. What do President Bush and his most influential advisors on foreign policy really think about apocalyptic “end times” theology? Is there any convincing evidence that Bush or any influential policymakers are influenced by such theological views? 

Q. How does Bush square his purported emotional attachment to Israel, supposedly triggered by his 1998 visit there, with his overt expressions of disinterest in the Middle East conflict before the 9/11 attack?

Q. How much influence do fundamentalist Christians who espouse apocalyptic “end times” theology have in the White House? In particular, how influential is Rev. John Hagee’s Christians United For Israel? Do Republican strategists think these fundamentalists are so politically crucial that the administration shapes its Middle East policy to please them?   

Q. What do the leading neoconservatives think about apocalyptic “end times” theology? Does that, or any other aspect of Christian theology, influence their foreign policy views at all? 

Religion is an important component of the Bush administration, at least in its public face. But the subject has to be addressed carefully. The conservative Christian world is a very complicated place. Most Christian conservatives are evangelicals (though many evangelicals are not politically conservative). They say they use the Bible as a guide for life, but they don’t necessarily take it literally. Those who do take it literally are fundamentalists. They’re a distinct minority among evangelicals. In Christian circles, that distinction is crucial. Even fundamentalists have to interpret the text of the Bible (though they may deny it). So they hold a wide variety of views about the end of history and the second coming of Christ. Evangelicals have an even wider variety of views.  

Press reports indicate that many people who work in the White House hold conservative Christian views. We would be well served if journalists who understand these theological nuances could get White House staffers to talk about their theological views. Of course we also need to know how much influence a particular staffer has in the policymaking process. The White House is a big place, and it is possible that none of this interest in apocalyptic theology ever gets near the Oval Office.

Indeed, President Bush’s past record suggests that he’s being honest when he denies interest in apocalypticism. It’s true that he talks the language of stark moral dualism when it comes to foreign affairs, and that’s one mark of apocalypticism. But it’s only one mark. His elaborate statements about his religious beliefs have always omitted most of the other key marks. Surely he’s heard plenty of people espouse this aspect of Christian theology, but he has publicly distanced himself from it quite consistently.

Of course in all this it’s important to remember that all anyone can ever know is the pattern and implications of Bush’s public language about religion. What he “really believes” is something we can never know.

The people who seem to have the president's ear on foreign policy – Cheney, Rice, Hadley, etc. – have not shown much interest in Christian religion at all, so it’s hardly likely that they are influenced by apocalypticism. But it’s a matter that hasn’t been investigated, and it should be.

The story about Bush’s supposedly emotional visit to Israel in 1998 may reflect his true experience, or it may be a story embellished for political purposes. Until 1999, when Bush's presidential campaign kicked into high gear, his religious views were not a subject brought out in public, (though his trip to Israel did get one day’s front page coverage). Then in the spring of 1999 front-page articles appeared in the leading Houston and Dallas papers explaining the whole package of Bush’s religious views, the same views he has expressed consistently since then. So all investigation of religion in the Bush White House has to keep in mind both the reality of Bush’s deep involvement in evangelical life since the late ‘80s and the reality of political packaging. The same goes for investigation of his personal attachment to Israel -- especially since he seemed to be eager to avoid any involvement in Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors before the 9/11 attack.

There’s a common view that the White House has to give Israeli policies unstinting support to satisfy its base, the Christian conservatives who rabidly support Israeli policies. Though that faction of Republicans is well-organized and has an effective PR machine, it’s not clear how much political clout they can actually wield. (The much ballyhooed influence of the “Christian right” in the 2004 election was probably rather overstated.) As with some domestic social issues, the White House may be giving them lip service while largely ignoring their lobbying when policy is actually made.

It seems likely that the most influential ideology driving Middle East policy now, as it has been throughout this administration, still comes from neoconservative circles. Though the neocons share a lot of broad ideological ground with conservative Christians (moral dualism, a fear of “moral relativism,” a demand to identify evil and show strength against it, some kind of belief in original sin, etc.), few neocons would hold anything like the apocalyptic “end times” views of many fundamentalists. While most neocons see organized religion as a positive force and they ally with conservative Christians for political purposes, the language neocons speak is quite different from conservative Christian language in many respects. They’re really a different ideological animal.

How Bush puts his own brand of Christianity and the neoconservatism of his advisors together in his own mind is a question journalists should investigate. But it will probably take historians of a future generation to shed any real light on it, and even they may well come up with a blank. There’s no evidence that Bush has much interest in thinking about these issue theoretically. He has told interviewers that he makes decisions on a gut basis, not by applying concepts he has thought through in advance. That’s probably true. Nevertheless, the more journalists understand about religion, the better they can interpret the policies of this White House to the public.

Posted by Stephen Smoliar -
08/08/2006, 05:44 PM

Perhaps the issue is not whether or not the Bible is being taken literally but whether ANY text is assumed to have exactly one literal interpretation. There seems to be a tendency to reduce everything to a "one true reading" of a text or situation, which locks out any possibility for argumentation. In other words any theological bias is a symptom of a broader and more pernicious malady. Further discussion can be found at:
http://blog.360.yahoo.com/blog-Mff23hgidqmHGqbcv.l ...

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.