When The President Sees Himself As God’s Delivery Boy: Matthew Rothschild

This speech was delivered on Oct. 30, 2004, in Madison, Wis., at the 27th annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By Matthew Rothschild

I want to salute the Freedom From Religion Foundation for all the good work that you’ve done over these last two and a half decades. I also want to salute everyone here for your courage, because it takes great personal courage in a country where anywhere between 85% to 93% of the people of this country identify themselves as believers, where 42% of the American people believe that they’re born-again Christians, where people hold these beliefs so strongly that when you tell them that you are an atheist or an agnostic, they shower you with disdain, to say the least.

I was on a radio show here in Madison a little while back on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s beatification, and I was criticizing the former president and suggesting that he should have been impeached for Iran-Contra, and suggesting that he wasn’t this great moral leader, that he had waged this illegal war in Central America that cost 80,000 lives. I got a call from someone who said, “You know, I think Reagan’s passing was part of a larger plan, part of God’s plan.”

I said, “Well, I’m an atheist, so I don’t really believe that was part of God’s plan.” It was like that person had never heard anyone stand up in public and say they were an atheist. It wasn’t my criticisms of Reagan, my criticisms of Iran-Contra, my suggestion that he should have been impeached, my suggestion that he was a mass murderer, that got this person so upset. It was my suggestion that there wasn’t a god.

So we have all that to fight against. You, really, are the people that the First Amendment is for. You are the people that our founders had in mind when they created the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment, because our founders were fighting not only against kings, but against the imposition of religious beliefs, against the church. That is a really essential American doctrine–that we do not have to believe in the divine right of kings, that we as citizens can elect our own leaders, and that we don’t have to take the imposition of religion from on top. The first words of the First Amendment are so precious, “that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” That is the Establishment Clause that should prevent our leaders from imposing their religious beliefs upon us.

Unfortunately, today, we have a president who does impose his religious beliefs upon us. And I want to suggest to you how far we’ve slid down the hill since 1960, when President Kennedy was running for office. He gave a very famous speech, saying how important he thought the separation between church and state was. Kennedy used the adjective “absolute”: “I believe the separation of church and state is absolute.” He said no prelate should tell any candidate how that candidate should vote on any particular issue, and that no public funds should go to any church or to any church school.

We’ve come a long way, a very long way from that day, and we got to fight our way back up that hill. Right now, with Bush, it’s particularly tricky, because here is a guy who really actually does believe that God put him in the Oval Office, when in actual fact we know it was William Rehnquist and four of his cronies. Bush actually said in his campaign biography four years ago, subtly entitled, A Charge to Keep, that God put him in the governor’s mansion of Texas. He thinks ever since he recovered from alcoholism that God has been charting out his path and telling him where to go and what to do.

That is a tough thing for me as a nonbeliever to accept. It’s a tough thing for me as someone who believes deeply in the separation between church and state to accept. It’s a tough thing for me as a creature of the Enlightenment, as a fan of the Enlightenment, to believe, because we are fighting really the war of the Enlightenment again. We’re fighting against forces of irrationality, and we need to fight for secularism and for rationality.

David Frum, who was a speechwriter for Bush and claims to have come up with the phrase, “Axis of Evil,” has a book out called The Right Man (George W. Bush is “the right man”). He says the first time he went into the White House and saw George Bush, the first statement that Bush gave to him was, “Missed you at bible study.” He said that to understand the White House, you must understand its predominant pre-modern evangelicalism. Fundamentalism is fundamental to this White House. It’s what the leaders in the White House believe, and it’s what the strategists are intent on doing, which is to drive as many rightwing evangelicals as possible to the polls.

Whenever Bush uses the word “values,” he’s not talking about don’t lie, be an honest person, be a decent person, be a compassionate person, be a fair person. He’s talking about religious values. So this whole “values” notion is just a code for religion.

Bush still believes, and said so on the campaign trail in July in Lancaster, Penn., to a group of Amish people, “God speaks through me.” That’s a direct quote. The great humorist Molly Ivins, who writes for The Progressive every month, said, “That’s a kind of a strange thing for the president to say, because I thought God could conjugate subject and verb better.”

It is quite something to have a president who thinks he has a direct link with God, and that he’s acting on it. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that line, though, because I’ve read Bob Woodward’s two books about Bush–not the greatest books–but they reflect what the president wants to say. Bush said, “There’s a value system that cannot be compromised, God-given values.” This runs right through the administration’s policies, through its domestic policies and its international policies. I want to talk a little bit about both.

Domestically, we see it obviously in the opposition to stem cell research–research that could save millions of Americans suffering from diabetes or Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a host of diseases. I think almost every American has a relative or a friend or a father or a mother or a son or a daughter or a spouse who suffers from one of these diseases and could be helped to live by stem cell research. Bush opposes it, and he opposes it for religious reasons.

Same thing with same-sex marriage. I once was on a radio program on Wisconsin Public Radio, with Steve King, former head of the Wisconsin Republican party. The issue of same-sex marriage came up, as it has a lot this year. I put it to him that there’s no rational secular reason why two gay men who’ve been together for 20 years can’t go get married and enjoy the benefits of marriage that Britney Spears can get when she runs off to Las Vegas on a whim. I tried to explain that there’s this Establishment Clause, we shouldn’t have religion imposed upon us, and Steve King says, “Well, you know, down there in Madison, it might be a rational secular society, but we’re a God-fearing country.” I tried to point out that he was proving my point, but he didn’t want to hear that.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of choice, the issue of abortion. I was listening to one of the presidential debates, and Bush said he wanted to appoint someone to the Supreme Court who would interpret the Constitution as it was literally written and not impose his own views. He said something about the Dred Scott decision. I’m just sitting there in my living room thinking: “What the hell is he talking about here?”

First, he couldn’t explain what the Dred Scott decision was. He barely got it out of his mouth. He obviously had been told to mention the Dred Scott decision, but couldn’t figure out that it was a pro-slavery decision that verified the Missouri Compromise. But he said it for a reason, or he was told to say it for a reason. I wrote up something the next day, ignorant as I was about what the message was, and said, you know, Bush was out to lunch on the Dred Scott decision. Turns out he wasn’t out to lunch. He was sending a direct message to his antiabortion followers, because in the rightwing evangelical antiabortion movement, the Dred Scott decision has become a code for being antiabortion. They compare Dred Scott to Roe v. Wade. They say Roe v. Wade is the modern-day Dred Scott. Having someone with the freedom of choice is equivalent in their minds to having a slave. Now, if you’re a descendant of the slave, I can imagine that you wouldn’t be too happy with that analogy, but that was the analogy. And the reason they oppose abortion is a religious-based reason.

They’re also imposing this notion of faith-based social programs. Reference President Kennedy’s line about not giving public money to religious institutions or religious schools. Bush has completely disregarded that, and done quite the opposite.

I was at a synagogue in Chicago about a year ago on some panel on civil liberties, Ashcroft and the New McCarthyism. Up onstage there was a leading reform rabbi and also one of Ashcroft’s deputies. Now, you know about Ashcroft. He was in the hospital earlier this year with some intestinal trouble. I saw his medical charts–he was there because he ate the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment, the 14th Amendment.

But anyway, his deputy was saying, “Those insensitive people who oppose the policy of the government, the ability of the government to give money to churches and synagogues to carry on faith-based programs, what they are doing is nothing less than trying to impose the religion of secularism.”

That’s how twisted, that’s how Orwellian it’s become.

I call Bush’s foreign policy “messianic militarism,” because he does believe that he’s on a “crusade.” It slipped out of his mouth, didn’t it? Ignorant as he is of the history of the Middle East and what the Crusades actually did there, he does believe he’s on a crusade. He in a sense believes that God is his Secretary of State, God is his Secretary of Defense. According to the Haaretz newspaper in Israel, he told the Palestinian negotiators–that fleeting moment when he was concerning himself with the crisis in the occupied territories and the conflict between Israel and Palestine–that “God told me to go to war against Afghanistan, and God told me to go to war against Saddam Hussein, and now God wants me to make peace between you and the Israelis.” Evidently God has stopped telling him that, because he’s stopped trying to make peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is quite an astonishing thing for the president to be waving that God card at every opportunity.

Another thing about this conflict between Israel and Palestine that relates to the question of messianic militarism: This I couldn’t believe until I read it in The Village Voice. You remember Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra days, Elliot Abrams who is a convicted felon for lying to Congress and then was pardoned by George the First? Abrams is now in the National Security Council of the current Bush administration. When Sharon was cooking up this idea of unilaterally withdrawing from the settlements of Gaza but to keep building the settlements on the West Bank, Bush wanted to endorse that, but there was a problem. The problem wasn’t that this is totally against the peace plan, that this totally aces out the Palestinians, that they no longer have a voice in their future. No, that wasn’t the issue at all. The issue, for the Bush administration, was how is this going to fly with rightwing evangelicals in the United States?

So Elliot Abrams was dispatched not only to go to Israel and talk to Sharon, but to the United States to talk to apocalyptic Christian groups, and to try to assuage their fears that by Israel giving up the West Bank, that the Bush administration would not be getting in the way of the Apocalypse and of the rapture.

Then there, of course, is the war on terror. On Sept. 20, 2001, at the national cathedral, George W. Bush gave his famous speech. “God is not neutral,” he said. His speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who is a rightwing evangelical, in an act of sycophancy, watched the speech on TV and then called up the president, and said, “Mr. President, when I saw you on television giving that speech, I knew at that moment that God meant you to be in the Oval Office.” When hit with this flattery, what did the president say? He didn’t say, “Don’t suck up to me, flattery will get you nowhere.” That’s not what he said at all. What he said was, “Gerson, God wants us all to be where we are right now.”

Bush believes that he is the liberator. He believes he’s liberated 25 million people in Afghanistan. He believes he’s liberated 25 million people in Iraq. He said in his State of the Union speech in January that “we are delivering the gift of freedom to the people of Iraq. But it is not our gift to deliver, it is the gift of God Almighty.” So he views himself as God’s little efficient delivery boy. He views himself as God’s UPS man. He is delivering the goods for God. That’s the role that he has carved out for himself.

I want to suggest how inappropriate that role is. It is profoundly undemocratic. It is profoundly unAmerican in the context of the First Amendment, in the context of what our founders had in mind for this country. It’s almost an inarguable proposition to say, “God wants me to do that.” How do you dispute that? I guess you could counter by saying, “No, I heard from God, and he says no.”

Other than that, you can’t really have a discussion. Or you can consult holy text and read them differently, but you can’t do it rationally, you can’t do it democratically. So that’s a real problem.

There’s a bigger problem than that, though. At this particular moment, who is our enemy? The enemy who struck the United States is Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. And who is Osama bin Laden and who is al-Qaida, except fundamentalists? People who believe that they themselves are getting the word from on-high to go attack Americans and Jews anywhere they can. Just yesterday, bin Laden was invoking God and God’s wish to punish America. So why in the world should George W. Bush engage in a tug-of-war with Osama bin Laden and have God be the rope? That is not the argument we should be having. This is the time for secular discussions, it’s not the time for having General Boykin say, “Our god is bigger than your god.”

And yet that’s what it seems to boil down to with this group in the White House. “We know that God’s on our side, we know that God is not neutral, we’re going to rid the world of evil.” If you counted up every time Bush used the word “evil” or “evil-doers” and gave yourself a dollar, you’d be a rich person.

It’s just not the debate we should be having. We should be winning people over by showing how barbaric Osama bin Laden has been, and by showing that it’s not right to kill civilian people, it’s not right to invoke God as a way to kill people. The even larger problem, though, is that when you believe, as bin Laden does, and as Bush does (though I don’t believe they’re equivalent) that God is telling you what to do, you become deaf to the casualties. It’s okay for bin Laden to kill 3,000 on Sept. 11, because that’s God’s wish. Or Bush, when he’s “liberating” the people of Iraq, and delivering God’s gift, it’s okay that the United States has killed 100,000 people. You don’t see the suffering, or you discount the suffering of people, when you believe that you are carrying out God’s instructions, because after all this is what God wants. It’s God’s plan. And yeah, it’s too bad some people are dying, but it’s for a good reason, it’s for a divine reason.


Matt Rothschild
Photo by Brent Nicastro

And so I worry. I worry very much about what’s going on in this country. I worry about another four years of Bush and what that might mean. I worry that maybe he’ll wake up one morning in March 2005 and say, “I’m getting the word here, God wants me to go to war against North Korea.” It’s interesting that in one of those Woodward books, North Korea comes up and in it Bush says, “I loathe Kim Jung-Il.” Woodward reports this is the most animated Bush got in the hours upon hours that he spent with the president. That he practically jumped out of his chair at the very mention of Kim Jung-Il, and said, “This guy is killing or starving 500,000 people in his country, it’s godless communism over there, and I know my advisors are telling me that if there’s a conflict over there that the economy of South Korea may be ruined because North Koreans are going to overrun it, it’ll be like West Germany and East Germany coming together and how bad that was with the economy there, but I don’t buy that,” Bush said. “And maybe it’s because of my religious beliefs,” he added. I take him at his word. It’s a very scary group.

I don’t know how many of you read The New York Times Magazine cover story from a couple of weeks ago by Ron Suskind, who wrote the book about Paul O’Neill. Not only are they deaf to the harm that they’re causing in the White House right now, they have this idea, this hubris, this chutzpah, that is almost incalculable, almost immeasurable. A senior White House advisor is telling Ron Suskind, who used to be a foreign reporter for The Wall Street Journal, that: “Look, you guys aren’t in the reality-based community anymore.”

It used to be, you’d insult someone if you said, “Boy, you don’t have your feet in reality, pal. What world do you live in? Get back in the real world.” But no, with these guys, it’s a plus not to be in the real world. They think it’s great not to be in the reality-based community. This senior advisor to the Bush Administration was saying, “We are an empire now. We create our own reality. All you can do in the reality-based community is study what we do. We create your reality. While you’re studying that reality, we’re going to go create another reality and you’re going to study that. And while you’re studying that, we’re going to go create a third reality. We are history’s agents,” he said, “and all you can do in the reality-based community is study us.”

This is the kind of arrogance, this is the imperiousness of power, the likes of which we haven’t seen since we read the Shelley poem Ozymandias. These people really are drunk with power. And when you’re that drunk with power, you can do a whole lot of damage, especially when you’re the most powerful country in the world. We’re seeing some of that harm right now in Iraq. I would be remiss not to talk about the Iraq war for a little bit because the Iraq war has killed not only up to 100,000 Iraqis, but 1,100 US soldiers and wounded 8,000 other US soldiers, 5,000 of whom had been wounded just since April. Wrap yourselves around that. Bush’s war is wounding almost 1,000 US soldiers a month.

We have this battle for the First Amendment, this battle for keeping the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. We also have the battle of fighting the forces of irrationality everywhere in this country. We’re fighting for the Enlightenment. But we also have to get over the American superiority complex that “we are the greatest country in the world,” that we were put on the face of this earth by God to go deliver the gift of freedom, or whatever gift we’re delivering these days. Bush has this in spades, but it’s not just Bush who feels that way. Many other presidents have felt that way or at least talked that way. Commander-in-chief is one role, mythmaker-in-chief is another.

We also have to get over being an empire. That Bush aide was right when he said, “We are an empire.” This Iraq war, in some biological way, is but the national offspring of the abusive father that is the US empire, and we have got to apprehend that father, we got to slap a restraining order upon that abusive father, and we got to take that abusive father to detox as well and get him over the addiction to that black liquid oil. [Applause] I mean, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

And while we’re doing this work, it can–I hate to quote the president, but–“be hard work.” We’re perfectly capable of doing it. I know everyone here is.

There is a concern I have, and that is the concern of despair. That things get so hard, the obstacles are so high, especially at this moment, that people feel almost a sense of despondency. I’ve been telling people in the psychiatric community that they should clear their calendars after Nov. 2 if the election doesn’t turn out the way they want or expect or their patients expect, because they’re going to be getting a lot of walk-ins on Nov. 3, 4, 5.

At these moments, I take comfort in one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden, writing in September 1939, another very dark time–a darker period. We need to get over the fact that this is the worst time that’s ever been in the United States. Bush traffics on that. He wants us to feel that it’s never been more dangerous here in the United States than it is now. Cheney does, too. Cheney’s slogan is “vote for us or die,” or “vote for us or you’re going to get irradiated by a nuclear weapon.” They want us to keep feeling this fear. In Bush’s speeches, one after another, you can see it. You can go to whitehouse.gov and just type in the word “oceans” and “Sept. 11.” Put those two things together and I bet you’ll get 30 references to Bush saying in speech after speech after speech, “After Sept. 11, we are no longer protected by our oceans. Before Sept. 11, we all knew that the oceans protected us.” This is the myth of prior innocence.

Of course, the myth is false, the oceans never protected the United States in the war of 1812, the oceans didn’t protect the United States on Pearl Harbor Day, the oceans didn’t protect the United States any day of the Cold War after the Soviet Union got intercontinental ballistic missiles. And the oceans weren’t protecting us on Sept. 10, 2001, when Russia still had (and still has) thousands of nuclear missiles that can hit the United States within 15 minutes.

So you ask yourself as I do, “What’s Bush talking about?” And it’s too easy to say, “Oh, the guy’s an idiot.” First of all, I don’t think he’s as stupid as he appears. He is aggressively anti-intellectual, boastfully anti-intellectual. He appeals, though, to that strain of anti-intellectualism that is so much a part of our history and our people’s mentality. But more than that, what he is trying to do is say, “This is the worst time ever. You gotta be scared, you better be scared, and you better be so scared that you’re going to turn over your civil liberties, and your affections and your votes, to us.” That’s what the ocean metaphor is about.

So Auden says in September 1939, “Our world in stupor lies.” And then he adds at the very end, “May we, beleaguered by the same negation and despair, show an affirming flame.”

Yes, we are beleaguered by negation. What could be a bigger act of negation than the flying of those planes into those towers on Sept. 11? That was negation and nihilism at its height. Then we’ve had four years of negation of progress here with this Bush administration. Then we have this sense of despair that we all feel when we look at what’s going on in Iraq. So how do we get over it?

Auden says we need to show an affirming flame. What is the affirming flame? The affirming flame is what is great about this country, and that’s not a $500 billion Pentagon budget, and it’s not 10,000 nuclear weapons, and it’s not the fact that we’re 5% of the world’s population, yet consume 25% of the world’s resources with our massive economy. The thing that is great about our country is the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment.

I applaud you for fighting for it, and I will fight for it with you in the years to come.

Matthew Rothschild is editor of The Progressive Magazine, published in Madison, Wis., a leading voice for peace and social justice. A graduate of Harvard, he joined The Progressive staff in 1983 and became its editor in 1994. He tallies civil liberties infringements with his “McCarthyism Watch,” hosts Progressive Radio, a syndicated weekly half-hour program, and does weekday radio commentaries.

He is co-founder and director of The Progressive Media Project, which, since 1993, distributes opinion pieces to newspapers around the country. He has appeared on Nightline, NPR, and is regularly interviewed around the country.

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