“Bush: Soldiers Live Out Gospel,” the front-page headline nearly screamed at me. No doubt many other readers of my local small town newspaper took it in stride: just one more droplet in the endless cascade of news every morning, most of it rolling harmlessly down the mental drain into oblivion.
But I’m enough of a believer in “the unconscious” to be convinced that such headlines affect us more than we think—much like the photographs in the newspaper—subliminally, in ways we do not know or understand. And they stick with us long after the content of the story (if we even bother to read it) has gone down that mental drain.
To be fair to the president, neither he nor his staff wrote that headline. And the Associated Press sent the little article out to the world under a more innocuous headline: “Bush Honors Military in Easter Message.” But someone at my local newspaper was smart enough to pick out the most powerful emotional hook in the piece and turn that into the eye-catching headline.
Since I’ve been studying presidential speeches for a long time, I impulsively ran to www.whitehouse.gov to get the full text, which the president read as his weekly radio address on the day before Easter. I don’t know how many people actually listen to these short weekly radio addresses. My hunch is that it’s more than those of us sheltered in university-town enclaves might think.
Here’s a bit of what Bush said: Easter is a time when we “pause to remember a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world.” He went on to thank “our troops on the front lines” for “the sacrifices that they and their families are making.” Then he praised “those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom,” saying they “have lived out the words of the Gospel: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’” Finally, he praised the millions at home who “feed the hungry and clothe the needy and care for the widow and the orphan. Many of them are moved to action by their faith in a loving God who gave His son so that sin would be forgiven. And in this season of renewal, millions across the world remember the gift that took away death’s sting and opened the door to eternal life.”
For those of us who like to sink our teeth into such stuff, this is rich fare indeed. There’s a whole systematic political theology embedded in these few sentences. I could imagine one of my students writing a whole thesis on it. I would advise that student to start by asking: Who exactly are the “friends” for whom over 4,000 U.S. warriors have laid down their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Let’s stick to the text, I’d say (in good academic fashion). The first clue it gives us is that they have died “for the cause of freedom.” So presumably the “friends” for whom they died are people whose freedom they were gaining, or protecting? In the former case, obviously we are supposed to think of Iraqis and Afghans. In the latter case, of course, it’s we, the people of the United States. In the context of Bush’s whole corpus of rhetoric, there is no meaningful difference between the two.
But my student knows enough about New Testament theology to grasp the larger point. The verse from the Gospel of John that Bush quoted comes in a passage where Christ is urging the disciples to imitate him, to lay down their lives for friends because that’s what he is about to do. By crediting our war dead with “living out the word of the Gospel,” Bush is actually saying that their deaths were imitations of Christ. This is an ancient theme in U.S. history, going back at least as far as the Revolutionary War and resurrected in every war to provide a sacral legitimation for the ultimate sacrifice.
But here it serves a more specific purpose. By spelling out a Christian understanding of Christ’s death, Bush is implicitly applying that understanding to the wars he has initiated. He is equating the “freedom” he claims to be achieving and protecting through war with the forgiveness of sin and eternal life. So the freedom that we might have thought was just a political category becomes, in addition, freedom from the wages of sin, which is death. Now my student really has something interesting to work with—for a long, long time.
Many are eager to know whether Bush really believes the words he says. I’m convinced that we will never know. Presidents give Easter messages every year, just as they give Christmas and Thanksgiving and Rosh Hashanah messages. It’s a time-honored ritual. How much does the president actually contribute to the text of such a message, rather than merely reading what a staff writer has worked up for the occasion? We can answer that question for presidents long gone, once their archives are opened. I know that President Eisenhower, for example, took these messages somewhat seriously and often edited them in his own hand, because I’ve seen the original documents. I imagine it varies quite a bit from one president to another.
I also know, from a bit of research in Texas, that Bush spoke relatively little about his religious views in his two campaigns for governor of Texas. Then in the spring of 1999, just as he was gearing up to run for president, the two major newspapers in his state ran front page stories, about a month apart, detailing his religious life and beliefs in much the same words he would continue to use throughout his campaigns and his presidency. One is tempted to think that the whole package was prepared from the start.
That doesn’t mean it is false or hypocritical. It is well established that Bush was going to Bible study regularly in the 1980s, before he had any announced any political aspirations. And people who attended those Bible classes with him seemed to think he was genuinely converted to an evangelical brand of Christianity. Perhaps the most astute comment came from one of his relatives who suggested that Bush, like most politicians, can no longer distinguish between what he really believes and what he says just to score political points.
Talking about “our soldiers” living out the Gospel certainly does score political points. The most interesting question is not whether Bush really believes all this, but why voters are so eager to hear it, and what they actually hear. We have very little research on that question to guide our understanding.
But whatever the answers, John McCain’s campaign strategists apparently want their man to follow in Bush’s footsteps. The campaign’s latest video, celebrating the anniversary of McCain’s release from a North Vietnamese military prison, ends with the candidate saying: “The only reason why I’m here today is because I believe a higher being has a mission for me in my life.” As McCain moves to garner right-wing support, will he transition from vague references to “a higher being” to overt Christian theological claims about the salvific effects of serving in the US military in wartime?
The almighty focus group only knows.