Bush, the Bible, and Iraq

What scares so many people outside the U.S. is the President's religious, apocalyptic rhetoric. Is he really ready for Armageddon? Not likely

By Stan Crock

Two reasons have surfaced for the deep divisions over Iraq that have created a political chasm between the U.S. and allies such as France, Germany, and Russia. One is that other nations oppose what they see as an unprovoked war. The second is that they view the threat Baghdad poses to the world as far less ominous than the one the Bush Administration imagines.

A third factor is also at work, though: religious rhetoric, perhaps even fervor, which divides the President and many of those who voted for him from leading thinkers abroad, including those in some Western democracies. As European nations become more secular, they're increasingly suspicious of a country with a born-again Christian President, whose political base includes the majority of non-Arab fundamentalists in the U.S. British playwright Harold Pinter spotlighted this suspicion when he recently called Bush "a hired Christian thug."

Iraq plays into these concerns like no other issue. One reason is that fundamentalist Christian doctrine envisions a horrific conflict, the Biblical Armageddon, as the way to hasten the return of Jesus and the Millennium -- not the 21st century, but a thousand years of enlightenment that Jesus will return to preside over, according to the Good Book. And guess where Armageddon is supposed to take place.

"GOD IS NOT NEUTRAL."

  President Bush's constant talk about evil and evildoers fuels concern even in countries outside the Middle East that an apocalyptic vision based on such Bible stories underlies his strategy in Iraq. In a recent Washington Post article, Fritz Ritsch, pastor of the Bethesda (Md.) Presbyterian Church, expressed concern that Bush had become the "theologian in chief."

While supporters say the President's moral clarity is a good thing, divisions among the Christian clergy over a war in Iraq suggest that the issue is a complicated one theologically. And Ritsch is troubled that Bush doesn't see the complexity. He notes that Bush has said: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know God is not neutral between them."

Beyond the President's broad-brush notions of good and evil lies a more complicated dogma that many of his supporters subscribe to -- though it's far from clear that Bush himself does. These beliefs were outlined in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Paul S. Boyer, a history professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. Boyer pointed out that the school of biblical prophesy, formulated by 19th century British churchman John Darby, foresees a series of events signaling the last days of the world as we know it. These events include war, the emergence of a new world economic and political order, and the return of Jews to the land God promised Abraham.

A RESHAPED WORLD.

  The "Left Behind" series of best-selling books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has updated and popularized this dogma. While millions of people in the U.S. and abroad may accord these prophesies no more credibility than they grant to Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter, many others fear that they're a call to action for the President and the fundamentalists among his followers -- just as many Americans imagine that the Koran provides a blueprint for Islamic fundamentalists.

Such logic is quite a stretch, of course, given Darby's unearthly version of how the world will be reshaped. According to Boyer, that starts with a "dispensation" phase, loosely defined as the here and now, which will evolve into the Rapture, when true believers "will join Christ in the air." Then will come Tribulation, when the Antichrist will arise and seize world power. From the days of Saladin, a medieval Islamic ruler, to the Ottoman Empire, and now to the era of Saddam Hussein, some Christians have viewed Islamic leaders as a possible Antichrist or its forerunner.

After seven years under this satanic figure's tyrannical rule, Christ and the saints -- presumably represented by George Bush & Co. -- will return and conquer the powers of evil at Armageddon, an ancient battlefield outside of Haifa in northern Israel, not far from Iraq. Ensconced in Jerusalem, Christ will then reign peacefully for a thousand years, the Millennium. (Darby's theory has the Antichrist slaughtering most Jews, as Saddam probably would like to, with the rest converting to Christianity. In the eyes of a non-American, this might explain why Jewish neo-conservatives are among the strongest supporters of Bush's Iraq policy). By Stan Crock

THE ANTICHRIST'S VEHICLE?

  In foreign lands, it's a short leap from such thinking to the conclusion that Bush is the religion-crazed bad guy in the Iraq crisis. If you accept that view, the determination of Israel's Likud Party to expand Israeli settlements means the Jews are returning to Judea and Samaria, the territory God promised Abraham. And now, with the U.N. balking at Bush's wishes, even some among America's allies worry that the Christian right -- and maybe even the President himself -- see the U.N. as the vehicle for the Antichrist's world order.

The only thing remaining to complete John Darby's prophecy is the war. It's no surprise that in a Feb. 26 debate in the British Parliament, George Galloway, a Labor Party backbencher from Scotland, declared that "that born-again, right-wing, Bible-belting, fundamentalist Republican Administration in the United States want war."

That sentiment is no doubt a reaction to the words created for Bush by his chief speech writer, Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian. Historian Boyer notes that when Bush said in his State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein could unleash "a day of horror like none we have ever known," the President not only played on memories of September 11 but also invoked "a powerful and ancient apocalyptic vocabulary that for millions of [Christian] prophecy believers conveys a specific and thrilling message of an approaching end -- not just of Saddam, but of human history as we know it" -- complete with the return of Jesus to lead a much-expanded flock.

NOT ALL NUT JOBS.

  It's true that a President sending political messages to a key constituency isn't the same as a President basing a strategy on a messianic vision. But European geopolitical strategists with long ties to the U.S. -- people who can't be dismissed as nut jobs -- are convinced that religious beliefs are the primary motivation for the Bush Administration.

I don't agree. Few of Bush's aides share his particular brand of faith. One of the Administration's leading strategists on Iraq and elsewhere, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, is Jewish. I can't see Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a Princeton grad from Chicago, speaking in tongues as he talks to General Tommy Franks about war plans.

The President may use biblical language to justify and explain his position, but the Bible itself isn't the basis for his strategy. After all, the Darby theory's Recapture hasn't occurred yet, so the timeline is far away from Armageddon. In any event, if Bush really accepted the prophecy, he would believe that none of this is in human hands, but rather in God's, so the President could do nothing to advance the Millennium (for an examination on what does motivate Bush, see my Feb. 6 column, "Why Bush Is in a Rush to Boot Saddam").

The problem is that even as the President's words strengthen his ties to his political base at home, they corrode relations with important elites and publics abroad. Unless you understand the religious undercurrents at work in the current crisis, you can't fully appreciate the resistance of America's allies as the U.S. tries to build a consensus for attacking a devilishly clever leader in Iraq.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE