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Exporting Values: On the Religious Aspect of the US War

by Oliver Weidermann Friday, Dec. 01, 2006 at 5:22 AM

When the institutions fail, a superhero arises out of the American people who can wage the just battle without regard for laws or institutions. Does George W Bush under-stand himself as the incarnation of this American myth?


On the Religious Aspect of the US War against Iraq

By Oliver Weidermann

[This article published in: Glaube aktuell, 3/24/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The president of the United States said a few days ago the UN Security Council did not meet its responsibility. Therefore his US government will now fulfill its responsibility. It has the authority to act.

In the meantime, an aggressive war against Iraq has begun under American leadership that was not expressly authorized by the UN. Saddam Hussein’s criminal regime must soon end. This is undisputed worldwide but not the way there. One has to accept the motives of American politics in this case: firstly (and the only legitimate motive): overthrow of a dictator and freedom for his oppressed people, secondly: the most different economic interests including the (forcible) opening of the Middle East as a new field for world trade – and thirdly: export of American values and order of the world according to American notions.

We remember George W. Bush’s speeches of the last one-and-a-half years. Shortly after the terror attacks of “September 11,” the emphasis was on a “crusade.” Religious categories were applied after an “axis of evil” was diagnosed. These facts and the custom that the incumbent US president begins all meetings with prayer show that the religious background for all this is important. Another version of this conflict results, the religious tension.


With the new world once discovered by Columbus, the splintered and crisis-ridden Europe of the past centuries found a place offering living space and perspectives. The “new world” (already a religious term!) offered immigrants a home where they would not be oppressed or persecuted because of their faith unlike the “old world” shaken by wars, crises and epidemics.

To them, America was the “Promised Land.” Free from oppression and misery, this land could now realize all hopes and utopias. The conquest of Israel was seen as a model. The hopes and utopias for which people hungered or were persecuted in “old Europe” (we recall Donald Rumsfeld’s verdict on France and Germany: “that’s old Europe”) should be realized in the “new world.”

The idea of being heirs to the people of God, Israel and the church and now taking their place may seem strange but – historically – is an old hat. The model of the so-called TRANSLATIO IMPERII, that is the transfer of the dignity of one empire to another, pervaded the history of civilization like a central thread. For instance, the Romans saw themselves heirs of legendary Troy (Virgil’s Aeneas-saga) and the German princes understood themselves as heirs of the Romans (Karl the Great, Otto the Great and so forth). The “Holy Roman Empire of German nations” first ended with Napoleon in 1806. The Christian church saw itself – erroneously – from the earliest times as an heiress to the promise to Israel (cf. the sermon by national bishop Ulrich Fischer from 3/16/2003) as the “new Israel.”


City names like New York, New Jersey, New Orleans etc. can be understood on the backdrop of biblical promises and not only as nostalgic remembrances of the old home. The immigrants referred God’s promise from the last book of the Bible “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21,5) to themselves. This promise should be converted on earth. Speaking figuratively, the New Jerusalem promised in the Bible should be built here and now.

Not surprisingly, one of the central self-descriptions the Pilgrim Fathers chose for themselves (once suppressed in England) was “City upon the hill.” That is the Bible’s description of the New Jerusalem on holy Mount Zion promised by God.


Being citizens of this “City upon the hill” is a gain and an obligation. Citizens of this “concrete heavenly utopia” are obligated to absolute purity. Offenses and crimes are regarded as sins – as in the Middle Ages and parts of Reformation Europe. Thus punishments in America have a clearly religious character and are not only preventive or educational.

Years of discussion over the death penalty confirm this. Executions do not deter other potential culprits or offer the perpetrator any possibility for correction. Thus they are senseless and inhuman.

Nevertheless 66 percent of the population in Texas approves the death penalty. This can only be explained on the background of the purity ideal: the religious-motivated error to straighten out society through the death of the perpetrator.

Enforcement of the death penalty enjoys great popularity before elections. Death rows are regularly emptied before elections. The meaning or nonsense of the death penalty causes the premature ending of candidates. Every0one elected governor in a US state is elected with explicit confession of capital punishment. Governors are reelected because of executed death sentences.

With this logic, the politician George W. Bush became great. As governor of Texas, he was responsible for more executions than his colleagues in other states, namely 150.


Now and then a brief glance at late antiquity is helpful. In the third century A.D., Mani. a man from the area of present-day Iran brought together elements of different religions, of the Jews and Christianity among others, in a “religious stew”:

The strict dualist division of the world in good and evil was important to Mani. In the encyclopedia article “Manichaism,” Johannes van Qort describes this as follows: “Two spheres or kingdoms, light and darkness, good and evil, God and mammon are in irreconcilable conflict [Religion in History and Society (RGG), 4th edition, vol. 5, Sp. 735].

The Manichean system cannot be discussed in detail here. Only one aspect will be underlined: the redemption of humans through knowledge of the cosmic connections (e.g. the two kingdoms of good and evil) and not through God’s grace. Thus Jesus Christ does not redeem people but only mediates this knowledge (Greek: Gnosis). With this knowledge, believers arm themselves for the struggle against evil. Thus they ultimately rely only on themselves.

“The final stage of world history will be initiated by the Great War between the forces of good and evil” (van Qort, Sp.738). The Great War will force this stage.

Mani’s system could not be established as a “state religion.” “Manichaism” remained a sect. Some connecting lines can be found in the following description of George Bush’s neo-conservative piety:


The Revelation of John offers far more than the promise of new creation. It tells of the preceding final struggle between good and evil, the great battle of Armageddon. God’s promise from the last book of the Bible “Behold, I make all things new” must be won in a harsh struggle as Mani and others describe.

A strange delight in apocalyptic scenarios of destruction permeates above all the conservative parts of American society up to the highest levels. In 1983, US president Ronald Reagan saw the world at the edge of a literal nuclear Armageddon. He intended to wage the biblical final struggle between good and evil with the nuclear weapons of the United States. Let us reflect briefly on this: Reagan saw himself announced in the last book of the Bible. Weapons of mass destruction were understood as a biblically legitimated “instrument.”

Basic elements of this view are established in the broad population. A glance at popular utopias shows these in novels, television and feature films: ideal and just societies often arise out of the ashes of a past super-war. For example, the ideal society of the federation in the television- and movie series “Spaceship Enterprise/ Star Trek” emerged from the debris of civilization after a third world war (Star Trek – First Contact).

In all ages, Christians used the Bible to interpret their own situation. Life interpretation is one dimension of the biblical word. For example, while the first Christians interpreted the threats of judgment to the Roman state that oppressed and persecuted them, the same biblical passages were referred to people of different faiths and foreign “un-baptized” people after the so-called “Constantine turn.”

The interpretation of Daniel 7, the great Old Testament end-time vision of four successive violent kingdoms removed at the end by the divine kingdom of the biblical Son of man was very important. This kingdom was regarded as dawning after Emperor Constantine confessed Christianity in the fourth century. The emeritus Tubingen theology professor Jurgen Moltmann explains: “This political messianism marked the Christian world and its mission. Through secularization, this messianism was transferred to the western world and its civilizing mission. It was implicit in the globalization claim of the modern world” (Moltmann, “The End as Beginning,” in: Zeitzeichen 12/2001, p.41). Regarding “messianism,” one of the military operations after September 11 was called “infinite justice.” That is what the biblical messiah will bring at the end of time (cf. Isaiah 2,4 and elsewhere). Biblical messianism provides the model for the political.


The super-battle between good and evil forcing the end of this world and the new creation of the next world is not the only utopia that plays a role here. In their book “Myth of the American Super-Hero,” emeritus New Testament scholar Robert Jewitt and J.S. Lawrence describe on 344 pages how another modern myth is anchored in American thinking. This myth is at least as frightening as the mentioned apocalypse. When the institutions fail in the struggle for the good, a super-hero arises out of the middle of the American people who can wage the just battle without regard for laws and institutions.

A large number of crime thrillers and cowboy films or books function according to this pattern. The sheriff fails, the hero bumps off the villain in a dual or a policeman beats up a suspect to prevent innocent suffering. The latest example is the feature film “Daredevil” in which a lawyer kills the perpetrator who he brought to trial during the day – an ancient drama theme. While earlier very problematic, it often serves today as a foil for the most violent scenes in which evil does the worst for as long as possible so the hero can regularly massacre with a good conscience (in “Daredevil,” a rapist is cut in two by a train). The underlying logic is that the villain must be depicted as so evil that he had to be wiped out in all cases – as cruelly as possible. Purification is a practiced death penalty on celluloid.

Whoever could not understand this thesis in the past was set right a few days ago by the incumbent US president. The most powerful man of the world declared the United Nations had failed and he would now act without regard to this highest group. Does George W. Bush understand himself as the incarnation of this American myth? For weeks, the Methodist George W. Bush refused dialogue with his worried bishop. The worldly sword seems to stand above the spiritual here.


“America was and is the `new world’ with freedom for everyone, for millions of immigrants. There are messianic elements in the `American dream’ and consequently also in American politics. The seal of the US and every one-dollar bill bear the promise `Novus Ordo Seculorum’ (the new world order). The new world order is proclaimed (…), an order for all humanity” (Jurgen Moltmann).

Samuel P. Huntington predicted the “Clash of Civilizations” for the 21st century. He ended with this thesis:

“America, the `New Jerusalem,’ the city upon the hill, follows a clear mission. George W. Bush sees himself as the executor of the divine will to export the good – democracy, the market economy and religion – all over the world and combat evil. At the beginning of February 2002, Bush spoke literally of a “God-given commission” of the US “to defend itself and lead the world to peace” (epd, 2/11/2002).

The division of the world in the “coalition of the willing” and the “axis of evil” – sheer Manichean dualism – shows the world the coordinates of this mission [in the time of the Soviet Union, the American president Ronald Reagan spoke of the “evil empire” (1983). George W. Bush diagnoses an “axis of evil” in 2002.]. For the present neo-conservative US government, this “clash of civilizations” is not an industrial accident on the way to world peace but the only way that leads to this peace. On 3/20/2003, George W. Bush said: Victory is the only possibility.”


Bush is doubtlessly a pious man. He prays every morning. It is good when religion plays a role in politics. But a Christian, particularly a Christian politician, must always allow himself to be questioned and corrected. If he uses religion only as (one) instrument of his politics, the question could be raised whether “less” religion would not be better. Faith that refuses dialogue and makes itself absolute is fundamentalism. A faith that can be corrected without abandoning itself is necessary.

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