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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

An Apocalyptic Style of Management

(Reprinted from the issue of October 30, 2003)

Capitol BldgIn the November 6 issue of the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion reflects on the influence of the apocalyptic Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye, the evangelist, and Jerry B. Jenkins, his co-author. The 11th volume in the series, Armageddon: The Cosmic Battle of the Ages, has already made the New York Times bestseller list, and the whole series has sold a staggering 55 million books.

Miss Didion is particularly interested in President George W. Bush’s relation to the evangelical Protestant subculture that produced and avidly reads these books, and in whether he sees himself as playing a leading role in the drama of the end times. She is far from the first to deal with these questions. Bush is an evangelical Protestant and is sensitively attuned to that subculture; his speeches are full of its code words, subtly addressing his core constituency. He also seems to share its view of the Mideast, the divine plan for the state of Israel, and America’s special role in that plan. American foreign policy may now be under the sway of a sectarian interpretation of what Protestants call the Book of Revelation.

In the recent past, conservative Catholics have tended to regard fundamentalist Protestants as political allies. After all, these Christians share many moral convictions with Catholics, they oppose liberal secularism, and they fight against legal abortion, the normalization of sodomy, and other fashionable evils. It’s easy to feel that in important respects they are doing more to preserve Christian culture than our own bishops.

But an apocalyptic foreign policy is another matter. Bush has presented his policy, especially his War on Terrorism, in mostly secular terms that even liberals may accept. But to what extent is he actually motivated by different principles, which even many Christians might find alarming?

An apocalyptic style is common in modern politics, and it isn’t necessarily religious. Communism saw history as headed for a final showdown between the working classes and capitalism — how quaint that seems already! — and Hitler saw history as a grand racial struggle. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln shifted from the limited claims of his first inaugural, in which he merely denied the right of states to secede and was willing to leave slavery alone, to an apocalyptic interpretation of the Civil War as God’s punishment for the sin of slavery. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt justified American participation in two world wars as a moral crusade against evil itself, with vaguely religious overtones — much like Bush’s crusade against the “axis of evil.”

The trouble with this style of politics is that when you see your enemy as evil incarnate, it’s fatally easy to start seeing yourself as God’s (or history’s) agent. The natural result of such an outlook is to forget your own moral limitations, and to consider any means of fighting evil as justified by your supremely righteous ends. And you may wind up dropping atomic bombs on cities.

The Catholic tradition has been more modest — even, you might say, more earthy. War is always an evil, we don’t know when the end times will occur, and God’s plan is always a mystery to mere mortals. All we can do is try to keep warfare, when it comes, within civilized bounds. This view is the source of just war theory, which demands respect for the humanity of the enemy and the innocent.

In the Old Testament, God sometimes commands the Hebrews to exterminate their enemies, including women, children, and livestock. However we interpret these difficult passages, this approach is always congenial to rulers who see themselves as quasi-divine. And in time of war, it’s always tempting to throw off civilized restraints, especially those that are felt to “shackle” or “handcuff” our fighting men and expose them to even greater danger than they already face. We still hear the argument that the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than it took.

We don’t yet have a clear picture of the civilian suffering inflicted by the war on Iraq, and we may never have one. Not that the American people are demanding such an account; most of them have been willing to let the Bush administration do whatever it thinks necessary, more in a spirit of revenge for the 9/11 attacks than for the achievement of any particular war aims. After all, the argument goes, our leaders know more than we do; they are “competent” to decide what must be done, and we are in no position to second-guess them.

But this surrender of judgment amounts to a de facto divinization of the state. It does as it pleases, guided by an inscrutably superior wisdom, and we must simply obey. Needless to say, this attitude is remote from the republican theory of government of the founding fathers, who believed that the ruler must always be accountable to the people, not that the people should be subservient to the ruler.

In the case of President Bush, we don’t really know what he knows — or what, as a reader of the Bible, he thinks he knows. A foreign policy driven by a private interpretation of Scripture, never disclosed to the public, is as far from the republican standard as a foreign policy driven by bribery. It may be less sinful, but that’s beside the point. A man’s religion is his own business, but a ruler who thinks he has a divine mandate ought to tell the public about it. And there have been many intimations that Bush believes he has been specially anointed by Providence.

With all due respect for religion, Catholics should be skeptical of any ruler who thinks he has been singled out this way, particularly if he feels that his anointment releases him from the ordinary obligations of natural law. Americans, with their Calvinist roots, are only too prone to see themselves in terms of the ancient Hebrews — as, in Lincoln’s phrase, “an almost chosen people,” destined to rule the earth. Many other earthlings are chafing at this idea, and not just the reviled French earthlings.

If Bush has succumbed to a sort of faith-based arrogance, he is getting plenty of encouragement. Miss Didion cites a “religious broadcaster” who had heard the president speak in Nashville: “It seems as if he is on an agenda from God. The Scriptures say God is the one who appoints leaders. If he truly knows God, that would give him a special anointing.” Another agreed: “At certain times, at certain hours in our country, God has had a certain man to hear His testimony.”

To a headstrong man who combines rather simplistic religious convictions with enormous power, this kind of talk can be intoxicating. Bush is certainly a decisive and tenacious man, but he isn’t one to weigh alternatives or to question a course of action once he has decided on it. We should be grateful that he believes in Christ; but that isn’t enough to save a man from serious error. Otherwise, all Christians would be Catholics.

Is the Catholic Church cruel to homosexuals? Andrew Sullivan thinks so; I argue otherwise in SOBRANS, my little monthly. Get your free copy of my pamphlet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just subscribe, or renew your subscription, to SOBRANS for a year or more. Call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

We also have a few autographed copies of my book Hustler: The Clinton Legacy. Call the same number, or purchase it on-line.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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