The US god, Bush's God, Nicaragua's God: How Do They Differ?
Was George W. Bush reelected due to religious motives?
If so, does it mean that the US secular political culture is disappearing? And does the God of US voters resemble Nicaraguans’ God?
Andrés Pérez Baltodano
George W. Bush’s reelection revealed some of the pro-found political and cultural tensions that have marked the history of the United States and, more specifically, the strong influence of substantial religious currents in a country with a secular legal and political system. What explains this paradox? How can we explain the decisive weight that conservative Christian sectors had on the November 2004 election results in a country that from the very start, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, established a “wall between church and state”? How are we to understand that the population of one of the most modern countries in the world elected a candidate in the 21st century who invokes divine providence in his speeches to justify his wars? Is the United States suffering from the same plague we have identified in Nicaraguan culture? (See envío No. 277, August 2004.)
Providentialism in the United StatesProvidentialism is one of the roots that feed the pre-modern, resigned-pragmatic culture prevailing in Nicaragua and most other Latin American countries. Resigned pragmatism, in turn, is a way of thinking about reality that leads the members of a community to assume that what is politically desirable should always be subordinated to what is possible under the circumstances. This view leads us to assume that the limits imposed on us by existing reality are all we can aspire to. It prevents us from dreaming of a better future and forces us to accept history as a process beyond our control.
The political forms of resigned pragmatism vary according to the power of the groups that make up society. Among dominant groups, it takes the form of indifference to poverty and the marginalization of the majority. In the marginalized groups, it appears in the fatalistic way they understand and accept their own misery.
Can providentialism coexist with modernity? How can we explain that in a country as advanced as the United States, with all its economic, scientific and technological progress, we find providentialist views of God such as those apparent in many who voted for George W. Bush and in Bush himself?
Free co-participants or dependentsProvidentialism sees history as a process governed by God, by his plans and purposes, “his will.” This view is found in almost all the religious doctrines and practices in the world. Despite its persistence, however, the modernization of the most advanced societies has shaded the meaning of this idea of God and the ideas that relate God to human history.
Theology distinguishes between two kinds of providen-tialism: general and meticulous. In general providentialism, God is seen as an influence that establishes a broad framework of historical possibilities and limitations for humanity, but not as a force that supervises, regulates and administers the meaning, form and nature of each and every fact and circumstance that marks the passage of time. General providentialism assumes that humanity has the freedom of action and even the obligation to create our own destiny within this broad framework of possibilities determined by God. It believes that God has given humanity the capacity to function as co-participants in the process of creating and transforming history.
Through a general providentialist view, it is easy to arrive at deism, a doctrine that forms part of the rationalist spirit that arose in Europe in the 18th century. Deists recognize God as the creator of the universe, but do not accept either religious dogmas or the idea of a God that intervenes in history to adjust it to his purposes. From a deist perspective, history is humanity’s exclusive responsibility.
Meticulous providentialism is altogether different. It perceives God as a constant influence that determines every event in world history, the development of societies and each moment in every individual’s life. In this view, the world is also populated by angels, demons, spirits and saints, through which the power and presence of God on earth is manifest.
Religion or madness?General providentialism has dominated religious culture in the United States, although it has always existed alongside meticulous providentialism, defended and promoted by the religious groups that use Christian terminology and perceive history as determined by God’s will even in its smallest details. In some cases, the providentialism of these groups borders on madness. The British newspaper The Guardian reported in mid 2004 that millions of people in the United States now accept the capricious interpretation of biblical passages by a 19th century preacher to “demonstrate” that God has already decided the future of human history and it is announced in the Bible.
The script is the following: Jesus will return to earth when three conditions have been met. The first is the establishment of the state of Israel; the second is Israel’s occupation of its “biblical lands”; and the third is the building of the Third Temple on the spot now occupied by the Mosque of the Rock and the Mosque of Al-Aqsa, two of the most important sacred sites in Islam. When the third condition is met, the armies of the anti-Christ will attack Israel, starting a war that will culminate in the final battle in the Valley of Armageddon. In this battle, the Jews will perish or convert to Christianity. Then Jesus will return to earth. According to The Guardian, surveys have found that some 15%-18% of US voters belong to churches or groups that accept this interpretation as divine revelation. Some 33% of registered Republican voters consider it valid.
A historical coexistenceIn the United States, groups like these enthusiastically await God’s victory over the anti-Christ, defend the “creationist” position against evolution by setting Genesis against Darwin, assume that “God’s law” as they interpret it should be the law of the land and that divine providence guides Washington’s foreign policy and Bush’s wars. They coexist with groups working from a general providentialist view, deist, atheist, agnostic and other groups, which are the modern-thinking ones responsible for the development of feminist thought, the huge advances in art, science and technology and the impressive contributions of legal practice and thought to the theory and practice of modern law in the United States.
The influence of such progressive groups throughout the history of the United States is responsible for the country’s secular political and legal institutional framework. The most progressive and inspiring US figures have come from this tradition: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Jackson Pollock, Steven Spielberg, Gloria Steinem and so many others in a long list that tends to be ignored by Nicaragua’s vulgar elite, who think of the United States as simply a great place to eat hamburgers and go shopping.
“The will of God”Unlike the general providentialism that prevails in the United States, what dominates Nicaraguan and Latin American culture is meticulous providentialism, which maintains that “nothing happens but for the will of God.”
The weight of this view of the relationship between God, nature and history in Nicaragua is dramatically reflected in one of the responses to a nationwide survey carried out in 2002. Some 79% of those polledsaid that the course of their lives is determined by God rather than by their own will and force as individuals. Only 9% said they are responsible for their own destiny and the other 12% felt that divine and human power combine to determine their future and that of humanity. The newspaper La Prensa summed up its analysis of this point in the survey as follows: “Many Nicaraguans leave their fate ‘to God’s will,’ believing that their lives are a script written by a superhuman power. To some extent, this view is a comfort in adversity, but it also leads to conformism and resignation.” There is no doubt but that the meticulous providentialism predominating in Nicaragua is paralyzing, and tends to create a political culture I have called resigned pragmatism.
Pragmatism: Everything has valueWhat are the roots of the concept of pragmatism? Pragmatism was the most influential philosophical trend in the United States during the early decades of the 20th century. The main principle in this philosophy is its acceptance of the framework of limitations and possibilities offered by tangible reality as the reference point for human action. For the pragmatic, reality—and not the “foundational” values and principles debated by traditional philosophy—establishes the framework that should guide and determine what is true and false, good and bad, possible and impossible, just and unjust.
Pragmatism minimizes the importance played by values as constitutive forces in history capable of recreating the framework of what is possible and the limits of reality. Truth, according to William James, one of pragmatism’s main proponents, is built from facts. And of course, the country that has the economic and military power to build the facts—including in Grenada, Nicaragua or Iraq—has the power to define its truth and impose it on others.
Pragmatism is an attempt to present what is true and possible as relative, contextualized conditions determined by an outside, circumstantial reality presented as the fundamental reference point for human action. The pragmatic defines his or her objectives and behavior based on the framework of possibilities offered by existing reality. From this perspective, the validity of pragmatic thought is not determined by an ethical or moral reality, but by its operationality. “Everything has value,” which includes among other things living like a chameleon, changing one’s color according to the occasion.
For the pragmatic, notes Eric MacGilvray, practice and experience validates the value of ideas, not the other way around. And as Richard Rorty points out, the main epistemological criterion of value is what is convenient. It should come as no surprise, then, that many people have criticized pragmatism as immoral. Bertrand Russell, for example, said that pragmatism is not a philosophy but rather a way of living without a philosophy.
Resigned pragmatists and There are profound differences between pragmatism in the United States and in Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America. In general terms, pragmatism in the United States is transformational, while ours is resigned. This difference is largely determined by the religious cultures that prevail in the two regions, which are fueled by the two different kinds of providentialism. Meticulous providentialism has led to conformism, fatalism, immobility, irresponsibility and insensitivity among Latin Americans whereas in the United States, general providentialism has fostered conditions for the development of a pragmatic thought and practice capable of transforming reality.
As in its US version, Latin American pragmatism assumes that the framework of possibilities offered by reality determines truth. In this sense, both here and there, political values and principles are not seen as constitutive forces in history. For both kinds of pragmatism, what is circumstantially possible determines what is socially desirable. For pragmatics in the United States, however, the tangible historical reality that serves as the reference point guiding their political behavior is changeable, shapeable, a reality that can be transformed by applying instrumental thought and human will. This kind of pragmatism should thus be seen as an extension of modern thought, which perceives existing reality as the departure point for the realization of new historical possibilities.
Pragmatists in the United States are optimistic, while in Latin America in general, and especially in Nicaragua, they are fatalistic. For US pragmatists, existing reality invites action and change. For Latin American pragmatists, existing reality establishes the limits of what is possible. Latin American pragmatists conceive of politics as the ability to adapt to, accommodate oneself to and accept circumstances, not to surmount them.
One ship with a rudder, The transformational force of optimistic pragmatism in the United States is largely due to the fact that it is not simply an attitude but also a theoretical rationalization of life and history. Thus, it is filled with purpose and direction. There is will and there are objectives.
another at the wind’s mercy
The role of social theory is to make reality explicit. In explaining reality, social theory and thought become constitutive forces of history. This is what has happened in the United States: theory has made practice. To challenge this argument would be to propose that neither thought nor human will have played a part in building democracy, the state, civil society and civic rights, rather that these achievements have been inevitable products of history, or accidents.
Latin America’s resigned pragmatism is not a theory. It can only be defined as an attitude, an intuitive and pre-theoretical position towards reality. This way of seeing and living life has kept our region’s societies exposed to the influence of “chance” and “luck,” to the weight of circumstances and the rhythm of the accidents of history that invariably end up imposing themselves on the political will and actions of the region’s elite.
We have been like a ship without a rudder, exposed to the winds of history, which we often interpret as the breath of God that “helps us” or “puts us to the test.” Today, many of our governments do little more than kneel and make the sign of the cross, resigned to the neoliberal tempest, then stumble on towards the abyss, hoping that luck or US investments or European donations or small gifts from Taiwan will save them from death.
Progress that depends on the idea of GodTo highlight the role of religious cosmovisions as constitutive forces of the US and Latin American political culture and historical development is not to propose determinism, to say that the formation of these states and societies has been, or can be, determined exclusively by religious ideas. Subjectivist historical interpretations that ignore the conditions and limitations indeed imposed by material reality on the historical development of human societies are inadequate, but equally so are materialist interpretations of history that minimize or ignore the role of ideas.
It is a verifiable reality that the historical development of the United States has been conditioned by a transformational-pragmatic political culture, fueled by modern views of the idea of God and the relation between God and history. The political culture that has generated these views has been compatible with liberal democracy and capitalism.
It is equally real and verifiable that Latin America’s social development has been conditioned by a resigned pragmatic political culture nourished by a pre-modern idea of God and by a view of history as a process ruled by this God in even its smallest details. This culture has shown itself to be incompatible with capitalism, with socialism, with democracy, with development, with citizenship or with any other modern social, political or economic project.
In Nicaragua, this resigned pragmatic political culture has been reinforced by the preponderant role played by the US government in our historical development. Nicaraguans have transferred their mental dependency on an omnipotent, providential God to their perception of the transnational power of the United States. Now, in this era of globalization, they are also transferring it to the forces that dominate the global political and economic order, including “international cooperation.”
The most secular of countriesThe cultural development of the United States has been marked by the difficult coexistence of secular and religious trends. US theologian Reinhold Nebuhr refers to this duality when he speaks of the presence of “the sacred” and “the profane” in his country’s culture, while historian Michael Kammen characterizes the United States as a “paradoxical” country, precisely for being both religious and secular.
and the most religious
In reality, the United States is both the most religious and the most secular of advanced capitalist countries. The tensions sparked by this duality have been clearly visible from the very start, from the time the nation was founded. A culture marked by the fiery stake of religious Puritanism gave rise, after the American Revolution, to a secular, modern state and Constitution. As early as 1791, the first amendment to the Constitution established that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Children of the reformation To understand the paradoxical condition created by this secular-religious duality in the United States it is necessary, first, to take into consideration the modernizing seeds contained in Puritan religious culture in the 13 colonies.
or the counter-reformation
The Christianity that marked the formation of New England was a cultural extension of Protestant Europe and its history. The founding Christianity in the United States was that of the Reformation, which in rejecting the idea of an institutional mediation between God and humanity—Luther’s rebellion against the divine role of the Pope—promoted individual responsibility in the relationship between God and human beings.
Furthermore, Puritan Protestantism encouraged believers to see the success of their work and their actions here on earth as evidence of a virtuous life, pleasing to the eyes of God. From individualism, from the notion of work as the means to reach God and the idea of salvation as something that depends neither on prayers nor on institutional indulgences and pardons, comes the famous “Protestant work ethic” that Max Weber saw as a decisive force in the growth of capitalism.
The development of capitalism, in turn, facilitated the consolidation of a utilitarian, pragmatic culture that aimed to transform reality within a religious cosmovision in which the idea of God was becoming increasingly compatible with humanity’s active participation in the construction of history. All of this existed within a social framework of relatively equal rights for the Europeans who colonized the lands of America and their descendents (at least those who were white males).
The contrast with the original formation of Latin American societies, which were extensions of the two countries in Europe—Spain and Portugal—that led the anti-Lutheran counter-reformation, is striking. These two countries transferred an authoritarian, superstitious, hyper-providentialist, machista and pre-modern Catholicism to their colonies in America.
The authoritarian political practices growing out of this religious cosmovision were imposed on ethnically and socially fragmented societies, facilitating slavery and the exploitation and exclusion of the indigenous populations that still holds sway in “la patria del criollo” [criollo refers to the succeeding generations of Europeans born in the colonial country], to use Guatemalan writer Severo Martínez’s famous phrase. In addition, the superstitious Catholicism imposed by the Conquest helped feed the magical religious views of these populations, forcibly converted to Christianity.
Theists, deists and liberal CriollosThe religious culture of the United States, as a fragment of modern Europe, was also infused since well before the country’s independence from England by influential theological and philosophical views and positions that complicated the idea of God’s role in history. In this way, the deism of leaders of society such as Benjamin Franklin came to legitimate itself and coexist with the theism of the Puritans.
The presence of important intellectual deists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson contributed to the modernization of US culture and the success of the American Revolution. As Daniel Boorstin commented, Jefferson’s deist spirit led the revolutionaries to understand the idea of God as a force that should be at the service of humanity, not the other way around. Jefferson’s rationalist spirit led him to take the bold initiative of publishing a version of the New Testament that left out Jesus’ miracles to emphasize instead the moral value of his teachings and the need to understand them through reason.
In most countries in Latin America, in contrast, the pre-modern Catholicism imposed by Spain and Portugal never faced the criticism of a significant intellectual movement. Latin American liberalism was almost invariably a movement that fought against the Catholic Church’s political power, but without challenging the ultra-providentialist theology that underpinned this power.
In Nicaragua, the Sandinista Revolution confronted the Catholic Church hierarchy, but left intact the religious cosmovision of a people accustomed to thinking that “It’s all up to Papachú” [a popular term referring to Jesus].
Many of the efforts to establish a secular state in Latin America’s most backward countries have set out to separate the church and state legally without paying attention to the need to separate the sacred space from the terrestrial space in the minds of our societies’ men and women.
Providentialists and deists: The coexistence of the religious and secular spirit in the United States was manifest in the figures of its first Presidents. George Washington and John Adams, the country’s first two Presidents, were known for their religious spirit. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth, were deists.
A class and urban/rural divide
Deism and modernist views of God were mostly found in the larger urban areas and the more highly educated classes. More providentialist religious views were found in rural areas, the urban areas of interior states and among sectors with lower education levels. In general terms, this correlation between religious culture and both social class and geography has remained in effect throughout the country’s history to the present day.
Another factor that has contributed to the institutionalization of a US secular state is the religious pluralism that has marked the country’s history from the start. The existence of many religious denominations among the first inhabitants of the colonies made it politically necessary to create a non-religious state that would limit itself to guaranteeing freedom of religion without favoring any particular religious group.
Many have pointed out that the history of US secularization has its roots precisely in this process of differentiation that established a real and effective separation between church and state from the beginning of the country’s development as a republic. The US Constitution could recognize the country’s religious plurality and establish a legal framework that allowed for the coexistence of all forms of religious or non-religious positions within a secular political and economic framework. This framework was institutionalized to become the mold that forged US identity.
Nicaragua: “At the bottom of the heap”In the 19th century, the United States consolidated a “civic religion” that would succeed in integrating and transcending the country’s religious identities. The development of the productive forces, science and technology would promote the desacralizing of the explanations of natural and social phenomena and along with it, the predominance of generally providentialist religious views, which would coexist with deism, atheism, and other modern interpretations of the idea of God.
Countries like Nicaragua never had the possibility of experiencing the modernizing effect of the tensions between scientific and religious thought, as was understood by the great educator Mariano Fiallos Gil, who pointed out in the mid-20th century that the conditions did not exist in Nicaragua to promote a serious debate on Catholic theological principles. “If we had a research center in natural, biological, or more specifically anthropological sciences, and people discussed the concept of evolution, and a professor taught that life is no more than a refined form of the organization of matter, or defended the need for euthanasia, artificial human insemination, sterilization or another form of birth control, all scientific problems related to morals and metaphysics, perhaps the Catholic Church or a dogmatic Protestant Church would assume its right to discuss its doctrine, which would lead to a healthy debate, never before seen in our schools. But this is not currently possible, because we are very much at the bottom of the heap in terms of culture and learning, and thus any religious conflicts are in fact avoided.”
God’s finger and the market’s handKenneth Wald argues that the differentiation and desacralization processes in the United States led to an important privatization of religion. Religious faith underwent a kind of “personal secularization” that facilitated consolidation of the state, law and politics as institutions and processes that operate in an environment of social action independent of religious institutions or any particular interpretation of the idea of God.
State-society relations were eventually organized within an essential secular, but not anti-religious social consensus. The most important objective manifestation of this consensus can be found in the pairing of liberal democracy and capitalism. It is no exaggeration to say that liberal democracy and capitalism constitute the principle institutional forms that the “paradoxical” US culture has taken. The digitus Dei or “finger of God” that guided the Puritans when the nation was founded went on to form part of the market’s invisible hand.
Under these circumstances, religion developed an essentially symbolic social function, which virtually always served to justify wealth and success in US society. Even today, some providentialist and pro-capitalist academics—including Robin Klay and John Lunn, among others—rationalize the market’s law of supply and demand as a manifestation of the “spirit of God.”
The “civic religion” maintained its legitimacy in the United States through the first half of the 20th century. During this period, the congregations of the various religious groups grew with the country’s increasing population, which tripled during those years. Estimates are that some 42 million people attended religious services in 1916, a figure that increased to 55 million in 1926 and 72 million in 1942. Barry A Kosmin and Seymour Lachman wrote that the rites and even the architectonic styles used in building the churches of the different denominations established in the United States during that period became more similar, confirming the convergence of identities in the racial, ethnic and religious melting pot that has been an essential part of the country’s historical experience.
The seventies: God’s “revenge” All this began to change in the 1970s. Many students of religious culture in the United States and other countries have noted that this decade was marked by a religious revival all over the world. In his book The Revenge of God, Gilles Kepel describes how the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—went through a process of rediscovering and reclaiming their most conservative theological roots during the 1970s.
This process has had political repercussions all over the globe. In 1977, Israel elected the ultra-conservative government of Menahem Begin, decisively supported by the country’s Zionist religious movements. The secular Labor Party suffered its first electoral defeat since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
In 1978, the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. John Paul II systematically began to reverse the progressive tendencies found in the Catholic Church since the Vatican II Council that began in 1961, during the brief papacy of John XXIII. John Paul II did everything possible to extinguish the transformational breath of liberation theology in Latin America. He also promoted a project to resacralize Catholicism, with a number of scandalous beatifications and canonizations among other strategies.
In 1979, the world was surprised to see the triumph of an Islamic revolution in Iran that was largely a reaction against the modernization and westernization promoted by the pro-US government of Shah Reza Pahlevi. The Iranian revolution, more than any other event in the 20th century, showed that the secularization of the world considered inevitable by many people was in fact reversible. Was this the revenge of God? And if so, of which God?
In the 1970s, the United States went though its own version of religious resurgence, possibly as a reaction to the crisis sparked by the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam. Some people point to the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976 as a sign of the new spirit of religiousness that marked those years. Carter was the first born-again Christian to be elected president of the United States. His candidacy was supported by broad religious sectors, although not with the same intensity or objectives as those that now support Bush. It is also important to note that, as religious as he is, Carter respected the separation between church and state.
Bush: Born again with a divine missionThe changes and uncertainties wrought by the globalization of capital and the reorganization of the US economy begun by Ronald Reagan generated a crisis of security in the United States that continued to fuel the increasing religiosity during the 1980s and 1990s. Globalization reduced the ontological security offered by the social structures of developed countries and facilitated the reemergence of the idea of God and religion as forces that compensate for the lost certainty.
But nothing would match the levels of insecurity that people in the United States felt after September 11, 2001. For the first time in its history, the country was attacked on its own territory. A society accustomed to the stabilizing force of its institutions saw the order that some of its ideologues had described as the most authentic representation of the final stage of history come crashing down in minutes.
In studies conducted shortly after the terrorist attacks, 78% of the US population said that religion was becoming increasingly influential in the country. But already by March 2002, the percentage that perceived this growth had dropped back down to the same level it had been at several months before the attacks, barely 37%.
The “religious gap” that had traditionally separated the Democratic and Republican parties increased after September 11. George W. Bush made terrorism the raison d’être of his presidency and the path for reaffirming his party’s role as the place for those who believe in God and in defending US interests and security. The religious fanaticism that feeds Islamic terrorism would be met by a US President who is also a fanatic, who after being “reborn” at age 40 now firmly believes that God has assigned him and the United States an historic mission in the fight for freedom in the world.
The vote for “moral values”?Political analysts who covered the November 2 presidential elections in the United States highlighted the decisive weight of “moral values” in the vote, a category many interpreted to identify personal positions on abortion, gay marriage and other controversial issues. These positions were generally interpreted as “religious,” leading many to conclude that the historical balance between secularism and religion marking US history had been broken in the elections. Some went so far as to say that the elections were a crucial turning point in the emergence of the Republican Party as a “quasi-clerical” party.
Surveys done later, after election day, demonstrated that US political culture remains “paradoxical” and that the balance between secularism and religion, although now more tense and conflictive than ever, is still intact. One survey found that 33% of voters identified “greed and materialism” as the most pressing moral problem in the United States, while another 31% named “poverty and economic justice.” In contrast, only 16% cited abortion and 12% gay marriage as the country’s main moral problems.
When the same survey asked people what “moral value” had most influenced their vote, 42% cited the war in Iraq, while only 13% cited abortion and 9% gay marriage. Even so, the survey confirmed a bloc of some 22% of voters who emphasize their concern over abortion and gay marriage for fundamentally religious reasons.
In another post-election survey, 27% chose the category “moral values” when asked to select “the most important issue in the elections” from a list of seven items. Some 22% chose “the war in Iraq,” 21% “jobs and the economy,” 14% “terrorism,” 8% “health and education” and 3% “taxes.” Interestingly, when that survey posed the same question to another group without offering the list of categories, the results were significantly different. “The war in Iraq” was most often cited, by 25%, while only 9% mentioned “moral values,” 3% “abortion” and “gay marriage,” and 2% “the candidates’ morality.”
The religious right decided the electionThe evidence shows, however, that the persistence of firm secular values in US political culture should not lead us to assume that the future of that country’s “civic religion” is assured. The 2004 elections demonstrated the unprecedented mobilizing power of the religious Right and the real possibility that this sector could break the balance between the secular and religious currents that have thus far operated within a non-religious social consensus.
Guided from the White House by Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s main political adviser, the religious Right effectively decided this election. Rove’s strategy was simple: capitalize on the cultural affinity between the Republican candidate and the religious Right to pull 4 million more votes than culled from this sector in the 2000 elections.
The effort was extraordinary, and a resounding success. According to newspaper reports, the religious Right contacted some 71% of voters, while liberal religious groups contacted barely 38%. Some evangelical churches gave the White House lists of their members to facilitate the Republican campaign. A group associated with Pat Robertson advised 45,000 churches on how to work for Bush without violating the laws prohibiting the use of churches for political proselytizing. The work of organizing and mobilizing the churches proved decisive in the election results in key states like Florida, Iowa and Ohio.
Conservative Catholic groups joined rightwing Protestants opposed to abortion and the legalization of gay marriage. And some Catholic bishops, including Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Michael Sheridan of Colorado—followers of the hard line of Cardinal Ratzinger, a very powerful figure in the Vatican—openly criticized Democratic, Catholic candidate John Kerry for his support of women’s freedom, authority and responsibility to decide the issue of abortion. They spoke of denying him communion, while fundamentalist Catholics like Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic journal Crisis, called for his excommunication.
Was the secular-religious balance broken?The religious influence in Bush’s reelection was not simply the result of efficient political organizing and mobilizing work. The 2004 elections form part of a cultural trend that is shifting the critical balance between religion and secularism that has sustained US political-institutional and legal development. Some manifestations of this trend are the common positions adopted by the Protestant and Catholic churches on abortion and gay marriage, the unprecedented level of legitimization achieved by religious groups that participated in the elections with an openly theistic discourse and the providentialist language President Bush used in his speeches.
While the Democratic Party has lost some of its ability to represent social demands and aspirations, the churches seem to have developed the capacity to bring together those who feel culturally threatened by the political positions of US society’s secular, modern sectors. The political discourse of the progressive sectors has been unable to address the concerns of a large number of people in the United States. The churches, on the other hand, have succeeded in legitimizing their discourse as a measuring stick of good and evil on issues that, in a modern society, should be decided legally and politically.
The Right’s biblical discourse is now being challenged by a “rights” discourse that, to be effective, requires an audience that accepts what Thomas Jefferson identified as the fundamental requirement for the success of the US system: a population capable of practicing politics as a secular exercise based on reflection and choice. In the 2004 elections, this Jeffersonian principle was repeatedly violated. The churches became involved in political proselytizing, while many people defended, and continue to defend, the right to participate in electoral politics using religious platforms and discourses.
Worse yet, many political leaders who participated in the elections used the idea of God to legitimize their political positions and views. While the use of religious symbols and references is nothing new in US political practice, the way the political discourse was impregnated with religious discourse during these elections was different, and troubling.
Chosen by GodSuccessful political practice in the United States cannot ignore the force of religious values in the country’s culture. No US President has failed to use religious symbols and references to legitimize himself. Nevertheless, these references have usually stayed within the limits of the secular framework established by the Constitution and the organization of the state. Jimmy Carter, for example, made symbolic use of the Bible during his inaugural address.
Religious symbolism acquired a ceremonial quality in the “God bless America” that concluded the speeches of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. During a Fourth of July celebration in 1996, Bill Clinton referred to God with secular intent when he described the founding fathers’ vision and courage in saying that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Given this tradition of relative restraint, it is surprising and alarming to find providentialist religious language in George W. Bush’s political speeches. To give but one example among many, Bush described his faith and trust in God shortly before the invasion of Iraq, and called on God for guidance.
Bush had already declared that God wanted him to be President and has assigned the United States a historic mission in the history of humanity. And how can we forget his answer in the debate among the Republican pre-candidates before the 2000 elections? When asked to identify the philosopher who had most influenced their lives, Steve Forbes named John Locke. When Bush’s turn came, he picked Jesus.
Three “red alerts” on the US horizonGeorge W. Bush’s providentialist language, the religious galvanization sparked by the issues of abortion and gay marriage and the conscious violation of the separation between church and state by some churches in these elections form part of a trend that may well disrupt the critical balance between secularism and religion in the United States. Several conditions would permit the de-secularization of US political culture.
The first of these is the virtually certain decision of the Republican Party to continue exploiting the religiosity of rightwing sectors, thus intensifying the tensions and conflicts that Simon Schama noted between “worldly America,” which has traditionally leaned Democratic, and “godly America,” traditionally Republican.
The second would be the Democratic Party’s decision to compete for the religious vote of the Right, accentuating the use of religious symbols and allusions in its political discourse and presenting itself as a party that also forms part of godly America. Unfortunately, some Democratic leaders have recommended this strategy as a way to win the 2008 presidential elections.
The third condition would be an exacerbation of the crisis of security in the case of repeated terrorist acts against the United States. The weakening of the institutions that have established the secular political and economic framework in which the United States has functioned might lead the culturally most vulnerable sectors to seek their lost security in the idea of a providential God. It might also lead people to try to use religion as a way to justify and legitimize the fight against terrorism, including aggression and war against any group or country the United States considers an enemy or an ally of its enemies.
The social sciences: To avoid the dangerous scenario of a transformational pragmatism fed by fear, justified by God and supported by the most powerful armed forces on the planet, secular forces in the United States must find positions, strategies and speeches that can modernize the minds of the country’s conservative religious sectors. Only in this way will the United States be able to carry out a dialogue with the culturally modern sectors of the Islamic world to prevent the “clash of civilizations” announced by the conservative intellectual Samuel Huntington from becoming a tragic reality.
Hiding their heads in the sand
As historian David A. Hollinger has argued, the progressive secular sectors in the United States have to recover the tradition established by progressive secular intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries, who understood the need to accompany the political fight for the popular vote with an ideological and theological fight to win their compatriots’ hearts and minds. Progressive secular intellectuals in the United States have abandoned this tradition during the past seventy years. They have assumed that their country’s “civic religion” has been permanently institutionalized making the ideological and theological debate to counter meticulous providentialism no longer necessary. The most palpable evidence of this attitude is the complete failure of the social sciences in the United States—as in the rest of the western world—to address the issue of the relation between the idea of God and history.
Political science, to cite just one of the most pathetic and palpable examples, has simplistically assumed that the organization and use of power in the societies it studies functions within a secular space separated from the idea of God and therefore immune to the influence of religious principles, doctrines and beliefs, including pseudo-religious superstitions. Ironically, for political science and the rest of the social sciences, the secularization of the societies being studied is accepted as a dogma. The idea of God has not formed part of the study of the political culture of modern societies, or of the analysis of the nature and use of power, or of democratic institutional structures, or of the current processes of political change in the world. The reality of 9/11 and the weight of religion in the November 2 presidential elections caught political science with its head in the sand, attempting like an ostrich to ignore the idea of God.
God at the service of what?The struggle to define the idea of God and its relation to history and humanity is a task of utmost importance to avoid the resigned pragmatism that has kept Latin America mired in misery. It is also critical to preventing the transformational pragmatism supported by US economic and military power from turning the United States into a “divine punishment” for the rest of humanity. The transformation and modernization of the idea of God is an urgent task for both an impoverished country like Nicaragua and a country that has the economic, political, scientific and technological power of the United States.
It is not a question of rejecting God, but rather of reconceptualizing the relationship between God, history and humanity. The issue is whether humanity can assume moral responsibility for the fate of the world, so that no President or political leader can act irresponsibly, criminally arguing that he is implementing the will of God. The issue is whether the rich can be allowed to continue ignoring the misery of the poor, hiding behind the notion that God decides everything, and whether the poor will recognize their rights as human beings and citizens as well as their responsibility to achieve the dignity that corresponds to them as children of God. The issue is whether abortion and gay marriage will be discussed responsibly, with arguments and categories that facilitate the democratic development of civil rights. It is not a question of destroying the idea of God in humanity. It is rather, as suggested by the patriot Thomas Jefferson, a question of putting this idea at the service of humanity.
Good pragmatism and bad pragmatism?In writing or discussing these issues, one must always make clarifications and distinctions, both at the start and in conclusion. First, the concept of pragmatism has often acquired a positive connotation, confused with the idea of “realism” or “knowledge of reality.” It is understood as a way of recognizing the limits imposed by reality. A transformational pragmatic is thus one who, based on this knowledge and recognition, tries to extend these limits. The question is, to do what? Anything? And here is the fundamental clarification. There is no such thing as good pragmatism and bad pragmatism. Any attitude towards life that assumes that truth derives from facts and not from the values and aspirations that should serve to domesticate reality is damaging. For Nicaraguans, this attitude condemns us to live in the obscene swamp of our current reality.
If there is no good pragmatism, there is bad and worse pragmatism, and the reader of these reflections can choose which is which. Transformational pragmatism is advantageous for those with sufficient economic and military power to define the truth. In the case of the United States, this pragmatism has been very useful for those who aspire to consolidate that country’s imperial identity. The United States can be pragmatic because it’s convenient for them. Why bother with values, principles, international law? It’s better to “make the truth” by force, in the field of the facts.
Bush is a transformational pragmatist. Jesus, Gandhi and Mandela recognized the obstacles put in place by reality and overcame them, not to do what suited them but rather to do what was right. Justice is a value. Pragmatism, of any stripe, rejects values.
If transformational pragmatism acts in favor of power, so does resigned pragmatism. It has proven very useful for those who shunt responsibility for the misery of the poor off onto God’s shoulders. In Nicaragua, it is advantageous for those living out their “Christianity” with no social commitment, going to mass on Sunday and being usurers the rest of the week, crying like good Christians through “The Passion of Christ” but being unmoved by the drama of the children who watch their luxury cars for a córdoba while they’re at the 7:00 show. Pragmatism makes them feel good and neutralizes the rage of the unfortunate.
The weak countries of the world that are subjected to the power of countries like the United States are suffering transformational pragmatism, as Iraq is today. Those who accept their misery as divine will are afflicted not by transformational but by resigned pragmatism; and it afflicts the likes of the 450,000 children in Nicaragua who are struggling to survive malnourishment.
Another God is possibleThe antidote against pragmatism—whether transformational or resigned—can be found in values, the ideas of justice and freedom that can and should condition the exercise of power and human behavior. These ideas form the basis of the message of Jesus, who never accepted injustice and oppression as God’s will. If pragmatism is a way of living without principles, as Bertrand Russell suggested, Christianity, as expressed in the teachings of Jesus, offers an idea of God and a philosophy of life to change things, to transform history. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus’ example to complete the creation of the possible God, who doesn’t expect humanity to bow before him or power or the winds of chance, but is at the service of humanity to build heaven on earth, or at least prevent the powerful from building an earthly hell for the poor and weak.
Andrés Perez Baltodano, a Nicaraguan, is a professor of political science in Canada and a contributor to envío.