Ira Chernus  

Inaugural Address Was Divisive Appeal to Christian Right

The pundits who praised President Bush's inaugural address for its inclusive, unifying tone missed the point. The speech was a divisive pledge of allegiance to the Christian Right and a primer of its fundamental beliefs. Mr. Bush announced that his administration plans to coopt the Democrats' traditional base—the poor, the underprivleged, the disempowered—by offering them, not political power or economic resources, but religion. Given one chance to announce his goals for the next four years, he did not focus on the economy, or world power, or healing the Republican-Democratic rift. He focused on serving God by fighting sin.

His first paragraphs spoke of America as a story of an unfolding promise that "everyone deserves a chance.…Americans are called to enact this promise." Why? Every newspaper quoted the pledge to "build a single nation of justice and opportunity." But few noted the very next sentence: "I know this is in our reach, because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves, who creates us equal in his image."

What citizens want is secondary at best, we learned by the speech's end. The author of our national story is not "we, the people." It is one "who fills time and eternity with his purpose…to make our country more just and generous.…His purpose is achieved in our duty and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another." God wants us to care for others and treat them as equals, so we must. That was the only reason the new president offered.

Bush did urge serving the needy as a way to keep the country together. But all that can hold us together, he said, is our common ideals. And the only ideals he offered were based on religion. By the time he concluded, "an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm. God bless you all, and God bless America," it was hard to take these pious words as merely rhetorical flourish.

Religion was central to his definition of our national problems and their solutions. He made the point obviously: "Some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer. Church and charity, synagogue and mosque…will have an honored place in our plans." He also made it more subtly: "If we do not turn the hearts of children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and undermine their idealism.…Our public interest depends on private character."

"Character" is a crucial code word in the language of the Christian Right. It means the ability and the willingness to control our natural impulses, which are by definition selfish and sinful. Education for "character" means teaching children self-control, getting them to want to submit to the authorities and their rules. That, Bush said, is the only way to preserve the ideals that hold us together.

The synonym for character in the Christian Right lexicon is responsibility: "Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience. And though it requires sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment. We find the fullness of life, not only in options, but in commitments."

This is the dualistic worldview of the Christian Right in a nutshell. There are two kinds of people. The "responsible" ones with "character" sacrifice their own desires and follow out their commitments. In other words, they accept their place in the prevailing social system, no matter how lowly or painful.

The troubles in our society come from the others, those who want "options." Their motto is "Do your own thing. If it feels good, do it." Yes, the youth of the '60s are still the great enemy. "Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love." Love, for the president and his followers, means self-discipline, not self-expression; accepting what you are stuck with and not demanding anything better as your right.

"And the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls." Here was the nub of the argument. Why are the prisons so filled, disproportionately with the poor, with people of color, devoid of hope? Not because of economic injustice or institutionalized racism. It is because they have no "order" in their souls, no "character," no self-control. Social service agencies can't teach that. It takes "a mentor's touch," preferably in a church, or better yet "a pastor's prayer."

So "we find that children and community are the commitments that set us free"—as long as we serve them in the context of a Christian theology based on belief in original sin.

But in conventional Christian theology sin never goes away. If people with "character" are always busy repressing their own desires, it has to come out somewhere. So God, in his goodness, has given us a special place to let out our selfishness: the economic marketplace. There the big fish eat the little fish, because the big fish presumably have more self-discipline (as well as friends in Washington and generous tax cuts). And the "invisible hand" somehow makes it come out best for all.

The pundits heard a unifying voice in the inaugural address because they wanted to. But in the conservative churches, they heard their president promising to fight the reign of sin stretching from the '60s to the Clintons. And in the corporate boardrooms they heard their president promise to shift national attention from systemic economic injustice to individual sin. It was as close to a declaration of war on liberalism as Mr. Bush dared to come and still keep up the fiction of being the great uniter. If this is how he plans to govern for the next four years, he will surely be the great divider.